Anyone teaching hokku today is faced with the very pervasive and glaring misconceptions fostered by modern haiku enthusiasts about it over about the last half century.  Chief among them are these:

1.  The notion that Bashō, Taigi, Issa, and those like them before the 20th  century wrote “haiku”: 
They did not.  The term “haiku” came into popular use only near the end of the 19th century under the influence of the Japanese journalist Masaoka Noboru, whose pen name was Shiki.  Prior to Shiki (and after, for traditionalists), the verse form was (and is) known as hokku.  To call it “haiku” is an error and an anachronism, not to mention historically and stylistically confusing.  So Bashō and all the writers of the verse form in the previous centuries called what they wrote hokku, not “haiku.” “Haiku” today is a vague umbrella term that covers a wide range of greatly differing styles and forms of brief verse that developed in the 20th century and often have little or nothing to do with the traditional hokku.

2.  The notion that the hokku is only the opening verse of a sequence of linked verses (renga).
It is not.  
The hokku, since at least the 1600s, could be written either as the first of a series of linked verses or as an independent verse.  Today we tend to concentrate our interest on the latter. 

The fact is that now — as I have said many times — hokku and modern haiku are generally two very different things, with quite different aesthetics and principles.  Hokku today preserves the essential traditional aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku, though of course adapted to an English-language context.  Modern haiku generally does not, having been heavily influenced by 20th-century Western ideas about poets and poetry — becoming a kind of hybrid verse.

Modern haiku criticisms of hokku often include the following:

  1.  Hokku is formulaic.
    That view arises because hokku has specific aesthetics and principles that must be learned and followed for the verse to actually be a hokku.  The modern haiku movement never had a foundation in these, preferring the “anything a writer calls a haiku is a haiku” principle.  So of course a verse form with understandable principles and techniques would be thought of as formulaic by those who follow no traditional or stable system of aesthetics.  But in hokku, a verse that does not have the traditional aesthetic — the most important element being that it is based on Nature and humans within and as a part of Nature — will not be a hokku.

2.  In hokku one cannot just write about anything one wishes.
That is quite true.  Hokku does limit its subject matter, because to go beyond that is to violate the aesthetic principles of the verse form, which again makes the result not a hokku.  For example, hokku generally avoid topics that disturb and agitate the mind, such as war, romance, and sex.  Hokku also avoids “preaching” one’s views, whether in religion or other matters such as politics.  That is because, again, the subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Consequently hokku generally takes an objective approach to verse, rather than the subjective approach so common in most “I, me, my” -centered Western verse.  That is the result of the long history and deep roots of hokku, which was heavily influenced by the “selflessness” of Buddhist and Daoist culture.  Consequently, we can think of hokku as a more contemplative verse form.

What this all means, of course, is that hokku appeals to a certain kind of person, one who is more introspective, less self-centered, more aware of the natural world — or at least aspires to be so.  Hokku requires a certain discipline of mind and practice, while modern haiku is very whim-driven, very free-form, very “do your own thing.”  It is entirely up to the individual which form of verse to practice.

In my view, hokku is the more challenging path because it requires learning its traditional principles and aesthetics.  By contrast, anyone can write modern haiku without any aesthetic foundation or preparation at all.  It is the “quick and easy” choice.   However, it is precisely the very old aesthetic tradition in hokku, combined with its selfless, rather than self-centered approach, which makes it ultimately far more rewarding.





I often say that in spite of his reputation as the “founder” of haiku, Shiki really wrote hokku, though he tended toward verses that were like sketches in words.  Perhaps you have come across Blyth’s translation of one of his verses:

Only the gate
Of the abbey is left,
On the winter moor.

We would not write hokku that way in English (we should not write hokku as run-on sentences, and the comma at the end of the second line is hardly necessary).  But again as I often say, Blyth did not begin his series of books to tell people how to write hokku in English, but rather to convey the meaning and spirit.  And in that he did quite a good job on the whole, though when I read his translation of this verse, I tend to picture a ruined stone English abbey gate, rather than what Shiki had in mind — which would have been a massive, roofed wooden gate in decayed condition.

What Shiki actually wrote was this:

Mon bakari nokoru fuyu no no garan kana
Gate alone   remains winter field’s  monastery kana

A garan is a temple or monastery.

Every hokku we write is an exercise in arranging elements.  In Shiki’s verse we have the gate, the monastery, and the winter fields.  And as already mentioned, Blyth’s arrangement — while conveying the meaning — is not a good model for writing.  To put it into good hokku form, we could arrange it like this:

Only the gate
Of the monastery remains;
The winter fields.

That does a very good job not only of conveying the meaning, but of putting it into correct English-language hokku form.  It is not hard to see that it is just a variation on the Setting/Subject/Action pattern:

The setting is:  The winter fields.
The subject is:  the gate / Of the monastery.
And the action is:  Only…remains.

We could make that clear by putting it into this alternate arrangement:

The gate of the monastery (setting)
Alone remains; (action)
The winter fields. (subject)

That, however, is not as pleasing an arrangement as beginning with Only the gate….

When composing hokku, it is a good idea to try arranging the elements in different ways.  The goal of this is to not only convey the meaning well, but to convey it in a euphonious — a “good-sounding” phrasing.

Here is the hokku again, in full English-language form:


Only the gate
Of the monastery remains;
The winter fields.

It is worth looking at the Yin-Yang implications of that (if you don’t remember the significance of Yin and Yang in hokku, look in the archives).  You will recall that in the year, winter is the most yin time.  And that corresponds to very old age and death.

So in Shiki’s hokku, we have the winter fields, which are dead, and we have the monastery of which only the gate remains, again “dead.”  So Shiki has used harmony of similarity here — the putting of similar things together, with the character of one reflected in the other.

Now a blog note:  Perhaps you have noticed that the font in this and the previous posting is larger than usual.    For some the larger font is easier to read, particularly on small screens.  But if you find it gives you problems, please let me know.










One of the first problems a new student of hokku encounters is the selection of material, and this question arises: What subject is worth making into a hokku?

The answer is that to make a hokku interesting, one must pick an interesting experience. But how do you recognize one? As the old saying goes, “That which interests is interesting.” If an experience does not interest you, does not catch your attention, it is unlikely to interest anyone else. But keep in mind that hokku is generally interested in small events that seem to have a significance we cannot quite put into words, and should not try.

What then makes an interesting experience in hokku? We can find out by looking at some good examples.

Buson wrote:


Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

Why is that interesting? Because of the relationship between seeds and water and spring. Not only do we see and feel and hear the spring rain when we read it, be we also feel a kind of hidden energy in it, because we know the rain soaking into the bags of seeds will make them sprout. And sprouting seeds really make us feel the spring. We can almost sense the power in the seeds, ready to burst out in sprouts.

To make such a hokku, someone had to notice — had to pay attention to — the rain falling on the bags of seeds. A great part of writing hokku is simply paying attention to things that most people do not bother to notice because they think them of no importance. But hokku are all about such “unimportant” things that are nonetheless felt to have significance if one only pays attention.

I have written before that it is not seeing what others see that makes a poet, but rather seeing the significance in what others see but think of no importance.  That is certainly true of a good haiku writer. If you do not notice and feel the significance in small things, it will be difficult for you to write hokku.

That principle applies even to Shiki, the fellow who, near the end of the 19th century, decided to call his hokku “haiku,” which later became the cause of much confusion. Here is what Shiki saw:


Turning to look
At the man who passed —
Only mist.

The interest here is in the quick feeling of surprise and puzzlement. The man was there just a moment ago, but now only mist is seen. This sense of someone disappearing into mist is felt to be somehow significant. If we try to explain why it feels significant, we lose the poetry. So in hokku we only present the experience, so that the reader may sense that odd feeling of significance in such a small event as well.

In both hokku we have looked at, there is the sense of seeing something in a different way, a way that feels new to us, a different perspective. In Buson’s verse, instead of stacks of dry seed bags, we see them in the rain, getting wet. In Shiki’s verse, instead of turning around to look at a person who passed and seeing him, we see only mist. It is such little differences of perspective, of things slightly out of the ordinary, that make us see the world in a fresh way. And it makes for fresh and interesting hokku as well. So when choosing a subject, look for things seen in a different way, from a different perspective.

Rofu wrote:


Ebb tide;
The crab is suspicious
Of the footprint.

There are lots of things to see on a beach at ebb tide. Most are rather ordinary. But then we see a crab scuttling along the wet sand, and suddenly pausing at the impression someone’s foot has left. In that pause we feel the crab’s hesitation and uncertainty, his suspicion of this out-of-the-ordinary depression in the sand.  Rofu has selected this out of everything else on the beach because it enables us to see the crab in a different way, from a different perspective — and we also see the footprint in a different way, from a “crab’s eye” view.

Ryōto wrote:


Someone passing
Over the bridge;
The frogs go quiet.

Here the writer has again been paying attention to something that seems very unimportant on the surface, but nonetheless is felt to have unspoken significance. I have put it into the present tense because I like it that way; it seems more immediate and present.

Shiki wrote a similar verse:


Stepping onto the bridge,
The fish sink from sight;
The water of spring.


So the subjects appropriate for hokku are in general just ordinary things, written down in ordinary language. But they are ordinary things that when seen from a new or different or unusual perspective, give us a sense of unspoken significance.

Wakyu wrote:


At the sound
Of one jumping,
All the frogs jump in.

As an event in our modern, busy world, it does seem like much; but we feel the nature of frogs and their green and watery world in it. Hokku is often about the little things that, as Blyth says, we knew, but did not know we knew until we read the verse.

We could call hokku the verse form for people who pay attention.


R. H. Blyth, in a very convoluted paragraph tucked away in his little-read volume titled Senryu, gives an ultimately simple definition of the hokku aesthetic that I will put into easily-understandable words:

Hokku is a non-intellectual sensory experience outside the conscious will.

He is talking about what happens when one reads a hokku.  We can take, for example, even this late verse by Shiki, who would have called it a haiku, but it is nonetheless just the old hokku:


Seen through the pine boughs —
Sailing ships.

There is nothing intellectual about it.  It is all an experience of the senses, an involuntary sensory experience created in the reader when it is read,  a reader who suddenly finds herself or himself looking through green pine boughs at sailing ships passing by on the blue water.

The first line is a basic sensory experience of coolness, felt on the skin.  Then comes a visual sensory experience of boughs and ships and water, and the combination of the coolness with the visual sensation makes the whole one simultaneous,  non-rational (by which I mean immediate and not thought out) experience.

In the same volume, Blyth also tells us what he means by “Zen” in hokku.  I don’t even like to use the term “Zen” today, because it has been so misunderstood, misinterpreted, and sullied by use and over-use.  So we can just use the synonym-phrase Blyth gives us:

Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

If you leave all the other mind baggage aside, and focus just on what is on this page, you will make a great step forward in understanding what hokku is all about.

Shiki also wrote:


With the lamp gone out,
The sound of water.

One does not need to think about it.  One just needs to experience it.  Moving from “thinking” poetry, which a lot of Western poetry is, to “no-thinking” verse, which is hokku, will give you a completely different way of looking at verse.



Suzushisa ya   matsu no hagoshi no    hokake bune
Coolness ya    pine    ‘s   needles-seen-through ‘s sailing ship(s)

Suzushisa ya    andon kiete   mizu no oto
Coolness ya      lamp   gone-out water ‘s sound




Masaoka Shiki wrote a summer verse that, like many hokku, creates both an image and a mood in the mind of the reader:

A cicada cries
At the gate of the empty house;emptyhouse
The evening sun.

The point of this verse lies in the combination of the monotonous, ongoing drone of the unseen cicada with the feeling of emptiness and absence and the passage of time given by the vacant residence.  Even though it is a summer verse, it gives us a feeling akin to that of autumn.

I have mentioned before that the absence of things can be just as significant, or even more significant in some cases, than their presence.  Hokku often make use of this.


The original transliterated:

Aki-ie no    mon ni semi naku    yū-bi kana

Vacant-house ‘s    gate at cicada cries    evening sun kana


I often mention how the verses of Masaoka Shiki, paradoxically considered the “founder” of modern haiku, were actually for the most part just the old hokku under a different name. They certainly bear little resemblance to much that is written as “modern haiku” today in English and European languages.

Modern haiku (except for some conservative writers) has largely abandoned the connection to Nature and the seasons so essential to hokku. But Shiki not only kept the old traditional “season words,” but also, for the most part (though he stretched the envelope now and then) kept the link with Nature. Modern haiku is definitely not Shiki’s notion of haiku.

Shiki’s “Nature” verses tend to be pleasant, though they also tend to be “illustrations,” not surprising, given that he was strongly influenced by the open-air sketches and paintings popular in European art of his day. One could say that in essence Shiki’s approach to hokku was to regard it as “sketches from Nature.” That is why I always say that his better verses remind us of the woodblock illustrations of such Japanese artists as Hasui and Yoshida.

Today’s verse demonstrates the difficulty sometimes encountered in translating Japanese verses into acceptable English. Here is Shiki’s verse literally translated:

Furuike no oshidori ni yuki furu yūbe kana

Old-pond ‘s mandarin-ducks on snow falls evening kana

As you can see, the meaning is quite simple and straightforward. It is:

On the mandarin ducks on the old pond, snow falls; evening.

It is easy to see why I say that many of Shiki’s verses are largely illustrations, if pleasant illustrations. One can easily imagine a woodblock print of mandarin ducks on a lake in falling snow.

Kana is just the “filler” word that Shiki used (one might say over-used) repeatedly in his verses.

The difficulty, of course, is that English, in this case, requires more space than the form of the hokku ordinarily permits. So if we want to say what Shiki is saying, but in English hokku, we end up either with something with an overlong line, like this:

Snow falling
On the old pond’s mandarin ducks;

or with an abbreviation like this:

Snow falls
On the ducks in the pond;

Of course we have left out that they are specifically “mandarin” ducks, and we have left out that the pond is “old,” so much has been lost, and it is hardly a satisfactory rendering.

R. H. Blyth (that clever fellow) used the content of Shiki’s verse, but presented it quite differently, thus managing to come up with a very acceptable alternative (I have changed his internal punctuation mark), but it still feels a bit overlong:

Evening snow falling;
A pair of mandarin ducks
On an ancient lake.

He does not say, as Shiki does, that the snow is falling on the ducks. He simply tells us that evening snow is falling, and then presents us with the scene of mandarin ducks on an ancient lake. The mind of the reader automatically connects this with the falling snow, so the reader sees the snow falling on the mandarin ducks on the ancient lake, as Shiki intended.

Blyth thought it better in this case to use “ancient lake” instead of “old pond,” even though Shiki employs the same furu-ike term used in Bashō’s famous “Old Pond” hokku). He also specifies the number of mandarin ducks (a pair), which Shiki did not. However in Asian culture, mandarin ducks are believed to mate for life, and are naturally thought of in male-female pairs.

I would simplify Blyth’s rendering slightly, like this:

Evening snow;
A pair of mandarin ducks
On the old pond.

That leaves it up to the reader to see the snow falling, and it eliminates some of the awkwardness of length.

I discuss this today not so much to present the difficulties encountered at times in translating old verses as to demonstrate the usefulness of moving the elements of a hokku around, of re-arranging their order and of trying different possibilities, so that one might get the best “fit” when writing original hokku in English.




I often mention that Shiki, who is generally considered (inaccurately) the founder of the modern haiku movement, just continued to write hokku, for the most part, though he called them “haiku.”

Not only were his verses hokku in form, they also continued the seasonal connection (which most writers of modern haiku have abandoned entirely) and, whether Shiki himself realized it or not, they often continued the aesthetic approach of hokku, so were hokku for all practical purposes, whatever he wished to call them.

Here is a good example, which in form and content is really nothing other than an autumn hokku:

The light in the next room
Goes out too;
The cold of night.

If you read my previous postings on the Hokku Wheel of the Year and the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku, you will easily grasp the significance of this verse.

It is set in autumn, the time when Yang energy (light, warmth, movement) is fading and Yin energy (dark, cold, stillness) is increasing. It is late night. the writer extinguishes his own lamp, and then, after some time in silence, he sees the faint glow from the light in the next room go out too.

This verse expresses very well the fading of Yang energy, as first one light goes out — adding to the darkness — and then the light in the other room also goes out, making the darkness complete. And in that darkness one suddenly perceives deeply the chill of the autumn night, not yet as piercing as that of winter, but affecting in its expression that light and warmth are fading from the world. This increasing of darkness and cold parallels the waning of Yang and the increasing dominance of Yin in the season of autumn. So we could say quite honestly that this little verse manifests the character of deepening autumn very well.

It is all such deeper connections that have been forgotten and lost in the modern haiku movement, which on the whole has a completely different spirit and aesthetic than the practice of hokku. It already began to be lost in the time of Shiki, but we still find it in this verse.

As I have mentioned before, I have one reader who chides me if I do not add the originals for Japanese hokku I translate here, so for him and any others who may wish it, here is Shiki’s verse in a literal translation (in Western lineation) and in transliteration.

Next’s room’s
Light also extinguished
Night-cold kana

Tsugi no ma no/ tomoshi mo kiete/ yosamu kana
Next ‘s room ‘s/ lamp also extinguished/ night-cold kana

We are getting closer to the next major calendar point in the hokku year, which is Halloween/Samhain; it marks the end of autumn by the old calendar, and the beginning of winter, the season when Yang forces are weakest and Yin forces dominant. Shiki’s verse of increasing darkess and cold makes a good lead-in to that.