Long-time readers here will recall that I have discussed the issue of metaphor and simile and their relation (if any) to hokku.  I have pointed out that what readers — even presumably scholarly readers — often interpret as metaphor in hokku is better understood — at least in hokku as I teach it — as the more prevalent practice of the principle of internal reflection.  I have also said that though metaphor is not entirely absent from all old hokku, the best verses did not use it.

There is a great deal to be said about metaphor and simile, which have a long history in English literature and have been so often used that they seem a poetic crutch for which the laboring poet automatically reaches when in difficulty, and from this sentence alone one can see how common their use has become; I have just used a metaphor myself.

There are, then, times when a metaphor or simile may be helpful in prose or in poetry (though not in hokku), yet one feels, like Ogden Nash in his poem Very Like a Whale, that both are used to excess.  He tells us, half in jest, half serious:

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by authors of simile and metaphor.
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can’t seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to go out of their way to say that it is like something else….
That’s the kind of thing that’s being done all the time by poets, from Homer to Tennyson;
They’re always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison.
How about the man who wrote,
Her little feet stole in and out like mice beneath her petticoat?
Wouldn’t anybody but a poet think twice
Before stating that his girl’s feet were mice?
Then they always say things like that after a winter storm
The snow is a white blanket.  Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a
six-inch blanket of snow and I’ll sleep under a half-inch blanket of
unpoetical blanket material and we’ll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you’ll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.

I have said in previous articles that simile in poetry — saying one thing is like another — draws the mind in two directions by presenting it with two different images.  To say, for example, that the rising crescent moon is like a ship of silver sailing up on the blue sea of heaven, detracts from the moon and the sky as they are, and brings in the image of a ship and of a sea, and the mind must combine these into a new image created by the original “real” image and its overlay.

That does not mean metaphors and similes are good or bad; it simply means, as I have said before, that one must use the right tool for the right task.  In hokku as I teach it, we keep a very strong focus of the mind, for which simile and metaphor act merely as a distraction.  In other kinds of poetry — well, we shall see.

There is much more to be said about metaphor and simile, but I will delay that for when I have more time.  So expect this brief posting to grow longer in the next few days.  I would like readers, meanwhile, to read the excerpt from the Nash poem and to think about the place (is there one, legitimately?) of metaphor and simile in poetry, and to a lesser extent, in prose.

It is worth considering, in the interim, how hokku generally goes for what Nash calls the “unpoetical blanket material,” which is one of the great contrasts between hokku and conventional poetry.  In fact the great discovery of people like Bashō was to find the poetry in such “unpoetical blanket material,” which is one of the things that makes hokku so unlike what people generally think of as poetry.



In hokku, as I have said many times, we do not use metaphor (saying one thing is another) or simile (saying one thing is like another).  There is a specific reason for that.  It is that in hokku, metaphor and simile draw the mind in two different directions, and two separate images compete for the reader’s attention.  This is contrary to the very intense, aware focus that hokku as taught here requires.

That does not mean, of course, that metaphor and simile are inappropriate for other kinds of writing and other occasions.  Sometimes they can be quite effective, and indeed at times may be the best way of expressing something.

There is an old and rather odd book written by a woman named Grace Duffie Boylan.  It came to be in 1918 and was published in 1919, and it purports to be the after-death communications of her son, killed in action in Europe — in Flanders — in the First World War — that shadow time of immense grief and suffering.  It is titled Thy Son Liveth.

I don’t intend to take up the issue here of how authentic the communications in the book may or may not be, because what I really want to talk about now is an exquisite use of simile in the text — in something she says was told her by her son from the afterlife.  You will find it on page 22:

Mother, the soul leaves the body as a boy jumps out of the school door.  That is, suddenly, and with joy.

The poetry of those lines, for me,  is the pinnacle of the entire book.

I must add, though, that there is an amusing little verse on another page, 38, when her son asks,

Do you recall how we laughed over that epitaph on a little white gravestone in New England:

‘Since so quickly I was done for,
I wonder what I was begun for?'”

Reading the book, whatever one may think of its veracity, is very poignant for those who, like me, can remember the days when a very few aged, grey soldiers from that terrible First World War still marched in every Fourth of July parade, and when one might encounter on the street a poor old man still “shell-shocked” from that horrendous conflict — and of course each year those selling the little, paper poppies to pin on one’s lapel or dress – the poppies that had become the symbol of that frightful war and its terrible harvest of the lives of youth.

There was a time when almost everyone in America recognized this poem by John McCrae:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

The book Thy Son Liveth may be found online at:

You may be interested to know that the concept of Boylan’s book was reworked into an updated story for a movie a few years ago.  While some may feel it excessively sentimental, others will find it both moving and inspiring — but in any case it is worth watching just to see Vanessa Redgrave’s performance and to hear that remarkable use of simile from the book.  The film — available on DVD now — is called A Rumor of Angels.




We already know that a metaphor, simply speaking, is saying one thing is another.  And we know a simile is saying one thing is like another.  An allegory is “speaking otherwise than one seems to speak,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary.  In simple terms that is “saying one thing, but meaning another.”  A symbol is “something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else,” as the same dictionary tells us.

Knowing all this, we are now prepared to take a look at two verses:

Shiragiku no   me ni tatete miru    chiri mo nashi
White-chrysanthemum ‘s eyes at raise look  dust even not

White chrysanthemums;
Lifting the eyes to look —
Not a speck of dust.

This verse was written as a greeting to Bashō’s hostess.  This was a common function of the hokku when used as the first verse of a series of linked verses (haikai no renga).

Botan shibe fukaku   wakeizuru hachi no   nagori kana
Peony pistils deep   separate-emerge  bee ‘s parting-reluctance kana

The bee emerges
From the peony pistils.

This verse was written as a parting verse for one of Bashō’s hosts.

Now it is immediately obvious that both of these verses were written for special occasions — the first as greeting, the second as parting — and so they fall into a particular class of hokku that we call “occasion” hokku (in the old haikai practice, a greeting verse could be the opening verse of a series of linked verses).

Long-time readers of this site will recall that we have talked about  “occasion” hokku before, explaining how they differ from regular hokku.

To understand the peculiar nature of “occasion” hokku, we must understand just what they are.  Keep in mind always the dictum that the best hokku (we are not talking now about bad hokku or the occasional exception here) are not symbols for anything, are not metaphors.  Instead, they make use of layers of associations.  They do not say one thing is another (metaphor), nor do they say one thing is like another (simile).  This is a matter difficult for some people to understand, because they are so accustomed to simile and metaphor in Western verse that they see it even where it does not exist.

There is an interesting yet very simple summer hokku written by Chine-jo (the -jo suffix tells us the writer is a woman).

Easily it glows —
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We could say that this verse has a double meaning, because it was written as Chine-jo’s death verse — but that is not entirely accurate.  To say that the verse is a metaphor for Chine-jo’s death and leave it at that would also be misleading, because the verse uses the old principle that in hokku, one small thing can hold the meaning of something much larger.  For example, we say that in hokku one leaf is all of autumn.

In this verse, the firefly’s glow going easily out expresses all such things in Nature, the fact that if the ego is not struggling against Nature, everything becomes “easy” in life and death, because the individual will dissolves into Nature’s will, as it is put in Canto III of Dante’s Paradiso:

Anzi è formale ad esto beato esse
tenersi dentro a la divina voglia,
per ch’una fansi nostre voglie stesse;

Rather it is necessary to this blessed existence
To keep one’s self within the Divine will,
So that our wills may be one..

E ’n la sua volontate è nostra pace:

And in His will is our peace.”

That is the mind of Chine-jo, whose will has become one with the firefly, with Nature, so that

Easily it glows,
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We will often find hokku that, while having their own meaning, to be read as referring to nothing beyond themselves, are yet applied to events in life that are expressed through them.  We find them — as here — in death verses, in verses written for greetings and partings and other such occasions, which is why we call such hokku “occasion” hokku.

That brings us back to the earlier two examples — the white chrysanthemum and the emerging bee.  As “occasion” hokku, these have a double meaning.  The chrysanthemum applies to Bashō’s hostess, on one side; but on the other, it is simply a hokku about a chrysanthemum.  Similarly the emerging bee verse on one side is simply about that; on the other it applies to Bashō’s reluctant departure.  Chiyo-ni’s verse, on one side, is about human death; but on the other side, it is about the light of a firefly going out.

We must not minimize or subordinate either meaning in occasion hokku, but neither should we confuse them simply as allegory or metaphor by saying:  “This says A, but it means B.”  The correct answer is, “This means A and it means B.  Sometimes we will want to read it as A, but for this particular occasion and purpose, it means B.”  Half of the dual function of an occasional verse is, in the words of the O.E.D., speaking otherwise than one seems to speak, which is the definition of allegory; and Bashō quite obviously did, for particular occasions, compose hokku in which he was doing so, as did other composers of such verses.  But we must not forget the non-occasion use of the same hokku, when the original occasion has passed and the hokku still exists and must be appreciated not as allegory but for itself alone.

The solution to the matter lies in the difference between subordination and equality.  If we say, for example, that the verse about the spotless chrysanthemum is a metaphor, or an allegory, or a symbol for Bashō’s hostess, but fail to point out that the verse must also function perfectly as a hokku completely on its own and independent of that allegorical use, then we are subordinating the “ordinary” meaning of the hokku to the allegorical meaning.  If a hokku is strong in its allegorical significance, but weak independent of allegory, then it fails as good hokku.

An “occasion” hokku must be able to function equally well in both its application as “allegory” and in non-occasion, non-allegorical use — at its own obvious “face value,” so to speak.

It is critical when writing occasion hokku that we do not cross the line into making them meaningful only when applied to the event, in which case they would be mere allegories.  All too often the old writers of hokku — particularly those used as the first verse of haikai-no-renga did this.   Instead, they must be fully strong within and as themselves — like the “firefly” verse of Chine-jo — and yet fully expressive of the occasion for which they are written — as we also find in that verse.

Having said all this, what then, do we do with the occasional old hokku that does use metaphor in some way?  We find, for example, Bashō’s autumn hokku:

Yuku aki ya   te o hirogetaru   kuri no iga
Going autumn
ya hands o opened chestnut’s bur

Autumn departing;
With open hands —
The chestnut burs.

Here, in a greeting verse written for a linked-verse-composing party, Bashō is apparently referring to the mature, opened halves of the chestnut bur as “palms” (he actually says “hands” but it is assumed that the means the halves have opened like the hollowed palms of two hands).

The answer is that we do nothing at all.  referring back to the first part of this article, you will recall I said that the best old Japanese hokku do not use obvious metaphor or simile.  And this rather mediocre verse is no exception to that rule.

In our practice of hokku we do not use such verses as models precisely because the use of metaphor or simile detracts from what we want to achieve in the kind of hokku I teach.  A metaphor or simile in verse is essentially a split image, requiring the reader to visualize two different things, such as the chestnut bur halves and the opened palms in the verse by Bashō.  But in hokku we want the focus undivided, direct and strong.

To summarize then:

1.  The best old hokku (and of course good modern hokku) do not use metaphor or simile.

2.  Some old hokku applied to certain occasions such as greeting, parting, and death had the ability to function on two different planes of meaning; one function approximates that known in English as allegorical; the other function was entirely non-allegorical; neither function is subordinated to the other in the best hokku, making such a verse non-allegorical (and non-metaphorical) in the common English sense of the word, which requires the subordination of one function to the other.

Do you still find all of this somewhat confusing?  No problem.  Just let the academics bicker pointlessly over it, but remember not to use metaphor or simile or allegory in your hokku, with the possible exception of the double function of “occasion” hokku as explained above — if from time to time you may feel moved to write an “occasion” hokku.  If you do not feel so moved, you may ignore them entirely.



In the last posting we reviewed Yin and Yang in hokku, and introduced the two kinds of contrast.  This latter is important in itself, so I shall say more about it.

Hokku may exhibit either:
1.  Harmony of contrast
2.  Harmony of similarity

Harmony of contrast is the inclusion of elements that are quite opposite to one another — something that is hot against something that is cool; something wet against something dry; something unmoving against something moving.

Harmony of similarity includes things that are similar in character (again in terms of Yin and Yang).  For example, we may have a crow and evening (here the similarity is in darkness); we may have a child and springtime (here the similarity is in “youngness” or “freshness”; we may have billowing clouds and the sail on a boat (similarity in “swelling”). All these are things similar in character.

When we have a hokku including similar things, we must be careful not to understand this as simile (meaning one thing in a verse is said to be “like” another) or metaphor (meaning one thing in verse “is” another).  The difference is very important.

If we say, as did Robert Burns,

O, my luve’s like a red, red rose, That’s newly sprung in June.

we are using simile — one thing is openly said to be like another.

In hokku, however, we do not say one thing is “like” another.  Instead, when we put two “similar” things in a hokku — for example an old man and the evening (both “aged” things with increasing Yin), we say that one thing reflects another.

The difference between simile and internal reflection is that in simile, the mind of the reader is pulled between two images — a young woman and  a red rose.  In internal reflection, however, the two similar elements reflect and complement and enhance one another.

In this site I shall treat Shiki — who really marked the shift from the hokku to new kinds of brief verse — as a writer of hokku, because in fact he maintained the form and technique, the seasonal connection and the focus on Nature.

He wrote:

Though the hole in the stone lantern —
The sea.

Look at all these elements:
1.  Coolness (Yin) — cold is Yin.
2.  A hole (Yin) — absence is Yin.
3.  Stone (Yin) — immobility is Yin.
4.  Sea (Yin) — water is Yin.

All of these “like” elements reflect one another, creating an airy hokku filled with coolness, in spite of the fact that this is a summer verse!  It is pleasant to experience these “cool” things in summer.

There are many reasons for an experience that strikes us as significant enough to make a hokku, but a major contributing factor is often the presence of such internal reflection in the elements of an experience.  When we have such reflection, we say the elements of the verse are harmonious, that they work together to create a unified experience.

But again, we must remember that in hokku there are two kinds of harmony — the harmony of similar things and the harmony of dissimilar things.  That is why in summer, verses which have internally reflecting Yang elements (heat, dryness, roughness, brightness, etc.) are harmonious, but so are hokku with internally reflecting dissimilar and contrary elements (a spring of water against the heat of day, shade against sunlight, a fluttering bird in the still silence of a forest).

Everything I have discussed here is very important to an understanding of hokku and its aesthetics.  Next time you are out for a walk, look for harmonies of similarity and harmonies of contrast.  Eventually you will see that this is just another way of describing the changes and transformations and interplay of the two universal elements, Yin and Yang.

This concept is very ancient.  In Daoist cosmology, first there is only unity, The ONE.  The ONE separates into two — the primal opposites of Yin and Yang, and the interplay of these two in all proportions and combinations then creates the “Ten Thousand Things,” by which is meant everything that exists, the cell, the flower, the world, the star, the galaxy, the universe.



Shiki, the “founder” of haiku as separate from hokku, wrote a verse that has (at least) two possible interpretations:

The first is as a hokku would be written:

A tub of indigo
Poured out;
The waters of spring.

Seen this way, someone involved in dyeing cloth has dumped out a tubful of indigo dye.  The dark, greenish liquid runs into and tinges the little rivulets and pools of flowing, springtime water a deeper hue, now that the frozen winter has passed (objects dyed in indigo, by the way, do not turn the deep “indigo” blue until some time after they are removed from the dye liquid).

The second way of understanding this verse is not at all hokku-like, because it makes it a metaphor.  Blyth has altered the verse slightly in his translation, making the “tub” a barrel and the “waters of spring” a river:

A barrel of indigo,
Poured out and flowing:
The spring river.

Seen thus, Shiki’s verse is no longer hokku.  Instead it is a metaphor used more as simile.  The river of spring looks like a barrel of dark, greenish indigo poured out and flowing.  This is the same technique used in the popular old poem “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor….

Both ways of reading Shiki’s verse are poetry in some sense, but only the first is the poetry of hokku.

In the first, we deal with the real world, with a poured-out tub of indigo running into and tinting the waters of spring.  In the second we are in the world of fantasy, where a river is no longer a river but a giant barrel of indigo poured out and flowing.  Those who do not know how indigo dye functions are even likely to visualize the liquid flowing from the barrel as deep blue, when actually it is greenish and only turns blue in items dyed with it that are exposed to air for some time — a chemical process.

Hokku does not use the second method because it takes us away from reality and into fantasy.  It mixes two images in our minds, and the mind must jump back and forth between them.  Usually the “fantasy” image wins our attention.

That does not mean the second does not create a vivid image and is not poetry in a conventional sense.  But it does mean that the “poetry” of the second verse is not the poetry of the first, which deals with the “real world” and does not mix the real world with poetic fantasy.

That is one of the distinctions between hokku and other kinds of verse.  Hokku prefers the “thing itself” to metaphor or simile that alters and ultimately detracts from the thing, no matter how conventionally poetic the result in the latter case.



Yesterday we looked at this verse by Hokushi:

Karakasa no    ikutsu sugiyuku    yuki no kure

Umbrella  ‘s    many    pass-by      snow ‘s  evening

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

In contrast, Yaha wrote:

Karakasa no    hitotsu sugiyuku   yuki no kure
Umbrella ‘s      one         passes-by  snow ‘s evening

A single umbrella
Passes by;
The snowy evening.

This illustrates an important principle of hokku, related to its aspect of poverty.  The less we present in a hokku, the stronger the effect.  By “effect” we mean that all-important feeling of significance.  One umbrella passing on a snowy evening has more perceived significance than many umbrellas.  It has to do with the focus of attention, which is dispersed among many similar things in one case, but focused on a single thing in the second.  That is why in translating hokku, even though Japanese had no difference between singular and plural nouns, we nonetheless generally translate in the singular rather than the plural, except in the case of things that normally come in groups, such as clouds and raindrops.

To state the principle quite simply, one thing in hokku has a greater perceived significance than many things.  One can easily see that this relates to another principle of hokku, which is the avoidance of simile and metaphor.  Why?  Because they divide the attention between the “real” thing and the object with which it is being likened.  What underlies both of these — one thing instead of many, no metaphor or simile — is not dividing the attention of the reader.  The less divided the attention, the stronger the effect, the perceived significance, which is exactly what we see when looking at these two verses of Hokushi and Yaha.



I have to confess that years of involvement with hokku have made me very leery of metaphor and simile in verse.  You will recall that metaphor is saying that one thing is another — for example when people say “We are just two ships passing in the night.”  Simile means that one thing is like another  (just think of the word “similar”), for example, “He stands like a rock.”

In hokku we do not use metaphor or simile, because doing so divides our attention.  So in hokku we let things be what they are.  The moon is the moon, not a “silent messenger of the night,” or whatever one might dream up.

And as I said, the effect of this, over time, is that we become more sensitive to the use of metaphor and simile in other kinds of verse, finding it in general a distraction and a detraction.  More and more, we just want a writer to let things be as they are.

There was an interesting fellow named William Sharp who wrote verses in the latter half of the 19th century.  Sometimes his language was a little too archaic and anachronistically Elizabethan, but many of his verses showed real promise.  All too often, however, they are spoiled by simile, as in the first few lines of The Wind at Fidenae:

Fresh from the Sabines
The Beautiful Hills,
The wind bloweth.
Down o’er the slopes,
Where the olives whiten
As though the feet
Of the wind were snow-clad:
Out o’er the plain
Where a paradise of wild blooms waveth,
And where, in the sunswept
Leagues of azure,
A thousand larks are
As a thousand founts
‘Mid the perfect joy of
The depth of heaven.

“Bloweth?”  “Waveth”?”  No one really talked like that in the latter half of the 19th century, but all too often such archaicisms were looked on as “poetic” language.

And then there are lines like

“As though the feet of the wind
Were snow-clad.”

One could get away with that if one happened to be an ancient Greek or Roman, when the forces of Nature were simultanously phenomena and gods or goddesses — like “Rosy-fingered Dawn.”  But it did not really work in the 19th century, nor does it work today.

The wind does not have snow-clad feet, nor, in spite of Carl Sandburg, does fog come on little cat feet.  Do you see how the moment one adds these, the mind becomes divided between the real thing — between the wind and snow-clad feet, between fog and the feet of a cat?  The mind can only work with one image at a time, so simile and metaphor force us to split our attention, which detracts from the thing itself.

So when I read Sharp, I find myself wanting to rewrite him, to take out the Elizabethan language and the similes, perhaps ending with something like

Fresh from the Sabines
The Beautiful Hills,
The wind blows.
Down o’er the slopes
Where the olives whiten,
Out to the plain
Where the wild blooms wave;

You get the idea.

In hokku we do not divide the attention with metaphor and simile.  Instead we combine elements into a unity.  Often there is a setting — the wider environment in which something happens.  Within that setting there is the subject of the verse, and that subject acts or is acted upon.  In this combining of elements there is no division of the attention, no detracting from any of the elements.  Each is simply what it is, and in that is the simplicity and the effectiveness of hokku.