A loose translation of a spring hokku by Kikaku:

Dim in the shadows
Of the pines —
The moonlit night.

Oboro to wa  matsu no kurosa ni tsuki yo kana

It has somewhat the feeling of the last lines of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:

Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.



For years on this site, I have explained hokku in terms of their basic aesthetics.  I wonder how many of you can do so at this point.  So here is a question:  what qualities or characteristics of hokku do you find, or not find, in this verse?  What do you feel — or not feel — on reading it?  If you would like to answer, or to say anything else about this hokku, just leave a comment.


In withered weeds
Where once a house stood —
Blooming daffodils.




Onitsura wrote this spring hokku:

Mata mo mata hana ni chirarete utsura utsura

Here it is in daoku form:

Again and again
As the blossoms fall —
Nodding off.

It is a very relaxing verse, with the gentle falling of the blossoms and the drowsiness of the experience.  Notice how it is expressed with no need for the word “I.”  Notice too that this is a good example of something seen in a different way — which is very helpful in composing good daoku.

A Japanese would know from the word hana in the original that the blossoms are most likely cherry blossoms, but in English it could be any blossoming tree scattering its petals in the spring.

We could be more specific, like this:

Again and again
As cherry blossoms fall —
Nodding off.




A spring hokku by Charai:

Plum blossoms —
Even though the snow is falling,
Still blooming.

Ume no hana   yuki ga furite mo   saki ni keri
Plum  ‘s  flowers  snow ga falling too  blooming at keri




In a previous posting, we saw that while all daoku is hokku, not all hokku is daoku.  In the English language they are identical in form, but can be differentiated by content.  Daoku is objective, while hokku can sometimes be more subjective.

Here is an example — a spring verse by Sodō:

宿の春   何もなきこそ   何もあれ
Yado no haru   nani mo naki koso   nani mo areDwelling ‘s spring what-too is-not at-all what-too is

Though quite cryptic in a direct translation, we can paraphrase it in English as:

My spring dwelling;
Though nothing at all is there,
All is there.

Now as you see, “my” is not included in the original — only implied.

Blyth translates it as:

In my hut this spring,
There is nothing, —
There is everything!

This is obviously a philosophical hokku, not an objective verse.  It shows us the “thinking” of the writer.  There is a place for such verses, and this one is often quoted because people find its paradoxical nature superficially very “Zen,” and some in the modern haiku movement have eagerly adopted the use of paradox in writing.  It is not, however, suitable for daoku, which avoids subjective and philosophical comments, preferring to remain with the concrete rather than the abstract — with things and sensory experience rather than our ideas and musings about them.

That is why this verse is not useful as a model for daoku — an example of “all daoku is hokku, but not all hokku is daoku.”

We can clearly see the difference if we look at an objective spring hokku by Buson that is very appropriate as a daoku model:

燭の火を   燭にうつすや   春の夕
Shoku no hi wo    shoku ni utsusu ya   haru no yū
Candle ‘s flame wo  candle at copy ya   spring ‘s evening

Using one candle
To light another;
The spring evening.

It makes a very good daoku, because it gives us only the golden light of the candles in the shadows of the spring evening, as we see one used to light the other.  It is very objective — experiencing, not “thinking.”  It has a wonderful simplicity — ordinary things in ordinary words.  In this lighting of one candle with another, we feel a deep, unspoken significance — and of course behind it all is the impermanence so important to the atmosphere of hokku.

Notice that an action is taking place, yet there is no “I,” “me,” or “my.”  That enables us to focus on the action — on the sensory experience — without being distracted by the “self” of a writer.






In daoku we do not often use the hokku of Issa as models because he tended to subjectivity in his verses, while daoku prefer objectivity.  Occasionally, however, we find a hokku by him that can be used, for example this one:


門々の  下駄の泥より   春立ちぬ
Kado kado no   geta no doro yori    haru tachinu
Gate -gate ‘s     geta  ‘s   mud from  spring risen-has

We may put this into English as:

At every gate,
Spring has begun
With the mud on the geta.

Geta (下駄) are the wooden “platform” sandals worn in traditional Japan.

Now obviously this hokku is too specific to old Japanese culture to use as a daoku model, but we can do so if we make it more “Western,” like this:

At every door,
Spring begins
With the mud on the shoes.

In that verse we see the beginning of spring in the mud on the shoes people have left outside their doors.  The mud is a sign of the arrival of spring, because it appears when the snow and frost of winter have receded.

Again, this is a hokku of growing yang (warmth) and diminishing yin (cold) seen in the wet mud on the shoes.  The season of spring is growing yang as yin diminishes.



As a reader here perceptively remarked, “All daoku is hokku, but not all hokku is daoku.”  Today we will begin a look — via old hokku — at just what daoku is.  Because it originated in Japanese hokku of a certain kind, we can easily use relevant old hokku translated into the English-language daoku form as daoku examples.

First — like hokku in general — each daoku is set in the context of one of the four seasons.  Old hokku used specific season words to put a verse in its context, but the system became very complicated and unwieldy over time, requiring years to master.  In daoku we simply head each verse with the season in which it is written.  Daoku are never written out of season.  One does not write a spring verse in autumn, or a winter verse in summer.  The season heading is placed in parentheses above the daoku, like this:


On the tips of the barley leaves,
Spring frost.

Now it may seem redundant to have the heading (Spring) above a verse that has the word “spring” in it, but it saves a lot of confusion when a group of hokku of the same season are grouped together, because many daoku will not have the season mentioned in the verse.  When presenting several daoku of the same season together, the season heading is placed only above the first verse in the sequence.

Let’s examine the form:

On the tips of the barley leaves,
Spring frost.

Each line begins with a capital letter.

The daoku is in two parts, a shorter part and a longer part, separated by an appropriate punctuation mark.  In the case of this verse, the separating mark is the semicolon at the end of the first line.  The comma at the end of the second line is there to guide the reader easily through the verse.

The verse also ends with an appropriate punctuation mark — in this case, a period.

The invariable punctuation marks in a daoku are the separating mark and the ending mark, though of course the kind of punctuation marks used may vary.

Daoku is written in three brief lines.  Usually they total only between about seven to thirteen words. The important thing is to keep it brief, and without unnecessary padding.  The daoku above contains only ten words, which falls easily within the normal range.

There are several characteristics of daoku.  Prominent among them are these:


Poverty in daoku is the opposite of materialism.  It means being satisfied with little instead of much, both in writing and in life.  It is a kind of minimalism.  It avoids the grand and flamboyant. We find povery not only in the aesthetics of hokku, but also in its minimal use of words, while retaining normal grammar.

Simplicity means that daoku deal with ordinary things in ordinary words.  The difference is that daoku is at its best when dealing with ordinary things seen in a new or different way.

Selflessness means that in daoku, it is the verse — or rather what it conveys — that is important, not the writer.  The writer in daoku should be invisible, so that the reader may become the experiencer.  We say the writer gets out of the way so that Nature may speak.  That is why use of the words “I,” “me,” and “my” is kept to a minimum in daoku, and avoided when it is not awkward to do so.  Writers of daoku do not think of themselves as “poets” writing “poetry.”  Instead, the writer of daoku becomes a clear mirror reflecting Nature, just as a still pond clearly reflects the moon.

Transience — which we may also call impermanence — means that daoku as a whole have an underlying sense of the constant change in Nature — that things do not last, but are in a continual state of transformation.  Dawn appears only to become noon, then night; frost appears only to melt and disappear.  Leaves grow only to mature and wither.

On the tips of the barley leaves,
Spring frost.

I like to use this verse at the beginning of spring (according to the old hokku calendar, which is also the daoku calendar) because it so clearly expresses the time when the cold (yin) of winter lingers, but the warmth (yang) of spring is growing.  We see the former in the frost on the leaves, and the latter in the young leaves themselves.  Further, growing warmth and light (yang) are reflected in the dawn.

“Dawn” reflects the time of year, which is spring. Spring is the beginning of the year just as dawn is the beginning of day. So in this verse we see spring reflected in the dawn, and dawn reflected in the spring. Both have a feeling of freshness and youth and newness. But we also find the contrast between the “growing yang” dawn (reflected in “spring”) and the “diminishing yin” seen in the temporary morning frost on the leaf of the barley. This shows us directly the interplay between the forces of Yin and Yang in Nature. Early spring is a time when those two forces seem to contend for dominance, but being a spring verse, we know which will win, because spring means growing yang and diminishing yin, just as dawn means the same.

曙や   麦の葉末の   春の霜

Akebono ya   mugi no hazue no    haru no shimo
Dawn      ya   barley ‘s  leaf-tip  ‘s spring ‘s frost

In the original by Onitsura, the word translated here as “barley” — mugi (in kanji, むぎ in hiragana) can also mean wheat, oats, etc. — it is a general term for grain crops.

If any readers here have questions about the nature or techniques of daoku, please ask, now that spring is again beginning.  Unlike other forms of brief verse that have grown out of or been inspired by hokku, daoku has specific standards, principles, and aesthetics.  It is more challenging to learn, but also — for those who find it speaks to their condition, more rewarding.




What would a Japanese of Bashōs  time think of modern hokku?

First, he or she would no doubt be surprised to find it written in a language other than Japanese.

Second, he would probably also be surprised to find us writing hokku only as independent verses, and not, at times, as the first verse in a linked verse sequence.  In his day it could have been both.

Third, in indicating the season of a verse, he would note the change from the complicated and unwieldy old “season word” system to a simple seasonal heading preceding the verse.

Fourth, he might notice the significant absence of the allegorical in hokku, because old hokku, particularly when used as the first of a series of linked verses, were often used in an allegorical way to greet the host or hostess of a gathering for writing “communal” linked verse, or for other purposes.  And with this, he might notice the significant  prevalence of objectivity in modern hokku rather than subjectivity, which was more prevalent in old hokku — particularly those written by women in those days.

Fifth, he might notice that modern hokku are written in three lines rather than one, though that would not be entirely new to him, because old hokku were often separated into two or three lines when they were written on fans, etc.

Sixth, he would probably note the paucity of allusions in modern hokku, given that old hokku frequently alluded to lines from other literature, from historical or mythological events, and so on.

An additional difference is that modern hokku places a stronger emphasis on hokku written from actual experience of an event, rather than from composition “out of one’s head,” which was very common in old hokku when it was taught largely as the beginning part of the more complicated and communal practice of haikai no renga — the composing lined verses.

Modern hokku does differ in these respects from old Japanese hokku, but there is a good reason for all the differences.

The writing of modern “independent” hokku means that it is no longer a kind of poetry game or social composition event, as it was when practiced as linked verse.  The “season word” system was done away with because it made hokku too complex, and violates the principle of simplicity.  The allegorical or “double meaning” often found in old hokku was also dropped, because it lessens the focus by creating a second object in the mind.  Three lines are used because they provide an excellent format for hokku in English, making it not only visually pleasant but practical.  Allusion in hokku has generally been dropped because it requires not only a thorough literary knowledge but also complicates hokku, taking us away from its simplicity.

Writing from actual experience keeps us closer to Nature and its changes, and requires us to pay attention to things we might not ordinarily notice.

All of these differences return us to the essence of good hokku, which is to simply convey an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the changing context of the seasons.  Consequently needless complexities that obscure that simplicity and that clear purpose have been dropped, giving us modern hokku in English.

In old hokku, we might find such subjective verses as this one by Chiyo-ni (a female writer in the 1700s):

Plum blossom fragrance;
Where has she blown to —
The Snow Woman?

A “Snow Woman,” (Yuki Onna), in Japanese folklore, was a kind of uncanny spirit who appeared when it was snowing — somewhat like the “Snow Queen” in the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson.  If you have seen the Japanese movie Kwaidan, it has a segment with a Snow Woman.  As we can see,  Chiyo-ni’s verse takes us away from reality and into the imagination.  Chiyo-ni’s verse was intended to show us the transition from winter to spring.  Now that the plum is blossoming, she asks, what happened to the Snow Woman/the cold of winter?

But by contrast, this hokku by Chiyo-ni  would be acceptable as a very good modern hokku:

Picked up is moving;
Ebb tide.

That is also a spring verse, but here there is no imagination to distract from reality.  When the tide goes out and one picks up tiny shells, they begin to move, because the creatures in them are still alive.  This hokku gives us a strong impression of the experience, re-creating it within us.  We can see and feel the things moving in our hand.  It also conveys the sense of the growing active energy of spring.

By our standards, the first verse about the Snow Woman would not be acceptable as hokku, though it would fit the very loose and indistinct boundaries of modern haiku.  The second verse, however, makes a quite good example for teaching modern hokku.  Hokku should take us out of intellection and imagination and into Nature — to the experience of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching.  That is hokku at its best.






Spring is a good time to review the principles and practice of the hokku.  We can begin with a definition:


A hokku in English is a brief, unrhymed, three-line verse about Nature and humans as a part of Nature, set within the context of a season.

Here is an example, by Onitsura:


On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

The heading in parentheses is the seasonal classification. It has two functions:

1. It identifies a verse by season. You may wonder why it is there if the season is mentioned in the verse. That is explained by the second function:

2. When several hokku of the same season are printed together, the season heading goes at the beginning, thus classifying all the hokku under the same season. The heading makes it very easy to go through a number of hokku and easily classify them by season, even when season is not mentioned in the verse.

In English form, a hokku is divided into three short lines, the second line usually (but not always) longer than the other two.

A hokku consists of two parts – a long part of two lines, and a short part of one line. The long and short parts of a hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation. Sometimes the long part comes first, sometimes second. There may be additional punctuation in the long part, but the essential “separating mark” comes between the long and short segments.

In the hokku above, the shorter part is:

The longer part is:
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

Notice that every line of the hokku begins with a capital letter, and every hokku ends with a punctuation mark. Just which punctuation mark is used depends on the individual hokku. The most common separating mark is the semicolon(;), and the most common ending mark is the period (.). You will see how other punctuation marks are used by looking at various hokku here.

I have long felt that the best way for students to learn authentic hokku and its principles and aesthetics is through reading and analyzing the best old hokku, translated into English. Through the use of such models the student learns not only the principles of form, but also the very important aesthetics of hokku that determine its content.

Learning from old hokku also maintains a connection — not just theoretical — with the old hokku tradition, even though that tradition was Japanese and we are writing now in English. Of course modern hokku is not precisely the same as the old Japanese hokku. That is not possible, given the difference in language and grammar. Nonetheless, modern hokku preserves the most important and essential principles and aesthetics of old hokku.

The problem for most people in learning hokku is that even when looking directly at old models, the student often interprets them according to notions picked up from the English poetry tradition or from “haiku” written in English or poorly translated from Japanese. That is how Westerners misunderstood and misinterpreted hokku from the time it was first introduced to the West in the late 19th century. And that is why any instruction in hokku must include not only the form and techniques of the verse but also the essential instruction in the aesthetics of content, which are generally very different than both English poetry and modern haiku.

Some may wonder why the verse form discussed here is called hokku and not haiku. There are two reasons:

First, from its very beginnings the verse form was called hokku by all those who wrote it in Japan. It was called hokku whether it appeared as a separate verse, or as the first verse in a sequence of linked verses. So hokku, historically, is the correct name for it, not haiku. The anachronistic application of the name haiku to what was and is really hokku has caused great confusion since the “haiku” usage was introduced by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

Second, a broad category of modern brief verse that evolved out of old hokku in the West — largely from the middle of the 20th century on — took Shiki’s name “haiku.” It has no universally-accepted standards, and its principles and practice not only differ widely within the category, but also generally tend to differ greatly from the principles and aesthetics of the old hokku, and even from Shiki’s “haiku,” which was generally hokku in all but name. So it is important that we use the historically-correct term hokku to avoid confusing hokku and its principles and practice with the often very different aesthetics and practices within modern haiku.



Here is a spring hokku by Buson. Whenever I read it, it reminds me of 19th-century American paintings of the rural countryside as it was in those quieter, greener days:

The grasses are misty,
The water silent;
Evening …

It gives a very good impression of the stillness of evening.

Though this is a spring hokku, it uses the hokku technique of “harmony of contrast,” because while spring is a time of increasing Yang energy (active, growing, warm), evening by contrast is an increasing Yin time of day (passive, receding, cool). Such a hokku expresses that even in the time of year when Yang is growing, Yin is nonetheless present, giving us a subtle feeling of aging, of transience amid the freshness, warmth, and new growth of spring. The mist, the water, and the silence are all Yin, as is the fading of the light of day. That predominance of Yin elements amid the growing Yang of spring is what makes this hokku effective in its very quiet way.

I always like to remind everyone that no knowledge of Japanese is needed to write hokku in English. I only add the Japanese version here because I have one particular faithful reader who always writes me a note if I do not include it.

The word translated here as “grasses” is kusa, which is somewhat more inclusive and general than the Engish, comprising not only grass but also other short plants below the level of shrubs. Higure is the time of sunset, of twilight.

Here is the transliterated Japanese with a literal translation:

Kusa kasumi mizu ni koe naki higure kana
Grasses mist water at voice is-not evening kana



The connection of plum blossoms and spring, historically, is well known.  As I have written before, however, the ume no hana spoken of in old Japanese hokku — conventionally translated as “plum blossoms,” were not really plum blossoms as we generally think of them, but rather the flowers of the Japanese apricot (Prunus mume).  In spite of that, when an English speaker reads Japanese spring hokku about plum blossoms, it is perfectly natural to envision the blossoms of Prunus domestica, which gives us our edible plums and prunes, or perhaps those of Prunus salicina, the “Satsuma” plum, which is native to China, but is grown both in Japan and in the West now.

As regular readers here know, I often “westernize” hokku in translation, though I note the fact to avoid confusion.  So of course it does not bother me in the least that we think of these other plums, rather than of the Japanese apricot, when we read old spring hokku.  Further, what applies to that tree applies also to the plums grown in the West, so for practical and aesthetic purposes it is really advantageous for us to think of “our” kinds of plums instead of what the original hokku technically signified.

Having gotten through all that dull introduction, we are ready to take a look at some spring plum hokku.  The significant thing about the plum in that context is that it is an early bloomer, flowering often when the weather still can be cold and unsettled, in that time of the yearly transition from winter weather to that of early spring.

We see that period of change in a hokku by Buson:

In every nook and corner
The cold lingers;
Plum blossoms.

In the original, “every nook and corner” is really a repetition of the same word — sumi, meaning “corner.”  When used twice (zumi the second time for euphony) as sumizumi, it literally is “corner-corner,” but the “every nook and corner” understanding of the term is what it signifies.

Regular readers here know that spring is a time of increasing Yang energy.  The cold Yin energy of winter is waning, but as Buson tells us here, when the plum begins to bloom, the cold still lingers in all the little shady spots and corners and hollows.  The word I translate here as “lingers” is nokoru in the original, which means “to remain, to be left over or left behind.”

Mirabelle plum (Prunus x domestica var. syriac...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The blooming of the plum tree of course has a direct relationship to the amount of warmth and light present.  The warmer the air, the more blossoms will pop open.  That is why Ransetsu wrote what I call his “thermometer” hokku:

A plum blossom —
One blossom’s worth
Of warmth.

What I translate as “blossom’s worth” — the word hodo — means “an extent or degree or measure” of something.  So we could be playful, and translate it as

A plum blossom —
One blossom degree
Of warmth.

The concept behind this hokku is the notion that the more plum blossoms open, the higher the temperature of the air and the farther along the advancement of spring.  It shows a unity between the blossoms and the growing warmth, in contrast to our “rational” way of thinking in terms of action (the warming of the air) and consequence (a plum blossom opens), cause and effect.



A pleasant spring hokku by Bashō:

Spring rain;
A roof leak trickles
Down the wasps’ nest. 

This reminds me of Blyth’s remark that to write hokku one should live in a house which either has a leaky roof or one with the potential of leaking.