Today is the first of February — the beginning of spring by the old calendar.

I looked at the edge of my little garden and saw blooming snowdrops — one of the first signs of spring.

The old name for February 1st is Imbolc, though sometimes the name of the later “Church” commemoration that happens one day later (February 2nd) may be used as well.  That is Candlemas, which makes us think of light and brightness.

The English poet William Wordsworth wrote this:


I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

The poet is sitting leaning back in a grove of trees.  Around him he hears all the “blended notes” — the mixed songs of spring birds.  It is pleasant, but it also brings him sad thoughts.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

The human soul or “spirit” if you will, is connected to Nature.  We are a part of Nature, though the artificiality of modern life has tended to obscure that.  But for Wordsworth, looking at all the natural life about him, it makes him wonder why humans have made such a mess of things — why our fellow humans are treated so poorly and heartlessly.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The periwinkle (a creeping ground plant with blue flowers) trails its viny shoots among the primrose plants in the green grove.  Looking at them, Wordsworth is moved to believe that every flower enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

He watches the birds hopping and fluttering around him, and though he does not know what goes on it their heads, it seems to him that every small hop and flutter and interaction among them reveals that they must be feeling thrills of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

Wordsworth cannot help feeling that even the budding twigs of bushes and trees spreading out to catch the air must sense in that some kind of pleasure.  So in all this, he sees Nature rejoicing in spring in it various ways.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

Wordsworth feels a divine inspiration in his belief that Nature is rejoicing.  He sees the pleasure inherent in natural things as “Nature’s holy plan” — the natural course Nature follows.  He finishes by saying that if such pleasure is experienced by the flowers, the birds, even in the budding twigs, what is wrong with humans that they treat one another so miserably, instead of following Nature’s plan?

The poem has some memorable lines:  And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes — and Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man? — but it is not perfect.  Wordsworth, in this poem written in April of 1798, overlooks the more unpleasant and violent side of nature that was to be made more boldly evident in the 1800s, with Charles Darwin’s writings on evolution, and the “survival of the fittest” notion that grew out of his discoveries.

So that is the flaw in this poem.  Wordsworth ignores the more violent side of Nature, choosing to see only the pleasant as a model from which humans have strayed in their cruelty to one another, and in that he is being very one-sided.  It leaves us with the feeling that the poem, though pleasant, is rather immature and incomplete.  Nonetheless, it does give a pleasant picture of the happiness spring brings, though Wordsworth may not have succeeded in the lesson he draws from it.

While writing this, I could not help seeing a similarity between Wordsworth’s cheerful picture of Nature and that of the Hobbits in J. R. R. Tolkien’s works.  To them, their Shire home was a peaceful and benevolent place, and they were quite insulated in their thinking from the wilder and far more dangerous world outside it — until circumstances forced that unpleasant reality on them.  We can easily see, however, how Wordsworth — who was very aware of human suffering and violence in his time — might turn to Nature for solace, finding in the rural English countryside a peace not found in the turbid politics and social issues of the last years of the 18th century.


The most difficult aspect of hokku to teach is also the most important — the “spirit” or “atmosphere” or “aesthetic” of hokku.

The form of hokku is very easy and can be quickly learned.  But without the right spirit, the results — even if in perfect hokku form — will not really be a hokku.

Why do so many have trouble in learning the spirit of haiku?  Part of it is cultural.  We live in a society based heavily around the ego and the satisfaction of its whims, and consequently a very material culture.  We also live in a society increasingly separated from the natural world — from Nature and the seasons.

Hokku aesthetics, by contrast, are based on a spirit of poverty and simplicity.  In  hokku, poverty does not mean having no money or resources at all.  It means a life not based on acquisition of objects nor the endless accumulation of material wealth.  To write hokku, you should learn to be “poor in spirit.”  To be “poor in spirit” means to learn the value of living simply and without the need for many possessions.    And because hokku is all about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it is important to re-establish our connection with the natural world and the seasons — the seasons that our double-paned windows and central heating and air conditioning carefully keep out.

The fundamental principle of hokku is transience — impermanence — the inescapable fact that everything around us and within us is constantly changing.  Nothing in the world or in the universe remains the same.  We cannot hold on to any experience or to any moment of time because time will not stand still.  And we and everything around us are not so much nouns as verbs, because all is in a state of perpetual change and transformation.

That is not just the condition of Nature;  it is also the human condition — birth, growth, old age, and death.

Hokku sees everything as a part of this cycle.  We see the changes of human life reflected in the day, from morning to noon to afternoon, evening, and night.  We see the same changes in the seasons, from spring to summer to autumn and winter.

Because we live in constant change, we also know the feeling this impermanence gives us.  It is not exactly sadness, though sometimes it can be that.  It is the feeling we get on realizing that no pleasure will last, that because of impermanence all happiness is temporary, and cannot be grasped and held.  It is the feeling we get when spring passes, the feeling we get when an old friend moves to a distant town, or perhaps suddenly dies.  Everything and everyone we “have” in life will eventually be gone — and ourselves along with them.

That leads us to the next step in hokku — the de-emphasis of the “self,” the lack of importance of the ego.  In hokku we do not generally write about ourselves, our wishes, or our desires.  Instead, hokku is a very “selfless” form of verse.  When we do mention ourselves, we do it in the same objective way we would write about a crow on a trembling branch, or snow falling into a stream.  This gives us a perspective that takes us out of the everyday ego.

In everything I have said here, we can see that hokku is just an expression of the nature of existence as it was and is expressed in Buddhism, out of which hokku grew.  Buddhism teaches the three marks of existence — in Pali, Dukkha, Anicca, and Anatta — loosely meaning unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and no permanent self.

The impermanence of all things means that existence will inevitably bring dissatisfaction.  We cannot hold on to anything that pleases us, and too often we are in contact with things or events that do not please us at all.  In addition, this “self” that is our constant obsession is just as impermanent as everything else.  It does not last.  We are not who we were as children, nor are we as we shall be in old age.  And whether one accepts the notion of rebirth or assumes consciousness ends in death, in either case the end of this life is the end of the person we think of as ourselves.  So the illusory “self” is just a process, an ongoing transformation like everything else in Nature.

When you begin to understand all of this — to see how inseparable one is from the rest of the ever-changing universe — one begins to get the spirit that is behind hokku.  Then one sees it is not just another form of poetry.  It is a kind of seeing into the nature of existence.  Hokku shows us the depth behind the most ordinary things and events.

Buson wrote:

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

That simple verse is like an explosion of the growing Yang energy of spring, because all of those seeds — each one containing a minute life force — will begin to sprout with the warmth and wetness of spring.  In that verse we see the nature of spring — its character of fresh beginning of activity, of growth, of vitality — of change.   Note that all of that is not explained in the verse, which gives us only the essentials to light the fuse of feeling.  A hokku is the raw material of experience, and when we read it, that experience “explodes” into being within us.





The Wheel of the Year has turned, and again it is Candlemas.  The Germans call it Lichtmess — “Lightmas.”  And in Nature, we see that the light has indeed increased.  We are halfway between the longest night — the Winter Solstice — and the Spring Equinox, when day and night will be of equal length.   It is a joy to see the lengthening days at Candlemas — the receding of the night, and the growing of the light.

It also brings the first signs of the annual awakening of Nature.  In some places it is blooming snowdrops, or crocuses.  Beside my dwelling there are little banks of blooming wild violets trembling on their stems.  That is why in the hokku calendar, Candlemas — also sometimes called Imbolc — is the beginning of spring.

It is good to celebrate these holidays of the solar year.  Some people like to light candles on Candlemas to honor the coming of spring, and have a little feast.  And some like to think of the old Greek myth of Persephone.

Here is a repeat of something I posted for Candlemas a couple of years ago:


To our ancestors, the forces of Nature and the urges within humans were personified as gods and goddesses both major and minor.  So changes in Nature and the changes in humans were represented as events relating to the deities.

In spring and summer, all of Nature grows and is fruitful, but in autumn things wither, and seem to vanish in the barrenness and cold of winter.

To the ancient Greeks, the abundance of the earth in the seasons of growth and harvest was represented in the joy of the goddess Demeter.  And when plants began to wither and leaves to fall, they saw this season of dying and death as the mourning of Demeter.

She was said to mourn for her daughter Persephone, who one day,while out picking flowers, was abducted by Hades, the god of the realm of death.

Demeter had no idea what had happened, and searched the earth for her missing daughter, and as she searched, the earth lost its fruitfulness and crops no longer grew.   The ruler of the gods, Zeus, knew this intolerable situation could not continue, so he commanded Hades to return Persephone to the upper world and to her mother.

Unfortunately, however, Persephone had eaten several pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld.  And as we all know from old myths and legends — including the stories of abduction by the Sidhe — the fairies — one should eat nothing while in the Other Realm.

So Persephone was brought back to Demeter, but because she had eaten food from the Land of the Dead, she had to spend part of each year there, and while she was gone the world withered and the fields became barren.

This of course signifies that Demeter is in a sense “Mother Nature,” and her daughter Persephone is the plant life that sprouts out of the earth — out of the “Underworld” each spring, and flourishes through summer and harvest, after which it once more returns to the earth.

All of this is a rather lengthy introduction to reminding you that the beginning of February marks the ancient beginning of spring.  It happens at February 1 – 2nd.  This corresponds with the holiday called Candlemas, celebrated on the 2nd of February.

Though Candlemas in Christian times came to be a commemoration of Mary’s purification in the Temple, it was in reality a Christian substitution intended to take over a pre-Christian rite, as celebrated in Rome.  The Roman Catholic Pope Innocent XII said:

Why do we carry candles in this feast? Because the Gentiles [meaning non-Christians here] dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods; and as at the beginning of it Pluto [Hades] stole Proserpine [Persephone], and her mother Ceres [Demeter] searched for her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of this month, walked about the city with lighted candles. Because the holy fathers could not wipe out this custom, they ordered that Christians should carry around candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and thus what was done before to the honor of Ceres  [Demeter] is now done to the honor of the Virgin.

So that was the old Candlemas — a pre-Christian festival centered on the myth explaining why vegetation dies in autumn and returns again in spring.  By searching for Proserpine/Persephone with candles or torches, one symbolically enacted the desire of humanity for spring to return to the earth.  And so Candlemas is the beginning of Spring in the Wheel of the Year.  The candles are now a reminder that the light and warmth of spring are slowly returning, though of course how soon it becomes obvious depends on where one lives.

Candlemas — a more ancient name is Imbolc —  marks the beginning of spring in the West, and in the East (where hokku originated), this time of Candlemas — give or take a few days depending on the lunar calendar — marks the New Year.

So as I always say, the old Western “natural” calendar and the Hokku Calendar are very close to one another, which makes it very convenient for those of us who like to maintain the old “nature” traditions such as the celebration of the Summer and Winter Solstices and the Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes (the “Quarter Days”) and the “Cross-Quarter Days” of the year such as Candlemas, May Day, Lammas and Halloween.



Issa wrote a spring “question” hokku about violets:


Who was it
That lived here before me?
The violets….

“The violets” is not an answer to his question, but rather the context.  He is wondering what kind of people were there before him and saw the violets of previous springs, as he sees them now.  But it is just a question that, as in all “question” hokku, expects no answer.  It is the feeling aroused by the question itself that is the point of the verse.

I happen to live in an area that used to be a forest, and children of a century ago picked wildflowers in those vanished woods.  Now it is houses, but between my dwelling and that of my neighbor, the wild violets still bloom in the spring, whether noticed or not, whether appreciated or unappreciated.  I could not help thinking of those vanished children of generations ago seeing the violets here, and now I — under greatly changed circumstances — still see them blooming.




Yes, today is Candlemas — Imbolc — the beginning of spring in the old calendar.  It hardly seems like it, waking to a freezing wind and the likelihood of snow, but nonetheless the Wheel of the Year has turned, and warmer weather is not far off.

The traditional flower of Candlemas is the white and green snowdrop, but the winter has been so unusually cold here that there is not a snowdrop blossom in sight.

There is much to be appalled by in the world as spring begins.  One has only to turn to the news.  But this morning came the particularly disturbing report that protestors at the University of California at Berkeley managed, through violent action, to prevent a presentation by a right-wing speaker with whom they disagreed.

According to the news, the protests began peacefully with people carrying signs reading “Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech.”  Well, they are wrong.  Aside from the issue of whether the intended speaker at the University was promulgating “hate speech” or not, there is still the fact that whether a speech contains supposed “hate” or not makes no difference.  Free speech is free speech, and when one limits what can be said, it is no longer free.  But violence is not free speech.  Violence is intimidation and the death of free speech.

Free speech follows the dictum of Evelyn Beatrice Hall (wrongfully attributed to Voltaire), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  Refusing people the right to say that of which we do not approve also denies free speech, no matter how hateful we may find their words to be.

I particularly dislike the modern term “hate speech.”  It can be used to stigmatize and silence the views of most anyone who disagrees with one’s own opinions.  There is, of course, real hate in speech that has as its intent the physical or mental harm of a person or a group of people, and there are justifiably laws to prevent the incitement of such violence.  But to merely express one’s views about a political system or a religious system, or any kind of system or body of people, even if those views are strongly negative and found quite offensive by some, is not necessarily “hate speech,”  and the term is all too frequently loosely and inaccurately used.  Accusing someone of “hate speech” can be a very effective form of intimidation and an attempt to deny someone the right of free speech.  The best antidote to genuine “hate speech” is not denial of the right of the speaker to express opinions, but rather obvious and public non-violent disapproval based on factual evidence countering the position of the one doing the supposed “hating.”  In my view, using the term “hate speech” has become a convenient and irrational way of stereotyping views with which we do not agree, without offering a rational challenge.  We may detest those views, but in countering them, one should use reason and facts, not simply a dismissive catchphrase.

We must always remember that with free speech, one does not have the right not to be offended.  But one does have the right to speak in active opposition to views one finds through reason and evidence to be wrong or harmful — and in many cases, not only the right, but also the responsibility.

We unfortunately find ourselves living in interesting times.



Ransetsu wrote a spring hokku about the flowering shrub called yamabuki —山吹  — which is generally translated into English as “mountain rose.”  That is, however, rather confusing for Westerners, who generally think it looks little like the roses they know.

Technically, however, the yamabuki is in the rose family; its botanical name is Kerria japonica.  The single form is rarely seen in Western gardens, though the double-flowered form is rather common.

The kerria has flowers of very bright yellow, which no doubt is what inspired Ransetsu in composing this verse:


The kerria
Has turned it yellow —
The spring.

That is quite clear in Japanese, which does not have the same word for the season and for water bubbling out of the ground, as we do in English.  The original verse, in fact, uses the Chinese character , which in Japanese is pronounced izumi, and means a spring of water.

Blyth attempted to deal with the problem by translating it quite loosely:

Catching the reflection
Of the yamabuki,
The spring is yellow.

Though it gives the spirit of the verse, it does not really solve the problem if the verse is given without explanation.

The original is simply:

Yamabuki no utsurite ki naru izumi kana

Yamabuki is of course the Japanese name of the shrub.
No is a particle with somewhat the effect of the possessive  “‘s.”
Utsurite ki naru means essentially “changed-yellow-has.”
Izumi as already mentioned, means “spring” in the sense of a spring of water.
Kana is a word said to give a slight emphasis to what is said, but actually it was often just used to pad out the required number of phonetic units in a hokku, so it is generally just indicated by a period in English.

So we could say that translated literally and woodenly, the original reads:

Yamabuki’s changed-yellow-has spring kana

My own translation for clarity would be:

It has turned
The spring water yellow —
The kerria.

R. H. Blyth’s purpose in writing was not to teach Westerners how to write hokku or to translate in a completely literal fashion, but rather to convey the overall meaning of a verse.  And in this, he was quite correct to make sure his readers understood that Ransetsu was seeing the bright yellow reflected in the water, though the word is nowhere in the original.  But if you have been reading my postings on hokku for some time, you should be at the point where, like Ransetsu’s Japanese readers, you can intuit what he meant, without the need for explaining it as Blyth has done.

Now quite by chance, I happened to take some photos of a blooming yamabuki within the last couple of days, so here is what it looks like:


Here is a closer view:







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 hokku 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.


Here is a variation on a hokku by Buson:

The heavy doors
Of a temple gate close;
The spring evening.

What is behind appreciation of this verse?

First, it is set in the season of spring, which is a time of new beginnings, freshness, and growth. But in contrast to this, we see the heavy, old wooden doors of a temple creaking shut. The weight of the doors is in contrast to the physical lightness of spring. The age of the doors, which being temple doors means they are quite old, is also in contrast with the newness of spring. Further, the time of the hokku is evening, when light (Yang) gradually gives way to darkness (Yin).

Now we know that spring, in the cycle of Yin and Yang, is increasing Yang. Evening, on the other hand, is increasing Yin. The weight of the doors is a downward, passive pressure, another Yin impression.

Obviously this verse uses harmony of contrast, a common hokku technique. The point of the verse is the combination of spring, the time of beginnings, with the closing of the great doors and the coming of evening, both “ending” events. So in this one brief verse we have Yin contrasted with Yang, beginnings contrasted with endings, and that is what gives the verse its effect.

In it we feel that even in the freshness of spring, there is already the sense of impermanence and things aging and ending.

That is how to understand hokku. A hokku, you will recall, expresses a season through an event happening in that season. And in this hokku we feel the sense of transience that is so essential a part of both life and of hokku.

Here is another variation on the same verse:

The heavy doors
Of the temple gate close;
Spring is ending.

In spite of the setting still being spring, the effect now is predominantly a harmony of similarity: the closing of the great doors (at the end of the day), and the ending of spring. Now the weight of the great doors reflects our feelings of reluctance, our sense of time’s inexorable passing, at the departing of spring.

All of that in three short lines, eleven words, fourteen syllables.

We could rephrase the second variation, like this:

Spring ending;
The heavy doors
Of the temple gate close.

That way it flows a bit more smoothly.



If you read the earlier posting on Alfred Edward Housman’s poem Loveliest of Trees, you will notice a similarity of spirit with today’s poem, which is the 29th in his collection A Shropshire Lad. Also a “spring” poem, it is called The Lent Lily, or from the first line, “‘Tis spring; come out to ramble.”

“Lent Lily” is another name for the wild daffodil that grows in the British Isles and is, along with the leek, a plant symbol of Wales. It is the daffodil that Wordsworth wrote of in his “I wandered lonely as a cloud” poem. Its alternate name “Lent/Lenten Lily” comes from the belief, often fact, that the daffodil would go through its blooming between Ash Wednesday and Easter, by which time the flowers would have faded.

The Lent Lily

’Tis spring; come out to ramble
The hilly brakes around,
For under thorn and bramble
About the hollow ground
The primroses are found.


The speaker gives an invitation: spring is here, so come out and ramble through the hilly brakes. A brake, as used here, means bushes and thickets. He tells us that the reason for rambling the brakes is that in them, under the thorns and brambles (both prickly plants) about the “hollow ground,” one can find wild primroses growing.  “Hollow ground” is an old term for a narrow dale or valley, though it can also mean a cemetery — “hallowed/hollow ground.”

And there’s the windflower chilly
With all the winds at play,
And there’s the Lenten lily
That has not long to stay
And dies on Easter day.


In addition to wild primroses, one can also find the simple, pale-white windflower (Anemone nemorosa) on its delicate stalk that nods to and fro as the still chilly winds of spring blow; and there is the Lenten Lily — the daffodil — that traditionally fades and dies by Easter Sunday

And since till girls go maying
You find the primrose still,
And find the windflower playing
With every wind at will,
But not the daffodil,

In the countryside the girls used to “go maying,” to gather together to celebrate the arrival of May with garlands and with dancing and celebration. So the speaker tells us that up until as late as May, one may still find the primroses blooming, and still find the windflowers dancing in the wind — but one will no longer find the daffodils in bloom. Therefore, he advises,

Bring baskets now, and sally
Upon the spring’s array,
And bear from hill and valley
The daffodil away
That dies on Easter day.

“To sally” means to leap suddenly forth, to bound forth or dance,” but here the speaker means simply to go energetically out into Nature, to advance upon the wildflowers with which spring is arrayed (clothed, ornamented), and to pick the daffodils blooming in the hills and valleys before they are faded and gone.

This is a less strong version of the lines from Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees”:

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

It is the same sense of transience and the consequent underlying sadness of things that we find in Japanese hokku about cherry blossoms, which also call to mind the brevity of life and how quickly beauty passes.

Note the irony in the repetition that the daffodil “dies on Easter day.” Easter, of course, is the traditional Christian day of resurrection, of supposed new life; but for Housman, who was an agnostic, it is not that at all, but rather a day on which another beautiful thing dies.



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



Today’s poem from Alfred Edward Housman’s A Shropshire Lad is a dialogue between a young man and, it turns out, a rather clever girl:



Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers
Are lying in field and lane,
With dandelions to tell the hours
That never are told again.
Oh may I squire you round the meads
And pick you posies gay?
—’Twill do no harm to take my arm.
’You may, young man, you may.’

“Goldcup” is here a common name for wild buttercups, a kind of ranunculus — simple country flowers. The speaker points out how thickly the buttercups are blooming (it is spring) in the fields and along the country lanes. And along with the buttercups, there are plenty of yellow dandelions to “tell the hours” that once past, will never return. By “tell the hours,” he means count the hours, and that refers to a folk practice: one “tells time” by seeing how many puffs of breath it takes to blow away the fluffy seeds on a dandelion head. The seeds stick to the head more firmly as the hours progress to noon, and after noon they begin to grow looser again. That is the principle behind it, which is well explained at this site:


Ah, spring was sent for lass and lad,
’Tis now the blood runs gold,
And man and maid had best be glad
Before the world is old.
What flowers to-day may flower to-morrow,
But never as good as new.
—Suppose I wound my arm right round—
‘’Tis true, young man, ’tis true.’

It is a very old tradition that spring is the time for “lass and lad,” a time for young romance (and reproduction); and it is in youth, the springtime of life, that “the blood runs gold” — it is a golden precious time. So the smooth-tongued young man with seduction on his mind says that it is time to be happy “before the world is old,” meaning both before spring passes and before one grows old. He adds that what blooms today (now) may bloom tomorrow (in the future) as well, but it will never again be just as wonderful as it is right now. He is trying to convince the young woman to seize the moment, and he makes his move by saying “Suppose I wound my arm around your waist….”

The young woman agrees that there is truth in what he says.

Now, having made his first move, the young man pleads sincerity, trying to convince her that he is not like the other lads:

Some lads there are, ’tis shame to say,
That only court to thieve,
And once they bear the bloom away
’Tis little enough they leave.
Then keep your heart for men like me
And safe from trustless chaps.
My love is true and all for you.
‘Perhaps, young man, perhaps.’

“Court” is a term seldom heard these days, but it means the effort to grow a romance by “going out” with another. Here the young man says that unfortunately, there are other young men who “only court to thieve,” that is, they only want to have sex with the girl, stealing her chastity, and once they have accomplished that and go (“bear the bloom away”), they leave the girl with a ruined reputation, which in those days was quite serious. So our young man tells the young woman, “keep your heart for men like me,” because I am not like those untrustworthy (“trustless”) fellows; I really love you, and only you.”

The young woman is unconvinced; she merely says “Perhaps.” Maybe what you say is true, maybe it is not.

Oh, look in my eyes then, can you doubt?
—Why, ’tis a mile from town.
How green the grass is all about!
We might as well sit down.
—Ah, life, what is it but a flower?
Why must true lovers sigh?
Be kind, have pity, my own, my pretty,—
‘Good-bye, young man, good-bye.’

Our young man senses she is not buying his line; so he pleads his case more enthusiastically. He tells her to look in his eyes and see the honesty there. How can she doubt those eyes? And sensing that he had better move fast, he remarks that they are a mile from town — “Well, how far we have come! The grass is so green here away from prying eyes; why don’t we sit down here in the fields? Life, after all, is just a flower that blooms and quickly withers, so why don’t we make the most of it? Why do you make me, a true lover, sigh in longing for you? Won’t you have pity on me and be kind?”

At this point the clever girl sees quite well where he is trying to lead her, and into what trouble he may get her. So rather than trying to argue the matter, she shows her spirit and her wisdom by telling him bluntly, “Good-bye, young man, good-bye,” and there she leaves him. Smart girl!

Housman said that one of the influences on his poetry was William Shakespeare, and we can see that easily in today’s poem, which we may liken (aside from the ironic turn) to Shakespeare’s poem It Was a Lover And His Lass. Note particularly the lines:

This carol they began that hour…How that life was but a flower….”

It was a Lover and his Lass

It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o’er the green corn-field did pass,
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

Between the acres of the rye,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
These pretty country folks would lie,
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

This carol they began that hour,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
How that life was but a flower
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

And, therefore, take the present time
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
For love is crown`d with the prime
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.


– – – –

Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers
Are lying in field and lane,
With dandelions to tell the hours
That never are told again.
Oh may I squire you round the meads
And pick you posies gay?
—’Twill do no harm to take my arm.
’You may, young man, you may.’

Ah, spring was sent for lass and lad,
’Tis now the blood runs gold,
And man and maid had best be glad
Before the world is old.
What flowers to-day may flower to-morrow,
But never as good as new.
—Suppose I wound my arm right round—
‘’Tis true, young man, ’tis true.’

Some lads there are, ’tis shame to say,
That only court to thieve,
And once they bear the bloom away
’Tis little enough they leave.
Then keep your heart for men like me
And safe from trustless chaps.
My love is true and all for you.
‘Perhaps, young man, perhaps.’

Oh, look in my eyes then, can you doubt?
—Why, ’tis a mile from town.
How green the grass is all about!
We might as well sit down.
—Ah, life, what is it but a flower?
Why must true lovers sigh?
Be kind, have pity, my own, my pretty,—
‘Good-bye, young man, good-bye.’


Tomorrow is Candlemas — Imbolc — the old beginning of spring. Yesterday was the lunar New Year, celebrated in Asia, which is also the traditional beginning of spring. So we can see, as I have said before, that if one follows the old European seasonal calendar, with its quarter and cross-quarter days, one is, with only slight variation, following the same calendar as the old hokku writers of Japan.

Here is a hokku for the beginning of spring, written by Gyôdai:

A crow cawing
In the cloudy hills.

The Wheel of the Year has turned, and whether or not there are signs of spring where you are, the Yin forces of Nature have begun to diminish, and the Yang forces are growing. Where I live, snowdrops have already sprouted their short green leaves above the earth and have put forth their drooping, snow-white blossoms. The days are growing longer, the nights ever shorter.

In today’s hokku, we see the increase of Yang and decrease of Yin in the melting of the snow. And by a happy chance, in the repetition of the same initial consonant in “crow,” “cawing,” and “cloudy” we also hear the cawing of the crow.



As most of you know, Bashō wrote this spring hokku, which R. H. Blyth translated as:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in, —
The sound of the water.

Buson wrote a summer hokku, which Blyth rendered thus:

In the old well,
A fish leaps up at a gnat:
The sound of the water is dark.

What is not obvious from these translations is that both Bashō and Buson used a similar beginning in the original:

Furu ike ya = The old pond;

Furu ido ya = The old well;

Also, both used a verb meaning “leap/jump” — tobu — though Bashō used it in the form tobi.

In addition, both used the sound of something:

Mizu no oto = the sound of water (literally “water’s sound”)
Uo no oto – the sound of a fish (literally “fish’s sound”)

We can better see these similarities in English if we translate more literally than Blyth.  Here is Bashō:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in — 
The sound of water.

And here is Buson:

The old well;
The sound of a fish leaping at a gnat
Is dark.

It is not hard to see that the middle line of Buson is awkwardly long in English.  But interestingly, if we take away his added “dark,” we are left with a hokku remarkably like that of Bashō, even though we are forced to move the “leap/jump” to the last line to avoid  syntactical problems in English:

The old well;
The sound of a fish
Leaping at a gnat.

That in itself, without Buson’s added comment that the sound is “dark,” works quite well as a hokku.  And it also shows beginning students how interesting variations on the same form are easily possible, and can have quite a different effect depending on the elements one uses.

Buson’s hokku was possible in Japanese, because “hokku” Japanese (not the same as modern Japanese) was very telegraphic, and much could be crammed into seventeen phonetic units:

Furu ido ya  ka ni tobu   uo no oto kurashi
Old pond ;    gnat at leap fish ‘s sound dark

Bashō’s hokku was:

Furu ike ya   kawazu tobi-komu   mizu no oto
Old pond ;   frog       jump-in         water ‘s sound

If Buson had followed Bashō’s form more strictly, he would have had:

Furu ido ya   ka ni tobu   uo no oto
Old well ;    gnat at leap  fish’s sound

That makes only fourteen phonetic units in Japanese, whereas the standard for old Japanese hokku was seventeen; so Buson filled up the missing units by adding the word kurashi — “dark” — which really is superfluous.  A reader educated in hokku will intuit the darkness of the well (and consequently of the sound) without the addition.

What this demonstrates is one reason why, in modern hokku, we do not have a rigidly fixed number of syllables that must be included in a verse.  We just keep the verse brief and simple, and that matter takes care of itself.

If anyone wonders what happened to the word ya in the last two literal English translations, it is represented by the semicolon, which gives us the same effect of a meaningful pause, and thus serves the same function of separating the longer and shorter parts of these hokku.

If I were to render Buson’s full verse into English, it would be like this:

An old well;
The dark sound of a fish
Leaping at a gnat.

The Japanese word translated “gnat” here — ka — is actually the word for “mosquito.”  But not only would those three syllables really complicate keeping a translation of this verse short, but also, in common usage, “gnat” and “mosquito” in England and America are virtual synonyms.  That is why both Blyth and I have chosen to use “gnat” here.

Of course no one needs to know old Japanese in order to write hokku in English.  One only needs to know the principles and techniques of hokku.  I just include the Japanese here to show how structure and language affect composition.

I should also add that using the preposition “in” as Blyth did in his Buson translation beginning “In the old well” is not really necessary in modern English language hokku.  Because of the principle of unity in hokku, an educated reader will automatically know that the fish leaping at a gnat is IN the old well.  That enables us to use the original beginning quite literally, with “The old well” or “An old well” as both the first line and the setting of the verse.



Issa wrote a hokku for the end of spring:

Sough, sough —
Spring departs;
The grass of the fields.

If you do not like the respectable old word sough for the rustling, sighing sound of the wind through the grasses, you might prefer something else that is onomatopoeic:

Sssss, sssss —
Spring departs;
The grass in the fields.

But actually, for me the first one is problematic because few people know the meaning or pronunciation of “sough” these days.  And the “Sssss” of the second one might be just meaningless and confusing to readers untrained in hokku, who are not likely to intuit that it is the sound of the (unmentioned) wind in the grasses.

So I will go with a translation more obvious and easily grasped, yet very effective:

Departing spring;
The wind bends the grasses
Of the fields

Issa watches the high grasses in the fields, bending and sighing in waves as a gentle wind rustles across them, and he realizes that spring is ending.

Edward FitzGerald, in his reinterpretation of Omar Khayyam, saw the end of spring and expressed openly what is only latent in Issa:

Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!

It is a lamentation of the passing of spring, and with it, of the passing of youth, the springtime of our lives.  The days of our youth are a tale in a book with fragrantly-scented pages, but that brief story ends, that book closes, never to be opened again.  That, of course, is metaphor.


To emphasize that finality, he gives another metaphor for the passing of something sweet, for the passing of springtime and youth:  the nightingale that sang so beautifully, yet briefly, in the branches — where did it come from?  And where has it gone? Why does he lament that spring vanishes with the rose? Because until relatively recent times, the roses of the Middle East and of Europe bloomed in the spring, and then were gone. When they went, so did spring. Our modern “ever-blooming” roses are the result of the introduction of previously unknown kinds and of hybridization into Europe and America.

We see some of the techniques of hokku in this, though used in a far more obvious way.  We see the reflection of spring in the time of youth, and we find a very strong sense of transience, of the brevity of life as it passes. But hokku would never present these things in so obvious a manner.  Instead, hokku just shows us something happening in Nature, and in that happening, as in Issa’s hokku, we feel everything expressed about that time of year, that time of life.

And of course with spring having passed, this means we are now in the season of summer hokku.



There is a famous spring hokku by Bashō:

Cherry blossoms (sakura), often simply called ...
Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A cloud of blossoms —
Is the bell Ueno?

Through a cloud of blooming cherry trees, the writer hears the sound of a distant, unseen temple bell.  He wonders if it is coming from a temple in Ueno district?  Or perhaps that in Asakusa?
The point of the hokku lies in the “concealing” mass of fresh spring blossoms combined with the unanswered question.

In contrast to that rather “high-class” hokku, there is an anonymous “low-class” senryu.  You will recall that senryu is satirical verse, the “evil twin” of hokku, and no respecter of persons.  So you will not surprised to find that the same expression used elegantly by Bashō — “a cloud of blossoms” (hana no kumo) — is used for a different “concealing”  purpose here:

To hide
The public restroom —
A cloud of blossoms.

There is also another interesting senryu about cherry blossoms, which I translate loosely here:

The clever wife —
She makes him take the child
To view the blossoms.

The point is that the wife does not trust her husband out by himself, so when he casually remarks that he is going to view the cherry blossoms, she uses her wits and makes him take the kid along, to keep the untrustworthy husband out of “not respectable” establishments.

You may recall that in old hokku, the word “blossoms,” when used without a qualifier, was understood to mean cherry blossoms.




R. H. Blyth once translated a verse by Meisetsu, a late writer (1847-1926) influenced by Shiki, (the fellow who began calling verses that were generally really hokku in form “haiku”):

Ryūboku ya  taburi-taburi to   haru no kawa

Translating it is a bit tricky, partly because the first word, ryūboku, means here “a piece of drifting wood”; then comes a description of the manner of its floating, and finally we have the wider setting, haru no kawa, “spring’s river” — the spring river.  Given all that we need to include, one can hardly do better than Blyth’s rendering:

A piece of wood,
Bobbity, bobbity, floating down
The spring river.

I would alter it slightly, keeping the slight intuitive leap required by the original, and more of its brevity:

A piece of wood
Floating bobbity, bobbity;
The spring river.

I have kept Blyth’s very fitting “bobbity, bobbity.”

What is striking about Blyth and this verse is that he intuitively understood the principle of Yang and Yin in hokku, though he never mentions it.  He says merely that what Meisetsu saw “is the piece of wood in its relation to spring, its restless tranquillity.”  Blyth adds that “In any other season it would have no meaning.”

That is precisely in keeping with hokku as I teach it.  The strength of this verse lies in the bobbing, active motion of the piece of wood on the ripples and dips of the spring river, a motion expressing Yang energy as it manifests in the liveliness of spring, which is the season of growing Yang.  That is precisely why the “restless tranquility” of the bobbing piece of wood would, as Blyth correctly stated, have no meaning in any other season.

By “no meaning” in any other season, Blyth meant that the bobbing energy of the floating peace of wood on the river is in harmony with the active energy of spring.  In summer, when the Yang energy is much steadier and stronger, it would not have the same meaning, in fact it would lose its harmony with the setting, and the same could be said for the declining Yang of autumn and the strong Yin of winter.

This is a very subtle point, and that Blyth grasped it without ever openly discussing the principle behind it shows his remarkably intuitive understanding of the aesthetics of hokku.

Those who are regular readers here will recall past discussions of the principle of harmony in hokku, as well as of the principle of Yin and Yang.  You may also have noted that this verse is a “standard,” hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action.

A piece of wood
Floating bobbity, bobbity;
The spring river.

The setting is the wider environment in which something takes place.  Here it is “the spring river.”

The subject within that setting is what the poem is “about.”  Here it is
“a piece of wood.”

The action is movement or change.  Here it is “floating bobbity, bobbity.”




 There are some hokku that do not seem quite right but nonetheless have value for what they are.

There is, for example, this spring verse by Buson:

Osoki hi no   tsumorite tōki   mukashi kana
Long day ‘s accumulating far   past         kana

The long days
The distant past.

The point of the verse is this:

In spring one notices the lengthening of days, which seem all the longer now that the short days of winter are past.  As these spring days follow one another, each longer than the preceding, one begins to feel the length of the passing of time.  It makes the past, the “old days,” seem ever more distant.

The primary feeling of this hokku is a recognition of the relentless passage of time, which continually carries us away from the past and onward into the unknown future.  Did you notice that the second line — just one word in English — is visually shorter than the three words of the first line?  Yet if we say it in our minds it sounds very long, and adds to the sense of time passing slowly.

Blyth, rightly, I think, thought the poem in its literal form a bit too much for Westerners unfamiliar with hokku to grasp, so he elaborated it in his version, to bring out the sense of time slowly passing, yet the past constantly receding from us:

Slow days passing, accumulating, —
How distant they are,
The things of the past!

His use of “passing, accumulating” emphasizes the feeling of the slowness of the day that one gets with the lengthening of days in spring, and it increases the sense of time accumulating like dust in an attic, burying the past ever deeper.  He also lengthens in words the mention of the past (“How distant they are, / The things of the past!), where Buson has merely “The distant past.”  That lengthening also gives us the feeling inherent in the verse that the past — even the recent past — is gradually moving farther and farther away.

This is not hokku at its best, and if it were not for the sense of the length of the spring days, this hokku would be too “thoughty” for a verse form that excels in sensation and tends to avoid too much “thinking.”

Shiki, paradoxically, has a more concrete, if obvious, verse:

Flagler Beach
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sunahama ni   ashiato nagaki   haruhi kana
Sandy-beach on  footsteps long   spring-day kana

On the sandy beach,
A long line of footsteps;
The spring day.

The length of the spring day is reflected in the length of the line of footsteps that parallel the surf and extend beyond the range of sight.  I have chosen to use “long” to modify the footsteps, which is a more subtle way of expressing the length of the spring day for those familiar with hokku.

Blyth, however, chose to use “long” to modify the spring day in his version, making the point of the verse more obvious to Westerners, but less subtle:

On the sandy beach,
Long is the spring day.

In both, however, the emphasis is on the feeling of the feeling of the slowness of time one gets as the days of spring lengthen.

If you wonder why Blyth sometimes tends to make his hokku translations more detailed than they are in the originals, it is because his purpose in writing was to introduce Westerners not only to hokku (which, unfortunately, he called “haiku” in his day), but also to the very different (from Western verse) aesthetic sense behind hokku.

Sadly, Westerners usually just read the verses in Blyth’s books and seem to have ignored or glossed over his important explanations of the aesthetics behind them.   That failure contributed to the confusion that arose in the so-called “haiku movement,” which began in the West in the 1960s — a confusion and disarray that continues to this day, because the Western haiku movement never learned the aesthetic principles necessary for continuing the practice of hokku in the modern world.  That is why “haiku” today is generally something quite unlike hokku, even though often superficially similar in outward appearance.




A noteworthy difference between hokku as it was practiced in old Japan and hokku as it is practiced today in English is the method of dealing with season.

The seasons are essential to hokku, one of its defining characteristics.  Every hokku is set in a particular season, whether it is an old Japanese hokku or a new English-language hokku.

The difference in method between old and new is this:

In old Japanese hokku, season was indicated by a “season word” that automatically indicated a particular seasonal setting.  Unfortunately, this system, over time, became very artificial and cumbersome, requiring elaborately long lists of words and the seasons they indicate, as well as years of study on the part of writers and educated readers, in order to use and understand those words correctly.

In modern English-language hokku, we keep the all-important connection of a hokku with a particular season, but we no longer use long lists of often artificial-seeming season words.  Instead, each hokku is marked with the season in which it is written.  Then when it is shared with others or published, that seasonal categorization goes along with it.

What that means, in practical use, is that instead of the whole book of season words and their meanings required for old hokku, the writer and reader of modern hokku now only has to know the standard four seasons:  spring, summer, autumn/fall, and winter.  It takes away the artificiality and the cumbersomeness and the years of study necessary for writing and reading old hokku, and makes it all very free and practical, yet it is still completely in keeping with the spirit of old hokku that requires it be connected to a season.

Perhaps you have noticed that generally, when I discuss old hokku here, I mention the seasons to which they belong.  And perhaps you have noticed that I usually discuss spring hokku in the springtime, summer hokku in summer, autumn hokku in autumn, and winter hokku in winter.  That too is a part of the old hokku tradition.  So hokku are to be both written and read in their appropriate seasons.  The only common exception is when out-of-season hokku are used for educational purposes.  The rest of the time we read and write a hokku within its correct season.  The aesthetic principle behind that practice is that it keeps us in harmony with what is happening in Nature.  It also prevents the awkwardness and inappropriateness an aesthetically-educated hokku enthusiast senses on reading an out-of-season verse, the same kind of awkwardness one feels when one sees Christmas lights up in July, or Halloween decorations in the spring.

Our modern practice also, I may add, is often an aid in translating old hokku without awkwardness.  For example, here is a spring hokku by Shōha:

Asa kochi ni   tako uru mise wo  hiraki keri
Morning east-wind at/ kite sell shop wo /open has

If we try to put that in English, we find a problem.  A ko-chi is literally an “east wind.”  But kochi — “east wind” — is also a season word indicating spring.  So under the “old” system we would have to include all of the following as the setting of the hokku in translation:

A morning spring wind

R. H. Blyth, in his translation of Shōha, includes all of that in this order:

A spring breeze this morning:

That makes the first line of the hokku awkwardly long, even though Blyth accurately conveyed the overall meaning (avoiding the literalness of “east wind,” which Western readers would not recognize as a spring season word).

Flying Kites at Cesar Chavez Park.
(Photo credit: adhocbot)

In modern English-language hokku, however, our categorization of each hokku avoids that problem, because Shōha’s verse would appear under its seasonal heading, like this:


The morning breeze;
A shop selling kites
Has opened.

The seasonal indication, which must be included within the old hokku, is instead present as the seasonal categorization preceding the hokku in the new system.

A sequence of several spring hokku by the same or various authors would have the seasonal categorization at the beginning of the sequence, so that readers would know automatically that all the hokku in the sequence are set in spring.

As for the significance of Shōha’s “Morning breeze” hokku, it indicates a unity between Nature and human activity.  It is somewhat the opposite of the “If you build it, they will come” used in the movie Field of Dreams.  In this case, it is, “If the spring wind blows, a kite shop will open.”  It is like “When the weather warms in spring, flowers will bloom.”  The combination of the breeze and the shop opening gives us a feeling of the activity of spring — of the Yang (active) aspect of Nature increasing, as yin (passive) decreases.



One of the most difficult things for the beginning student of hokku to grasp is the difference in what we might call “levels” of hokku.  It is common for someone unfamiliar with the principles of hokku to read hundreds of old verses from the time of Bashō and Onitsura in the 17th century up to the time of Shiki and his “haiku” revolt near the turn of the last century, without ever having noticed the differences in “level.”

What do I mean by “level” in hokku?  Put very simply, some verses, however pleasant they may be, are little more than illustrations, “pictures” in words.  In others, however, one has the feeling that there is more going on in the verse than is stated in words.  There is a feeling of hidden “depth.”

Hokku with “depth” were appreciated through most of the history of hokku.  But near the end of the 19th century, with the “reforms” of Shiki, verses became more and more like “pictures,” without depth.  Everything was on the surface, so we speak of such verses as “superficial,” even though they may still be pleasing.

Shiki was a great admirer of the earlier writer Buson, who was a painter as well as a composer of hokku.  But even Buson came up with verses with “depth,” while those of Shiki himself tend to be superficial, to be little more than pleasant illustrations.  I often compare hokku of this kind to those attractive Japanese woodblock prints one finds by Hasui and Yoshida.  It does not mean they are bad, it just means that they lack depth.

Here, for example, is a “spring” verse by Shiki:

Spring rain;
Holding an umbrella,
Looking at picture books in a shop.

You have to picture a man standing just inside one of those old-fashioned, Japanese open-fronted book shops, looking at the books laid out flat on tables as he holds the kind of paper-and-bamboo umbrella that used to be typical of that time and place.  This verse is a “picture,” with not much more in it than that.

If we look at another spring verse of approximately the same late period, we find that even though it is written by someone else, in this case Otsuji, we still get a kind of illustration:

Torrey Pines State Reserve
(Photo credit: slworking2)

Spring rain;
Seen between the trees —
A path to the sea.

It is pleasant and quiet and undemanding, and though we may think at first that it too is only an illustration, notice that we at least feel behind it the vastness and power of the (hidden) sea.  So while it is still largely a “picture,” it is less superficial than the verse by Shiki.

Now we can turn to the person Shiki so admired — Buson — who lived in the 18th instead of the 19th-20th century:

Bags of seeds
Becoming soaked;
The spring rain.

To the novice, that might seem to be little different from the other two verses, but really it is worlds apart.  Like them, it is an event in spring, but in this case we sense the power inherent in the bags of seeds, and we know that the spring rain is going to affect them if they are left in it for long; they are going to begin to swell and sprout with abundant new life.  So even without it being said, we feel a kind of hidden power in this verse, something “big” going on that is not even mentioned in the words of the verse.  That unspoken part of a hokku, which is really all the better for being left unspoken, is what gives depth.  In Buson’s verse we really feel the nature and character of spring, which we do not in the other two.

Of course not all hokku are quite that obvious.  In general we can say, however, that older hokku tend to have more depth than verses written after Shiki’s propaganda urged writers to make “sketches from life.”  And of course Shiki liked to call those “new” verses by a different name — “haiku,” even though they were still essentially hokku in form and often in content.

It is useful, then for the student of hokku to look through lots of old hokku, comparing them to see which have a sense of depth, and which are just “pictures” in words, with little beyond that.  The key to determining depth is to look for something unspoken in the hokku, for something beyond what is actually written.  If it is not there, the hokku — like the first example by Shiki, is superficial, no matter how pleasant it may be otherwise.




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.




Morning light;
Melting frost
Drips from the trees.


Lumine matinal;
Gelo disgelante
Ab le arbores gutta.

How quickly time passes!  Already more than half of January is gone, and in less than two weeks we shall be at Candlemas — Imbolc — again.  In the Old Calendar that is the traditional beginning of spring, in spite of cold, of frost or snow.

This morning everything was white with frost — bare trees, grass, roads.  And then came the light of morning, revealing the transience that lies behind everything in our lives.





As long-time readers here know, hokku is seasonal verse.  Every verse is an event set in the context of a particular season.

Photograph of a Green Frog en ( Rana clamitans...

In old hokku (which was Japanese), this became too systematized, so that if one wrote about frogs, it was automatically assumed that such a verse was a “spring” verse.  But in modern hokku, a frog verse can be for any season in which a frog appears.  For us in the temperate zone, that would be in spring, summer, or early autumn.

Ordinarily we do not write or read hokku that are out of season, but an exception is made for general instruction, and that is why today, on a very chilly and wet day in autumn, I am going to briefly discuss a couple of “frog” hokku.

The kind of language used in writing Japanese hokku was telegraphic, which means a translation of such a verse is often likely to come out longer in English.  Here is an example by Wakyu:

Hitotsu tobu   oto ni mina tobu   kawazu kana

That literally reads, “One jumps sound at, all jump; frogs….

Put into ordinary English, we would say,

At the sound of one jumping, they all jump; frogs.

But of course in English that is not as clear as we would like it, because English tends to be more definite than Japanese.  We would want it to say,

At the sound of one frog jumping in, they all jump in; frogs.” That way it is clear that they are not jumping on land, but jumping into water.

R. H. Blyth translated the verse very much like that, only he took the very last word — “frogs” — and moved it into the main body of the verse, like this:

At the sound of one jumping in,
All the frogs
Jumped in.

That comes out top-heavy and a bit awkward visually, though it makes sense and is clear. That kind of out-of balance verse often results from trying to translate everything in an original into English.  But we could achieve essentially the same thing and gain the brevity so helpful in hokku by leaving out the word oto — “sound,” like this:

The frogs;
When one jumps in,
They all jump. 

That is better balanced, and it is very close to the sense of the original without being overly long.

We could do the same for another “frog” hokku (by Ryōto) that Blyth places right after that one in his anthology.  In the original, it is:

Hashi wateru hito ni shizumaru kawazu kana

Bridge cross person at quieten frogs kana

Blyth again makes it too top-heavy in his translation.  That is acceptable when one is trying to  convey the meaning of the original, which was what Blyth was doing and doing well, but it is not good in writing hokku in Engish.  Blyth has:

Someone passed over the bridge,
And all the frogs
Were quiet.

An additional problem is that the translation reads a little to much like a single run-on sentence. We could achieve the same effect by putting it into better form:

Crossing the bridge;
All the frogs
Go silent.

There are multiple ways of translating the same verse, and multiple ways of writing such hokku in English.  The trick is not to go too far, not to try to put too much into a verse.  Keep it simple and direct.  Did you notice in that last verse that even though the first line looks considerably longer than the other two, it is still only three words, just like the second line?

Just an additional remark, and that will be it for now.  You probably saw the untranslated word kana at the end of each Japanese hokku.  The Japanese used it as a kind of meditative pause at the end, but they also, quite honestly, often used it just to pad out the required seventeen phonetic units standard in Japanese hokku.  In English, punctuation does the trick when a sense of pause is needed, but actually in many cases it does not need to be reflected in the translation at all, given that in so many cases it is just “filler.”



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.



Here are a few spring hokku by Bashō.

I have divided all but the last into three parts:  First, the romanized Japanese and a rather literal translation; second, a “formal” translation of the original; third, a rewritten “American” version.

(M)ume ga ka ni  notto hi no deru  yamaji kana 
Ume fragrance at   suddenly sun appears   mountain path

At the ume fragrance,
Suddenly the sun rises;
The mountain path.

Fragrant plum blossoms
And a sudden sunrise;
The mountain path. 

The point of the verse is that as the writer smells the fragrant ume blossoms, the sun suddenly rises.  There is a perceived connection between the strong scent and the sudden appearance of the brilliant sun

The ume (Prunus mume) is not actually what we know as a plum in the West.  Instead it is a tree rather halfway between a plum and an apricot , but “Japanese apricot” generally does not fit very well into hokku where ume is used.  The term for an actual plum in Japan is sumomo.

(M)ume ga ka ni   mukashi no ichi-ji   aware nari
Ume fragrance at   past ‘s one character  is sad

In the scent of ume,
The single character “past”
is sad.

At the scent of plum blossoms,
The single word “past” —
How sad! 

The point of the verse is the writer’s smelling the scent of plums while looking at (or writing) the single Chinese character read in Japanese as mukashi — “the past.”  The combination fills him with a sad, nostalgic feeling (aware, pronounced ah-wah-ray) because he knows that all things are impermanent and nothing lasts, least of all the fragrance of the early spring blossoms.

The verse was written as an “occasion” verse for  Bashō’s student Baigan, on the anniversary of the death of the student’s son, which had happened a year earlier.  We can see how indirectly hokku deals with such matters.

(M)ume ga ka ni   oi modosaruru   samusa kana
Ume fragrance at  routed has returned cold kana

At the scent of ume
The routed has returned —
The cold!

In the scent of plum,
What left has returned —
The cold!

Not  a good hokku.  The rather minimal point is that spring has warmed enough to bring out the fragrant ume blossoms, but at the time the writer is smelling the fragrance, a cold spell has occurred.  So the cold he thought had been routed by the warmth of spring has returned.  It shows how changeable early spring weather is.

From bad to worse:

Ume ga ka ya   Shirara Ochikubo   Kyōtarō
Plum fragrance  Shirara Ochikubo   Kyōtarō

The scent of plum blossoms;
Shirara, Ochikubo,

It is little more than an allusion to a line from a Japanese book called the Jōruri-hime Monogatari, in which the question is asked which books a certain Lady Jōruri read, whether that titled Shirara, or Ochikubo, or Kyōtarō, etc.  The reader is supposed to be reminded of a pretty, elegant young woman reading a book of stories as spring begins.  Of course this kind of verse does not survive time and travel to a different culture, and it depends entirely on the reader knowing the literary allusion Bashō is making.  I have included it here only to show how unlike modern hokku some of Bashō’s verses were, and how “literary” in contrast to what we consider the best hokku.  For the western student of modern hokku, which deliberately avoids dependance on such literary allusions, these old “see how well-read I am” verses are quite useless other than as examples of what not to do.



Today’s hokku is a spring hokku by Taigi.  To get the meaning of it in English I will take some liberties, then explain the original:

Everything swept up
Is cherry blossom;
The evening temple. 

The original says “Dust/rubbish all cherry-blossom; temple’s evening.”  But if we say, as  Blyth does…

The temple evening;
The dust is all
Cherry blossoms.

…then that sounds odd to American ears, because we do not use “dust” to mean also “rubbish,” as the British do.  They have their “dustbin,” but we have our  “garbage can.”  Blyth, of course, is using “dust” here in the British sense, to mean [in this case] all the debris fallen to the ground – twigs, dead leaves, etc.  But when we say “dust” in America, we tend to think only of tiny particles of dry dirt, etc — that fall out of the air or that blow up from the earth.  That is why Blyth’s “dust” is not the best translation in American English.  But “rubbish” or “garbage” is too severe.  That is why in my version, I have used the overall meaning of the hokku rather than a literal translation of its words.

As for the hokku itself, in spite of being a spring hokku (the time of increasing yang), it has an overall feeling of yin — of age and decay.  The setting is the grounds of a temple at evening, and of course evening is a yin time of day.  Fallen cherry blossoms are also yin — they are dead, returning to the soil.  So in this hokku, paradoxically, we have both harmony of similarity (yin evening, yin blossoms) and harmony of contrast (spring, withered blossoms).

It is a hokku of impermanence.  Only a short while earlier people had flocked to the temple grounds to see the beauty of the blossoms.  Now they are just “yard debris” to be swept up and disposed of.  But nonetheless, we get the feeling that the fallen blossoms are a “richer dust” than the usual sweepings.

We could even translate the verse like this:

The temple evening;
All the sweepings
Are cherry blossom. 




Issa wrote:

Harusame ya neko ni odori wo oshieru ko
Spring rain ya cat with dance wo teaches child

Spring rain;
The little girl teaches the cat
To dance. 

The little girl, unable to go out and play, has inflicted herself on the cat, which struggles to get away as she holds him up by his forelegs, moving them to and fro and pulling the    struggling cat along in time to the rhythmic melody she sings.

Blyth has an appropriate comment about this.  He says of the spring rain that forms the setting of this hokku,

“It falls in the gusts round the verandah, as thoughtlessly, as heartlessly as the child and the kitten.”

Most people reading this hokku for the first time mistakenly see it as “cute.”  That is not the feeling of the cat, and much of Issa’s verse has this underlying sense of the pain of life expressed through creatures other than human.



If you want to understand what R. H. Blyth meant by connecting Zen and hokku, it can be stated very simply.

Thoreau's Cove, Concord, Massachusetts. Thorea...

To Blyth, Zen was the elimination of the boundary between self and other, between subject and object.  I have said before that a human is the universe “humaning,” and a stone is the universe “stoning.”  When we eliminate the distinction between subject and object — which exists because of the notion of a self — then all that exists is a unity.

That is why Blyth makes statements that seem initially to make no sense at all.  But if you keep what I just said in mind, then you can understand (at least intellectually) what he is talking about.

For example, He mentions these lines of Keats:

I who still saw the universal sun
Heave his broad shoulder o’er the edge of the world.    

Blyth goes on to say of them, “If I lift my shoulder the sun rises; if I lower it, it sinks.”

“If you only think about this kind of statement, it seems crazy beyond all endurance…” he remarks.  And indeed it does, because thinking involves the separation of subject and object.  But if we abandon thinking for a moment, then there is no self and no other — there is no subject-object distinction.  That is why when you raise your shoulder, the “sun” — the universe which manifests as both you and sun — rises, because your shoulder is the sun’s, as is mine, as is that of everyone else in the world.

Of course that is a kind of play on words, because we are using “sun” here as a name for the universe.  When you raise your shoulder, the universe raises its shoulder, which is not separate from “your” shoulder, but one and the same.  The universe as “man” raises its shoulder.

That is why we can say that one thing manifests the whole universe; nothing is separate from the universe.  So when you open your eye, a star opens its eye, because there is no separation between you and the star.

That may sound odd at first, but if you just think of the universe as all of the same substance, the action of one thing is the action of all the rest of the universe manifested in that one thing.  That is why in hokku we can say that a single cherry blossom is all of spring.

The other thing to keep in mind about Blyth’s notion of Zen is that it is the complete union of mind and action.  He tells us that “A thief running away like mad from a ferocious watch-dog may be a splendid example of Zen.”  Why?  Because in the thief’s mad running away, there is no separation of thought and action.  The thief is the running away.

We all know people who cannot seem to unify mind and action.  They are filled with hesitation and uncertainty and equivocating and second thoughts.  But in Zen, mind and action just plunge ahead as one.  That is why when Blyth talks of Zen action, it is not a matter of morals or ethics.  It is just the lack of separation of mind and action.

Don’t take that crudely and unwisely, please, as the “Beats” did, to mean that you may do anything you wish, and that whatever you feel like doing is perfectly fine, no matter how immoral it may seem to others.  That is not the way the world works.  It is just a description of what Blyth meant by Zen, and I hope it will give you a key to understanding some of his more “difficult” statements in his various works.

If we reduce what I have said here to its minimum and apply it to hokku, then we have — as writers of hokku — to keep in mind that hokku generally eliminates the separation of subject (the writer) and object (what is written about).  That is why, for example, in the old hokku

The old pond;
A frog jumps in — 
The sound of water.

…there is no “poet” visible.  He has become one with the pond, the frog, the sound of water, and all of those are also just one.  Nor is there any separation of “thing” and “action.”  We could describe the “Old Pond” hokku as one long extended verb.   That is the unity of hokku.

If you find that what I have written here makes no sense to you the first time you read it through, it would be helpful to read it again and to ponder it.  Once you get it, you will understand a lot of Blyth’s writing that previously may have seemed impenetrable.



R. H. Blyth called this work by Tao Qian (Tao Yuan-ming, c. 365-427) and translated by Arthur Waley “the best translation… of the best poem in the world.”


Swiftly the years, beyond recall,
Solemn the stillness of this fair morning.
I will clothe myself in spring-clothing
And visit the slopes of the Eastern Hill.
By the mountain-stream a mist hovers,
Hovers a moment, then scatters.
There comes a wind blowing from the south
That brushes the fields of new corn .

Waley’s version — good as it is — is not a precise translation of the original. Nonetheless, his version is effective, which is why Blyth was so fond of it. Some day when I have time I may give a closer translation.

I should add that Americans should read the word “corn” in the last line as meaning “grain.” The fields are not of corn (maize) in the American sense, but of corn (grain) in the British sense. Picture a field of green, grassy blades like Whitman’s “leaves of grass,” with the wind gently sweeping over them.

Also, the “Qian” in Tao Qian is pronounced like “Chen,” but in the front rather than the middle of the mouth. Just say the “ch” close to the front teeth.



As regular readers here know, I treat many of the verses of Shiki as hokku because they are hokku in form and content, in spite of his use of the revisionist term “haiku” for what he wrote.

Melting Snow On the flank of Catstye Cam

Knowing that, we are in a position to examine one of his verses of early spring:

With snow melting,
The village  releases
The horses.

If you have been a diligent reader of hokku postings here, you will recognize right away that this verse exhibits two techniques found in hokku:

1.  Expression of season through the interplay of Yin and Yang;

2.  Internal reflection.

We find Yin and Yang in the melting of the snow, which shows us that the Yang energies (light, warmth, activity) are in the ascendant and the Yin energies (darkness, cold, inactivity) are diminishing.  That is obvious in the melting of the snow.

We see internal reflection in the harmony between the melting of the snow (increasing Yang, water freed from its ice state) and the freeing of the horses (from an inactive to an active state) — in fact they are the same thing, expressed on the one hand in snow melting to running water, on the other in horses, kept largely inactive in winter, freed to run and leap about in the fields and newly appearing grass.  The verse shows us the growing Yang of spring.

Onitsura’s hokku is more simple and subtle, particularly in a literal translation of the original:

Spring’s water — here and there is seen….

What Onitsura really means to convey would, in English, be more like this:

The waters of spring,
Seen here, there,
And everywhere. 

Early spring is a very wet time, with the snow melting and running all over in little rivulets, and spring showers just increasing the flow.  But the water is not the same, psychologically, as that of autumn or winter — it is the water of spring, and in it we feel growing Yang and increasing activity.



I often talk about Yin and Yang in hokku.  In fact I talk about them so much that another name for the kind of hokku I teach might be “Yin-Yang” hokku.  That is how important it is — so important that one cannot fully understand hokku without it.

In old Asia and in hokku, it was something people grew up with.  It was even the principle upon which old traditional Asian medicine and philosophy were based.  But it has to be actually taught to Western students, because they generally are not familiar with it.

I will try to make it brief, so this posting will condense a lot of information that the student should absorb and then observe in daily life and in the reading and practice of hokku.

You have probably seen the old Yin-Yang Chinese symbol.  It is an easy, shorthand way to remember how Yin and Yang work:


Yin and Yang are the two opposite, yet complementary forces comprising all things in the universe.  They are found in every aspect of Nature, so you can understand why they are so important in hokku.  Even though Yin and Yang are opposites, they interact with one another in an ever-changing relationship and harmony.  So we should think of the universe as not being just divided into two — Yin and Yang.  In fact, it is not divided at all, as we see from the circle of the symbol, and Yin and Yang mix together and change together.  When Yang increases, Yin decreases; when Yin increases, Yang decreases.

What exactly are Yin and Yang in practical terms?  This is very ancient knowledge.

Yang is bright, Yin is dark;
Yang is warm, Yin is cool;
Yang is rising, Yin is sinking;
Yang is expanding, Yin is shrinking;
Yang is growing, Yin is withering;
Yang is dry, Yin is moist;
Yang is high, Yin is low;
Yang is motion, Yin is stillness;
Yang is activity, Yin is rest;
Yang is strength, Yin is weakness;
Yang is male, Yin is female;
Yang is full, Yin is empty;
Yang is sharp, Yin is smooth;
Yang is hard, Yin is soft;
Yang is flavorful, Yin is bland;
Yang is active, Yin is passive;
Yang advances, Yin recedes;
Yang multiplies, Yin dwindles;

That should give you some idea of Yin and Yang seen as absolutes, though they are not really absolutes.  Yang contains within it a tiny seed of Yin; Yin contains within it a tiny seed of Yang.  You see that in the Yin-Yang symbol on this page:  the light Yang side contains a tiny spot of dark Yin; the dark Yin side contains a tiny spot of light Yang.  When Yang increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yin;  when Yin increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yang.

As already mentioned, everything in the universe is — at any moment — in some stage of the ever-changing interplay of Yin and Yang.

In hokku this is significant not only because it is how the universe works, but also because of the principle of internal reflection.  In hokku the nature or character of one thing is often reflected in the nature or character of another.  In addition, in hokku there are two kinds of harmony:  there is harmony of similarity, and harmony of contrast.  Both of these important aspects of hokku relate to Yin and Yang.

We already know that time and the seasons are essential to hokku.  Here is how Yin and Yang manifest in time:

Let’s start with deepest winter.  Winter is cold, so from the list above, we know that winter is very Yin.  And we recall that when Yin reaches its ultimate, it changes into Yang.  That is exactly what happens.  In the cold Yin of deep winter, a tiny seed of Yang begins to grow.  We call that “increasing Yang” or “growing Yang.”  It grows and spring begins.  So spring is increasing Yang.  Yang continues to increase, and spring grows warmer, ice and snow melt, things sprout, blossoms appear, trees leaf out — all these are signs of growing Yang.  Yang continues to grow, and we have already seen that when Yang increases, Yin decreases.  That is what is happening in spring.  Finally, Yang grows to such a point that things dry out, the weather begins to get very warm, and we find ourselves in summer, which, being the opposite of Yin winter, is a Yang season.  The Yang of summer increases gradually until it reaches its height, and then — as we might expect — it begins to change into Yin.  A seed of Yin starts to grow within it.  Now the year, instead of growing as in spring, is declining.  Yin continues to increase as Yang decreases, and we come to autumn, a time when the increase of Yin is very obvious as things begin to wither; the trees drop their leaves, annual plants die, and the energy of perennial plants sinks from the leaves into the root.  We know that in spring, for example in sugar maples, sap rises — Yang.  But in autumn it falls — Yin.

Yin increases as Yang decreases, things grow colder, things increasingly die, and finally we are in winter again, the Yin season.  Then the whole cycle begins anew.

This same principle applies to human life, and here again we touch on the hokku principle of internal reflection:

Birth and infancy are early spring; growth, childhood, and adolescence match the increasing Yang of spring.  Adulthood is summer; when one is fully adult, the aging process begins.  One grows gradually older — the autumn of life.  And as Yang decreases in the human body and Yin increases, we grow even older and weaker, we lose our hair, we loose teeth and muscle, and finally Yin reaches its ultimate, and we die — deep winter.

The same thing applies to each day:

The middle of night is deep Yin.  Dawn nears and Yang increases.  We see that in the light, and in the morning chorus of the birds.  Then the sun rises higher in the sky and Yang increases even more, as Yin decreases.  Finally, at midday, the sun reaches its highest point, and the seed of Yin begins to grow within it.  The sun begins its afternoon decline and Yang declines as Yin grows.  Then we reach late afternoon, dusk, and finally the Yin darkness of night comes again.

So, just to repeat, in only these three things there are these correspondences, very useful for internal reflection:

Birth-youth = spring = morning;
Adulthood-nearing middle age =summer = noon;
Past middle age-growing old = autumn = afternoon;
Very old-death = winter = night;

We see Yin and Yang in a landscape painting.  Mountains rise up and are high, so they are Yang; valleys are low and receptive, so they are Yin.  And of course we see Yin also in the falling of waterfalls from a high place to a low place.  And we see Yin in rivers, lakes and pools.

In fact so all-pervasive is the Yin-Yang process in Nature that one cannot really understand fully how hokku work without it.  In some verses it is very obvious, in others less obvious, but it is always there, whether seen or not.

We can see it subtly in this pleasant verse by Onitsura:

On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

Now you know how to read that verse in terms of Yin and Yang:
Dawn is early in the process of growing Yang;
A barley leaf is young and green, so it too is growing Yang;
Spring frost is Yin, which shows us that in this process Yang (seen in the dawn and the green blade) is increasing, yet Yin (what remains of winter) has not yet disappeared.
To this we add our poetic hokku intuition, by means of which we automatically intuit what is not actually written in the poem — that the Yang dawn and rising sun will soon melt the Yin frost, and it will evaporate and vanish — Yang overcoming Yin.  So this poem shows us a stage in the interaction of Yin and Yang that takes place in early spring, and in doing so, it manifests the character of the season and of that particular period in the season, which of course is very “hokku.”

You can see from all of that what a very excellent spring poem this hokku of Onitsura is.  And if you did not have your new understanding of Yin and Yang, you would not see that at all.  That is why the Yin-Yang principle is so essential to hokku as I teach it — because not only was it essential to old hokku, but it also is essential to understanding the interplay of these forces in everything that exists — in every time and place and life.

If you have “been around the block,” as the saying goes — if you are familiar with books written on all kinds of short verse that are descended in one way or another from the hokku,  and familiar with journals and internet sites, you will realize suddenly that I am the only person teaching this relationship of Yin and Yang in old and modern hokku.  You will not find this teaching of how it relates to hokku in practice anywhere else.  Why?  Because other kinds of brief modern verse — modern haiku in particular — have largely abandoned the aesthetic principles and standards of the old hokku.  Most never knew them to begin with.  I am sure that one of these days someone will see what I have written on this subject and will begin presenting it on some modern haiku site as a novelty, but for us in the actual practice of hokku it is not just a novelty; it is essential knowledge.

I hope you can see from what I have written here how much more there is to the hokku than superficially meets the eye, how one must have an understanding of its aesthetics in order to really “get” how hokku works and why it works, and how to apply these principles in practice.

Once one knows about and begins to understand the Yin-Yang principle, one sees it everywhere — because it is everywhere, from deep in our bodies to the farthest galaxies, and in every aspect of life and time.   That is why it is essential knowledge to the serious student of hokku.

I should add that for the old writers of hokku, Yin and Yang were not a recipe for writing. They did not consciously think, “Now I must write a poem incorporating Yin and Yang in order to get a certain effect.”  Yin and Yang were just a part of their cultural and aesthetic background, so they did not have to consciously consider their interactions in writing, for the most part.  For us in the West, however, the interactions of Yin and Yang are not a part of our cultural background — at least not since a very long time — so the best way to deal with Yin and Yang is to learn the basic interactions I have given here; then practice recognizing the Yin – Yang processes in Nature and the seasons, as well as in old hokku.  That way Yin and Yang will gradually become part of your hokku practice — your personal background — but not in any forced and rigid way.



Because the practice of hokku is so intimately connected with the seasons, I like to regularly remind readers where we are in the “old” hokku calendar in its traditional Western version, the Wheel of the Year, which very closely approximates the old hokku calendar of Japan in its times.  We are in the spring phase:


Begins with Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st. 1st week of February.
Midpoint: Spring Equinox — Even-night — March 20/21.
Ends the evening before May Day (Bealtaine pr. BYAL-tuh-nuh), 1st week of May.


Begins with May Day (Bealtaine), 1st week of May.
Midpoint: Midsummer’s Day — Sunstede/Sunstead, the Summer Solstice, June 20/21.
End: The evening before Lammas (Harvest Home — Lughnasa pr. LOO-nuh-suh), August 1. 1st week of August.

As you see, we are coming up on the midpoint of spring, the Spring Equinox. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors (and they may be our ancestors either biologically or linguistically or both) called the Spring Solstice Emniht, pronounced “EM-nicht,” with the “ch” like the “ch” in German ich.  It is a short form of Efn-niht, “Even-night”; that time of the year when the hours of day and night are equal.

Emniht in spring — Even-night — is one of the four “Quarter Days.” Think of the year as a great wheel with four spokes dividing it into four quarters. The two vertical spokes are: Midsummer’s Day- Sunstead (the Summer Solstice) attached at the top of the wheel, and opposite it, on the bottom of the wheel, is the Winter Solstice, Yule.  Then there are two crosswise spokes: that at mid-right is the Spring Solstice, the spring Even-night, that on the mid-left is the Autumn Solstice.

A sun cross-like symbol with six or eight arms...

So we are coming up on the spring Even-night — the Spring Solstice. The next great quarter day after that will be the Summer Solstice, which the Anglo-Saxons called Sunstede — Sunstead — that time when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, stands there in its place (stede/stead), and then begins to decline again in its arc across the sky.

Halfway between the “Quarter Day” spokes on the great wheel of the year are the “Cross-Quarter Day” spokes. the next one we will encounter will be May Day, Bealtaine as our Celtic ancestors called it ( pr. BYAL-tuh-nuh), sometimes written as “Beltane.”

In simple hokku usage, we can think of these spring quarter and cross-quarter points loosely in these terms:


Begins with Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st: 1st week of February = “Spring begins.”

Midpoint: Spring Equinox, — Even-night: March 20/21 = “Spring deepens.”

Ends with the evening before May Day (Bealtaine): 1st week of May. – “Spring departs.”

I very much enjoy keeping these old traditions and old names and their variations, but if you prefer a simpler version, then you may stick to the looser hokku periods shown in bold type above, keeping in mind that they refer to general periods of days rather than to the more precise names and dates of the old “Wheel of the Year” calendar. It is good, however, to be at least familiar with the old calendar, even if you prefer the simpler approach in practice.



A Chinese landscape painting by Wang Shen

It used to be common — and still is, to some extent — for people in the modern haiku movement to see Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) as a “rebel” of the end of the 19th century.  But actually, Shiki was in general far more conservative than one might think.

A good part of his “haiku,” for example, are really hokku in form and content.  And he retained not only the hokku form, but also the customary link with the seasons that characterizes the hokku.

We may consider Shiki then, in either of two roles:  on the one hand as the last major “hokku” writer,  and on the other as the man who set the “haiku” off on its erratic course.

Today I want to discuss a verse — still essentially a hokku — by Shiki, one that shows just how very conservative he often was.  It is a “parting” or “farewell” hokku, which is a poetic genre that one can trace all the way back to the Tang Dynasty of China and beyond — a thousand years and more.  It is a verse written to commemorate saying farewell to a dear friend who is leaving and will be gone for a very long time, perhaps forever.

The hokku poets — Shiki included — were heavily influenced by the poetry of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, in this particular genre by such poets as Li Bai (Li Po, 701-762), who is the author of this example:

Seeing  Meng Hao-ran off from Yellow Crane Tower

My friend is leaving the West from Yellow Crane tower,
Through the haze and blossoms of March down to Yangchou; 
A distant, single sail –the endless blue hills —
Then only the long river flowing to the edge of the sky. 

Li Bai watches as his friend goes downriver in a boat with a sail.  He watches it drift off though spring blossoms and haze into the distance of limitless blue hills, then it disappears, and he sees only the long river flowing to meet the sky.

Here is Shiki’s verse in this same genre but in hokku form, rather literally translated:

Boat and shore willow separates  parting kana

Kana is an ending word with no definite meaning.  It was often used simply to fill out the required number of phonetic units in a Japanese hokku.  We may think of it as a kind of pause or ellipsis here, indicating continuation, ongoing movement and the passage of time.

In ELH (English-language Hokku) form, we can present it as:

Boat and shore
Are separated by a willow;
Parting ….

You may recall that many hokku — particularly Japanese hokku — often require the participation of the reader’s poetic mind to fill in what is not said in words.  This one requires a bit of that, but it is rather easy.

By boat and shore, the writer means both the shore and the person on it, and the boat and the person in it.  As the boat is oared out into the river and begins to move downstream,  it rounds a headland on which a willow tree grows, which blocks the view of the departing boat from the shore.  That separation of boat and shore, friend from friend, is an internal reflection of the third line of the verse, which of course is the key to understanding the verse as a whole — “parting.”

Two verses in different forms, yet in the same genre and poetic tradition, though separated in time by more than a thousand years.  And that from a supposed “rebel.”  We see through such examples that in general, Shiki was often simply a hokku writer who used a revisionist name for his verse.

We can also see, from comparison of these two examples, how very long the poetic tradition that nourished and gave rise to the hokku was — a thousand years and more.




An English-language hokku is a verse of three lines, the middle line often — but not always — visually longer than the others.

English: Tide pools at Pillar Point at low tid...
Tide Pool

Chiy0-ni wrote a very effective spring hokku:

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

Notice that:

The first letter of each line is capitalized.

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

There are two parts, one long and one short:

Long:  Everything picked up is moving.
Short:  Ebb tide; 

The two parts of hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation (note the semicolon here):

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

The hokku ends with appropriate punctuation (note the period here).

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving

Follow these standards and you will have the accurate form of hokku — the container which holds the content, just as a shell holds a nut.

In hokku everyone follows the same form. That is because the form works excellently, is very appropriate, and has proved its worth. But equally important, it gives no occasion to bickering over form. It thus contributes importantly to a sense of community in hokku. We speak the same “language” of form, the form works superbly, and that enables us to concentrate on content.

Notice that the example verse has three elements in it:

1.  A setting:  Ebb tide

2.  A subject:  Everything picked up

3.  An action:  Is moving

Now let’s look at punctuation:

The great virtue and value of punctuation is that it guides the reader through the hokku smoothly and effortlessly, and without confusion. It enables very fine shades of pause and emphasis, very important in how we experience a hokku.

As a general guide, here is how to punctuate hokku:

A semicolon indicates a strong, definite pause. It is generally used to enable the reader to absorb the setting of a hokku, for example in presenting the setting before moving on to the rest:

The spring wind;

A dash is used to indicate a longer, more meditative and connective pause:

The spring wind —

It is typed as two hyphens.

One may also use ellipses for that purpose:

The spring wind …

A question mark is usually used to ask a question that in hokku is never answered:

The spring wind?

The exclamation mark is occasionally used; it indicates something surprising or unexpected:

A spring wind!

The comma indicates a very brief, connective pause. It is often found at the end of a line that begins with a preposition:

In the spring wind,

A hokku always ends with punctuation, whether a period (.) — which is the most common — or a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!) very sparingly used, and also the seldom-used final ellipses (….).

That is hokku form in a nutshell.

As for length, we should not exceed the standard by much.  In English the standard is a pattern of 2/3/2 essential words. Essential words are those words essential for meaning, but not for grammatical correctness. For example, we have already seen the verse

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

Its essential words are:

Ebb (1) tide (2)

Everything (1) picked (2) up (3)

Is (1) moving (2)

So there are no non-essential words in this example.  Non-essential words (for length counting) are often words like “the,” “a,” “an,” etc.

Though 2/3/2 is the standard, it should not be seen as an inflexible pattern.  Flexibility is very important to English language hokku, because a thing in English may be as visually brief as the word “fly” or as long as the word “dragonfly,” so we must be sparing while not becoming too rigid. The standard of poverty, if followed, ensures that in hokku we use only a few simple, ordinary words, including only what is necessary for clarity and good grammar.  If you find that notion easier to work with than essential words, that is fine.

You can see that there is nothing peculiar about the appearance of hokku in English. It uses ordinary language, ordinary words, ordinary punctuation. And again that frees us to concentrate on content, because though form may make something appear to be a hokku visually, it is only the content that will make a real hokku.



Yesterday I discussed a kind of “fundamentalism” one finds among those who talk about hokku and haiku, and I wrote, essentially, that it does not matter to me (except historically) what any of the old hokku writers had to say about the hokku and its nature; what matters is the validity of the verse itself, on its own merits.

English: Daniel Ridgway Knight (1839-1924), &q...

Now that can easily be misunderstood. Some people may think it means, “I don’t care what the original writers considered to be hokku, I am going to write it however I please.”

That, in fact, is the attitude and practice of a great many people in the modern haiku community, but it is not mine.

On the other hand, there are those who examine every detail of old hokku and say that the way we write it today cannot vary in any particular from how the hokku writers of the 17th or 18th century — or a certain one among them — wrote it. Some even say it is impossible to write “genuine” hokku in English — that it can be written only in Japanese. That, again, is not my position either.

My position is simply this. In my teaching of hokku, I have taken its essence — what I consider to be the best and most practical aspects of both form and content — and I have adapted those to the English language. The English-language hokku form reflects the essence of the old Japanese form, though of course it is now “reborn” in an English-language format. And the aesthetics I teach are very much the aesthetics of the old hokku.

Because of that, I continue to call what I teach hokku. And I can look at what is written by other people, and I can tell them whether it is hokku, or close to hokku, or only superficially hokku, or not hokku at all in anything but brevity.

So what I teach is hokku, a continuation of the old tradition, but in the English language.
However, as I have said, the kind of hokku I teach stands on its own merits now. Consequently there is no need to refer to Japan at all. If hokku is “good” verse — if it does what it is supposed to do as hokku according to the principles and aesthetics I teach, then if for some reason we had to call it something else and never mention Japan again, it would still be a verse practice with its own value and virtue. It does not have to rely on any 17th or 18th or 19th century historical validation of it merits.

That too, is why I like my students to think of hokku as I teach it as something without a history, so that they may see it as something new, and may learn it on its own terms. Of course it does have a history, and we can trace it back centuries — but for writing it today, all of that is really unimportant except for academic reasons. In the actual practice of writing hokku, it does not matter at all.

The result is that I do not encourage students to take up the study of old literary Japanese, or the sociology of Japan in the Edô period, or any of those things. None are necessary for learning and writing hokku. One may study them if one likes, but to do so is not in the least necessary for the successful learning and writing of hokku. In fact for many people, such things simply become just another distraction and obsession.

Those who learn hokku from me are learning modern English-language hokku. They are not learning Japanese hokku, they are not learning a hokku that requires validation by  Bashô or Buson or Shiki.  They are just learning hokku as I teach it. That is the best way to approach it.



Consider the words of cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss in his fascinating book A Universe from Nothing (Free Press, 2012):

Galaxies are so large that stars can be consid...

One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded.  Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right.  We are all, literally, star children, and our bodies made of stardust.

We are not separate from the universe; the universe is us.  We look at the stars, and all we see is ourselves in different form.  There we are, shining in the night sky.   The same when we look at a bird, or a rock, or a tree.  A human is the universe “human-ing.”  A cow is the universe “cow-ing.”  A star is the universe “star-ing.”

Bashō wrote:

From among
The peach trees blooming wildly,
The first cherry blossoms. 

The universe as peach blossoms, the universe as cherry blossoms, the universe as Bashō, the universe as me writing this, the universe as you reading it.

That is the way to hokku — oneness of subject (the writer) and object (that which is written about).



183_1822  fallen Camellia
Fallen Camellia (Kate's Photo Diary)

I wrote yesterday of R. H. Blyth and his method of translating hokku.  He wrote six volumes of such translations, nearly all of which had to do with hokku, though he used the terminology of the Japan of his day (mid-1900s) and anachronistically and confusingly called them “haiku.”

Blyth’s purpose in translating was to explain a quite different kind of poetry to the West, a verse form with aesthetics and a philosophical basis quite unlike that of conventional Western poetry.  He was not presenting a guide to writing new hokku in the English language, because he had no idea, in the beginning, that Westerners would be interested in such a thing. Those interested in learning how to write hokku today — in English and other languages — will find what Blyth omitted described in postings on this site.

Blyth explained the hokku gradually through his commentaries on each verse, but these were largely overlooked as readers concentrated on the verses themselves.  Without the commentarial background, and without a thorough study of what Blyth offered, rather unsystematically, as the aesthetics of the verse form, readers simply saw the hokku he presented through the dark glass of their own preconceptions — derived from a background in Western ideas about poetry.  They did not comprehend, for the most part, how very different the hokku was from the kind of poetry to which they were accustomed.

What Blyth attempted to transmit to the West then, was for the most part (in spite of his terminology) an overall understanding of the hokku — not an explanation of how to write it.  History has shown us that he was, unfortunately, writing far over the heads of his readers, who apparently failed en masse to grasp the point of his unsystematic presentations.

Further, Western readers did not realize that in his translations of hokku, Blyth was often not at all literal.  His intent was to give the “meaning” of a verse, filling out his translations with what would have been added to a spare original by the mind of a Japanese reader experienced in the reading of hokku.  That means he added elements that are not actually written on the page in the original — elements that must be supplied by the intuitive mind of the (Japanese) reader.

Blyth often changed the arrangement of elements in a hokku as he translated, and the form — the inherent structure of the hokku — sometimes got lost as  a consequence.  So again, what readers found in Blyth’s translations were not by any means clear examples of how to write the hokku form in English.  They were, instead, often glosses, expanded versions of the originals, that made them accessible to the Western-educated mind and cultural background.  In fact I was tempted to write “explanded” versions, meaning translations that were simultaneously explanations and expansions.

As such, Blyth’s translations are excellent, because they do convey the real sense of the originals, though often they do not faithfully reflect the “bare-bones” nature of Japanese hokku.  But as I have said, they do not provide the Western reader with a clear and obvious explanation of how hokku should be written in English; that was not Blyth’s original intent.

I gave one example of Blyth’s method yesterday, along with the Japanese original for comparison.  here is another, a spring verse by Dansui (died 1711):

Camellias fall
One after another, plop, plop,
Under the hazy moon.

But here is a literal translation of the original:

Plop Plop camellias drop; hazy moon. 

As you see, there is no “one after another,” there is no “under the.”

Further, Blyth has given no clear idea of the structure of the original, which has, as hokku do, two parts, one longer and one shorter, separated by a cutting word.  Knowing of that original form is really essential if one wishes to write hokku in English.

In English, one possibility for translating the hokku with correct form would be:

Plop!  Plop! 
Camellias dropping;
The hazy moon.

That is much more faithful to the original in both form and content, and it is how we would write a hokku in English.  Even though there are exclamation points in the first line, the cut actually comes with the semicolon after “Camellias dropping”.  It separates the longer first part of this hokku from the shorter second part.

An added advantage of this translation is that one gets the imitative alliteration so common in Japanese hokku in the repetition of  the “p” sounds in “PloP! PloP!” and “droPPing.”  In that repetition we actually hear the sound of the camellias dropping from the bush.  The technical term for the connection between the original sound and the word we use to imitate that sound is onomatopoeia.

If only Blyth had made all of this clear and obvious in his writings, which otherwise are so full of valuable insights into the aesthetics and principles of the hokku!

In the original of the verse discussed here, the term “hazy moon” tells us it is a spring hokku.  That is because of the old Japanese system of “season words” used to automatically identify the season in which a verse was written and in which it should be read.

In English we indicate season merely with classification of each verse by its season — we write it on the slip of paper on which we compose the hokku, and pass it along when the hokku is read or published.  But of course in Dansui’s verse, along with the season indicator “hazy moon,” the mere presence of the falling camellia tells us that it is a spring hokku, because that is the season for the blooming and falling of camellias, one of the first spring blossoms.

Note how very sense-based this hokku is.  We have only the heavy sound of the dropping camellias and the sight of the hazy moon.  There is no interpretation, no explanation, no commentary, no symbolism, no metaphor, no simile, not even any sign of a poet present.

Hokku is, in essence, a sensory experience — an experience of one or more of the five senses — sight, hearing, sound, taste, touch — transmitted from writer to reader, with nothing intervening.  That is very unlike most Western poetry, which almost always feels it has to add some sort of commentary or elaboration to the original sensory experience.

But in hokku, by contrast, particularly in the kind of hokku I teach, the writer is just a clear mirror reflecting what is happening — Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.



I have written before about the telegraphic brevity of old hokku, which often comes as a surprise to those who are accustomed to seeing it in English translations or to seeing modern English-language hokku.

Here, for example, is R. H. Blyth’s excellent rendition of a spring hokku by Hyakuchi, (1748-1836), whose name always amuses me; it always makes me hear someone sneezing.  But the Chinese characters composing it mean literally “Hundred Ponds”:

The cow I sold,
Leaving the village
Through the haze. 

If we look at the original, however, it is literally:

Sold cow’s village leaving; haze —

As you see, there is no “I” who sold the cow, there is no “through” the haze.  But Blyth, in his usual superb manner, has supplied what the Japanese reader would have intuitively added to that scanty framework.

Of course that did not always work.  Some old hokku are so vague that people still argue over what a writer may have intended.  To me those are simply bad hokku, and we need not bother with them.

In English we have no such problems of interpretation, because the English-language hokku — like the English language itself — is more precise than “hokku” Japanese, and the telegraphic method of old hokku is simply not adequate either for our language or our culture.  So Blyth did precisely the right thing in expanding the verse to clarify it for Western readers.  If there is arguing over what an English-language hokku signifies, then it means the hokku is poorly written.

If I were to translate the same verse, I would be slightly more literal than Blyth, with only one clarifying expansion:

The sold cow
Leaving the village;
Spring haze.

That is a bit more like the Japanese — more faithful to the original — and also it reflects a common characteristic of hokku writing — that we often are not told whether it is the writer himself who is involved in what is happening, or whether he is observing someone else.  So in this verse the cow might be one another person has sold, or it might be one the writer has sold.  It is up to the reader to supply which understanding gives the right effect for that particular person.

Nonetheless, Blyth’s reading of it is quite effective, because when the seller is made explicit — “The cow I sold” — one identifies and feels the sad sense of having lost something, a sense that is only magnified as the cow slowly vanishes into the spring haze.

In my translation, the one expansion I made is the addition of the word “spring.”  To a Japanese reader, the presence of the word “haze” automatically means a hokku is a spring hokku.  Of course in modern English-language hokku, every verse is marked by the writer with the season in which it is written.  But actually putting the word “spring” — missing in the Japanese original — into the verse is effective in this particular case.

Who knew that the after-effect of selling a cow could be so poetic?  Obviously, Hyakuchi — Gesundheit!



It is unfortunate that when Reginald H. Blyth wrote his series of volumes extolling and

English: Yamazakura,_Cerasus_jamasakura
Yamazakura -- Mountain Cherry

explaining what were, for the most part, verses of hokku, he made the mistake of using the revisionist term then popular in the Japan of his day — “haiku.”  But of course for most people in those times, there was no obvious difference; the majority still followed the conservative “Shiki” kind of “haiku” that simply adopted the aesthetics of the old hokku, if somewhat diluted. There were already some radicals who had made drastic changes, but those radicalisms were not favored by most ordinary people.

Today, however, the situation is very different.  In the West modern haiku has largely abandoned the aesthetics of the old hokku, so that today haiku is justifiably called by a different name.  But the mistake is often made of thinking that the modern haiku is simply a continuation and a replacement of the old hokku, and that is completely wrong.

Modern haiku is in fact largely the creation of those Westerners in the 20th century — particularly in the latter half of the 20th century — who separated the haiku from the traditional hokku aesthetics practiced by Bashō and all the other writers in the centuries prior to the revisionist changes of Shiki, which began near the end of the 1800s.   Modern haiku is, then, largely the result of Westerners misperceiving and misunderstanding the hokku in terms of what they already knew — the aesthetics of Western poetry.

The aesthetics of the hokku are quite different. The advocates of modern haiku were, in many cases, quite unaware of those aesthetics, and the few who did have some inkling of them either ignored or willfully abandoned them.  Consequently, today the hokku and the haiku are for the most part two very different kinds of verse, even though superficially they appear similar; both are brief, both are generally written in three lines.  That is often the only thing they have in common.

That is why it is so outrageous when a widely-used Internet source such as Wikipedia defines hokku thus:
…the latter term [haiku] is now generally applied retrospectively to all hokku appearing independently of renku or renga, irrespective of when they were written. The term hokku continues to be used in its original sense, as the opening verse of a linked poem.

In other words, they want the unwary reader to believe that the hokku has simply been re-named “haiku” in all cases where it is not used specifically to mean the first of a series of linked verses.  According to that notion, all hokku not linked to other verses somehow automatically become “haiku.”  But that is quite mistaken and inaccurate. How did such gross misunderstandings arise?

They began with the accumulation and piling of error on error.   Sadly, some of these misunderstandings can be traced to Western readers who came upon the volumes of R. H. Blyth.

Blyth’s original purpose in writing was to explain the aesthetics of the hokku to Westerners completely ignorant of it, and he illustrated those aesthetics by translations that were sometimes glosses that went beyond or modified what was actually written in the originals.  His intent was good; he wished to convey aspects of hokku that a Japanese reader would automatically understand, but which a Westerner would simply not “get” if the verse were translated literally and left at that.

Here is a typical example.  A female student of Bashō (Chigetsu) wrote the following hokku, which I will give in both transliteration and my literal translation:

Yamazakura chiru ya ogawa no mizuguruma

Mountain-cherry falls; stream’s waterwheel.

That’s it.  No wonder Blyth felt more was needed for a Westerner to even begin to understand this verse.  So Blyth glossed it as:

Mountain cherry petals
Fall and scatter
Over the water-wheel of the brook.

That certainly conveys what a Japanese reader would get from the original, because Japanese hokku has a long history of requiring something more of the reader — the ability to make an intuitive poetic leap.  Blyth has simply supplied all the words in his English version that a Japanese would intuit.  Blyth is thus fulfilling his intent in writing — he is conveying the overall meaning of the hokku — not just what was written on the page, but also what was to be understood — intuited.

Unfortunately, readers of Blyth often assumed that because he presented the verse in a run-on sentence divided into three lines, it was perfectly all right to compose new verses using that form.  But of course that was not the form of the original hokku.

That original hokku consists, as do modern hokku, of two parts, one longer, one shorter. We will better understand the form if we look at each Japanese word comprising the verse:

Yamazakura = yama (mountain) sakura (cherry) chiru (falls) ya (a cutting particle indicating a meditative pause, generally represented in English-language hokku by a semicolon or dash) Ogawa (o = small, kawa = river) no (a genitive particle equivalent here to ‘s in English, which could also function as a cutting word) mizuguruma (mizu = water, kuruma = wheel).

Blyth, again, did not indicate a separation of the two parts in his gloss because he simply wanted to convey the overall impression of the hokku, and he did so quite well.  But this was all too often understood by Westerners to mean that there were not two parts to the hokku, that there was no separation.  They saw Blyth’s gloss, even though divided into three lines, as one sentence:

Mountain cherry petals fall and scatter over the water-wheel of the brook.

And so came about a basic misunderstanding of the form of the hokku, which of course, following Blyth’s use of the anachronistic term, they called “haiku.” Multiply this misperception many times, and you have the beginnings of the creation of modern haiku in the West.  That is why today modern haiku is in such a fragmented and disparate condition. The best verses one finds in modern haiku are often those few that are most like the hokku.  But such verses are few and far between.

That is why, for the most part, modern haiku is a new Western verse form quite separate both from the old hokku and from Shiki’s original conservative haiku, which was hokku in all but name.

Getting back to our sample verse,  if we were to re-write it in modern hokku form, it would look something like this:

Wild cherry blossoms –

They scatter over the water-wheel

Of the brook.

As you can see, that maintains a two-part division of the old hokku.  It also has a pause, indicated in this case by the dash, separating those two parts.  Modern English-language hokku is simply a continuation of the essentials of the old hokku, though with minor adaptations for a different language.  That is why we can legitimately still consider modern hokku a part of the old hokku tradition; it keeps the essentials of form and the essence of the traditional aesthetic.

That cannot be said of modern haiku, which again is, for the most part, a new and separate kind of verse, though loosely based on the brevity of the old hokku. Modern haiku generally lacks the principles and aesthetics of the genuine hokku.

Incidentally, if any of you are wondering why, in the Japanese transliteration, some words appear in two forms — zakura/sakura, gawa/kawa, guruma/kuruma, then you will want to know that it is just a phonetic change that occurs when certain initial consonants are used in combinations with certain other words, and it does not indicate a change in how the word is actually written in Japanese nor any change in its meaning.   I promise not to always be so detailed when discussing individual hokku, because no knowledge whatsoever of Japanese is necessary if one learns to write hokku correctly in English and other languages other than Japanese.  But one must know the correct English-language form and the underlying principles and aesthetics.  Otherwise what one writes is likely to turn out as “haiku” and not hokku.



Plum blossoms;
They scatter on an empty sack
Of charcoal.                  

Blossoming plum, by Chinese artist Wang Mian. ...

That is a rewriting of a hokku by Yayū. It is of course a spring hokku.

There are, as I have mentioned many times, two kinds of harmony in hokku: harmony of similarity and harmony of contrast. This verse has the latter. It shows us the pinkish-white blossoms of the plum drifting down through air and falling on an empty charcoal sack, which is black with dust from the charcoal and filthy-looking. The whole point of the verse is in the visual contrast and the feeling of “high” beauty in the plum blossoms contrasting with “low” in the empty charcoal sack.

This mixture of conventionally poetic subjects with “earthy” subjects is characteristic of hokku, quite different than the earlier and longer waka (essentially a hokku plus two extra lines in form), which used only poetic and “elegant” subjects.

This reminds us of three main aesthetic characteristics of the hokku — poverty, simplicity, and transience. All are seen in this verse.



Creder lo o non, le primavera ha comenciate.  Hodie es Candlemas, anque nominate Imbolc.  Le celo es azure e le sol brilla.

Fire-bearers circle figures of The Green Man f...

Onitsura scribeva:

Le alba;
Al puncto del folio de hordeo —
Gelo primaveral. 

Iste es un hokku del comenciamento de primavera.  Le frigido hibernal non ha evanescite in toto, ma remane in le matino.  Ma ora le energia yin se reduce, e le energia yang cresce.  Nos vide le energia yang in le alba e in le folio verde de hordeo, e nos vide le energia diminuende de yin in le gelo al puncto del folio, que tosto va disparer quando le sol ascende.

Iste hokku de Onitsura monstra ben como hokku exprime le natura de un saison del anno — aqui le primavera.

Nos vide tamben que le hokku es dividate in due partes:  un parte longe e un parte curte.  E le hokku tene un scena — le alba, un subjecto — le gelo, e un action — le remaner del gelo al puncto del folio de hordeo.

In le photo on vide le Homo Verde (le primavera — le energia yang del saison) qui lucta con Jack Frost (le gelo del hiberno — le energia yin).  Iste es un celebration anglese de Imbolc — del comenciamento del primavera.


Believe it or not, spring has begun.  Today is Candlemas, also called Imbolc.  The sky is blue, and the sun is shining.

Onitsura wrote:

On the tip of the barley leaf —
Spring frost. 

This is a hokku of the beginning of spring.  The cold of winter has not vanished completely, but remains in the morning.  But now the yin energy diminishes and the yang energy increases.  We see the yang energy in the dawn, and in the green leaf of the barley, and we see the decreasing energy of yin in the frost on the tip of the leaf, which soon shall disappear when the sun rises.

This hokku of Onitsura shows well how hokku expresses the nature of a season of the year — here, the spring.

We see also that the hokku is divided into two partes:  a long part and a short part.  And the hokku has a setting — the dawn, a subject — the frost — and an action — the remaining of the frost on the tip of the barly.

In the photo one can see the Green Man (the spring — the yang energy of the season) fighting with Jack Frost (the frost of winter — the yin energy).  This is an English celebration of Imbolc — of the beginning of spring.



A spring hokku by Bashō:

In falling,
It spilled its water —
The camellia flower.

Camellias are flowers of the cold and wet beginning of spring.  As they age, they fall with a “plop.”  This one, in falling, has spilled the rain water that has collected in it when it was still on the bough.

Bashō gives us a simple image of transience, showing us that even in Spring — the time of youth and beginnings — time and aging are already at work.  A sense of transience is always an important element of hokku, which never allow us to forget that all things are changing and impermanent.

This hokku, like all the rest written over the centuries, is not “great poetry.”  Hokku do not try to be either “poetry” (in the conventional understanding) or “great.”  They simply present us with a sensory experience of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, showing us how the season manifests its character in what happens within it.  This camellia flower dropping its water is Spring.

It is when we try to make “poetry” of hokku that we run into trouble.  That has been the unfortunate fate of the 20th century offshoot of hokku, the haiku.  In the West the hokku came to the attention of people brought up on western notions of poetry, people who unconsciously read those Western notions into their experience of hokku, and then re-made it as the haiku, which is a kind of peculiar hybrid of the brevity of the hokku with a substance composed of what people in the West were accustomed to think of as “poetry.”

When that happened, of course, the whole point of the hokku was lost.



Mokudō wrote a very simple yet very effective spring hokku:

Harukaze ya   mugi no naka yuku   mizu no oto
Spring wind ya barley ‘s center goes water ‘s sound

I give the Japanese transliteration only to show how very faithful English can be to the sense of the original:

The spring wind;
Through the barley goes
The sound of water.

This verse uses internal reflection to great effect.  There is movement in the spring wind; there is movement in the sound of water passing through the field of barley.  And of course there is movement in the bending leaves of the green barley.

This is a verse showing us growing yang, which is appropriate to spring.  We see that in the movement of the spring wind, in the movement of the water, and in the rippling young barley, grown just tall enough to hide the water that flows through it.  That is why the writer mentions only “the sound of water” flowing.

There is no writer apparent in this verse, no “poet.”  There is only the wind and the barley and the sound of water.  Mokudo has managed to write a hokku that works exceedingly well without falling into mere illustration.  It is an excellent manifestation of spring.



I have discussed this early spring hokku by Onitsura previously, but I would like to deepen what was already said a bit:

On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

It is obvious that this is an early spring hokku from the frost on the barley.  It is like the weather where I am now — nights with temperatures dropping to the point of frost, but mornings that bring bright sunlight.

This poem is an excellent expression of beginning spring.  In fact if we were to put it more fully into English according to the principles of English-language hokku, we could rephrase it thus:

Frost on the tip
Of the barley leaf.

In English hokku we do not need the word “spring,” because each verse being marked with the season, we need not repeat it.

More important, however, is understanding how this verse works, and for this we go back to the fundamentals of hokku, the basic knowledge of the elements of Yin and Yang.

Cold — frost — is Yin, and it is representative of winter.  But the sprout of barley is young growth, which is growing Yang.  Also, the dawn — the beginning of the day — is growing Yang, which is overcoming the Yin of night.  So what we see in this verse is the first appearance of growing Yang both in the barley leaf and in the dawn, and the last lingering of Yin in the frost on the tip of the leaf that will soon be melted by the rising sun.  In short, this is all about growing Yang overcoming Yin, which is precisely what spring is.  And so this verse by Onitsura does precisely what it was intended to do — it manifests spring.

Compare such a verse, which is like a representation from the Book of Changes, with the mediocrity and self-centeredness of much of modern haiku, which has lost the spirit of old hokku and has forgotten the principles on which it was based.

It is important to remember, however, that when we read the hokku initially, we do not pause to analyze the elements; we just understand them instinctively, which is why the hokku is both simple and effective.  But it is important both for writers and for readers of hokku to understand WHY it is effective, thus the need for explanation.



It may seem odd to some readers that I have begun to write of Spring, but where I live that is what is happening.

Spring begins with the very weakest of Yang energies that melt snow and ice and sprout forth from the ground and from the enclosed buds of bare trees.  It is the change from the still and silent to the fluid and audible, as we can sense in this spring verse by Onitsura:

The waters of spring —
Seen here
And seen there.

Everything seems suddenly to be thawing, melting, and in motion trickles run out of the forest, across paths and into streams, little rivulets pool up an hollows and flow onward.

It may also seem odd to some readers that I include examples of verses by Shiki — the originator of the “haiku,” but as I have said many times before, much of what Shiki wrote was still hokku in all but the name he chose to give it.  He kept the connection with Nature and with the seasons.  I sometimes say that his verses tend to be “illustrations,” but that is very much in keeping with his theory of verse, which resulted in two-dimensional “paper” hokku at its worst, and pleasant if not deep verses at its best.  So we need not disdain what is good in Shiki simply because of what the world and his successors did to his “haiku,” which were generally just hokku.

The lake ice —
It is melted
By the ripples.

The little ripples of water created by wind and current lap against the constantly thinning edges of the remaining ice on the lake.  This is a verse of very early spring, and do not forget that both in Japan and in the ancient Western calendar of the British Isles, spring begins in early February.  So here we are seeing the gradual effect of the “yang” motion of the warming, moving water against the “yin” solidity and cold of the ice.

The snow —
Melted on one shoulder
Of the Great Buddha.

This is often the effect of sun and shadow.  Where the light strikes, the statue will warm and the snow will melt.  But it will linger on the shadow side — the Yin side, just as snow lingers in the Yin shadows of the forest floor, beneath trees with branches free of snow.

I hope it will be obvious to readers how very important the two elements of the universe — Yin and Yang — are in hokku.  Through hokku we see these two contrary forces in all stages of interaction.  But now, being at the very beginning of spring, Yin still predominates, though it must give way gradually to growing Yang.

Keep in mind all the internal harmonies of hokku involving Yin and Yang.  Beginning spring is Yang first manifesting, such as we see in the gestation to birth of a child.  In the day it is the time between midnight and the first paling of the horizon sky before sunrise.  In plants it is the first sign of the swelling and opening of buds, the very first shoots that appear above ground.  One could go on an on, but we have already seen in the verses used as examples here that it is also seen in the melting of the ice at the spring thaw, and the beginning of the “Yang” flow of the waters.

Of course ordinarily we think of water as a Yin element, and it generally is; but remember that Yang and Yin are always relative, always changing in reaction to one another, so even cold as it is, the flowing water of spring is more Yang than the very Yin state and solidity of ice and snow.

Spring begins.


This year Imbolc came appropriately where I am, with a day of cold air but brilliant sunlight.  Imbolc in the old calendar is the beginning of spring, and so it is associated with the growing Yang energies, expressed symbolically in fire and candlelight.  Another name for it is Candlemas.

What does all of this have to do with us today?  Well, perhaps many of you who have read old hokku will have noticed that they are first of all, seasonal.  Each is set in a particular time of year.  And second, you may have noticed that they often seem a bit “off” by the modern Western calendar.  But they are not off by the old Western calendar, which was essentially the same as that used not only by the hokku writers of Japan, but also by the writers of Chinese poetry.

What this means today is that a return to the old calendar in our practice of writing puts us back in touch with the very old traditions of writing both hokku and “Chinese-style” verse.  And so knowing a bit about the old calendar is very useful.

What is particularly pleasant is that to put ourselves back in touch with the old tradition, we need not turn to Asia, but rather simply to the old calendar system used in the British Isles from ancient times, the venerable “Wheel of the Year.”

Those who have read my previous articles here on the “Hokku Calendar” will recall that in writing hokku, spring begins with Imbolc, with Candlemas:

Our calendar begins with  Candlemas on February 1/2; speaking more generally, spring begins the 1st week of February.
In the Japan of old hokku writers, spring similarly begins on February 4th, and these are its divisions:

Risshun, (立春): February 4 — Spring begins;
Usui (雨水): February 19—Rain water;
Keichitsu(啓蟄): March 5—Insects awake;

The spring Midpoint in our traditional calendar is the Spring Equinox:  March 21 /22.  In the Japanese hokku calendar it was similarly:
Shunbun (春分): March 20— the Spring Equinox, the middle of spring;
Seimei (清明): April 5—Clear and bright;
Kokuu (穀雨): April 20—Grain rain;

Our traditional spring Ends on the evening before May 1st; then comes May 1st, which is May Day (Bealtaine) and the first day of our summer.

I give the Japanese divisions here only to show how closely they approximate the ancient Western Calendar, which is of great help to anyone who wishes to follow the old seasonal traditions of the hokku.

Our ancestors, who used the old calendar, were of course very concerned with times and seasons because they were farmers and herdsmen, and it was of vital importance to mark and know the changes in Nature.  So Imbolc was the beginning of the “farming year,” and that is worth knowing today, when so many have forgotten that our very life comes from the earth and its produce.

We would do well to return to these old traditions that make us more in tune with Nature, more in harmony with the movements of sun and moon, as in the poem Prelude by J. M. Synge:

Still south I went and west and south again,
Through Wicklow from the morning till the night,
And far from cities and the sights of men,
lived with the sunshine and the moon’s delight.

I knew the stars, the flowers, and the birds,
The gray and wintry sides of many glens,
And did but half remember human words,
In converse with the mountains, moors and fens.

It may not seem that Spring has begun to those who live in very cold regions, but here in the Northwestern United States, which has a climate much like that both of the British Isles and of Japan, it seems to have begun right on schedule with the brilliant sun of Imbolc.



In studying contemplative hokku, a very good way to begin learning is by using patterns.

Patterns are hokku “frameworks” that we can use for writing countless new hokku.  By using them we learn the feel of the hokku form, and by changing the elements of a pattern we learn gradually to write original verses.

One of the most common patterns in hokku is the “standard” pattern, which consists of setting, subject and action.  For example, Shiki wrote:

A summer shower;
It beats on the heads
Of the carp.

We can easily use that as a pattern, replacing adjectives and nouns and verbs, etc.,  to make any number of new hokku.

Here is an article I wrote some time ago (you can see that I wrote it in autumn).  It shows how to use old hokku as patterns for learning to write new hokku:

Let’s begin by working with a slightly different pattern, a hokku by Gyōdai:

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

And here is how one uses a hokku as a pattern for learning:

All parts of it can be changed, as long as one keeps the same basic form.

We can see that this is a standard hokku, meaning that it has a setting (the autumn hills) a subject (smoke) and an action (rises here and there).  These three elements need not be divided precisely line by line.  For example in this verse, the subject is found at the beginning of the third line, while the action is divided between the third line, where the verb is found, and the second line.

Do not worry about the order in which subject and action come, but rather just be sure there is a subject and an action.  We will keep the setting as the first line for this practice.

In the model verse, the setting is

The autumn hills;

That is an adjective followed by a noun.

We can change both the adjective and the noun.  We could make it:

The blue hills;
The distant hills;
The high mountain;
The deep forest;
The clear water;
The windy gorge;

And so on to infinity.

We can also change “the” at the beginning to “a” or “an.”

Because we are beginning autumn, whatever setting we choose as our adjective-verb  should relate to autumn (this changes according to the current season).  And we can make our start as easy as we wish at first, and then we can vary more and more elements as we gain experience.

As an example, we could use the same setting and only vary the subject and action:

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Trees redden.

Now obviously that is rather mediocre, but in the beginning do not worry about making the “practice” hokku you write from patterns great hokku; improved content will come gradually.  Instead, focus on making the hokku fit the season and on following the pattern as you replace or vary elements within it.

We could also keep the same subject and action, and practice different first-line settings;

An old village;
Here and there
Smoke rises.


The autumn fields;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

Once we begin getting the feel of it, we can vary both setting and subject and action, and we can also work on improving content:

The autumn fields;
Here and there
Scarecrows lean.

Again, remember that we are not looking to rival great hokku in our beginning practice.  We are just learning, first, to use a model; second, to be in keeping with the season; and third, to practice our freedom in varying the elements of the model.

Now what is the point in all this?

Beginning hokku is like wearing a toolbelt with lots of empty pouches, but no tools.  Each model we practice puts a tool in a pouch of our belt.  And then when one actually has an experience in Nature, one can use this tool — this pattern — as a way to organize that experience.  The more patterns we learn, the more options we have for organizing.  And you will find that as you practice these basic patterns, they will readily come to mind when you do have an experience and want to write it down.

In working on these patterns, keep in mind that the setting is usually the wider context in which something happens.  It can be a place, the weather, the season — usually the BIG part of the hokku into which the subject and the action fit, like in the model.  The smoke rising here and there happens in the BIG setting of the autumn hills.

The subject — aside from the setting — is what the verse is “about,” in this case “smoke.”  And the action is something involving the subject that is moving or changing.  In this case the smoke “rises here and there.”

Now you have the first tool that fits in your hokku workbelt.  You only have to practice using it for it to become very practical and helpful.

If you have any questions about any aspect of this, or need help with some problem in your practice, feel free to ask me by posting a comment to the site (only I shall see it).  And feel free, if you wish, to show me your progress and ask advice as you need it.

It is very important that if you really want to learn hokku, you practice these patterns carefully, making your changes and replacement of elements as simple and gradual as you like.  Go at your own pace, without being lax.  Do not make things too hard for yourself at first.  But again, as you get more practice in replacing elements in the pattern, and begin to get the sense of how it works, you can replace more elements and make your variations more different.  And as you do that, you can also work on content, keeping in mind all that I discuss in other postings.  Gradually your hokku — even your practice hokku — will improve.

Do not do it just once or twice; keep making variations of all kinds on a pattern until doing so comes quite easily.  That will make it much easier, eventually, to write hokku from your own direct experiences.

How well learning from patterns works depends on how hard the student works, and how well the student can absorb and express the aesthetics and spirit of hokku.  I have talked about these aspects in other postings.

Working with patterns is a first step on the path of hokku.  Taking it is up to you.

There is not just a single way to translate a hokku from one language to another.  Structurally, and in vocabulary, Japanese and English are very different.  And English has considerable freedom in how one says a thing.  This is very beneficial in composing English-language hokku.

Onitsura wrote a very simple and pleasant hokku.  Such verses are characteristic of him at his best.  Here is one (out of season at present):

Green barley;
The skylark rising
And falling.

But that is only one way in which the same verse may be presented.  We could also do it as

Green barley;
The skylark ascends
And descends.

Or we could use my favorite,

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Because of the various streams of language that flowed together to make modern English, we have a range of options.  ”Rises and falls” uses Anglo-Saxon words;  ”ascending and descending” makes use of forms given by Latin.  English is a very rich language in the variety with which we may speak and write, and we should take advantage of that in writing hokku.  Our language in hokku should, however, remain simple and direct — never complicated or confusing.

Remember, however, that the hokku I present are not here merely for the pleasure of reading them.  They are models to be used in learning how to compose original hokku.  Do not expect the result of using such models to be immediately great.  The practice is to familiarize you with the structure and patterns of hokku, not to give you instant success in wonderful verses.  But you may be surprised at what interesting verses you can write as you begin to use models — hokku patterns.

We can take today’s practice hokku:

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Remember that in using a model, we can substitute any or all of the elements, like this;

Green pastures;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Or we can go farther:

Spring winds;
A kite rising
And falling.

Or even farther by adding an adjective;

The still pond;
Dark fish rising
And sinking.

One can see, as I said previously, the countless opportunities for writing new verse by using this method.  And this is just one of a number of hokku patterns we may use.

Working from models — which as already mentioned is a very old and traditional practice in hokku — enables us to quickly learn how the elements of a hokku are assembled and varied.   Then it becomes very easy for the student to write new hokku based on personal experience.

Another great benefit of writing in English is that the English language — unlike old “hokku” Japanese — has punctuation.  In composing hokku we should not be afraid of making good use of punctuation because it is a part of normal English.  We should never write hokku without it, because each verse should not only have an internal “cut” to separate the short part from the longer part (the single line from the two “continuous” lines that form the other part of each verse) — it should also have ending punctuation.  Sometimes there may even be a secondary internal pause in keeping with how we say things in English.

Blyth, for example, translated a spring verse by Issa like this:

Even on a small island,
A man tilling the field,
A lark singing above it.

He used three punctuation marks!  The “cut” is the first comma at the end of the first line, and the second comma is merely a pause necessary for the right effect in English.

Let’s look closer at that verse, which I would translate as:

Even on the small island –
A field being tilled,
A skylark singing.

Issa sees spring everywhere.  Not only on the mainland, but even on a small island he can see someone tilling a field and hear a skylark singing.  The island is its own little world.

The point of all this, however, is not to be hesitant in using punctuation when smooth English usage requires it.  This is quite the opposite of the practice in much of modern haiku, which — following the once avant-garde, now outdated poets of the early 20th century –began dispensing with normal punctuation, using little except perhaps an occasional, perfunctory hyphen.  In English-language hokku, however, we make good and beneficial use of the punctuation available to us.

As I often say, punctuation is used to add fine shades of pause and emphasis, and it guides the reader through a verse smoothly and without confusion or awkwardness.  That is precisely why we use it in everyday English, and precisely why we use it in hokku.

I have mixed verses of different seasons in this posting — which can be done for educational purposes — but remember that when you do the pattern work, you should use replacements that put the verse in the PRESENT season, which now would be autumn.



Yesterday I discussed three “Western” calendar systems relevant to hokku — the traditional calendar, the meteorological calendar, and the “natural” calendar.  The first is astronomical, and depends on the relationship between the sun and the earth; the second shows us the times of the actual affects of the solar-earth relationship; and the third is based on observation of what is happening in Nature and when it is happening — the sprouting of things, their growth and maturing, their withering, their dying.

After reading that article, some of you may have found the astronomical traditional calendar interesting, but perhaps you thought it a bit irrelevant to hokku.  But it is not.  Let’s take a look for a moment at the calendar actually used by those who originally wrote hokku in old Japan, and simultaneously I shall show you how it relates to our old and traditional Western calendar with its “quarter days” and “cross-quarter” days.

On comparing our old traditional calendar with the old calendar of Japanese hokku, we find something very interesting.  They go together very well, like this:

Our calendar begins with  Candlemas on February 1/2; speaking more generally, spring begins the 1st week of February.
In the Japan of old hokku writers, spring similarly begins on February 4th, and these are its divisions:

Risshun, (立春): February 4 — Spring begins;
Usui (雨水): February 19—Rain water;
Keichitsu(啓蟄): March 5—Insects awake;

The spring Midpoint in our traditional calendar is the Spring Equinox:  March 21 /22.  In the Japanese hokku calendar it was similarly:
Shunbun (春分): March 20— the Spring Equinox, the middle of spring;
Seimei (清明): April 5—Clear and bright;
Kokuu (穀雨): April 20—Grain rain;

Our traditional spring Ends on the evening before May 1st; then comes May 1st, which is May Day (Bealtaine) and the first day of our summer:

begins for us on:  May Day, May 1st, 1st week in May.  Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers, summer began thus:

Rikka (立夏): May 5—Summer begins;
Shōman (小満): May 21—Grain sprouts;
Bōshu (芒種): June 6—Grain in ear;

Our summer Midpoint happens on  Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice, June 20 /21.
The old Japanese hokku Midpoint happened on:

Geshi (夏至): June 21—Summer Solstice, the middle of summer.
Shōsho (小暑): July 7—Small heat;
Taisho (大暑): July 23—Great heat;

The End of our summer happens on the Evening before Lammas; then comes Lammas — Harvest Home — Lughnasa, August 1st, 1st week in August.  On Lammas our autumn begins.

For us it begins with Lammas — Harvest Home (Lughnasa), August 1st.  1st week in August.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers it took place thus:

Risshū (立秋): August 7—Autumn begins;
Shosho (処暑): August 23—Heat finishes;
Hakuro (白露): September 7—White dew;

Our Midpoint is the Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.
The old Japanese hokku Midpoint was:

Shūbun (秋分): September 23— the Autumn Equinox, the middle of autumn.
Kanro (寒露): October 8—Cold dew;
Sōkō (霜降): October 23—Frost descends;

Our autumn has its End at the Evening before Samhain, November 1st.  1st week in November.  Then on Samhain our winter begins.

Our winter begins with Samhain, November 1st, the 1st week in November.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers, winter began thus:

Rittō (立冬): November 7—Winter begins.
Shōsetsu (小雪): November 22—Small snow;
Taisetsu (大雪): December 7—Great snow;

Our winter Midpoint is Midwinter’s Day — the Winter Solstice — Great Yule, December 21 / 22.
Similarly, the old Japanese Midpoint was:

Tōji (冬至): December, the Winter Solstice — the middle of winter.
Shōkan (小寒): January 5 — Small Cold—also called 寒の入り (Kan no iri) The Entrance of the Cold’
Daikan (大寒): January 20—Great Cold;

Our winter had its End on the evening before Candlemas, February 1st, 1st week in February.
Similarly, as we have seen, for the old Japanese hokku writers, winter ended on February 3rd.

And here for us the cycle begins again with Candlemas (Imbolc) February 1st.
For the old writers of Japanese hokku, it began again similarly with Risshun (Beginning of Spring) on February 4th.

Now, what does all this mean to us today?  It means simply that if we follow the old and traditional Western calendar, we shall essentially and with only slight variation be following the same old calendar by which hokku was written in Japan.  And incidentally, that old Japanese calendar was actually borrowed from the Chinese, so the Japanese hokku calendar was the same as the Calendar used by Chinese poets.

So when we use the old and traditional Western calendar, we are, with little variation, following the same general calendar as the ancient poets of China and Japan.  The names vary from place to place, but the times are essentially nearly the same.