Many people overthink hokku.  Once one understands the aesthetics, it becomes quite simple.

Here is a summer hokku:

A summer shower;
All over the river —
Widening circles.

It has no hidden message.  It expresses the season in a natural event, without any commentary or interpretation, and without any “self” of a writer appearing.  A shower has begun, and everywhere on the surface of the water are the widening circles caused by each raindrop as it touches the surface.

It is a simple experience of the senses, not of the intellect.

If we use our old “setting/subject/action” pattern, we can look at it this way:

Setting:  A summer shower
Subject:  Circles
Action: Widening all over the river

Now you can see that these elements are not arranged precisely in order in the hokku, but they are there nonetheless.   The setting/subject/action pattern is just a helpful tool in composing, not a rigid group of boxes into which each element must be forced in a strict order.

All one needs to write hokku is to realize that it is not a conventional “poem.”   It is an experience of the senses that is felt to be meaningful, involving Nature or the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, and devoid of ego and added commentary.  Hokku uses ordinary words and ordinary things, but in these we should feel a sense of significance that is beyond explanation.

Of course hokku has its own aesthetic of simplicity and selflessness, and always in the background we feel that universal characteristic of existence — impermanence, the transience of things.  In this hokku we see it in the circles that appear, widen, and vanish on the surface of the river.







Down the bright road,
A crow and his shadow
Flying together.

I saw that a couple of days ago.  A crow swooped down not far from me, and as it flew very low over the sunny road, I was struck by the black shadow just below the crow and the black crow just above the shadow, both flying close in unison.

This is, I think, a good example of what I always say hokku should be:  ordinary things, but seen in a new way or from a different perspective.




Years ago, I posted on objectivity in hokku.  To me it is the very essence of what makes hokku a significant verse form.  That is why — after so many years — I have taken to calling the kind of hokku I advocate Objective Hokku — “OH” for short.

This morning I came across a quote from the painter Andrew Wyeth that immediately spoke to me:

There’s almost nothing here — which I like. I think I’m more attracted as I get older by nothing. Vacancy. Light on the side of a wall — or the light on these snowdrifts and the shadows across them. Makes me go back more into my soul, I guess.

These are simple things most people tend to pass by without even noticing.  But it is precisely that simplicity that is at the heart of the best hokku.  It is one of the most difficult marks of hokku to convey, because people are so wrapped up in their thoughts about themselves and about the things surrounding them that they view the world through a kind of perpetual haze.  But when one lets the mind calm down, and the haze of our constant thinking begins to disperse, then we can begin to really see what is around us.

When I was very young, and too immature to appreciate it, I spent several days in the practice of a form of meditation that involved paying attention to bodily sensations.  Such a practice gradually takes us out of the torrent of thoughts that constantly flows through us, and it can have interesting results.  I remember that after about three days of this, I suddenly noticed that I was seeing the world with an unexpected and very deep sense of three-dimensionality — with a kind of space and clarity that seemed new and unique to me.  Just the simple intervals between trees on a street appeared something quite remarkable, because the “flatness” of the world seemed to have somehow opened up into crystal-clear depths.

I think perhaps a similar thing may have happened to Wyeth, who focused so much on visual perception that he began to see the world — from time to time — without the obscuring overlay of thoughts that weaken our perception of and appreciation for such simple things as light and shadow and form.

For me, one of the most difficult things to convey about Objective Hokku is its profound simplicity and its preference for ordinary things — but with this important difference:  hokku looks for ordinary things seen in a new way, or from a different perspective.  Because it is only by seeing things in such a fresh manner that — generally — we are able to convey that deeper perception our day-to-day inattention blurs.

Writing hokku is largely a matter of paying real attention to things and events happening in Nature, but doing so without covering them over with our thoughts and opinions and internal comments.   We just let them be, like the sight of the slow passage of a beam of sunlight across the white wall of a room.

Hokku is not about our emotions — which is why we do not write about romance or sex, or other things that stir up the mind.  That does not mean, however, that hokku is cold and without feeling.  It is just a matter of direction.  The wrong thing to do is to put our emotions onto nature, which results in subjective verses — verses colored with our thoughts about things.  Instead, we just present a thing-event as it is, and that creates feelings within us.  We do not act on the object; the object acts on us.

Even Masaoka Shiki — who continued to write hokku — though under a different term — had some verses that achieve this, for example:

A summer shower;
The rain beats
On the heads of the carp.

He is looking at the big carp in a pond.  The fish rise to the surface, as they do when expecting to be fed by passers-by — and as they do so, the summer raindrops beat on the exposed tops of their heads.  To explain the significance in this is impossible.  It has to do partly with the wetness of the pond from below and the wetness of the rain from above and the meeting here of the two realms of sky and water in the fish.  But when we talk of it that way, when we try to explain it, the significance disappears, because it cannot be explained; it can only be felt.  Read the hokku and you feel it.

Here — with minimal changes — is what I posted some nine years ago:

I often mention the four approaches to verse:

1.  The subject (the writer)  treated subjectively (with the writer’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

2.  The subject (the writer) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

3.  The object (that which is written about) treated subjectively (with one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

4.  The object (that which is written about) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added).

Here is a hokku which — while dealing with emotion — treats it objectively, through its actual manifestation in action — Shōha’s

Kite bought,
The boy frets;
Ceaseless rain.

That is the object (the boy and his emotion and the rain) treated objectively.  The writer simply notes what is happening as he would note someone rowing a boat up a river.  We feel the boy’s nervous fretting in the jerkiness of the words of the first two lines, with their single-syllabic abruptness:

Kite bought, / The boy frets
!  !  –  !  !
And then comes the smoothness of the third line,
Ceaseless rain
which provides the steady background drone to the staccato fretting of the boy.  It is a bit like the tamboura in Indian music, with its  steady, ceaseless hum against which the changing melody of the sitar rises and falls.  It is somewhat similar to Bashō’s “Old Pond” spring hokku:

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

The pond is the “drone” element, the background against which the sudden splash of the frog takes place.  But in Bashō’s verse, the “temporal” element — the splash — happens only once, while in Shōha’s verse the jerky fretting is ongoing and staccato against the steady drone of the falling rain.

The important thing to note in this case, however, is that the subject is treated objectively, without the writer adding his thoughts and opinions.  Shōha simply states what is happening:  the boy has bought a kite;  he frets as the rain keeps falling.

In hokku we keep to such objectivity, which means we generally write according to numbers 2 and 4:

2.  The subject treated objectively.
4.  The object treated objectively.

That is because hokku — Objective Hokku — is interested in things and actions, and not in all of the thoughts and opinions that the writer may put on them or associate with them.  A hokku is not a springboard for thoughts and intellectual conclusions.  Instead it is an experience of the senses — of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling.

That is why in hokku we generally exclude the other two approaches to verse, 1 and 3:

1.  The subject treated subjectively.
3.  The object treated subjectively.

If you do not like to think of it in these terms, just remember that in hokku, whether we are writing about our “selves” or about something else, we keep our own thoughts and intellectualization and opinionating out of it.  In doing so, we get the writer out of the way and let Nature speak.




With the unseasonably hot weather here, my thoughts turn naturally to cool water.

There is a verse by Shiki that is rather awkward in English if translated too literally, but it comes out well if we just take the meaning, like this:


At the bridge,
The horse instead
Goes through the river.

The whole point of the verse depends on knowing that it is a summer verse; given that, we know why the horse prefers to walk through the water instead of taking the bridge.

And we feel a similar sensation in a hokku by Buson, again taking the overall meaning rather than being too literal:


Cooling his chisel
In the clear water —
A stone mason.

The same water that cools horses and humans cools a chisel.  The heat of the chisel (made hot by friction in use) brings out the coolness of the water, just as did the horse who preferred the river to the bridge.

Stones at the bottom
Seem to be moving;
The clear water.

R. H. Blyth tells us that Sōseki should not have said “seem to be.”  That is because hokku goes with what is seen, without thinking it through intellectually.  When looked at through the water, the stones DO move. We need no lesson on light and refraction telling us that it is only an appearance.  The moving of the stones is the perceived reality; that they “really” do not move is the reasoned reality — “thinking.”

We could re-write it like this:


Clear water;
The stones at the bottom
Are moving.






Today, two somewhat unconventional hokku on the same topic — the heat of summer:

First, a slightly loose translation of a famous hokku by Kakô, in keeping with the rising temperatures in my area today:

Carrying a load of wind
In this heat —
The fan-seller.

It is almost too clever for hokku, but is saved by the fact that the reader can feel both the heat of the day and the potential wind of the fans with which the seller is loaded down. It is an odd variation on just what I have been talking about in the past few postings — the use of opposites in hokku, thus showing the character of both elements. In this verse, the heat is a strong yang element, and the (potential) wind from the fans is the yin element. We can also sense the oppressiveness of the day’s heat in the words “carrying a load,” offset by the significance of that load. So the wind in this verse is both not there and there.

We see something similar in this second hokku, by Onitsura:

That mountain —
It’s where today’s heat
Has gone.

It was a hot day, but as it moves toward evening, the heat goes away. Where has it gone? Well, there is that high mountain; the heat is not here, and that is the only other obvious place, so it must be there.

For those who like seeing the originals with literal translations:

1. Kaze ikka ninau atsusa ya uchiwauri
Wind load carries heat ya fan-seller

2. Ano yama mo kyô no atsusa no yukue kana
That mountain mo today ‘s heat ‘s whereabouts kana



Summer heat;
The drip — drip of water
In the shadows.


This verse illustrates a fundamental technique used in many hokku — harmony of contrast. It is simple. One just combines things that are opposite in nature — heat is yang, shadows and water are yin. Using it, one can effectively convey many experiences. The technique is a good way to bring out the character of the heat, and also that of shade and of water.