I periodically emphasize that I do not translate old hokku here just to be translating them, but rather to show through them how hokku are to be written today in English and other languages.

Some time ago I discussed this autumn verse by Bashō:

Bashō nowaki shite tarai ni ame wo kiku yo kana

I said of it,

“It is more condensed in Japanese than is possible in literal English, but what it means — put in a long way — is:

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

Not exactly the old 5-7-5, is it?  Even in Japanese it is 20 phonetic units rather than the standard 17, because the beginning is overly long — Bashō nowaki shite— “The banana plant blown by the late autumn wind,”  which means a banana plant blown by a “field divider,” a strong wind of late autumn.

This verse works in Japanese, but in English it is simply too long for hokku if one includes all its elements.  That is why I previously introduced five-line “extended hokku” variants for those experiences that do not quite fit the very brief three-line hokku form in English.

This gives us poetic forms flexible enough to fit what we need.  We may use either the short-long-short-long-long lines of the walden, or the short-long-short-long-short of the loren.  But we need not worry if a line exceeds its length a bit.

That means in rewriting Bashō’s verse, we can use a modified form which has five lines:

A banana tree
Blown by the storm;
Listening all night
To the sound of rain
Dripping into the basin.

That gives us the essential elements of Bashō’s hokku but without the awkwardness of trying to fit them all into hokku form, and it works much better in conveying Bashō’s meaning in English.

Perceptive readers will recognize these longer short-verse forms as simply English-language variants on the old Japanese waka, which in Japanese was 5-7-5-7-7 phonetic units.  But these variants in English are less complex and more flexible than the waka, and of course the aesthetic here remains that of an extended hokku, not the more “romantic” aesthetic of most old waka.

So keep in mind that when you have an experience that just will not fit into the small space of a hokku, you have the longer five-line option.  And of course do not forget that like the shorter hokku, these slightly longer forms are to be classified by season.  Everything that applies to the hokku regarding aesthetics applies also to these “extended hokku” forms.

In using extended forms, there is no need to limit ourselves.  You will recall that my initial “long” translation of Bashō’s verse was

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

There is nothing to prevent us from using almost those precise words if we wish, but it would be a good idea to arrange them thus:

The banana plant
Blown by late autumn gusts —
A night of listening
To rain dripping into the basin.

We have the freedom to write hokku-like verse this way if we wish.  The important thing is that we keep the aesthetic principles of hokku.  A verse written thus — in four or five lines — is of course not hokku in form, but it is definitely within the spirit of hokku.

When I talk about the “spirit of hokku” applying to longer verse as well as the shorter hokku form, I am of course speaking of the whole range of forms we may use for contemplative verse — the kind of  verse that has its roots in the Buddhist and Daoist writers of China and of Japan, whether written in short or longer forms.

By the way, did you notice how odd it feels to be talking about an autumn verse in the spring?  That is why we always write and read hokku in season, though out-of-season verses may be used for educational purposes, as in this case.



Not long ago I introduced two short-verse “alternative” forms.  Both were intended for those times when a hokku is too small in space for what needs to be said.

We find such an example in English translations of one of Buson’s spring verses about the willow.  Blyth gives it as:

Unwilling to throw it away,
I stuck the willow branch in the ground;
The sound of water.

This is really too long for hokku in English, though Blyth conveys the meaning of the Japanese rather well.  Let’s suppose for a moment that we are the writers of this verse, that we are writing it in English and we can see its content is too extensive for a hokku.  The next step would be to go to a longer “short verse” form, in this case the walden, which is the English-language aesthetic equivalent of “hokku-ized” waka:

Not wanting
To throw the willow away,
I stuck it
Deep in the earth;
The sound of rain.

As you can see, that has a short/long/short/long/long form.  It is  kind of extended hokku, and it is really remarkably handy.  Just because something fits into a hokku in Japanese does not mean it will do so in English.  Similarly, many experiences take just too many English words to fit the hokku form, and in those cases we may also use the walden (or the slightly briefer loren).

Let’s look again at Buson’s verse in walden form:

Not wanting
To throw the willow away,
I stuck it
Deep in the earth;
The sound of rain.

The writer has been walking along, holding a long branch of a willow that has newly leafed out in the fresh green of spring.  Suddenly he realizes that it is not something to keep, but what is he to do with it?  He feels it not right to just discard it, but instead pushes it deep into the spring earth.  Some time later he hears the sound of rain falling.

With this verse Buson too is part of the spring, the greening willow, the rooting and growing of things.  The willow and its watery nature and ease of sprouting in moist soil are in harmony with the sound of falling rain.



Kyorai, one of Bashō’s students, wrote:

Hito aze wa    shibashi naki yamu    kawazu kana
One path wa for-a-while  cries silent   frogs kana

An aze is specifically a path through rice paddies.

When Blyth translated this, he changed the verse, and also — in my view — its meaning:

One field of frogs
Croaks for a time,
And then is silent.

There is nothing wrong with that except that one loses the intrinsic meaning, and without the explanation one wonders why a field is full of frogs.  Blyth tells the reader in an added comment that “actually it is ‘one footpath between the fields'” of frogs.  But of course one cannot have

One footpath between the fields;

as a first line of a hokku.  It is just too long.

Moreover, we cannot possibly get everything in the Japanese version into the space of a hokku in English.   That means we need a verse form slightly longer than the hokku:

A footpath
Through the rice paddies;
For a while
Their croaks are silenced —
The frogs.

Two days ago I introduced an English variant on the old Japanese waka that I call the “walden,” which has essentially the form of the old waka but the aesthetic content of the hokku.  The walden form is:


Today I introduce a second variant, a third writing option, for those times when the space of a hokku (as in this case) is too short, but a walden is too long.  I’m going to call it a “loren” after one of my favorite writers, Loren Eiseley.  As you can see from the example, the structure of a loren is:


If we were to put the three verse types in old “Japanese” measure, they would look like this:

Hokku:  5-7-5
Loren:    5-7-5-7-5
Walden  5-7-5-7-7

NOW we have the full tools for dealing with virtually any case that may arise, using a short verse form.  We have the hokku for the shortest, the loren when a hokku is just a bit too short, and the walden when the loren is not quite long enough.  And of course all three follow the contemplative aesthetics of the hokku.

But back to Kyorai’s verse, which we have expressed in a loren because the hokku is too short in English:

A footpath
Through the rice paddies;
For a while
Their croaks are silenced —
The frogs.

The rice paddies are filled with the croaking of frogs.  But as Kyorai proceeds down a footpath between the paddies, his presence is sensed and suddenly the frogs all go silent.

Having said all that, there is a way to translate Kyorai’s verse in hokku form:

A paddy path;
Suddenly the frogs
Go silent.

But of course the real point of this posting is to introduce another option for those cases that are virtually impossible to condense into the short hokku.



Buson wrote a spring verse that is very tricky to put into English:

Hana ni kurete   waga ie tōki   no-michi kana
Blossoms at darkened   my home far   field-road kana

Blyth, who often preferred to convey the overall meaning of a verse rather than its absolutely literal meaning, gave this as:

Among the blossoms, it grows late,
And I am far from home —
This path over the moor.

That does well what Blyth wanted it to do, but it is not at all what we would do when composing a hokku in English.  It is too unbalanced, too long.  The problem is that literally, what Buson is saying is something like

It grows dark on the blossoms;
My home is far;
The field road.

But that too is unusably awkward in English.

We could try

The blossoms dim,
My home is far;
The road through the fields.

But essentially, Buson has presented us with two parallel lines and a third, and that makes translation into English hokku form problematic.  We need not feel troubled by it, however, because Buson has really packed too much into the small space for a hokku.  The information contained in the verse requires a wider format, either the waka or four lines of “Chinese” verse.

I would translate it into my own version of the waka.  But first I must explain a bit:

A waka (literally “Japanese song” or “Japanese verse”)  put into English form comes out as three lines of the same length as a hokku.  But it ends with two additional lines that are the length of the longest (the middle) line of the “hokku-like” part.  Where hokku avoids overt “poetry,” the waka does not.  And the waka, which does not shy away from romance, tears, longing for the loved one, etc. etc. etc., also tends to use a very elevated and elegant language, using only what we might call “high” subjects though presented in the context of Nature.  It is all moonlight and singing birds and cherry blossoms.  No toads, no pumpkins.

We may say that while our tradition of hokku took a middle path in old Japan, neither falling into mere puns and wordplay and witticism nor using only elevated subjects, the waka always remained on a very elevated level.  Subjects often found in hokku would be considered too “common” or “low” for it.

Quite honestly, that has always been why I have never had much interest in writing the waka.  I have no interest in its deliberate romanticism and its “ivory tower” attitude toward the ordinary things of life.  In waka everything must be conventionally beautiful and elegant and aristocratic.  Waka fails to see that there is also beauty in the ordinary and plain, and for me that is a fatal flaw.

What I have always wanted to do, then, is to make up for the flaw by writing a kind of “hokku-fied” waka, verse combining the high and low, which of course I could not continue to call waka because its aesthetics would be different — like those of the hokku.  My kind of waka, then, would be the waka form minus its complexities, and having the “contemplative” aesthetics of the hokku.

So here I give Buson’s overly-packed (for a hokku) verse rewritten in my longer, hokku-fied waka form, which I hereby name the “walden” in honor of Henry David Thoreau:

With evening,
The cherry blossoms
Grow dark;
Through empty fields,
The long road home.

Buson has lingered too long admiring the blossoms, and as they darken, he turns his eyes to the long road through the fields and begins his homeward journey.

If any of you would like to try the “walden” as well, just keep in mind that it has the same aesthetics as the hokku, and the same avoidances.  Its subject matter is Nature and the place of humans in Nature, and it omits romance, sex, violence — things that disturb the mind in general, as well as “technology.”

It is simply an extended hokku in its aesthetics.  And every now and then, one may need an extended hokku.  Outwardly it looks like a waka but it is not a waka; nor is it what is today called a tanka.  It is a walden.




I have mentioned previously the simple, elegant — one might even say “clean” feeling one gets from the hokku of Onitsura.  It is unfortunate that he had no reliable students to carry on his kind of verse.  Because of that, people tend to think of Bashō as the “founder” of our kind of hokku.  But he was only one of two, and we should never forget Onitsura.

Regular readers here will know that there are different kinds of hokku.  There is the “standard” hokku that we use in beginning teaching, a very common kind consisting of a setting, a subject, and an action.  There are “question” hokku that leave the reader with an unanswered question.  There are “occasion” hokku that are written for a special occasion and have two completely different levels of meaning.  And there are other kinds, including the “statement” hokku.

A statement hokku, you may recall, is simply making a simple, non-controversial, factual statement about something.  That is what we find in the following hokku by Onitsura.  But before we look at that verse, we need to understand its subject.

As you know, in Japan there were fixed subjects for certain times of the year, and in old hokku (unlike modern hokku in English), these took the form of definite season words.  When one read a verse with such a word, one automatically knew the season in which it was written.  This was a helpful shortcut in the beginning and in a limited environment, but over time the system of season words became unwieldy and impractical, which is why today we simply mark each hokku written with its season.

The seasonal indicator in this hokku is the “change of clothes,” that time of year when one (in fact when everyone, in the old days in Japan) changed from the heavier cold weather clothing to the lighter clothing of warmer days.   This is traditionally considered a “summer” topic, but in many parts of the world (as in mine), it is more likely to be a topic for the latter part of spring.

Here is Onitsura’s “statement” hokku:

Ware wa made    ukiyo wo nugade    koromogae
I          wa still-not      floating-world wo remove  change-of-clothes

The “floating world” is the world of desires and illusions, meaning the everyday world in which we live.  It is also the world that is, like its pleasures, only temporary and transient.  In English we would call it the “material” life or the “worldly” life as opposed to a life of deeper spiritual understanding.

Onitsura, then, is taking stock of his life at this time of the year when one formally changes clothing.  And his conclusion is:

Not yet
Have I removed the floating world;
The change of clothes.

An English writer might put it this way:

Having not yet
Removed the garments of worldliness,
The change of clothes.

Or one could put it like this:

My worldliness
Still not removed;
The change of clothes.

One suspects that Onitsura, while being honest, was also a little hard on himself, because his verses tend to be far less “worldly” than those of other writers.

Onitsura, however, is simply and clearly recognizing the truth that was also seen by Henry David Thoreau in Walden:

“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes. All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.  Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old….”

Onitsura recognized that at the time of the formal changing of clothes, it was far more important to be concerned with one’s “spiritual” clothing.  He knew that to judge a man by his outward appearance and not by the condition of his spirit was a very superficial judgment indeed.

But more important, Onitsura recognized that the condition of his “spiritual” clothes was his responsibility, and that merely changing his outward garments from heavy to light clothes was not the change that one really needs to make.