Certain of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins require a considerable amount of unscrambling. To some they are often just hopelessly obscure at first or even second reading, and I would counsel those people not to give up. Often several readings of a Hopkins poem, sometimes more intent readings, sometimes more relaxed readings, will allow the meaning to come through, just as a developing bath in an old photography studio will gradually bring a sensible picture out of the surface of what seems at first merely blank paper.

There are certain helpful keys to reading Hopkins:

1. Remember that he often arranges words in unusual order, and when you rearrange them in the “right” order, a line will frequently make more sense.
2. Remember that he likes to use old words, and also likes to use familiar words with more old-fashioned or unusual definitions, sometimes not the primary definition one finds in a dictionary. For this, checking with the Oxford English dictionary and reading all of the definitions and examples for a word is frequently helpful.
3. Remember that Hopkins will often say something very simple in what seems a complicated way; he does this for poetic reasons, and because he is so fascinated with the sounds of words and their ranges of meaning.
4. Hopkins tends to repeat a thought in different ways from poem to poem, so the more of his poetry you read, the easier it becomes to understand a given poem.

Today’s poem is one of those requiring patience, but before one can understand it, it helps to know certain things.

1. Hopkins was very fond of the music of the baroque English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). He even wrote a poem in Purcell’s honor.
2. In this poem he expresses his view of the purpose of physical beauty, of “good looks” in humans, and he bases his conclusions largely on an event in the history of the English Church that used to be known to every English schoolboy — the encounter of pope-to-be Gregory with young English slaves in Rome.
3. Hopkins had a love of Nature, but being very “religious,” he thought that seeing beauty in Nature was seeing God manifesting in Nature. He repeats this concept in various poems, and we find it in today’s poem.

So before we even read it, we know that it gives Hopkins’ opinion of the purpose of physical beauty. For Hopkins, who was a lover of beauty but still very religious and also homosexual, it was a matter of concern. We can say that this poem is Hopkins attempting to reconcile his love of beauty with his religious beliefs.

Let’s take a look:


To what serves mortal beauty | dangerous; does set danc-
ing blood the O-seal-that-so | feature, flung prouder form
Than Purcell tune lets tread to? | See: it does this: keeps warm
Men’s wits to the things that are; | what good means–where a glance
Master more may than gaze, | gaze out of countenance.
Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh | windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

To man, that needs would worship | block or barren stone,
Our law says: Love what are | love’s worthiest, were all known;
World’s loveliest–men’s selves. Self | flashes off frame and face.
What do then? how meet beauty? | Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; | then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, | God’s better beauty, grace.

To make things a bit easier, let’s look at the beginning this way, rearranging the lines:

To what serves mortal beauty — dangerous —
does set dancing blood — the O-seal-that-so | feature —
flung prouder form Than Purcell tune lets tread to?

First Hopkins gives his question:
What use is the dangerous beauty of mortals? What end does it serve?
Hopkins knows that physical beauty can, on the one hand, be dangerous, because it “sets the blood dancing” — it can excite and attract.
And what is it that does the exciting, that sets the blood dancing?

It is the “O, seal that so” feature, the face that makes us wish it to be “sealed” like a letter and kept “so,” kept as it is; the beauty that has been flung into “prouder form” [put into more magnificent form] than “Purcell tune lets tread to.” By that Hopkins means that the visible form of physical beauty has greater magnificence than the stately steps (tread) of a dance composed by Henry Purcell.

Now Hopkins begins his defense of physical beauty, his justification for it:

See: it does this: keeps warm
Men’s wits to the things that are; | what good means–where a glance
Master more may than gaze, | gaze out of countenance.
Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh | windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

“See,” Hopkins tells us, “Physical beauty does this: it keeps man’s consciousness attentive to “things that are” — to the material world, not just to intellectual abstractions. Remember that for Hopkins, we can see God in and through the beauty of the material world.

“What good means,” Hopkins tells us, meaning “What good means” to an end physical beauty is. Why? Because beauty is so striking that “a glance may master [may affect one] more than a long gaze. By this Hopkins means that a mere glance at physical beauty can have a stronger effect than a long but unaffected gaze at something not strikingly beautiful.

Hopkins now gives us the historical example upon which his conclusions are based, his “proof” that a striking glance at physical beauty can have effects far beyond the ordinary:

Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh | windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

Hopkins expects his readers to know what he is referring to here, and any Englishman educated in history would have known. He is referring to an incident from the history of the English church as recorded by the Venerable Bede, an incident in the slave markets of Rome. Gregory, who was to become Pope (“father”) of the Catholic Church, happened to be passing through the slave markets when he saw some very striking youths with blondish hair and pale skin. Having never seen such people before, he asked what they were. He was told they were Angles — “English.” When Gregory, who was much given to punning, heard the reply “Angli” (“Angles,” i. e. “English”) in Latin, he responded, Non Angli sed angeli — “Not Angles but angels,” … if they were Christians.

That chance encounter, that attraction of Gregory’s glance by the young slaves, was said to have led to Gregory’s efforts as Pope toward the conversion of England to Christianity. “Windfalls” here means something knocked down by the winds of war, as farmers speak of “windfall apples” that fall from trees to the ground in a strong wind, and may then be picked up. So then, Hopkins tells us, if it were not for Gregory being struck by the physical beauty of the “Anglish” lads, how else could he have “gleaned” them — that is, how could he have selected them to become Christians, marked them out from all the rest of the swarms of humanity in Rome?

How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarmed Rome?

Here is a rather idealized image of Gregory seeing the young Angles. The real slave market would have been considerably rougher and far less clean and tidy than we see here, I suspect.


So, when the glance of Gregory happened to fall on the “Anglish” lads, and he was struck by their looks, in that chance meeting — “that day’s dear chance” — their beauty was what ultimately resulted in the conversion of the English nation to Christianity —

But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

To man, that needs would worship | block or barren stone,
Our law says: Love what are | love’s worthiest, were all known;
World’s loveliest–men’s selves. Self | flashes off frame and face.
What do then? how meet beauty? | Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; | then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, | God’s better beauty, grace.

Man, Hopkins opines, is by nature so moved to worship that he would worship a block of wood or an uncarved stone. But “our law,” that is, the law of human nature, tells man to love instead what is worthiest of love, if all were known, and what is worthiest of love is “men’s selves,” humans themselves. “Self,” Hopkins adds, flashes off frame and face.” Now we know from our reading of another Hopkins poem that expressing “self-nature” was important to him, and in this “self” of humans, Hopkins sees a manifestation of God, because according to the Bible, man was made “in the image of God.” And the greatest “self” to Hopkins was that in which God and his grace are most clearly seen. Remember these lines from his poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his going graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

So humans naturally love beauty in the appearance of other humans, in the face and “frame,” (body) because, Hopkins feels, they sense God behind it.

But here naturally arises the problem of what to do with such beauty. Hopkins certainly does not take the course of hedonism and physical desire. Instead he sees human beauty as useful in the Platonic sense that it leads us gradually beyond itself to the divine:

What do then? how meet beauty? | Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; | then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, | God’s better beauty, grace.

How, then, should we react when we encounter beauty in human form and face? Hopkins tells us to “merely meet it,” that is, just see it, recognize and appreciate it, “home at heart” (untroubled by it, secure in ourselves) as the sweet gift of heaven, BUT, and this is “Hopkins’ big but,” as PeeWee Herman would say, once one has seen and appreciated physical beauty in a human through just looking at it, then one should “LEAVE, LET THAT ALONE.” In other words, see it, enjoy its beauty, then let it go and do not become attached to it — “Look, don’t touch.” Why? Because beyond it is something more to be wished for, the “better beauty” than the physical, the grace which comes from God — the “unmerited favor of God,” as Christians would put it.

So that is Hopkins’ notion of physical beauty in humans; it is naturally attractive to us and we can see God manifesting in it, but we should not become attached to the physical form or we shall miss that which is even more beautiful in it and through it, the grace of God.

It is a sentiment much like that found in William Blake’s poem:


He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

It is not a surprising view for a sensitive soul who became a Jesuit. What is surprising is that, like Blake, Hopkins makes poetry of it.



When it comes to the evaluation and criticism of poetry, all is opinion and personal taste.  Taste, it is true, can be developed, but who can say that a man’s liking for a painting of waterlilies by Monet is any more sincere than the liking of some people for plastic or silk flowers?

I have always had a great deal of difficulty in trying to initiate people into the appreciation of the hokku as opposed to modern haiku, precisely because of that difference in taste.  To me the preference for modern haiku is akin to those who are still on the plastic flowers level, but in spite of that one must recognize that people will like what they will like, and even the old Latin saying tells us that there is no arguing about taste.

Nonetheless, people will argue.  And of course people will criticize, whether the work in dispute is a painting or a poem.

No one, to my knowledge, has ever successfully and adequately defined poetry.  Alfred Edward Housman made a useful distinction between poetry and verse:  he said that the former is literature, the latter is not.  So William Blake may present us with poetry, while Hallmark is likely to give us only verse.

As for the nature of poetry, Housman fell back upon his version of the common saying of the uneducated buyer of antiques:  “I don’t know anything about it, but I know what I like.”  Housman, however, put it this way when asked for a definition:

I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us.”

And that is indeed how most of us recognize what we call poetry — because of its effects on us.  Yet that leaves us back where we started:  individual ability to recognize poetry is a matter of education and taste.  Generations were moved by Trees, written by Joyce Kilmer, verse that to me is unquestionably on the “plastic flowers” level, and unbearable to read.

So there are differences in taste, and these differences are largely a matter of personal preference and education.  An unsophisticated taste in verse will leave one liking Trees.  An educated taste will find it appalling.  That is just one of the realities of life.  We may say that one who dislikes Trees has good taste while one who likes it has bad, yet that again is just a matter of personal taste and personal opinion.  It simply means that to us, “good” taste means educated and experienced taste, while “bad” taste means uneducated and inexperienced.

That is why I look on the bulk of modern haiku as simply bad taste.  I have had the benefit of knowing what hokku once was, and can recognize that modern haiku is just a mutated offshoot, the distorted creation, largely, of mid-20th century would-be poets who misperceived and misunderstood the nature of the hokku, and so created the “haiku” according to their own misconceptions.  If I had not had that education and experience, however, I might likely hold a different and less “advanced” view.

Housman tells us that poetry is not dependent upon meaning; that in fact there is much writing that is poetic yet devoid of real meaning.  And indeed, he tells us, some of the most poetic writers — among them William Blake — were actually mad to a greater or lesser degree.

I have to say that Housman is correct.  There are some works that have the logic of bedlam, yet are very poetic, such as the lines from Xanadu,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

We should not be surprised to learn that Xanadu is forever unfinished because Coleridge, while writing down the poem, which had come to him in an opium dream, was interrupted by the arrival of a visitor, and the remainder was forgotten.  It is mad poetry, but poetry nonetheless, and that is why it persists in finding a place in college anthologies.

Not all that appears in such anthologies is poetry, however.  Some of it is merely prose disguised as poetry, and that can be said of a good part of what has been written in the 20th century.  There is, for example, a good deal of attention given to the “rediscovered” verses of Lynette Roberts, but quite honestly I can find hardly more poetry in some of her writing than in a waiter’s description of the lunch menu, for example the beginning of her Poem from Llanybri:

If you come my way that is … 
Between now and then, I will offer you 
A fist full of rock cress fresh from the bank 
The valley tips of garlic red with dew 
Cooler than shallots, a breath you can swank 
In the village when you come. At noon-day 
I will offer you a choice bowl of cawl 
Served with a ‘lover’s’ spoon and a chopped spray 
Of leeks or savori fach, not used now,
In the old way you’ll understand…

Yes, it has some Welsh terms like cawl (a kind of Welsh version of Irish stew) and “savori fach” — her spelling of Welsh safri fach — “little savory,” which is the herb Satureja montana, Winter savory in English), and mention of the traditionally Welsh “lover’s spoon,” but in my view that hardly qualifies it for the acclaim it presently receives.  So even though I have a weakness for things Welsh, I cannot, using Housman’s criterion, recognize “Llanybri” as poetry because of the absence of symptoms evoked by it.  So for me, it is merely verse.  “Swank” by the way, is used here as a verb meaning to “ostentatiously display.”  Oddly enough, Roberts eventually gave up writing after converting to the fundamentalistic, mind-controlling sect called Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Much of what has been written as poetry in the 20th century onward remains for me merely verse.  It has become too intellectualized, too consciously clever, too conventionally “poetic” according to what fashion at present considers poetry to be.  And the real poetry has been lost in the process.

What passes for poetry these days is little advanced from what it was in Louis Macneice:  a kind of over-intellectualized verbal assembly that seems to come from too much association with other “poets,” who encourage each other unhealthily into more and more writing with less and less poetry in it, for example these lines from Snow by Macneice:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural.  I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

All intellectualism, no poetry.  Macneice only talks about the “drunkenness of things,” but Coleridge, in Xanadu, gives it to us directly and unmediated.

All too often, modern would-be poets think that merely dividing prose into the lineation of poetry makes poetry.  It does not.  Yet this kind of pseudo-poetry, found often in the writings of Gary Snyder and many others, in my view, has even made its way into present-day college anthologies.  One can only hope that young poets will remain uninfluenced by their example, but so far that does not seem to be the case.  More and more genuine poetry has given way in English-language writing to mere lineated prose or  surrealistic constructions of words used in odd ways.

One may bemoan what has become of poetry, but then poetry has a very limited space in modern life.  It has become largely the province of those who want to think of themselves as poets or as poetic, a very ingrown little society that appears to be securely walled off from the rest of the world.  Would-be poets seem to write for, and be read by, other would-be poets.  That means a particular negative trend, if found in poetry journals and anthologies, can grow and overwhelm a period of writing like a tsunami.  It seems we are at present the victims of such a flood of bad taste in the “world of poetry,” and we can only hope that a recovery and reconstruction will come soon.

That, however, requires education.  It requires experience.  It requires stepping out of the limited and limiting circle of present-day poetry, so that the individual may rediscover what Housman found to be true –that poetry is recognized by its effect on us.  But there are effects and effects, and all too many people seem to have lost or forgotten the symptoms created by genuine poetry, and are settling for mere intellectualism and peer approval.  Both are death to poetry.

But again, that is personal taste and opinion.  So I encourage readers not to think they must like a poem simply because it is printed in a college anthology, or dislike a poem because it finds no place in such a work.  Educate your taste.  Experience poetry from all periods and of all kinds.  Do not rely merely on the opinions of “authorities” for your taste in poetry.  Take them into account if you will, but do not accept them uncritically.



I have written earlier about how poetry and music were often historically connected.  Today we think of poetry as apart from music, but in earlier times poetry was often sung or chanted to musical accompaniment.

Music, in relation to poetry, is very interesting.  Music is, in a way like the sense of touch.  one may feel that something is cold or hot or neutral, but one does not know what, precisely, is causing the sensation, unless and until one looks.

Similarly, there are many works of music written about things or on specific themes, but without an added title we would really have no idea what a given work was about.  From the sound of the music we would feel it to be sad or peaceful or happy or forceful, But beyond that we would be lost.

Take for example the lovely work “The Swan,” from Carnival of the Animals, by Saint-Saens.  Knowing it is about a swan, as we listen to it we may see in the mind a swan gliding peacefully across smooth water.  But if it were called something else — something that also fit the peaceful softness of the music — we would likely see that “something else” instead.

A written title, then, adds “eyes” to the sensory-emotional impact of the music — it adds a visual impression.  And if we set words to the music, describing a swan as it glides smoothly along, we make the picture even more definite.

Now let’s reverse the process:  Imagine that we have a poem about a swan.  We can see what is depicted in the poem, but that seeing is somewhat deficient in feeling.  Feeling may not be absent, but we will not realize how deficient it may be until something is added.  Add the music to the words, however, and their effect is magnified many times over — suddenly there is a strongly felt “emotional” aspect to the words that is provided by the musical background.

That, of course, is precisely the reason for a musical score in a movie.  It adds a sensory-emotional context to what is seen on the screen.  Think of some of the most effective scenes from great movies, and you will simultaneously hear in your head the bit of musical soundtrack that went with that scene, whether it is Luke Skywalker standing against the twilight sky near his desert home, thinking of his future, or Scarlett O’Hara vowing she will never be hungry again.  Who, in fact, can even think of Gone With the Wind without hearing that sweeping musical background?

That is the way it is with poetry.  Think of William Blake’s poem Jerusalem:

And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen?

It is an interesting and effective poem.  It does what Blake intended it to do.  But if you have ever heard it sung by an English choir with the full backing of a thundering pipe organ, you will feel reverberating through all your being that when Blake says,

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

he means business!  And it is no wonder that it was sung by others who similarly meant business, such as the National Union of Womens’ Suffrage societies, who used it as a kind of anthem at certain of their meetings.  And even today it is a kind of unofficial national anthem of England, so effective did it become when set to the stirring music of Hubert Parry.

To say that the effect of Blake’s words becomes enhanced when set to Parry’s music is in no way to belittle Blake.  He was a remarkable poet.  But music adds a depth that is not felt to be missing until one hears a poem set to just the right music.

Think of the lines,

Uncounted diamonds lie in stony caverns,
Unnumbered pearls within the sunlit sea…

They are pleasant enough, but when set by Rimsky-Korsakoff to the tune popularly known as “Song of India,” they become more than they are in themselves, they become absolutely enchanting.  That is the effect good music can have on words.

We must keep in mind, however, that just as good music may enhance a poem, bad music will ruin it.  It is surprising, however, that even mediocre poetry may be elevated by the addition of good music.




Someone expressed the view to me recently that the haiku and tanka “communities” are strongly biased against any traditional approach.  By “communities,” he means of course those people who gather on the Internet or in publications to share and read and discuss those particular forms of verse.  And by “biased,” he means that those communities have a marked tendency to scorn the writing of such verses according to the traditional standards.

It is not news to me.  When I first began to tell people in the modern haiku communities that they were being misled, that Bashō and all the rest prior to Shiki did not write haiku but hokku, and that most of what is found on modern haiku sites has nothing in common with what Bashō and the others wrote but brevity, there was a furious uproar.  And some of those most upset were those who had managed to construct little nests for themselves high in the diminutive tree of the modern haiku hierarchy by putting themselves forward as authorities.

The observant quickly learn, however, that in the field of modern haiku there are authority figures, but not genuine authorities.  There is a site on the Internet, populated by a very small number of people, calling itself the “Haiku Foundation.”  It now has a forum where newcomers may come and ask questions of “mentors,” who, to judge from the answers given, are simply making it up as they go along, because the essence of modern haiku is doing whatever one wishes to do, writing however one wishes to write.  There are no universal standards in modern haiku other than perhaps brevity and the avoidance of universal standards.

That is a far cry from the hokku, which had and still has very definite standards of form and aesthetic.

Returning to the statement that such groups are biased against traditional approaches, one finds that only confirmed in the steadfast opposition of modern haiku groups to any return to the traditional hokku.  And opposition always follows a fixed, almost ritualistic pattern.  It is the same outcry today as it was many years ago when I first began telling the then-existing modern haiku groups that they had it all wrong and were on the wrong road if they wished to be considered in the same lineage as the old hokku writers of Japan.  Their standard response was, “You cannot tell me how to write!  Poetry must be free, and I’ll write haiku however I want to write it!”

Of course this is a very confused objection.  To write hokku in essentially the traditional manner has nothing to do with limiting poetry; it only limits one to calling a thing by its real name.  And even that is something to which modern haiku groups have a great aversion — note how they persist in incorrectly and anachronistically calling pre-Shiki hokku “haiku,” as though doing so somehow justifies the modern mediocrities they write while claiming to follow in Bashō’s wake.

It is sheer pretention and obfuscation that makes the modern haiku enthusiasts take up the irrelevant refrain that there should be no limits on poetry.  That is a cry as old as William Blake, who wrote, correctly, that “Poetry Fetter’d Fetters the Human Race!”

Limiting poetry is not the issue.  No one is telling them they cannot write poetry of any kind or level whatsoever.  The real issue at hand is whether the bulk of modern haiku is verse in the same tradition as that of Bashō and Gyōdai and Buson and all the rest, and I say it is not.  It is, instead, a mid-20th century creation of Western writers who misperceived and misunderstood the hokku when they first encountered it in translation, and consequently re-made it according to their own misconceptions.

The modern English-language haiku  was born at roughly the same time that circumstances were moving toward the outbreak of the Vietnam War.  And those who created it — the writers in printed anthologies, the self-made pundits — did not follow the aesthetics and techniques of the old hokku or even of Shiki’s conservative innovation the “haiku” (which was still hokku in all but name).  Instead they created the modern haiku according to the principles and presuppositions popular in 20th-century Western poetry in the first half of the 20th century.  That is why one often finds elements characteristic of modern haiku that were long ago considered to be “new” in the verses of poets such as Cummings, but that are now as much a part of the past as the dial telephone.

It is important to repeat that the modern haiku enthusiasts mistake the issue.  It is not whether one is to write poetry however one wishes.  All are free to do that.  It is whether one is going to call something by its correct name so that it may be defined and understood.

That is a simple matter.  If one goes to a bakery and requests a loaf of bread but is handed a chocolate eclair instead, one need only tell the baker that there is a mistake, that what was desired was a loaf of bread.  But a problem arises if the baker replies, “Oh, this is a loaf of bread!  We just choose to make it differently, because of the freedom inherent in baking!”

We would consider such a person an intolerable fool, and so should we consider those who say, “Oh, a haiku is just a hokku under another name.  Haiku is the NEW name for it, and we can write it however we wish now.”

If one wants a loaf of bread, the phrase “loaf of bread” has to have a definite meaning.  It cannot signify a chocolate eclair or a pizza or a doughnut with sprinkles. The fact that all contain flour does not make them the same thing.  Nor does the simple fact that both modern haiku and all the verses written as hokku before Shiki are brief mean that modern haiku are in the same lineage as the old hokku, or even in the same lineage as Shiki’s understanding of the haiku.

Modern haiku today is essentially a little free-verse poem, generally without rhyme and often without meter, in (usually) three lines.  That it is called a “haiku” is simply an historical oddity.   It should not imply that the modern haiku and what Shiki knew as the haiku are in any way the same, just as a pizza is not a loaf of bread, though they have flour in common.

Since at least the 1960s, the modern haiku communites have been busily working the destruction of the haiku both by scorning the traditions of the hokku and the “Shiki” haiku, and by continually changing the manner in which modern haiku is written by personal whim, so that today a modern haiku is often just an appalling little mediocrity created to make this or that bored housewife or failed academic think he or she is a “poet.”  It is not the haiku of Shiki, nor is it the hokku that existed in the centuries prior to Shiki, nor is it the hokku written today in modern English.

It surprises some people when I tell them that Shiki’s “haiku” was largely a propaganda campaign, and that what he wrote was essentially still hokku.  His verses, for the most part, still had Nature and the place of humans within Nature as their subject matter, and they were still, for the most part, set in the context of a particular season.

Modern haiku is often not about Nature and the place of humans within Nature.  It is often not set in any seasonal context.  And it frequently introduces elements not only unacceptable to the hokku and the traditional haiku (Shiki’s haiku), but also antithetical to it, such as romance, sex, violence, and modern technology.

All of this of course does not mean that anyone is prevented from writing brief verses about romance, sex, violence, and modern technology not set in any particular season and not focused on Nature and humans within Nature.  It just means that such verses are not in the old hokku tradition that preceded Shiki, and they are not in the hokku tradition of Shiki.  Instead they are new Western verse in the “tradition,” if one can call it that, of those who misconstrued and misunderstood both the hokku and Shiki’s haiku in the middle of the 20th century, and one wishes that all would simply recognize that fact and stop pretending that they have anything to do with either the old hokku tradition of Japan or the kind of haiku advocated and written by Masaoka Shiki around the beginning of the 20th century.

There are those in the modern haiku communities who advocate dropping the term “haiku” for the modern pseudo-hokku and pseudo-haiku verses commonly now called “haiku.”  Well, it might as well happen, because modern haiku has thoroughly self-destructed by its refusal to accept the standards of the lineage it claims to follow.  Now that it has pushed the “hokku” name from public notice and has thoroughly discredited the “haiku” name, it might as well move on, having destroyed what it was claiming to promote.

Modern haiku in English is not taken seriously today by anyone except those few who write and read it.  The old hokku, however, whether mislabeled “haiku” or not, continues to demonstrate, even if in translation, the virtues of the old tradition for anyone who has eyes to see and the poetic sense to understand.



Sometimes on this site I will seem to go far afield, but generally there is a thread leading in some way back to hokku or the spirit of hokku.

Johann Peter Hebel, who wrote in Swiss-German, has a very remarkable poem:


S’isch wor, Her Jäck, i ha kei eigene Baum,
i ha kei Huus, i ha kei Schof im Stal,
kei Pflueg im Feld, kei Immestand im Hoff,
kei Chatz, kei Hüenli, mengmol au kei Geld.
“S macht nüt.  ‘S isch doch im ganze Dorf kei Buur
so rich as ich.  Der wüsset wie me’s macht.
Me meint, me heigs.  So meini au, i heigs
im süesse Wahn, und wo ne Bäumli blüeiht,
‘s isch mi, und wo ne Feld voll Ähri schwankt,
‘s isch au mi; wo ne Säuli Eichle frisst,
es frisst sie us mim Wald.

So bin i rich. Doch richer bin i no
im Heuer, in der Erndt, im frohe Herbst.
I sag:  Jez chömmer Lüt, wer will und mag,
und heuet, schnidet, hauet Trübli ab!
I ha mi Freud an allem gha, mi Herze
an alle Düften, aller Schöni g’labt.
Was übrig isch, isch euer.  Tragets heim…


It’s true, Mr. Jäck, I have no tree of my own,
I have no house, I have no sheep in the stall,
No plow in the field, no beehive in the yard ,
No cat, no dog, often also no money.
It doesn’t matter.  For there is in the whole village no farmer
As rich as I.   You know how it is done?
think I have it — I think too that I have it
In sweet foolishness, and where a tree blooms
It is mine, and where a field of grain waves
It is also mine — and where a pig eats acorns
It eats them in my woods.

So I am rich; but even richer
In Haying, in the Harvest, in happy Autumn.
I say, “Now come, people, who will and may,
And mow, and reap, and cut the grapes.
I have had my joy in all of it —
Have refreshed my heart
With all the scents and all the beauty.
What remains is yours — carry it home!

This Swiss farmer’s “sweet foolishness” is well on the way to the wisdom that results from William Blake’s counsel:

If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”

Hebel’s poem is very much in keeping with the old hokku by Kikaku:

A beggar;
He wears Heaven and Earth
For summer clothes.

Thomas Traherne, in his Centuries of Meditations, wrote:

You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars : and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”