Seibi has an interesting hokku that reminds one of Thoreau’s close observation of Nature:

The morning sun;
Already it penetrates
The autumn willows.

This is another of those verses in which meaning requires knowing the principles of hokku.  We might think it is just about the morning sun seeming to be up early (“already”), or the writer’s having risen from bed a bit late, but that is not the case.  The important factor here is the stated season, autumn.  That tells someone educated in hokku that there is a significant relationship between the sunlight and the willow trees.

(Photo credit: markhig)

Put simply, the writer sees how quickly autumn is progressing.  The leaves of the willows have been falling for days, opening gaps between the branches through which — he suddenly notices — the morning sun shines.

That is the point of the verse — transience, impermanence, how everything in Nature (including us) is constantly changing.  Just a short time ago the willows were a mass of yellow leaves, but already so many have fallen that the morning sunlight penetrates the trees.

Here in the United States, we are more likely to think of other kinds of leafy trees in such a circumstance, but the verse would be effective even if we generalized it to

The morning sun;
Already it penetrates
The autumn trees.

In that case, we would again use our “hokku sense” to recognize that these are hardwood trees losing their leaves, not evergreens — and again the tipoff would lie in the word “autumn.”



People seem to prefer reading this site, so I am shelving the alternate Hokku Inn site for now, and will move the postings from that site here, so they will still be accessible.  Here is the first of those:

In spite of his unfortunate change of terminology, Shiki often wrote very passable hokku.  Here is one of his best:

A dog asleep
At the door of the empty house;
Falling willow leaves.

This verse is interesting because it uses two settings and two actions, like two different focuses of a lens.  We see what is happening in the overall “far” environment.  We begin at a distance with

Falling willow leaves.

Then we move in closer and see

At the door of the empty house,

And what we see there is in the closest focus:

A dog asleep.

We could even reverse the English translation to fit that “big to small” format:

Falling willow leaves;
At the door of the empty house,
A dog asleep.

The Japanese original actually begins with line two (of the last example), then moves to line three, and ends with line one.  So we can see there are different ways of presenting the elements of a verse.

Those different ways are:

1.  Big to small — moving from the wider to the narrower view.

2.  Small to big — moving from the narrower to the wider view.

3.  Mixed, such as is used by Shiki in the Japanese original, when he begins with the second-closest view (at the door of the empty house), moves to the closest (the dog asleep) then moves out for the widest view (falling willow leaves).

Each of these gives us a different effect.

This hokku is an expanded form of the “standard” setting-subject-action hokku:

The setting is:  Falling willow leaves
The subject is:  A dog
The action is:  Asleep at the door of the empty house

“At the door of the empty house” functions essentially as a second setting, an expansion of the standard form.

Moving on to why this hokku “works,” we can say that it reflects the poverty and the growing Yin of autumn.  We see the poverty not only in the empty, abandoned house but also in the dog sleeping at its door, where there is no one to care for him.  The sleep of the dog is in keeping with the weakening of the vital energies in autumn, and this feeling is only made stronger by the falling leaves of the willow, which show us the same weakening of energy.

Though Shiki does not say so, one feels that the time is afternoon, when the declining sun gives a warm, drowsy color to the atmosphere that is very much in keeping with the sleeping dog and the languid falling of the yellow leaves of the willow.

Those of you who have been with me for some time will quickly recognize the principle of internal reflection in all of this.  Internal reflection is the putting together of elements in a hokku that are similar in nature or feeling, so that they subtly “reflect” one another within the poem.  The weak falling of the willow leaves, the sleep of the dog, the emptiness and silence of the abandoned house — all are in keeping with the increasing Yin and decreasing Yang of autumn.



Buson the artist-writer was also a classicist heavily influenced by Chinese poetry.  Put very simply, Chinese poetry in general has a feeling of great distances, while Japanese poetry more often concentrates on the small and near.  Nonetheless, one sometimes finds the “vast space” of Chinese poetry in the very small envelope of a hokku.  One example with a very obvious Chinese influence is this verse by Buson:

Kimi yuku ya   yanagi midori ni   michi nagashi
You go ya willow  green at      road long

Rather literally it is:

You are going;
In the green of the willows,
The long road.

It is a “departure” verse, for which we find many prototypes in Chinese poetry.  Essentially it is an expression of one’s feelings when a dear one is going away.  It is quite obvious, though, that those feelings are expressed in ways other than we would usually do it in the West.  Here they are expressed through Nature rather than through “bare emotion.”

We could also translate Buson’s verse more freely:

Your leaving;
The green willow road
Is long.

Two old friends are saying goodbye in spring.  The willows that line the road are bright green with new leaves, and the road itself stretches on and on into unimaginable distance.

Inevitably one is reminded of Hans Bethge’s loose rendering of Wang Wei in Die Chinesische FlöteThe Chinese Flute, as used in Gustav Mahler’s “Song of the Earth”:

Er stieg vom Pferd und reichte ihm den Trunk
Des Abschieds dar. Er fragte ihn, wohin
Er führe und auch warum es müßte sein.
Er sprach, seine Stimme war umflort: Du, mein Freund,
Mir war auf dieser Welt das Glück nicht hold!
Wohin ich geh? Ich geh, ich wandre in die Berge.
Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz.
Ich wandle nach der Heimat, meiner Stätte.
Ich werde niemals in die Ferne schweifen.
Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde!
Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt
Aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig
Blauen licht die Fernen!
Ewig… ewig…


He dismounted and handed him the drink of parting;
He asked him where he was going and why it must be.
He replied, his voice was veiled;
“You, my friend — Fortune was not kind to me
In this world.
Where do I go?  I go — I wander in the mountains,
I seek peace for my lonely heart.
I wander to my homeland, my place.
No more shall I travel in far regions.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!
The dear earth all and everywhere
Blooms forth, and grows green anew.
All and everywhere the blue light
In the distance —
Eternal… Eternal….