I have written before about the misguided efforts in the late 20th century —  and even up to the present — to “debunk” the notion that there is any connection between hokku (which the would-be “debunkers” usually anachronistically call “haiku”) and Zen.  In my view, their efforts are largely attacking a creation formed of their own misperceptions.

Of course when referring to Zen in hokku, the name always brought up is that of R. H. Blyth, who closely linked the two.

The simple answer to the pointless controversy, however, lies in these basic facts:

  1.  By “Zen,” Blyth meant neither that all writers of hokku were Zen Buddhists, nor that all hokku exhibited the Zen aesthetic.
  2. Blyth — in making the Zen-hokku connection — was not referring to Zen in the form of organized religious sects in Japan, but rather to the aesthetic principles that characterize the best hokku.
  3. Blyth himself writes, “…by Zen we mean a state of Self-consciousness, in which though we know and are fully conscious that I am I, and the flower is the flower, we are also deeply conscious of one life, one existence rather, moving and flowing in and between us. With Zen as a method of attaining this state [that is, the formal practice of Zen meditative training] we are not now concerned, and for the purpose of poetry we must emphasize one particular aspect of Zen as a way of living, its simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.
    (Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses, page 39)

I have added emphasis to that in italics and in bold type.

So that is the “Zen” Blyth saw in hokku; he saw it as a way of life, as an aesthetic of simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality. At least that is what he found in the best of old hokku.

(Hancock Shaker Village, MA; Library of Congress)

As to the historical origins of hokku, no one can legitimately deny the influence of Zen Buddhism on Japanese culture and aesthetics.  I often quote Shōei Andō, who wrote in his interesting book  Zen and American Transcendentalism:

…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].

We see the influence of Zen in Japanese ink painting, in flower arranging, in the tea ceremony, and in Japanese literature such as Noh drama and hokku.  So the correct way to regard Blyth’s comments is simply to recognize that Blyth saw and recognized the Zen aesthetic influence in hokku, which manifested there as simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

Nonetheless, hokku being what it is, Blyth would have correctly seen Zen in it even if it had no historical connection to the aesthetic principles influenced and spread by Zen Buddhism in Japan — because Zen, as understood by Blyth — is quite independent of all that.  Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality may be found in any place and culture where conditions permit such an aesthetic to arise, even if it is only manifested in rare individuals.

When looked at that way, we can see that “Zen” in Blyth’s understanding extends far beyond Japanese culture and its historical connection with Zen aesthetics.  We see Zen wherever we find simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality in expressing Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature.  That is why one can find Zen wherever one lives a life based on those qualities — as in the life of Henry David Thoreau  — and wherever one writes expressing those qualities.

That is why anyone in any country who follows this path may continue to write “Zen” hokku today, based on the same universal aesthetic principles.




English: The Wind in the Willows. A breezy sum...

As all regular readers here know, a hokku is a sensory event set in the context of a particular season.  That is basic knowledge.  But did you ever ask yourself why?  What, after all, is the point of recording sensory, season-related events as hokku?

This matter is very significant in getting to the root of what hokku is all about, yet it is very simple.  Hokku have to do with the creation of very subtle states of mind in the reader.  The operative word here is subtle.  That is why hokku are not “war” verses, not “romance” verses, not “protest” verses, not “social commentary” verses.  And it is also why hokku has a deep connection with a meditative life, such as one finds in (traditional) Zen or Ch’an Buddhism, as well as with the kind of attitude toward life found in Transcendentalism, as in the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

Now what do we mean by “subtle states of mind”?  You already know.  You have just perhaps never heard it put that way before.

Here is an example.  When you read the words in this title of the old classic children’s book, they automatically create a “subtle state of mind” that you may not have consciously noticed, but were aware of nonetheless — subtly aware:

The Wind in the Willows

Just those words, with nothing added, arouse a certain nearly-indefinable sensation in us.  We see the willows, we see the wind blowing through the branches, and we may even feel the wind against our arms or faces.  But beyond that, there is a distinct, definite feeling created in our minds — a “subtle state of mind” that is aroused by the willows and the wind in them.

We can modulate that effect — change it — by putting it in the context of a season.  Look how different the “subtle sensations” are that doing so creates:

Spring — the wind in the willows

Summer — the wind in the willows.

Autumn — the wind in the willows.

Winter — the wind in the willows.

What a contrast between the fresh wind of spring through the young leaves, and the cold, biting wind of winter through the bare branches!

To appreciate such verse, one must be able to appreciate simple, understated things.  There is nothing grand here.  Hokku does not strive to be beautiful or conventionally poetic.  It merely records a sensory event in the context of a season, and that creates its own “poetry” in the mind of the reader.

In modern hokku we do not write the actual season name into every verse.  But we do label every verse with the season, so we know its context, and that enables us to experience it.

Of course in the “wind in the willows” examples, I have not put them in the form of a hokku, but we can see the relationship between those examples and real hokku if we look, for example, at this verse by Ryūshi:

The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves.

In old Japan that would have been a “winter” verse;  but it could also be an autumn verse,  depending on how we label it, and there would be a difference in feeling between the two, as we see if we add the season “label” to each:


The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves


The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves.

Just by changing the season, we make it a different hokku, a different verse.  Yes, the words are still precisely the same, but the seasonal context makes a significant change in the subtle state of mind evoked.  It is not that one is “better” than the other, but rather that each has its own effect.

That is what hokku does.  It creates subtle states of mind in the reader by recording a sensory (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) event in its seasonal context.  And that is the “poetry” of hokku — not in the words, but as it appears in the mind of the reader.  For that to happen, however, and to have its full effect, the reader must be the kind of person who is open and appreciative of such subtle states of mind.

That is one reason why, as I often say, hokku is not for everyone because everyone is not for hokku.



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.



I have long made no secret of the fact that in my view, the hokku tradition of Japan was greatly distorted when it was introduced to the West as “haiku.”  Instead of paying attention to R. H. Blyth, Westerners instead listened to the the haiku societies and self-made authorities that were busy re-making the hokku in their own image.  Consequently hokku was never really successfully transmitted to the West, but instead fell into the hands of those who used it for their own purposes, greatly changing it in the process.

That has been the situation since the middle of the 20th century, and if anything, that situation has become even worse today, as do-it-yourselfers continue to turn the hokku — misrepresented as “haiku” — into just another ill-defined kind of Western brief verse, with the only thing left of hokku being, in most cases, its brevity, and sometimes not even that.  Even when modern haiku enthusiasts claim to keep such elements of hokku as the focus on Nature and an emphasis on season, one finds that in practice they have no understanding of the aesthetic principles behind these elements.  It shows immediately in their writing.

For almost fifteen years I have been presenting a different view of hokku, one that restores what to me are its unique virtues as a kind of spiritual verse.  Over the years I have carefully explained everything from the form and punctuation of hokku in English to its aesthetics, including how it fits into the cycle of the seasons and how its focus is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of, not apart from, Nature.

Some fifteen years of presenting hokku should be sufficient.  If those reading about it here have not gotten the point in that time, one has reason to suspect they never will.  But of course new readers are always appearing, and one never knows when one among them will suddenly “get” what hokku is all about, in spite of all the baggage people may carry from exposure to modern haiku.

And if the times are unpropitious to hokku and its Nature-based aesthetic, one must simply not try to hasten the process; one must be patient and hope that once again humans will begin to recognize that Nature is their mother and father and their home, and that those who harm Nature harm themselves.

What does all this mean for this site?  It means simply that after discussing hokku and all its methods, techniques, and implications for such a long period of years, the time has come to relax a bit and to include discussion of other things — things beyond but still related in some way to the spirit of the hokku.  One might think that after years of writing on the topic, the hokku has been more than sufficiently discussed and explained in all I have presented here since I first began so many years ago, long before anyone else was teaching either hokku or haiku on the Internet.  But once one has developed a great interest in hokku, it just becomes a part of one’s life, and comes up naturally now and then in whatever one thinks and does.

Hokku is significant as a manifestation of a way of life and action, but there are other manifestations as well, other things I hope to discuss here — many of them not too far afield from the hokku and its atmosphere of poverty and simplicity and focus on Nature and the seasons.

We have just passed Halloween — Samhain in the old calendar — the end of the ancient year.  Now we go into the darkness and the cold of winter — the Yin time, the time of returning to the root —  out of which a new year will eventually be born.  The old cycle of the seasons continues, and this site will continue too, even though it is sure to change in one way or another over time, just as all things in Nature change in keeping with the workings of Yin and Yang.

Those of you who have studied hokku with me over the years really should now be on your own.  I have given you the knowledge, but if you are unable to provide skill and the right spirit, that knowledge will come to nothing.  I have done what I could.  And though I shall continue to talk about hokku, as time goes by it will increasingly be up to others to keep the hokku alive or to let it fall into decay and be forgotten.  I can only do what I can do, and all else is beyond my control.

Here is a variation on a winter hokku by Katsuri:

Travelers —
One by one they disappear
Into the falling snow.

That is life.  Things come and go, people come and go, and though I continue to talk about hokku here, I shall not be around forever to teach and explain it.  Whether or not the hokku falls into obscurity and is forgotten under the overwhelming deluge of mediocrity exhibited in modern haiku will be up to all readers of this site.  One hopes they will not let it happen, even though past experience with human notions of responsibility does not give great encouragement.



R. H. Blyth makes a significant point regarding the order of elements in hokku.  To do so, he uses a verse by Ryōta, which I shall give here in my translation:

Who is awake,
The lamp still lit?
Cold midnight rain.

And then Blyth gives us a different arrangement for comparison, here again in my translation:

Cold midnight rain;
Who is awake,
The lamp still lit?

In the first, we are first presented with an unanswered question followed by the wider setting — “cold midnight rain.”

In the second, we begin with the cold midnight rain, but are left with the question and the image of the burning light in the mind.

We learn from this that how we order a hokku determines how we perceive it, and how we perceive it determines its effect.

The preferable version, of course, is the first, because it leaves us with the sound of the midnight rain, which only deepens the preceding question and its feeling of loneliness — Who is it awake, / The lamp still lit?

And the answer is precisely this:

Cold rain at midnight.

Of course it is an answer that is a no-answer, because to answer a question asked in hokku is to spoil that empty feeling of not-knowing, an emptiness in which the cold rain of midnight ceaselessly falls.



A reader has asked me to clarify a few points in this list (borrowed from R. H. Blyth) of the characteristics of hokku.  Though he asked about only three, perhaps it might be helpful to give some explanation of all, for those readers just beginning to learn about hokku:

1.   Willing limitations (hokku is not “all things to all men” and has willingly-accepted standards and boundaries).

Comment:  Hokku has a relatively fixed form.  In English it consists of three lines, each line with an initial capital letter, and the whole fully punctuated.   It is separated into two parts (divided by appropriate punctuation), a longer part and a shorter part.  Further, it is set in a particular season.  But beyond this, hokku limits itself to subjects that do not trouble or disturb the mind, which is why it avoids topics such as war, violence, sex, and  romance.  These limits are willingly accepted by those who practice it, realizing that hokku (unlike modern haiku) is not whatever anyone wants it to be.  It has a definite purpose, and to achieve that, the limitations of hokku are seen as virtues rather than as undesirable boundaries.

2.  Sensationism (a focus on sensory experience).

Comment:  Hokku lays primary importance on experiences of the senses — taste, touch, hearing, smelling, seeing.  It avoids abandoning this concreteness for abstract “thinking,” for adding the comments and ornaments that are common to much of Western poetry.  In short, hokku are about experiencing, not thinking about an experience or analyzing it.

3.  Unsentimental love of Nature.

Comment:  Hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans in and as a part of Nature.  Nature is not treated unrealistically, nor is it used as a symbol or metaphor for something else.  The writer is always aware that Nature is a process of change — of constant impermanence –and that nothing can be permanently grasped or possessed.

4.  Lack of elegance.

Comment:  Hokku — unlike the old waka poetry of Japan — does not deal merely with subjects thought to be “high” and poetic; instead it shows us the poetry in ordinary things.  An excellent yet paradoxical example of this is Onitsura’s verse:

In the broken pot,
A water plantain —
Slenderly blooming.

Here we have a simple flower blooming in a broken crock.  There is nothing “elegant” about the subject matter, in fact it is filled with a sense of poverty.  And though there is an elegance of simplicity in the way the subject is expressed, hokku avoids any materialistic elegance of status, of elevating “high” subjects above “low.”

5.  Appreciation of imperfection.

Comment:  We have just seen an example of that in Onitsura’s verse.  The broken crock is obviously imperfect.  Imperfection is a characteristic of existence, and hokku is realistic.  It makes a virtue of such imperfections, seeing them as manifestations of the impermanence found throughout all Nature.

6.  Skillful unskillfulness (appearing to have been easily, naturally written without effort or contrivance).

Comment:  Those who have been reading here for some time know that hokku takes time to learn.  There are many helpful techniques and there are all the basic principles and underlying aesthetics.  And yet when the hokku is written, none of this should show.  The hokku should appear just as spontaneous and natural as a ripe pear falling from the branch, otherwise we are too aware of the writer and are distracted from the experience that hokku should convey.

7.  ”Blessed are the poor” (an emphasis on poverty in experience and phrasing).

Comment:  Poverty is very important in hokku and it means many things.  Essentially it is an appreciation of the simple things in life, the opposite of materialism.  In writing it means that we choose ordinary subjects, but present them seen in a new way.  It also means that in writing we limit ourselves to a certain amount of space, and to simple and ordinary words.  And it means that in hokku we are limited in how much we can say, and, as we have seen, there are limits too on the subject matter.  Hokku thus expresses the sense of the words “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” because it means that in accepting voluntarily such limitations, we avoid materialism and ego, preferring spiritual development.  This poverty is not seen as deprivation, but as the “empty cup” one must have so that something fresh and new may be poured into it.

8.  Combination of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.

Comment:  For Westerners, there is a vagueness built into hokku.  Because of its poverty, it never seems “finished” like a Western poem.  It seems to be saying more than is in it, but what that something is, is never clearly stated.  Instead it must be felt through having the experience of the hokku.  A hokku only gives us a part of the wider whole.  There is always something missing or hidden, because the poverty of hokku lets it only say and include just so much, and nothing beyond.  It is like an old Chinese painting in which we see a landscape with considerable portions hidden by mist.  Here is an example by Kyoroku:

It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

We always see the bright fronts of morning glory blossoms, but the wind of autumn blows them in such a way that we see the pale whitish reverse side.  We feel that there is a significance in this, but we cannot say what it is.  We are just to experience the verse, feel the autumn wind, see the pale “backs” of the morning glories, and have that feeling of unexplained significance — a mixture of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.  The verse is quite definite in what it shows us, but there is a vagueness underlying the whole that should not and cannot be clarified.  We see the indefinite through the definite.  There is more to a hokku than what it reveals, and yet what it shows us includes everything written and unwritten:

It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

9.  Human warmth.

Comment:  Because humans are seen as a part of Nature, the writer of hokku cannot help but see them as included in its impermanence.  Because of that, a compassion arises in the writer.  We know that human life is brief, and filled with sorrows and joys that both are temporary.  This compassion should not be “preachy” and obvious in hokku, but instead we should feel it behind a verse, like feeling the love of a mother pushing her child patiently in a swing — and it extends both to humans and to other creatures, as in this by Bunson:

The Harvest Moon;
In the dark places,
Insect cries.

10.  Avoidance of violence and terror ( hokku are generally peaceful and contemplative).

Comment:  Modern haiku enthusiasts often complain about the limits of hokku, saying that one should be able to use it for “protest verses,” for showing the horrors of war, for all kinds of purposes that really have nothing to do with what hokku is all about.  But hokku — particularly as I teach it — is a contemplative form of verse, meaning it should contribute to peace of mind rather than adding to the stress and worry of modern life.  Hokku shows us the peace behind all of life’s problems, and that is why in writing, it helps to have a peaceful mind.  Hokku is to take us beyond the continual emotional ups and downs and upheavals of life, to give us a little taste of what it means to live without an ego that is constantly fretting and desiring.  So in hokku there are limits to what one can or should do (you can see how this relates to all that has been previously discussed here).  The mind of the writer of hokku should be like a still pond in which the moon is reflected.  It cannot be so if stirred by fears and emotions.  And similarly, it should convey that sense of the peace underlying all the surface disturbances of life to the reader.  That is why we call it a form of contemplative verse — contemplative in the sense of peaceful and meditative, silent and free of ego and open to the experience of Nature.

11.  Dislike of holiness (hokku is very spiritual, but not in any “preachy” or dogmatic  sense).

Comment:  Hokku is a very spiritual kind of verse in that to write it, one must get the ego out of the way — if only temporarily — so that Nature may speak.  The writer should be like a clear mirror, free of the dust of emotions and desires.  When that mirror is wiped clean, Nature can be clearly reflected in it.  Unlike much Western poetry, in which the “poet” is considered important, in hokku the writer as “ego” is seen as an obstacle.  So the hokku writer must put the ego aside, and simply convey an experience of Nature, neither adding his thoughts and comments to it nor ornamenting it.  That of course includes omitting any obvious “preaching” about this or that, which is why when hokku talks about religion, it does so objectively.  One of the worst things a beginning writer of hokku can do is to write a lot of verses filled with obvious references to Zen or Buddhism or Christianity or meditation — filling them up with concepts about religion instead of with concrete experiences.  The spirituality of hokku lies in simply getting the ego out of the way.  That does not mean one cannot include any mention of religion, but that mention should be natural and never forced or “sermonizing” or obvious.  Issa, who sometimes failed in this, nonetheless gives us an example of a winter verse that is successful:

The Buddha in the fields;
An icicle hangs
From his nose.

Issa means, of course, an image of the Buddha.

12.  Turns a blind eye to grandeur and majesty (like the early Quakers, who refused to remove their hats and used the same second-person pronoun for wealthy and poor, hokku is “no respecter of persons”).

Comment:  Hokku has little use for glory.  In hokku an orchid is not superior to a dandelion, nor is a beautiful young person preferable to one old and wrinkled.  In fact, given the choice, hokku will usually choose the ordinary over the extraordinary, the plain over the conventionally pretty.  In hokku a person with money has no greater value than a beggar in the streets.  In fact the latter is more likely to appear in hokku than the former.

Further, hokku tends to prefer one thing to many — a single flower instead of a huge bouquet, one person alone instead of a crowd.  That is why in old Japanese hokku, even though there is no indication of whether a subject is singular or plural, it is generally understood as singular.  One thing is felt to have more significance than many things.  Of course there are exceptions, but this is the general rule of thumb.

13.  Unobtrusive good taste.

Comment:  Good taste in hokku is seen in the absence of things that disturb the mind, as well as in the absence of catering to mass taste.  It is seen in the poverty of hokku, as well as in its peaceful, contemplative atmosphere.  And it is seen in the writer’s selection of elements included in a verse, which nonetheless must appear natural and spontaneous, even if it took the writer weeks to get it “just right.”  Above all, good taste is seen in the selflessness of the writer, in his (or her) getting out of the way and allowing Nature to speak through a simple experience of the senses, set in the context of the seasons.  All of the principles of hokku contribute toward this sense of unobtrusive good taste.

14.  A still, small voice.

Comment:  Hokku is not grand.  It is not loud.  It is not obtrusive.  It appears almost too brief to be worthwhile.  And yet it is in that very brevity and poverty and simplicity that we find the whole universe expressed in a falling leaf, in an ocean-smoothed pebble, in a crow on a withered branch at evening.  Where much of Western poetry is “in your face” and advancing, hokku is quiet and retiring, like Wordsworth’s “violet by a mossy stone, half-hidden from the eye.”   Because it does not try to be “all things to all men,” it is easily overlooked and undervalued, like a still, small voice.  But those of you who recognize the biblical allusion in that will know that its smallness does not mean it is to be underestimated.

And yet, as Blyth correctly says, hokku “is not much in little, but enough in little.”

To those in modern haiku, the poverty of hokku and its voluntary willingness to limit itself was never enough.  But that is the way of materialism, never to be satisfied, never to pause to realize that “enough” can be of greater value, ultimately, than “much.”  Haiku is always looking for more, always wanting something new and different and more modern.  Hokku, however, is quite satisfied with its own poverty and simplicity, making a virtue of the very things that for others are defects.

I hope these brief explanations help to give a better understanding of characteristics of hokku.  It is important to realize that these are not applied in practice like ingredients in a recipe — a pinch of poverty, a teaspoon of human warmth — but are rather to be regarded as overall characteristics, part of the “atmosphere” and aesthetics of hokku that give it is distinctive nature.



I have written previously about this statement by R. H. Blyth on hokku.  He tells us that a hokku

“...is the result of the wish, the effort, not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure further the truth and suchness of a thing with words, with thoughts and feelings.”

Some people no doubt find that statement — short as it is — confusing.  But that is because they mistakenly assume that Blyth does not mean what he says or say what he means.  But he does.

What does it mean to wish not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words, thoughts and feelings?

In this question lies one of those keys that can open up the real nature of hokku to us, if we will only use it.  It is simple to explain, but one must pay attention in order to understand.

If you sit in the woods on an autumn day, with its weak, honey-colored sunlight, and the leaves of the trees slowly falling one by one, that is “truth” — that is “suchness.”  It is that experience we want to convey.  But if we want to write “poetry” about it, that means we want to make it into something other than what it is in itself.  It means we want to “doll it up” literarily, and to do that we have to add things to it — our words, our thoughts, our feelings.

The experience as it is, is truth — is suchness — is poetry — but it is not the poetry of humans, who think they have to make things over, “soup them up,” use them as symbols or metaphors, add comments, add “thinking.”  But in hokku we do not want all of that, because the real writer of hokku has precisely that urge “not to speak, not to write poetry.”

People in modern haiku, not understanding this at all, often ridicule it.  They have no idea what we mean when we say that hokku is not poetry.  “Of course it is!” they insist.

But really, it is not.  At least it is nothing like what we are accustomed to think of as poetry, and this is where modern haiku goes horribly wrong.  Instead of letting the thing itself speak through its existence, through its action, they think there must be a “poet” who interferes, who somehow stands between “truth” and the laity as a priest used to be considered the only way for people to approach a deity.

It is true that hokku uses words, but only the minimal number necessary to convey the experience while maintaining normal English.  It does not obscure the experience with words, but rather uses them transparently in order to reveal it, as Boshō does here:

A chestnut falls;
The insects cease their chirping
In the grasses.

That is precisely the truth — the suchness — that we do not want to obscure with words or distort by making it into “poetry” through adding our thoughts and feelings to it.  Now do you see what Blyth meant?  If you do, it can open up a completely new way of writing.  If you don’t, you will spend your time trying to be a “poet” who writes “poetry.”

Hokku is not writing poetry; it is simply allowing the poetry inherent in an experience to be seen.  And those are two very different things.



R. H. Blyth gives a good summary of the characteristics — the nature — of hokku.  In that summary we find:

1.   Willing limitations (hokku is not “all things to all men” and has willingly-accepted standards and boundaries).

2.  Sensationism (a focus on sensory experience).

3.  Unsentimental love of Nature.

4.  Lack of elegance.

5.  Appreciation of imperfection.

6.  Skillful unskillfulness (appearing to have been easily, naturally written without effort or contrivance).

7.  “Blessed are the poor” (an emphasis on poverty in experience and phrasing).

8.  Combination of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.

9.  Human warmth.

10.  Avoidance of violence and terror ( hokku are generally peaceful and contemplative).

11.  Dislike of holiness (hokku is very spiritual, but not in any “preachy” or dogmatic  sense).

12.  Turns a blind eye to grandeur and majesty (like the early Quakers, who refused to remove their hats and used the same second-person pronoun for wealthy and poor, hokku is “no respecter of persons”).

13.  Unobtrusive good taste.

14.  A still, small voice.

I hope those who read here will think about these and how they apply to the hokku we have discussed thus far, or to those read elsewhere.  Perhaps in the future — or if people have questions — I will expand on these characteristics.



Today I would like to discuss two hokku that are somewhat similar in effect.  Originally one was an autumn hokku, the other a winter hokku.  The explanation lies in old Japanese verse, with its somewhat artificial system of “season words” that made seasonal distinctions among colored leaves and falling leaves (generally autumn subjects) and fallen leaves (the last being a winter subject).

Now we may ask why this distinction, and the answer is simply that it became a literary convention, and its artificiality is one reason why in modern hokku we abandon such artifice for something more in keeping with the actual characteristics of the season where we are.

The verses discussed today have different subjects:  The first is fallen leaves, the second is wild geese.

Gyōdai wrote one of the best old hokku, which in America would generally be considered a verse of mid to late autumn:

Leaves fall
And lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

It is very pleasing in its simplicity, and very effective in its combination of the visual and the auditory — sight and sound.  But look a bit closer, and you will see how Gyōdai accomplishes this.

You will recall the “standard” hokku form, which consists of a setting, a subject, and an action.  Gyōdai’s verse, however, consists of a subject-action pair, which brings to mind the parallelism and couplets of Chinese verse:

Leaves (subject) fall and lie on one another (action)
Rain (subject) beats on rain (action)

In spite of this, the greater visual “space” given to the leaves nonetheless maintains the “uneven” feeling that distinguishes hokku from the more precise parallelism of Chinese verse.

So much for form.  Now on to why the hokku “works.”

As you all know, I constantly emphasize the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku.  You will recall that something ascending is Yang; something falling is Yin.  Also something dry is Yang; something wet is Yin.  Of course these are not absolutes, but must be seen in relation to other things.

Regular readers here also know that harmony and unity are very important to hokku.  And that is what we see In Gyōdai’s verse:

1. Leaves fall and lie on one another
2. Rain beats on rain

The falling leaves exhibit the Yin character of autumn, its loss of energy and its aging.  The falling rain also exhibits the Yin character of the season.  The rain descends (Yin), and is wet (Yin).  The fallen leaves lie unmoving, just piling on one another (Yin).  So this is a hokku of harmony of similarity, meaning it creates a sense of harmony and unity by combining things that are similar in character or feeling.

Unlike many hokku, this verse does not have a specified setting, but the setting is created by the verse itself, without being put into definite words.  It is (in our climate) autumn.

Now we will move on to the second verse and examine how it is similar to the first, even though the subject is different:

The voices
Of wild geese lie on one another;
The cold of night.

That is a rather literal translation and thus a bit confusing in English, though it can easily be understood if one compares it to Gyōdai’s preceding hokku.   So to make it more clear in English, we will follow Gyōdai’s lead:

Wild geese descend,
Their cries piling up;
The cold of night.

Do you see the similarity with Gyōdai’s hokku now?  In both something is falling — descending — coming down:

1.  Leaves
2.  Wild geese

And in both something is lying on top of something else –“piling up”:

1. Leaves
2.  Cries (voices) of descending wild geese

We can see further that the sound of the rain beating on the rain in Gyōdai’s verse is matched — though somewhat differently — by the sound of the cries of the wild geese in that of Kyoroku.

Now whether we say “voices” or “cries” in English depends on the effect we want to give.  “Cries” makes the sounds loud and somewhat distinct; “voices” is more indicative of a steady gabbling of the geese as they descend and chatter among one another.

In everything I tell you on this site, my purpose is not merely to explain old hokku as one might explain the characteristics of fossils in a museum.  My intent is to show you how these verses are not fossils, not merely dry bones, but rather still have the fresh juice of life in them.  And not only that, but to show you how you may write new verses in the same, long hokku tradition.

Want I do not want is for people to use what I say here only as information for writing a paper or for trying to impress others with their learning.  Instead I want to help people of the presently-living generations to bring the too-long-overlooked hokku tradition back to a full and vital and healthy contemporary life.  It has lain far too long in the oppressive and unhealthy shadow of modern haiku, which, far from being a continuation of the old hokku tradition, is actually a very recent, mutant offshoot that has long been deleterious to hokku and has prevented its understanding.

And to that end, I remind all readers again that hokku is NOT modern haiku.  It does not share the aesthetics or the attitudes or the goals of modern haiku.  Instead, the writing of hokku is to bring us back to an understanding of our place as humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature; and it is to help us develop our lives as spiritual and contemplative beings rather than contributing to the egotism, materialism, greed, and environmental destruction so common and so threatening to the world today.

And, of course, hokku is to simply give us a quiet, meditative pleasure as it reunites us with Nature and the always changing seasons, the ever-turning wheel of the year and the continuous interplay and transformations of Yin and Yang.



It is always disappointing to see how the creators of modern haiku trivialize, dismiss, or ignore the writings of the very person from whom they could have learned the most, were they not so self-willed and self-absorbed — R. H. Blyth.

Blyth talks of how “things” are of critical importance, telling the reader that “It is in virtue of its lack of something that a thing has value,” and he backs this up with a quote from the Zenrinkushu — the forest of Zen sayings:

The tree manifests the bodily power of the wind;
The wave exhibits the spiritual nature of the moon

Blyth tells us in response, “If the tree were strong enough it would manifest nothing.  If the wave were rigid, the moon’s nature could not be expressed in it.”

Blyth is telling us here not just the significance of things, but also the requirements for writing about them — for writing hokku.  It is just the opposite of the modern haiku attitude.  One must be empty of “self nature.”

To explain further, Blyth quotes the German “mystic” Meister Eckhart:

Sollt ihr also ein Sohn sein, so müsst ihr ablegen and von euch scheiden alles, was eine Besonderheit an euch ausmacht.

If you would become a son, then you must put aside and separate from all that makes an individuality of you.”

In other words, Blyth is saying that the writer of hokku must “empty himself” of the desire to “express himself,” to “become a poet,” to “make a name for himself,” and it is only because of that emptiness — like the emptiness of a mirror undimmed by dust — that the writer can truly experience and express the “things” that are the primary matter of hokku.

This ability to discard self-will and the urge to be noticed is something the modern haiku community as a whole has never been willing to do nor even willing to consider as desirable or beneficial.

Blyth tells us, “In relation to every circumstance, we are to be like the servants at the Feast of Cana:  Whatever he saith unto you, do it.”

That is virtually an impossibility for the greater portion of writers of modern haiku, because they are too busy trying to be clever or witty or aesthetic or “known” — trying to be “poets” writing “poetry.”  But Blyth tells us to give all that up.  Simply empty yourself, become a servant to Nature, and “Whatever he saith unto you, do it.”

The “he” here is not this or that teacher, but rather Nature.  A writer of hokku does not say, “Now I am going to write a verse about my reaction to the war” or “I am going to compose a few lines on how I feel about my boyfriend/girlfriend leaving me.”  Instead, a writer of hokku becomes empty of self-will and self-nature, open to the promptings of Nature expressed in thing-events, just as Blyth has said:

The tree manifests the bodily power of the wind;
The wave exhibits the spiritual nature of the moon.

Thus the writer of hokku manifests flowers blooming in spring, a hawk circling high in the blue sky of summer, a golden yellow leaf falling in autumn, the winter wind blowing in through cracks in the wall.  He or she does this to the extent that he or she is empty of self-will, empty of self-nature, empty of what Eckhart called Besonderheit — individuality — what we in hokku call the “self.”

Blyth does not beat around the bush.  He tells us quite plainly, “A poet sees things as they are in proportion as he is selfless.”

But that is precisely contrary to the attitude of modern haiku, which, like much of modern poetry, wants not to “put aside” the self, but rather to express it and make it more obvious.  That is exactly why modern haiku denigrates Blyth even while generally misunderstanding him.  Note that Blyth does not say a self-willed poet does not “see” things, but that he “does not see things as they are.”  That is because he — or she — is too busy covering them over with “thinking,” with personal desires and wishes and intellectual abstractions and whittering commentary — the very kinds of things that constitute what most people think of as “poetry.”

The way of a hokku writer, however, is precisely that which Blyth describes:

The flowers say ‘Bloom!’ and we bloom in them.  The wind blows and we sway in the leaves.”

In our school of hokku we express the same by saying that the writer must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  The mind of the writer should be like a quiet pond in which the moon may be reflected.  This “mirror-mind” of the writer of hokku can exist only when one puts aside self-will and self-absorption. One must give up the obsession with the products of the “thinking” mind, and it is by doing so that one allows things to have their own inherent value — not as something added to them by the “poet,” as one might paint roses red — but as they are in themselves when the mind of the writer is emptied and still.



R. H. Blyth remarks that “only in Japan can we find hundreds of ‘poems’ written on the subject of heat.”  That he puts “poems” in quotes is significant, and indicates — as I always tell students — that we should not confuse what we are accustomed to think of as poetry with hokku.  For the most part, hokku is nothing at all like conventional Western poetry.   We may accurately describe hokku — following Blyth — as “poetry-sensation, the sensation perceived poetically.”

Now sensation means simply an experience of one or more of the five senses — taste, touch, smell hearing, and seeing.  Heat and cold fall under touch, given that they are our contact with the presence or absence of heat.  So please note, dear readers, that there is a poetry of the sensations, and that poetry is precisely as Blyth describes it — “the sensation perceived poetically.” And that is what we find in hokku.

Now it should be obvious to those with some knowledge of English poetry that there is precious little in it that can in any way equate with this notion — that sensation is in itself poetic.  Yet there is poetry in cold, and poetry in heat.  Not the poetry of playing with words, of being clever in verse, but in the sensation itself when perceived by a human.

It was the genius of the Japanese — of the writers of hokku — that they realized this, thus the large numbers of hokku on heat and cold, on each separately, and on the meeting of the two.

There is a woman’s poetry of heat (Sono-jo):

The child on my back,
Playing with my hair;
The heat!

There is a crabby man’s poetry of heat (Shingi):

He says nothing
To anyone who comes;
The heat!

There is the unfortunate woman’s poetry of heat (Yayū):

The prostitute
Sells her sweaty body;
The heat!

There is the laborer’s poetry of heat (Shiki):

In the fisherman’s hut,
The smell of dried fish;
The heat!

There is the (mistreated) animal’s poetry of heat (Chōsō):

Dressing him,
The monkey gets sulky;
The heat!

One could go on and on, but I will stop with Hyakuri’s

At ebb tide,
The heat
Of the unmoving ship.

How very different in method from the similar English excerpt from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Coleridge):

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Let’s look again at Hyakuri’s hokku:

At ebb tide,
The heat
Of the unmoving ship.

Heat is yang.  The ebbing of the tide is yin.  Something unmoving, in this case the ship, is also yin.  In nature we find that paradoxically, yang tends to create yin.  In the desert we find cacti, which are watery and yin on the inside, just as fruits in the heat of Hawai’i are also yin.  That is the effect we get in this verse.  The great heat is manifesting itself in the unmoving yin of the immobile ship, and we feel it also in the ebb tide — not as a cause-effect occurrence, but just because of the “weak” yin feeling in the tide.

One of the most important realizations the beginning student of hokku can make is that the distinctiveness of hokku is in its “poetry-sensation,” as it enables us to experience “the sensation perceived poetically.”



Issa wrote:

The one-foot waterfall
Also makes sounds;
The evening cool.

This is Issa’s version of “The morning glory that lives but a day differs not at heart from the giant pine that lives for a thousand years.”  A one-foot waterfall, like a greater waterfall, also has the pleasant, soothing and cooling “sound of water.”

Like many of Issa’s hokku, this example is subjective; it adds “thinking,” seen in the word “also.”


Onitsura wrote this summer hokku:

The bellies of trout seen
In the shallows.

This is a “standard” hokku, meaning it has setting, subject, and action.  The setting is the evening; the subject is the bellies of the trout; the action is “seen in the shallows.”  Of course the real action is the movement of the trout that shows their light underside.

This is a very “Yin” verse.  The evening is yin, the shallows are yin, the light bellies of the trout are a yin “color.”  The weaker Yang element is in the remaining light of day and in the movement of the fish.



Good hokku generally have strong sensation.  By sensation we mean an experience of the senses — seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, and hearing.

Those of you with an inquisitive bent of mind may think, “Well, if hokku is all about sensation, why not just present a sensation and be done with it?  Why not just say something like “heat” or “coolness” or “sticking my hand in icewater,” and have that as the entire verse?

The answer, of course, is that it does not make much of a verse.  The reason is that sensation without context has little significance for us.  There must be something that sets off the sensation, that acts as a foil.  By “as a foil” I am using the old meaning of the word, in which the “shine” or color of a gemstone was enhanced by backing it with metal foil.  A similar thing happens when we add context in hokku.

For example, here is a sensory experience of seeing:

A huge ant walks across the floor.

And the natural response would be, “OK, so what?”  That is because the ant crossing the floor has no context.  But when we add a meaningful context, then something interesting happens:

A huge ant
Walks across the floor;
The heat!

By Shirō’s just adding the context of the sensation of heat, the huge ant walking across the floor suddenly becomes meaningful, significant.  We cannot really say what its significance is, we just feel it to be significant.  One clue is that the “hugeness” of the ant is like the “hugeness” of the heat — so in a way this is a hokku of perceived harmony of similar things.  But I mention that only to help those who are new to hokku.  Really it is best just to feel the unspoken connection, and that leaves us with the feeling of a significance that cannot be put into words.

Hokku are not intended to be “pretty,” just interesting and significant, so we come across some earthy ones such as:

In the horse market,
How their urine stinks!

Well, that has sensation, but it does not have enough context to “set it off.”  That missing context was added by Masafusa as:

In the horse market,
How their urine stinks!
The heat!

By simply adding the heat, the awful smell is “set off” and intensified, and when that happens, the sense of awful heat is also intensified.  So we see here again a hokku of harmony of similarity, in this case of “strong” things — the strong stink of the urine, the strong heat of the very hot, still summer day.

Now why am I telling you these things?  For one reason only — to help you to understand the aesthetics and techniques of the hokku, so that you may write new hokku and keep the old tradition alive.



In my last posting, I discussed the distinction between subjective and objective hokku.  We can think of it this way:

An objective hokku is a thing-event.

A subjective hokku is generally a thing-event plus the “thinking” of the writer.

Shiki wrote:

Through the window of the stone lantern —
The sea.

There is just the coolness, the stone lantern, the sea.

However at another time Shiki wrote:

The defeat of the Heike
In the sound of the waves.

The Heike were an ancient clan defeated in a naval battle.  So what we see here is a bit of objectivity — “coolness” and “the sound of the waves” — but added to and overwhelming that is the subjectivity of Shiki’s historical allusion, his “coloring of the imagination” added when he “hears” the defeat of the Heike in the sound of the waves.  But what he hears comes not from the waves, but from his own imagination.  What he really hears is just the sound of waves.  But he did not let that be enough.  He has added “thinking” to the objective elements, and has made the verse subjective.

Now why is this distinction important, given that historically there were virtually always both subjective and objective hokku?  It is important because in the kind of hokku I teach, we prefer hokku without “thinking” because they give us the pure thing-event, with nothing added.

Subjective hokku are “poetical,” meaning “fancifully depicted or embellished.”  When Shiki adds the defeat of the Heike to the plain sound of the waves, he is adding his own imagination, his own fancy, and is embellishing the sound of the waves by adding that “coloring of the imagination” to them.

Subjective hokku are often very popular in the West, because as I wrote earlier, Western poetry is traditionally highly subjective.  In fact the degree to which Western poetry was and is subjective is rather astonishing when one begins to look for objectivity in traditional poetry.

We can say that in subjective verse, the writer has a “poetic” intent.  He cannot just give us the thing-event itself and let it be.  He has to add his own thoughts, his own view, his own interpretation.  Very rarely is Nature just allowed to be Nature, as Onitsura allows it to be in this objective hokku:

A cool wind;
The sky is filled
With the sound of pines.

In that verse there is no attempt to be “poetical,” no addition of the thinking of the writer.  There is only the cool wind, only the sound of the pines filling the sky.

Of course our preference for objectivity in hokku can be traced to the spiritual roots of hokku.  In the Bahiya Sutta we read,

“In the seen, there should be only the seen.  In the heard, there should be only the heard.”

So there is a very close connection between the preference for objective hokku here and the practice of a meditative, contemplative life.



We earlier saw that there are basically two different kinds of hokku — subjective hokku and objective hokku.  Subjective hokku are those in which the writer adds his own view or interpretation, his “thinking.”  Objective hokku are those that simply present an experience and let the reader experience it too.

I teach objective hokku, because to me, it is the “purest” kind, very appropriate for a contemplative lifestyle.  Just as we should not add “thinking” to our meditation, we also do not add it to our hokku.

It is not difficult to recognize the other kind, subjective hokku, however.  We need look no farther than Bashō to find numerous examples, some very well known:

Octopus traps;
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.

“Fleeting dreams beneath the summer moon” is the “thinking” addition.

Ill on a journey;
Dreams run about
The withered fields.

“Dreams run about the withered fields” is the added “thinking”

Art’s beginning —
The rice planting songs
Of the interior.

“Art’s beginning” is the added “thinking.”

Did it cry itself
Utterly away?
A cicada shell.

“Did it cry itself utterly away?” is the added “thinking.”

But we also find in Bashō some quite good examples of objective hokku — those without added “thinking”:

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

On a withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Generally it is easy to recognize subjective hokku — hokku with “thinking” added.  But some are a bit tricky, for example, Chiyo-ni wrote:

The well bucket
Taken by the morning glory;
Borrowing water.

At first this would seem to be an objective verse, because Chiyo-ni is just stating “facts.”  But then we realize that the point of the verse is that she does not want to tear the morning glory vine away from the well bucket, and so she goes to borrow water from a neighbor.  That introduces a subjective element, and puts the writer of the verse front and center.  In hokku, however, we prefer that the writer get out of the way so that Nature may speak.  We do not want to know about Chiyo-ni’s delicate aesthetic sensibilities; we just want a sensory experience.

By contrast, here is a pleasantly objective verse by Chiyo-ni:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

Rankō has an objective hokku, though it has a longer time span:

Withered reeds —
Day after day breaking off,
Floating away.

And of course in Issa we have the very obvious “thinking” of:

This dewdrop world —
A dewdrop world it is,
And yet….

In Onitsura ‘s hokku we find objective examples such as:

The leaping trout,
Clouds pass by.

But sometimes he is subjective, as in:

I have not yet
Taken off the Floating World;
The change of clothes.

The “floating world” is the “worldly” life.  “The change of clothes” signifies that time when one changes from cold-weather clothing to warm-weather clothing.  It is not difficult to see that “I have not yet taken off the Floating World” is Onitsura’s “thinking” addition, his added subjectivity.

In both reading and writing hokku, we should be increasingly able to recognize subjectivity, and to distinguish it from objectivity.  “Subjective” hokku are those people are likely to think of as more “poetic,” because people in the West are accustomed to subjective thinking in poetry.  But in hokku we look for sensory experience, and that requires greater aesthetic awareness to appreciate.  It demands more of reader and writer, because it offers us those experiences in which we perceive an unspoken significance, even though all we have is tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, and seeing — without added “thinking.”



It is important to distinguish the essentials from the nonessentials in learning hokku.  Many people easily get sidetracked, often never finding their way back.

There are, of course, ways to improve one’s conscious understanding of hokku.  But it is the immediate effect of a verse that is what first caused that attraction — the effect of pure sensing — drops of rain falling on a pool, leaves drooping in heat, the odd, unmistakeable scent of a dandelion flower — these things are really the essence of hokku.

English: Dandelion flower (Taraxacum officinal...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people of intellectual bent get drawn off into detailed study of old Japanese hokku — of allusions in Japanese or Chinese, of the intricacies of linking verses in the old practice, of the cultural significance of this or that object.  But it is all just distraction.  That is not what drew us to hokku, and the more we go off into intellection rather than sensing — experiencing — the more we will lose hokku.

The other side-route that draws off many people from hokku is the urge to change it — the very mistaken notion that because hokku is “old,” it must be altered to fit the times, to “express the individual.”  First they alter this, then they change that, and quickly hokku disappears — vanishes.  They have lost it because of their self-will, their urge to manipulate, the same urge that has done so much damage in the world.

Very, very few are those who just let hokku be — who accept it as it is in English, without trying to “Japanify” it, without trying to modernize it or intellectualize it or make it a vehicle of “self-” expression.

I hope at least some readers have noticed that I place no emphasis at all on esoteric Japanese terms in hokku.  I just talk of hokku in plain English.  When I am talking about indicating season, I don’t use a foreign term; when I am talking about the “cut” that separates the two parts of a hokku, I don’t use a foreign term.  In fact the only term I really retain with any frequency is the word “hokku” itself, and that only because it is not only a distinctive name, but it is the old name for the kind of verse we write, and there seems no good reason to change that.  And I use the Chinese terms Yin and Yang frequently — not because I want to sound exotic in any way, but just because we do not have native terms in English that cover all that those two terms cover — so I borrow them into English and make them English words because they are so useful.

Readers here will also note (I hope) that to explain hokku, I do not have to keep reaching into the distant Japanese past.  There is no need at all for that.  All we need is here, now, where we are, in this present moment — not in some foreign past.

I can give you all the essentials of writing hokku:  How and where to cut a line, how to punctuate and capitalize, all the useful techniques such as internal reflection and harmony of difference, and harmony of similarity, of repeated subject, and all the rest.  But it is all quite useless if the reader does not begin to live a life of hokku — a life allowing space for simply experiencing — simply being — without intellection — what we call “thinking” in hokku — and a life without the urge to remold hokku into some other form to fit this or that fad or whim.

I deliberately avoid trying to make hokku seem “academic,” which in my view is death to hokku; and I try to avoid making it seem in any way “Japanese,” which it should only be when written by Japanese.  When written by an American it should be thoroughly American — or thoroughly Welsh when written by a resident of Wales, or quite Icelandic when written by an Icelander, and so on through the whole list of countries of the world.

If ever you find yourself getting distracted from “plain” hokku by intellectualism or the urge to change, just pause and remember what drew you to hokku in the beginning — Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the changing seasons, manifesting through sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.  All the rest is simply distraction from that pure essence.



Readers will long ago have noticed that I use old hokku — including verses just beyond what is technically the old “hokku” period — quite often.  My purpose in doing so is not just to provide a collection of old verse, but rather to show through them how new verses may be written in English — new hokku.

Shiki wrote a verse about a shower and rain beating on the heads of carp.  There are several ways we can present it in English — and several ways we can write other hokku using the same patterns in English.

We could say:

A sudden shower;
Rain beats
On the heads of the carp.

The alignment is a bit unusual with its short central line, but permitted in English.

We could also write it using the “repeated subject” method, which works very well in English.  You will recall that the subject of the verse is named once, but also presented a second time using a pronoun — “he,” “she,” or “it.”  Here’s how it works with Shiki’s verse:

A sudden shower —
It beats on the heads
Of the carp.

Either method will work, though the second, “repeated subject” method avoids the repetition of a noun (shower – rain) in the first example, which is often useful.

This verse, though late, is nonetheless “internally” in all respects a hokku, and a rather good one.  This kind of objectivity is what we favor in hokku — no added thinking, no added commentary, not even a writer anywhere in sight.  There is only the unexpected, sudden summer shower, and the rain beating on the heads of the carp risen to the surface of the water.

In spite of being a summer verse, it is a very cooling, yin, watery verse.

Kikaku, one of Bashō’s students, wrote a verse using the same setting much earlier:

A sudden shower;
A solitary woman
Looks outside.

Blyth takes a slight bit of freedom with it, making it even more effective:

A summer shower;
A woman sits alone,
Gazing outside.

That gives us a somewhat different effect than the first, and shows us how small changes in a verse can alter the effect.



A pleasant and simple summer hokku by Kitō:

Little fish
Are carried backwards;
The clear water.

We see the tiny fish in the clear, sunlit water, swimming against the current, which nonetheless is so strong that, still facing upstream, they are carried  a bit backwards.

This is one of those hokku that is just a kind of rejoicing in the experience of seeing.  We feel the small strength and persistence of the little fish against the greater strength of the clear water.  There is the energy of the fish going in one direction, the energy of the water going in the other.

This is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action.

The setting is “the clear water.”
The subject is “little fish.”
The action is “are carried backwards.”



Issa wrote this summer hokku:

The big cat —
Flopped down on the fan

It is rather typical Issa, with his connection to animals and his kind of humor.

The point of the verse is that it is summer, which means heat.  Looking for his fan, Issa sees that a big, lazy, sleepy cat has flopped himself down right atop it, and is drowsing away.

So to understand the verse, we have to feel the heat; we have to feel the little frustration yet humor in seeing the cat lying atop the fan; and we have to feel the heaviness of the heat in the bigness of the cat.  The heat of summer has manifested itself in the bigness of the cat that is “keeping” the coolness of the fan.  That is perhaps saying too much, because we are just supposed to feel those connections, but when one is learning, these things occasionally have to be spelled out so that the beginner may know what to look for in hokku, and how they work.

This odd, unspoken connection between things is very common in hokku.  It helps bring us back out of our thoughts to the real world, in which everything and everyone is connected.  We see heat and summer in a big cat, but also in the potential coolness of the fan that we have to go to some bother to retrieve from the cat who has taken it over.  But we must not think the cat is a metaphor or a symbol.  The cat is a cat; the heat is the heat.  And yet the heat manifests in the big cat, the big cat manifests in the heat.  That is how things are “felt” in hokku.

You always read here that hokku should be something seen in a new way.  In Issa’s verse, the newness is in the connection between the summer heat, the big cat, the fan, and of course Issa himself, who is never mentioned at all in the verse.

When we read the hokku, there is no Issa; we become the experiencer.  So we cannot say the hokku is “about” Issa.  In hokku there should be no “fixed” writer visible.  That allows the reader to become the one to whom the hokku is happening.  And each time we read it, it happens anew.  But in hokku we must take one more step and say there is no experiencer.  There is just the experience.   That is why we say in hokku that the writer must get the “self” out of the way so that Nature may speak.



As readers know, I often use the ancient concept of the two opposite yet harmoniously-working elements of the universe, Yin and Yang, in explaining hokku.  Jia Dao wrote:

Asking the young boy beneath the pine,
He says, “Master is off gathering herbs,
Just someplace 
in these mountains —
The clouds are deep — I don’t know where.”

Photo by kind permission of Keith Liang (http://www.keithliang.com)

Aren’t these Chinese mountains amazing?  Who would have guessed that such mountains exist anywhere this side of Pandora?  Looking at them, we see the high (Yang) mountains rising into the swirling mist and clouds (Yin).

I was fortunate recently to find a photograph locally by Keith Liang.  I have it up above my desk as I write this.  A friend of mine who does Chinese brush painting stopped by and noticed it immediately.  She thought at first it was a painting, because it expresses the spirit found in Chinese landscape painting so well.  And she was very taken with its interaction of dark spaces and “blank” spaces, the interaction of mountains and clouds.  No doubt that is what drew me to it when I first saw it.

In China, a landscape is called a “mountains-water.”  We certainly see both in this photo.

But I want to talk a little about Chinese poetry, which influenced hokku, particularly through the anthology known as the Three Hundred Tang Poems.  “Tang” here means the Tang Dynasty.  One of the poets in that collection is Jia Dao, who wrote the verse above.

In the original, it is a “five-character” poem, meaning that each of its four lines is composed of five characters.  These characters function very similarly to our “essential words” in composing hokku, except that in hokku we add the necessaries of normal English to finish.  In literary Chinese, the words remain as they are.

If we look, for example, at the first two lines and translate them literally,  they look something like:

Pine under ask child boy
Say master gather medicine go

Those of you who have read Chinese poetry in translation can see from this why different translations of the same verse are often so unlike one another.  It is because the very basic elements of literary Chinese make many different ways of translating into English possible.

There is nothing to prevent us from writing our own Nature-based, “Chinese” style verse today, and when we do so, the “essential words” construction of the Chinese poem can be a great help.

I have already said that Jia Dao’s poem is a five-character poem (we can think of it as using five “essential words,” those words necessary to meaning but not to good grammar in English).  There are also seven-character poems, with seven to a line instead of five.  But for practice here, we will try one like that of Jia Dao, in four lines and with five essential words.  This will give you a rough idea how to do it.  Don’t overthink the essential words — just think of them as nouns, verbs, and prepositions essential to meaning.  Don’t worry about grammar, don’t bother too much initially about plural or singular.  Then you might get something like:

This year summer late come
Day day cool rain fall
Clouds cover west hill top
Mist swirl on long river

Now we can clean that up to make the verse:

This year summer comes late;
Day after day the cool rains fall;
Clouds hide the west hill summit;
Mist swirls above the long river.

We can leave it at that, or if we like, we can take it one further step from the original, as do many translators of Chinese verse, to put it into more flowing English.

Summer is late in coming this year;
Day after day the cool rains fall.
The western peaks are veiled in clouds;
Mist swirls above the long river.

Even from our little sample here, we can see why we often find short poems written on Chinese landscape paintings.  It is because the images and the words go very well together.

I hope that readers here will experiment with writing some “five-character” Chinese poems in English.  It is just as easy as I have demonstrated.  Don’t worry about making your poems great literature.  Just use them to express Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, just as in hokku.

This is a very easy and pleasant way to write Nature poetry with a spirit very much like that of hokku, only with more “space,” which is not surprising, because one characteristic of Chinese poetry in comparison to the hokku is that the former usually has a much greater sense of space and distance, while hokku tends to focus on the small and near-by.

Another difference is that hokku works in “threes,” such as the three lines of our English-language hokku, while Chinese verse works in couplets — pairs of two lines.  Jia Dao’s verse, then, is a quatrain (four-lined poem) consisting of two couplets (pairs of two lines).

We can, if we wish, write five-character poems longer than four lines, and we can also increase the number of “essential words” per line to seven, to approximate a Chinese “seven-character” poem.  However we do it, writing Chinese-style poetry gives us a wonderful option for writing about those experiences of Nature that simply do not fit well into the three lines of a hokku.  And we can write them in the same spirit of poverty, simplicity, and transience, exhibiting the changes of Nature through the interaction of Yin and Yang as the seasons come and go.

If you found this posting interesting, you may also wish to read the following, with additional information on how to write “Chinese” poetry in English:



Sōseki wrote this summer hokku:

The red sun
Sinks down into the sea;
The heat!

The sun sinks into the sea every day, so what is different about this that makes it worthwhile and not just a commonplace?  It is the combination of the redness (very yang) of the sun combined with the intensity (we see it in the exclamation point) of the heat (also yang).  Both are unified by the flat horizon of the sea to give a very strong physical sensation, which is what we look for in hokku.

The heat of the day is already there as evening nears.  But it is the largeness, the redness of the setting sun that brings out its magnitude; we not only feel the heat, we see it in the redness.

The setting is “the heat.”
The subject is “the red sun.”
The action is “sinks down into the sea.”

As I have said before, we can write countless hokku on countless subjects using the combination of setting, subject, and action.



Issa, whom we do not often use as a model, wrote this summer hokku:

From below
The bridge I creep across —
A cuckoo!

Though Issa says merely “bridge,” we can tell from his timid creeping across it that it is a hanging bridge over a canyon or ravine.  As he fearfully, hesitantly crosses, suddenly from far below he hears the “ho-to-to” cry of the bird the Japanese call the hototogisu, a kind of cuckoo.

Some writers think that Issa may simply have seen the bird below, but that would cause the hokku to lose its effect.  The whole point of it is the startling, unexpected sudden cry from below that emphasizes the feeling of the height and precariousness of crossing the little hanging bridge.



The Germans have a great expression — “Na, und?”  It is the equivalent of the American “So what?” — or more briefly, “So?”

That should be our attitude toward those who like to argue and intellectualize about hokku.

Suppose, for a moment, that Bashō’s practice of hokku was in some or many respects very different from how we practice it today.

Suppose, further, that old hokku had nothing whatsoever to do with “Zen” or with spirituality.

Suppose, finally, that what we practice today as hokku had little or nothing in common with the old hokku.  What would all that change in our aesthetics and practice?  Precisely nothing, because we need no authorization from any actual or supposed authority.

Why?  Because we do not do this or that in hokku “because Bashō did it.”  We do it because it works in conveying precisely what we want to convey in the English language and in non-Japanese cultures today — verse focused on Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, expressing the continual changes of Yin and Yang — verse not as intellection, not as “literature,” but as sensory experience — tasting, touching, seeing, hearing, smelling, expressed in poverty, simplicity, and transience, and based in a deep, non-dogmatic spirituality.

We could, in fact, teach and practice our hokku without the slightest reference to Japan or old Japanese writers, because our modern hokku has its body of principles, practices, and aesthetics that stand perfectly well on their own.

And if we wished, we could choose an entirely new name for the kind of verse we write.  That we do not is merely a nod of respect to the old hokku tradition.

That is one reason why in hokku we have no reason to argue and debate with those who practice other kinds of verse.  If people come to us quoting this or that writer on the history or practice of old hokku, saying that what we do differs from it in one way or another, we really have nothing to say to them, because it does not matter whether it is true or not.  Our aesthetics and our practice stand on their own.

The point of saying all this is that our practice of hokku is not validated by anything said or done in the past in Japan, as someone might try to validate a religious dogma by referring to the “scriptures.”  Our practice of hokku is self-validating.  It is what it is because it does what we want it to do, and it does it superbly well.  That is a remarkably liberating position, because it frees us from all the petty quarrels and bickering that plague other kinds of brief verse practice.

So if people tell us that our hokku differs from their understanding of old hokku — no matter what they may call it — in this or that way, we  can only respond, “Perhaps, but that is irrelevant.”


I am always surprised and amazed by those who speak of hokku as though it were something outdated and to be discarded.  The emphasis today is on “new,” “new,” “new” and “different,” “different, “different.”

What people with such childish thinking do not realize is that everything one sees is continually new, continually different.  It is their way of seeing that is the same.  That is why Thoreau told us that what we need is not new clothes, but rather a new wearer of clothes.  We must change how we see things if we want to follow hokku well.

I like very much — and apply to hokku — what Robert Frost once said of his own kind of poetry:  “It is an old-fashioned way of being new.”

Buson wrote this summer hokku:

June rain
In the downspout;
The ears of old age.



There is a very interesting old summer hokku by Ryusūi:

Mayoigo no   naku naku tsukamu   hotaru kana
Lost-child ‘s  crying crying grasping fireflies kana

A lost child;
He cries and cries
And grasps at fireflies.

Some verses make such excellent metaphors for one thing or another that we must resist the temptation to read them as such, because if we do so read them, we lose the poetry at which hokku excels — the poetry of the “thing-event” itself, with nothing added.

Westerners often simply do not understand this, because Western poetry very seldom enjoys something for itself; they think that one must add a “poet’s eye” to it, meaning additional commentary or metaphor or speculation or elaboration or ornamentation.  But in hokku it is just the unspoken significance of the thing-event that is wanted, none of the rest, thank you!

What do I mean by a “thing-event”?  I mean simply something being what it is, doing what it is doing; a leaf is both a thing (a leaf) and an event (leafing).  Human beings human-be.  Nothing exists stable and unchanging, not a stone, not a river, not a galaxy.  So the “thing-event” in this verse is the little-child-crying-as-he-grasps-at-fireflies.

Robert Frost, in his poem “A Tuft of Flowers,” wrote:

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside the reedy brook the scythe had bared…

The mower in the dew had loved them thus
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,
Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.”  That is the very spirit of hokku and its humility.  When we want to be “poets,” we are taking the focus away from what we write and putting it on ourselves — and that is the opposite of hokku.  Our writing should not be to draw the thought of the reader to us, but rather to just let him or her experience the unspoken significance of the thing-event, whether it be a tuft of flowers spared by a scythe or a little child weeping and grasping at fireflies.  As we say in hokku, we must be silent so that Nature may speak.

Now, having warned the reader that Ryusūi’s hokku is NOT a metaphor, NOT a symbol, we are now free to say again that such a hokku, though it is neither of those things, nonetheless does make a good metaphor for human life.

It is interesting that in Japanese, the first word of the expression meaning “lost child” — mayoi — also is the Japanese translation of the Buddhist sanskrit term māyā, which means “illusion.”  Māyā is the illusion of existence, our attachment to the idea of a personal “self,” our getting caught up in thinking that running after wealth and power and fame and sensual pleasure are real and important.  People forget the old saying, “Birth is a disease whose prognosis is always fatal.”  They neglect their spiritual development, spending all their time on television or parties, or (gasp!) the Internet.  They do not know or have forgotten the old Buddhist parable from the Mahayana Lotus Sutra:  A group of children were busy playing in a house that caught fire, too absorbed in their games to notice.  Their father called and called for them to come out, but they were so wrapped up in their entertainments that they paid no heed to the fire or to him.

We are all in a burning house.  We are all lost children.  And we weep and weep about it, but what do we do?  We continue to “grasp at fireflies,” even as we weep.

We are perfectly free to use a hokku as a metaphor, but we must not make the mistake of saying or thinking it IS a metaphor.  And when we so utilize it, we must give up the poetry of the hokku in order to make our own use of it, putting it to a task for which it was not intended, no matter how well it does the job.



Jōsō wrote a summer hokku:

In the white rain,
Ants are running
Down the bamboos

That is a very literal translation.  In English we would not be likely to say “white rain.”  Instead we would probably say,

In the clear rain,
Ants are running
Down the bamboos.

This, as you all know by now, shows “harmony of similarity.”  The rain falls, the ants run down.  “Down” is a Yin direction (up is Yang);  rain is Yin.  If the ants were going up the bamboos, there would be, of course, a contrast.  But here the harmony is in the falling rain, the downward-running ants.  And of course in English there is the subtle humor of ants running down the bamboos when we would think of rainwater running down the bamboos.

Blyth, in his translation, made an intuitive leap:  If the ants are all coming down the bamboos, he thought, it must be the end of the day — twilight or evening.  All the rest of the day the ants would be busily going up.  So he translated it:

An evening shower;
The ants are running
Down the bamboos.

Of course ants will run to escape rain, so we may choose which approach we prefer.

In any case, it makes an effective hokku, with the clear rain falling and trickling down the stalks of bamboo as the dark ants come rushing downward.  It has a lot of movement, and that gives it life.



Today was beautiful where I am.  After days and days of pouring rain and cool temperatures, the sky cleared, the sun shone, and the temperature rose into the low 80s.

It made me think of the old lines from the Song of Solomon:

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

How much more poetic that is in “King James” English than in modern versions.  And I like the humor of people today having forgotten that “turtle” at the time of translation meant a turtle dove — and consequently wondering what the voice of a turtle might sound like.

There are the words attributed to Jesus in the King James Version:

I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.

How far more beautiful that is than the modern

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

But I digress.

The sudden warmth reminds me of what is in store for us, the kind of heat of which Buson wrote:

Are hot things;
The summer grove.

That, of course, is a “statement” hokku, which I just discussed in a recent posting.  You will recall that a “statement” hokku makes a statement that is simply true.  But in making it the writer tells us something that we did not realize we knew — until we read the hokku.

The “something seen in a new way” in this verse is the combination of the spiderwebs and the heat in the silent, heavy air of the grove of trees.  Ordinarily we think of a web as light and airy, but walking through a hot grove of trees on a hot day, with spiderwebs sticking to one’s face and hands, one has a “little enlightenment”:

Are hot things;
The summer grove.

This verse shows the Yang nature of summer with its heat.  Even things we ordinarily think of in cool or airy Yin terms — a grove of trees — spiderwebs — have here become Yang.



Sooner or later (I hope sooner) in the study of hokku, one begins to ask just what makes an extraordinary hokku.  The question is inevitable because all of us, in our practice, are going to write lots of very ordinary hokku — pleasant enough, but not particularly memorable.  Here is a “summer” hokku as an example:

A clear morning;
Above the distant clouds
Blue mountains rise.

That is what I like to call a “block print” hokku.  It makes an attractive scene, like the landscape block prints of the Japanese artists Yoshida and Hasui, but there is nothing striking or memorable about it.

Why is that?  We can answer with what generally defines a good hokku — a good hokku shows us something seen in a new way.  That should be engraved on the memory of every student of hokku — something seen in a new way.

Though the example hokku is not unpleasing, there is really nothing new about it, no different perspective that allows us to see something freshly.  And that in essence is what makes the difference between an ordinary hokku and an extraordinary hokku.

As an example of something seen in a new way, here is a summer hokku by Onitsura:

The leaping trout,
Clouds flowing.

This is another of those hokku requiring the poetic intuition of the reader, but such an intuitive leap in hokku should be easy, not difficult, and should happen split-second quickly.  Onitsura watches a trout leap out of the water, and in the water below the trout, passing clouds are reflected.

Such an unusual perspective often distinguishes extraordinary hokku from merely ordinary hokku.  Also note the sense of movement and change in Onitsura’s hokku, something we do not find in the “ordinary” example, where everything seems static and unmoving, just as in a block print.  Generally we avoid hokku in which nothing is moving or changing, though it does not hurt to write one now and then.  Movement adds energy to a hokku.  An exception, however, would be when we deliberately want to stress the lack of movement in a verse, which can happen occasionally.

Don’t fear to write ordinary hokku.  You may wish to create them to remember a particular time or for some other reason.  But be aware that what really makes hokku worthwhile is the good hokku, even the extraordinary hokku, and to write those we must see something in a new way, from a different perspective.  That different perspective need not be as obviously striking as in Onitsura’s example.

Over time we will write hokku that range from ordinary to better-than-ordinary to an occasional extraordinary verse.  All are part of learning.  But we should be able to tell the difference.  That is why in hokku we place such great emphasis on understanding its aesthetics and techniques.  If you do not know what makes a good hokku, an extraordinary hokku, how can you write them?  But learn the principles of hokku, and your discernment will improve.



The practice of hokku is a lifelong process of learning.  This is true whether one is a student or teacher, because even the teacher is also a lifelong student.

Today I got a valuable insight into one reason why some people misunderstand and reject the notion of a connection between hokku and “Zen,” something I usually just call the inherent connection between hokku and spirituality.

This particular category of misperception lies in thinking that the writers of old hokku consciously intended to transmit an experience of “enlightenment” —  that their intention was to pass such a “Zen” experience on to the reader, much as a student of traditional Zen is given a koan — a paradoxical word problem — by a Zen teacher in order to lead the student to enlightenment.

The truth is that such a conscious intent was unlikely to have been held by the writers of old hokku.  And the fact is that hokku does not transmit the same level or quality of enlightenment that one achieves through Buddhist practice.

What one does find in hokku is a lesser analog to that greater enlightenment, a “little enlightenment” that is both momentary and transitory, a temporary removal of the boundary between self and other.  And the fact is that in the greater number of cases, this transmission of the “little enlightenment” experience happened not because of any conscious intent on the part of the writer of hokku, but rather because that writer worked from a culture that provided him (or her) with the unconscious “paradoxical, non-egoistic, universal, democratic basis of Mahayana Buddhism,” as R. H. Blyth rightly puts it.  Because hokku and the other contemplative arts were steeped in this unconscious aesthetic like fishes in water, it happened that the hokku — which manifested this aesthetic in a condensed and concentrated form — was and still is remarkably capable of permitting and transmitting this “little enlightenment.”

We cannot assume it was the conscious intent of the writer.  Not all writers of old hokku had a direct connection with the Zen sect, but all had this unconscious cultural background, just as Americans have a shared cultural background that is also largely unconscious but quite perceptible to people of other nations as something distinctively American.

But that was old hokku.  It is no longer true of Japanese culture as a whole, and of course this spiritual approach to verse is something quite unfamiliar to most in the West.  That is why in talking about the intimate relationship between spirituality and hokku, we must now speak of it quite openly and plainly when teaching hokku today — which was something generally not done or necessary in the old days of hokku — otherwise the crucial part of the hokku aesthetic — which is precisely this spiritual background — will be missing, and without it, it is impossible to understand or read or write hokku with any degree of perception.



I have spoken before about the pervasive influence of Mahayana Buddhist spirituality — influenced by Daoism and a dash of Animism (via Shintō) — in old hokku.  Usually I just call it the “spirituality” of hokku, and some call it the influence of Zen in hokku, which indeed historically it was.

When we come to the verses of Issa, however, we see a variant influence.  It is still Mahayana, but with a difference; Issa was a follower of the Pure Land sect, the aspect of Japanese Buddhism — in fact a kind of “folk Buddhism” — that some see as most like Christianity.

Zen believed in relying on one’s own efforts.  Pure Land believed in relying on the “other,” the other being in this case the compassion of the Buddha Amitabha, called “Amida” in Japan, who in Pure Land tradition vowed to save all beings who sincerely call upon him.  In feeling, Pure Land is very different from Zen.  It is the “easy” way, which is no doubt why it became the most popular form of Buddhist practice in Japan.

Today Buddhism in Japan has degenerated to the point where temples are handed down in the families of married priests, and people seldom visit them at all, except on special occasions.  In a bizarre twist, Buddhism has become associated in the minds of the modern Japanese people with funerals, as the country becomes ever more materialistic.  Even in his day, R. H. Blyth lamented that the Japanese had abandoned their traditional culture.  How horrified he would be to see today’s technological Japan, and Buddhism in even greater decline there!

But back to Issa and his brand of Buddhist practice.

He wrote a series of six verses all on the same theme, which is the “Six Ways”  or “Six Paths” that one may take after death, standing for the six realms in which one may be reborn.  When Protestant Christians say they have been “reborn,” what they mean is not at all what a Buddhist means by the term.  In traditional Buddhism, when one dies, one’s kamma (karma in sanskrit) causes rebirth in one of several realms, either in a “hell,” or as a suffering ghost, or as an animal, a nature spirit, a human (the most favorable in Buddhist belief) or as a deva or “god.”  Each of these realms has its own characteristics.

One can see that in these verses Issa has a peculiar take on the various realms, seeing them not so much in other places as in this very world.  Keep in mind that this is not really what hokku is for, but Issa had his own personal quirks and his hokku reflect the kind of person he was.

Here are the “Six Ways”:

1.  HELL

Yūzuki ya   nabe no naka nite   naku tanishi
Evening-moon ya pot ‘s inside boiling  mud-snails

The evening moon;
Boiling in the pot —
Crying mud snails.

This verse reflects Issa’s awareness of lower forms of life, which permeates his verses.  Quite aware of suffering in his own life, he was aware of it also in the lives of “lesser” creatures. Isn’t it obvious that for many creatures, this world is Hell?

The next higher stage of rebirth is


Hana chiru ya   nomitaki mizu wo   tōgasumi
Blossoms fall ya drink-desire water wo  far-mist

Falling blossoms;
The water we thirst for —
In the far mists.

The realm of Hungry Ghosts is the realm of spirits whose tormenting desires cannot be satisfied.  They want to satisfy their hunger but cannot, to satisfy their thirst but are unable.  Here amid the falling cherry blossoms — which embody transience — the water for which the spirits desperately thirst is far off somewhere in the confused mists of the afterlife, always enticing them, always grieving them, always never quite attainable.


Chiru hana ni    butsu tomo hō tomo   shiranu kana
Falling blossoms in   Buddha even Law even know-not kana

In the falling blossoms,
They see neither the Buddha
Nor the Law.

Animals have not the perception of humans.  Men look at the falling cherry blossoms and are able to see the impermanence of life in their transience, and think of the Buddha and the Law — the Dhamma (Dharma in sanskrit) that will lead them out of suffering.  Animals are aware of none of that, and Issa feels for them.


Koegoe ni    hana no kokage no bakuchi kana
Voice-voice at   blossom ‘s shade ‘s gamblers kana

With arguing voices
In the shade of the blossoms —
The gamblers.

The Asura (Japanese Ashura or Shura) realm is the realm of temperamental, self-important and easy-to-anger creatures just below the human realm, a kind of touchy nature spirit.

Here Issa sees them as shouting and arguing as they gamble in the shade of the blooming cherry trees.  In spite of the beauty of the blossoms, the Asuras are too intent on their own “pushy” pursuits to notice.


Saku hana no naka ni   ugomeku shujō kana
Blooming blossoms ‘s among at  wriggling human-beings kana

The blooming flowers,
Wriggling humans.

Not a flattering picture.  Humans wiggle about, moving here and there, amid the blooming cherry trees.  One pictures a crowd of people viewing the blossoms, turning this way and that, but really going nowhere.

And finally, we come to the realm of the devas or gods:


Kasumu hi ya    sazo tennin no    gotaikutsu
Haze day ya surely heaven-person  ‘s tedium

The hazy day;
Even the devas
Must be bored.

It is a very quiet, hazy day in spring.  Nothing to do, nowhere to go, and the hours drag.  The lives of the devas in the heaven realms are unimaginably longer than those of humans.  If humans are so easily bored, what must such a day be like for the devas, Issa wonders.

One can readily see that there is both deadly seriousness and humor in this series of verses.  And like “Occasion” hokku, we can read them on two different levels.  On one level these things are happening in the various realms in which humans may be reborn.  On another level, all of these things are happening in this world.

1.  In this world creatures and humans suffer at the hands of others — Hell.
2.  In this world both animals and humans may ignore the transience of life — Animals.
3.  In this world human desires are endless — Hungry Ghosts.
4.  In this world people bluster and argue and fight to overcome — Asuras
5.  In this world humans waste their time, acting as though they will live forever — Humans
6.  In this world people are easily bored — Devas

Issa mixes them all up, seeing the Hells and the Heavens and all Six Realms interpenetrating this world.  As Omar Khayyam wrote in Fitzgerald’s translation, “I myself am Heaven and Hell.”

As is obvious, this kind of verse is not really “normal” hokku, and I only post it here so that readers may see some of the odd variations into which hokku was drawn historically.  Issa, for the most part, does not make a good model for hokku, but just as Pure Land Buddhism became the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan, even so the quirky hokku of Issa — which are very human and often very psychological — became the most popular among the ordinary people of Japan.

As the old saying goes, De gustibus non disputandum est — there is no arguing about tastes.  We can, however, point out the differences between hokku put to these ends and the kind of hokku we practice, which from the Japanese perspective would be more “Zen” oriented than “Pure Land” oriented.



Here  — for convenience — I have combined several earlier articles explaining how Western haiku enthusiasts thoroughly confused hokku and haiku in the 20th century, completely misunderstanding not only hokku but its connection to “Zen,” and thoroughly misleading the public in the process by inaccurate and anachronistic use of terminology.  Unfortunately many in the modern haiku community continue to promote these fictions and misrepresentations even in the 21st century, and one must repeatedly correct their errors so that an unsuspecting public will not be taken in by them.  The originals of these articles will be found separately in the archives.


Many are still confused by careless and indiscriminate use and mixing of the terms hokku and haiku in print and on the Internet.  Are they the same?  Are they different?  It is important to know, because the survival of hokku depends on understanding just what it is, so that we do not confuse it with all the superficially similar verses that go under the umbrella term haiku.

Without going into detailed description, we can say that hokku is a short verse form that first achieved real popularity near the beginning of the 16th century.  For our purposes, however, hokku as we know it began with the writings of two men, Onitsura (1661-1738), who left no students to carry on his work, and Bashō (1644-1694), who did have followers, and so has become much better known.  From the time of Onitsura and Bashō all the way up to the time of Shiki (1867-1902), the verse form was known as hokku.  Haiku as the term is understood today did not exist until it was created by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

It should be obvious, then, that anyone who speaks of the “haiku” of Bashō, or the “haiku” of Buson or Issa or Gyōdai or any of the other early writers of hokku, is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically.  That is a simple fact which anyone can easily verify.

Why, then, do so many people persist in inaccurate and anachronistic terminology, pretending that hokku and haiku are the same?  There are two simple reasons.  First, it is in the interests of modern haiku organizations, who have confused haiku with hokku for so long in their publications that it is embarrassing to make the correction.  After all, it was the founders of the Haiku Society of America who tried to get the term “hokku” declared obsolete!

The second reason is commercial.  Scholarly writers who know better sometimes misuse “haiku” when referring to hokku simply because they or their publishers or both want to sell more copies, and it is a simple demographic fact that more people have heard of “haiku” than have heard of hokku.

The result is the perpetuation of a mistake that is well known to be a mistake among scholars.  There is, therefore, no reason for not correcting the problem and using accurate terminology.  Bashō did not write haiku, nor did any of the other writers up to the end of the 19th century, because “haiku” as known today simply did not exist until that time — in fact much of the kind of modern haiku written today in English and other European languages did not exist until the middle of the 20th century onward.

Shiki began the confusion of terms almost three hundred years after Bashō.  Strongly influenced by Western thought in art and literature, he decided to “reform” hokku by separating it from it spiritual roots and divorcing it completely from the verse sequences of which the hokku previously was used as the opening verse.  Up to that time, hokku could appear either as independent verses or as the opening verse of a verse sequence.  After Shiki, his new “haiku” — with a name chosen specifically to send the old hokku into oblivion –could only appear independently, because he did not consider a verse sequence to be legitimate “literature.”

Shiki’s reforms damaged hokku, but the result might not have been too serious had not even more radical writers come after him, following his impatient tradition of innovation.  Both in Japan and in the West, writers appeared who continually remolded the new “haiku” into forms that led it farther and farther from the standards and aesthetics of the old hokku.  So with time, hokku and haiku grew ever farther apart.  This tendency was only hastened by Western writers, who from the very beginning misunderstood and misperceived the hokku, combining it with their own notions of poetry and poets. So when they in turn began writing haiku, they confusedly presented it to the public as “what was written by Bashō,” when of course it had almost nothing in common with the hokku of Bashō but brevity.

Today, in fact, the modern Western haiku tradition, which was virtually brought into being in the 1960s, has become so varied that it is not inaccurate to say that haiku today is whatever an individual writer considers it to be. If a writer calls his verse “haiku,” it is haiku.  There are no universally-accepted standards defining the haiku, so it is at present nothing more in English than a catch-all umbrella term for short poems of approximately three lines. In reality, a modern haiku is often simply free verse divided into three lines.

This is in great contrast to the hokku, which has very definite principles and aesthetic standards inherited — even in English and other languages — from the old hokku tradition, which is why it can continue to be called by the same term.  Modern hokku preserves the aesthetics and principles of the old hokku in essence, whereas modern haiku is a new verse form with widely-varying standards depending on the whims of individual writers.

This situation has led to a great deal of not always well-suppressed anger among writers of modern haiku.  Haiku forums on the Internet are notorious for bickering and viciousness.  There are many reasons for this.  In a form allowing each person to be his own arbiter of what is and is not “haiku,” there are bound to be countless disagreements and sandpaper friction among those who each consider their own version of “haiku” superior.  And of course nearly all of them are quite opposed to the revival of the old hokku, which they thought had been quietly buried and forgotten all these years, because for some reason they find a verse form with legitimate connection to the old hokku, and with definite standards and principles and aesthetics, somehow threatening to their Western sense of the poet as avant-garde,revolutionary, intellectual.  The rest I shall leave to psychologists.

Today, then, the situation is this:  There is the old hokku, practiced from the time of Onitsura and Bashō up to the time of Shiki.  This hokku tradition continues today among those of us who still practice it as a spiritually-based, Nature-related, seasonal short verse form and as a way of life.  But there is also the much better known and more widespread and far more recent haiku tradition, which began near the end of the 19th century in Japan and got under way in English in the 1960s in the West.  Modern haiku requires no spiritual basis, nor does it necessarily have a connection with Nature or the seasons.  Nor does it necessarily have anything to do with one’s lifestyle or how one views the universe and the place of humans within it.

To the frustration of many in the modern haiku communities who like to think of their haiku as the elite form, the chief impact of haiku in the modern world — among the general public — has been as a new and deliberately low-class satirical verse form.  That accounts for the popularity of such variations as “Spam-ku,” “Honku,” and “Redneck Haiku.”   Haiku has consistently failed to gain acceptance into mainstream English literature, in spite of scattered experimentation by notables such as Richard Wright and W. H. Auden.  Instead it is viewed today as “grade-school poetry,” and that has contributed to its transformation into satirical verse, giving it much the same place in modern Western writing that the satirical senryū had in Japan — which was similarly both low-class and humorous.  Perhaps this is the real future of haiku in the West.

Whatever the modern situation, however, hokku and haiku are today two different verse forms that should not be confused in either scholarly or popular use. Hokku and haiku are historically related — because modern hokku is a continuation of the old hokku, and modern haiku evolved out of the old hokku — but nonetheless they are separate and distinct in practice and aesthetics.  And with a movement afoot in modern haiku to eventually discard even the name “haiku” — leaving simply a form of short free verse  that may be called whatever the writer wishes to call it — hokku more than ever stands apart from all that is today called “haiku.”

Given this situation, the existence today of both the old Nature and season-based hokku tradition and the newer, innovationist haiku tradition, it is up to the individual to choose which he or she prefers, but it is nonetheless important to use the terminology appropriate and accurate for each — hokku for one, and haiku for the other.

As for me, I follow the old hokku tradition, because I find it not only more profound in comparison to the shallowness of most haiku today, but I also find it far more satisfying in its spiritual purity, its selflessness, and its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.

That does not keep me from being amused by such verses as the “Redneck” haiku about a fellow named Clyde who introduces himself to girls by banging on his pickup door and howling like a dog (Redneck Haiku Double-Wide edition, by Mary K. Witte).


Yesterday I discussed the well-intentioned but rather futile effort of James W. Hackett to halt and reverse the “aesthetic devolution” of the modern haiku.  As readers here know, I do not teach or advocate haiku, so some explanation is necessary for even discussing it on a site devoted to the hokku.

The modern haiku community has from its inception confused the hokku with Shiki’s revisionist term “haiku.” But Bashō and Gyōdai, Buson and Issa did not write “haiku.”  They called what they wrote hokku, within the wider context of haikai, just as we do today.  That is an easily verifiable, historical fact.  And when hokku was tentatively introduced to the West, it was known here as hokku too, though it was misunderstood in Europe and America from its first appearance, and was mistakenly viewed in terms of Western notions of poets and poetry, quite contrary to its essential nature.

To confuse matters even more, hokku (as Japanese hokku in translation) was not really popularized in the West until the middle of the 20th century, at which time it became widely known through the works of Reginald Horace Blyth, and to a lesser extent those of Harold G. Henderson

Unfortunately, Blyth chose to ignore the correct term for the subject — hokku — and used instead the revisionist term then current in the Japan of the mid 1900s — “haiku.”  Henderson, a lesser light, followed Blyth’s lead.

This unfortunate choice has been the source of endless confusion and misunderstanding, because almost all of what Blyth wrote about in his monumental “Haiku” volumes (all six of them) was really hokku, not haiku.  But when Blyth first began writing, he assumed that the hokku was dead, that he was penning a kind of loving post-mortem.

But by the time he was finishing the last of these works years later, Blyth saw faint hints of a revival in, of all places, the English-speaking West, and it was his own writings that were largely responsible for this new interest, which he hastened to encourage.  But again Blyth made a serious mistake in not providing simple, straightforward, clear, detailed, and systematic guidance on how a hokku was to be written, practically and aesthetically.  Instead, though he provided a treasure in his commentaries, he left far to much up to a reading public too impatient and unprepared to take advantage of Blyth’s unsystematic if penetrating presentation of the matter.

Harold Henderson made the same disastrous mistake, suggesting that it would be the “poets” themselves who would decide how the “haiku” (by which Henderson, like Blyth, really meant the hokku) would be written in English.  Both Blyth and Henderson failed to realize that Westerners were totally unprepared for the task, having virtually no understanding of hokku aesthetics and how they were to be applied in verse.

Inevitably, Westerners projected their own misperceptions of the hokku onto the Western haiku, and thus mischief was immediately afoot and all the better efforts of Blyth and Henderson came to naught as Westerners promptly set themselves to remaking the hokku in their own images as the English-language “haiku.”

Thus, virtually at the beginning of the Western haiku movement, the damage of misuse of terminology had already been done, so the movement that began in the West in Blyth’s time was indeed a “haiku” movement, not a hokku movement.  And its aesthetics were Western self-made “haiku” aesthetics, based on Western poetic conventions, not on those of the hokku.

It seems odd now that neither Blyth nor Henderson recognized sufficiently that those who had become interested in writing “haiku” really had not the slightest idea how to go about it, and that letting such individuals set the future course of the verse form was just as illogical as making a child newly arrived on a ship its captain.

Western novices compounded the problem by virtually ignoring Blyth’s illuminating commentaries, and instead of remedying that deficiency by systematically studying old hokku to determine its form and aesthetics, they began plunging recklessly and headlong into writing a new kind of verse based not on hokku but on their personal misunderstandings and misperceptions of hokku, calling it “haiku.” The results, generally, were astonishing in their mediocrity.  But really, what else could one expect?

That is the beginning of the Western haiku movement in a nutshell.  And those setting the course of the Western haiku movement generally chose to ignore Blyth and to ignore Henderson’s warnings and cautions, preferring to go their own various ways, remolding the hokku to fit what they thought their new “haiku” in English should be, and endlessly confusing the general public in the process by misapplication of terminology and misinterpretation of hokku aesthetics and form.

All of this is merely a lead-in to some further words on James W. Hackett. Yesterday I wrote that Hackett’s efforts to turn back time to a fictional “golden age” of Western haiku are likely to have no impact at all on the modern haiku community because that community will, as a whole, consider Hackett merely antiquated in his views, a human telegraph lingering on in the cell phone age, bypassed by time and events.    I pointed out that haiku in the West never had a golden age, because it was distorted from its very beginnings. That needs a further bit of explanation.

If the West had paid close and studious attention to the works of R. H. Blyth, it would have been possible for a Western hokku to quickly arise, even if mislabeled “haiku.”  But as we have seen, those who set the course of the Western haiku movement by writing books and journals and founding societies paid virtually no attention to Blyth’s aesthetic commentaries on hokku; instead they created a new Western verse form under the name “haiku.”

Those reading editions of such influential works as The Haiku Anthology by Cor van den Heuvel, which began appearing in the early 1970s, will see that this sleep of reason brought forth monsters.  Even in the beginning, Western haiku diverged not only from hokku but even from the very conservative “haiku” written and advocated in Japan by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.  But then van den Heuvel was involved with the Haiku Society of America, which in my view bears heavy responsibility for leading haiku off on erratic and subjective paths that took it quickly away both from the hokku and from the “Shiki-style” haiku, furthering the “aesthetic devolution” lamented by Hackett.

But back to Hackett.  It should not be surprising that devotees of modern haiku view him as spider-webby, dusty, and outmoded.  He did, after all, correspond with R. H. Blyth, which means he got his start at the very beginning of the popularization of  haiku in the West in the middle of the 20th century.  And even though Blyth himself gave Hackett a rather double-edged compliment, calling his early verses “excellent” while simultaneously writing that “more often there is too much ostensive, that is, overt thought” in them (History of Haiku, vol. 2, pg 362), nonetheless that mention of Hackett by Blyth himself (along with inclusion of a few of Hackett’s verses, which became separately available in print in the West) puts Hackett in the category of the three first founders of Western haiku.

Unfortunately it is not a happy society, because few have been so historically noted and so little heeded as the triumvirate of Blyth, Henderson, and on a secondary level, Hackett (a fourth contributor, Kenneth Yasuda, made little impression though his uninspired works still survive).

My own view of Hackett’s “haiku” is that (as Blyth himself admitted with his backhanded compliment), Hackett did not quite get the aesthetics of the hokku.  Hackett was impressed with the “Zen” aspect of the hokku, but unfortunately this sometimes resulted in verses tainted too heavily with mid-20th century Western romanticization of Zen — a little like biscuits with too much baking powder, in which the effect should be there, but not the obvious taste.  And, as Blyth wrote, Hackett’s verses all too often have too much subjective intellectualization, too much “thinking” in them.

But really, that is the worst one can legitimately say of Hackett.  When one reads his essay bemoaning what haiku has become, one sees that if readers in the modern haiku community were to follow the more sensible of his suggestions, haiku would be reformed for the better, at least as far as its relation to the hokku.

That is not, however, going to happen.  Haiku was created in the West as a self-evolving kind of verse dependent on the whim of the individual writer for its form and standards, and Western writers — heavily invested in the poet as public ego — are not about to give that up for a nostalgic view of a past that never was, simply because it is presented to them by someone who wrote letters to Blyth over half a century ago.

In fact the modern haiku community as a whole has so little respect for Blyth at present that even its leading pundits (or “misleading pundits” as they would better be called in my view) regularly enjoy stabbing a dagger into Blyth’s memory now and then, attempting to lift themselves by denigrating him.

It should be obvious, then, that I see Hackett’s attempt to reform haiku as futile, though not misguided.  Haiku is not hokku.  Haiku never was hokku, except perhaps in its earliest days in Japan when Shiki wrote his own brand of hokku and simply mislabeled it “haiku.”

But in the West — in English and in other European languages — haiku has always been a confused mess because people simply did not pay attention to what Blyth told them over and over again. Instead, they preferred to remake it in their own image, following the popular Western notion of the poet as rebel and revolutionary.

Haiku as a whole follows in the same pattern today, and instead of attempting to change it back into something closer to the hokku, one must simply let it go on changing and evolving, though the tendency at present seems to be for it to evolve itself into sterility and ultimate extinction as anything other than a simplistic form of satirical verse.

All of which, fortunately, has not the slightest effect on our practice of the hokku as a continuation in the modern world of the old hokku tradition of Japan.  Hokku never devolved precisely because it maintains the essentials of the aesthetics and principles and techniques of the old hokku, though presenting them in modern language to the modern world.

The student of hokku, happily, is not faced with the subjective chaos and fragmentation so obvious in modern haiku.  But then hokku and haiku have gone their separate ways, and have today quite different approaches both to aesthetics and to life.

One cannot, therefore, say that James Hackett is wrong in wanting to return haiku to an aesthetic closer to his own, but one can be reasonably certain it is never going to happen.  Fortunately, for those who do not want to be taken on the wild, ego-stimulating, argumentative ride of modern haiku societies and journals and Internet forums, there is still the peace, tranquility, and closeness to Nature of the hokku, ever old, ever new.

It will be obvious to the reader that I have a very low general opinion of modern haiku.  Nonetheless, I feel one should accept reality, realizing that it exists as a new category of Western verse created in the 20th century, and one should admit that it has an appeal for most Westerners that hokku simply does not have.

That is because the goals of modern Western society are in general so remote from the Nature-centered, spiritual goals of the hokku that most people have no attraction to the kind of verses written by Onitsura and Bashō.  Like Blyth, and no doubt like Hackett, I see this as a serious flaw in modern society, something to be lamented instead of celebrated.  It is symptomatic of the serious sickness of spirit that plagues modern culture the world over.

That is why I hold with Blyth that in our present-day world, the Way of Hokku is a “hard way and a narrow way, and few there be that find it.”  But that is only because few there be that want to find it.

Let no one think I am criticizing James W. Hackett here.  I think the modern haiku community would vastly better itself by heeding his Jeremiad.  I may disagree with some details of his reform program for haiku, yet I applaud his overall intention.  But I also feel quite certain that nothing is going to happen as a result of his efforts — that he will be, like Blyth and Henderson, virtually ignored by the majority of the Western haiku community.  Hokku and haiku are likely to remain two quite different and separate and ever more widely diverging kinds of verse.

Rather than wasting time on trying to reverse history, it is better just to live a life of hokku and to let others do what they wish, which they always have done in any case and will continue to do.  Ultimately, one changes the world only by changing one’s self.


Over the years I have written about how hokku was hijacked in the middle of the 20th century by the haiku movement in the West.  One could write a sizable volume on the history of how that took place and which prominent names in 20th century (and some 21st) haiku were involved.

Now there is certainly nothing wrong in the appearance of a new verse form.  But one can and should legitimately object when a new verse form is misrepresented to the public as a continuation of an old verse form, which is precisely what the self-made pundits of modern haiku undertook from the 1960s onward. It is only recently that the public has begun to catch on to the fact that they have been had, that they are the victims of revisionism — that modern haiku is not a continuation of the old hokku as written by Taigi and Bashō and Onitsura and all the rest; instead it is a new verse form created out of the misperceiving and misrepresentation of hokku by writers in the 20th century.

Admittedly the public at large could hardly care less about all this, because numerically few are interested in modern haiku and even fewer in genuine hokku.  But for those of us who do care, it is very important to call attention to those writers in the 21st century who persist, for whatever reason, in inaccurately labelling old hokku as “haiku” and who continue to promulgate the fiction that what they are teaching continues the tradition of the old writers of hokku.

If one wants to learn modern haiku, one is perfectly free to pick up hints and tips from any number of books and Internet fora and blogs.  The range is vast, and the standards so loose and flexible that one can write virtually anything one wishes and present it to the world as haiku as long as it is reasonably brief.

Hokku is quite a different matter.  Hokku has very definite principles and standards, and if one wishes to learn how to write it, one must thoroughly understand the aesthetics and construction of the old hokku written from the 16th to the 20th centuries.  It is not complicated, but it does involve a thorough re-thinking of one’s notions, a dropping of a great deal of inaccurate and unnecessary baggage picked up over the years from the misrepresentation of hokku as “haiku” by authors from the mid-20th century onward.

It requires  a re-orientation (no pun intended) of the writer toward a verse form that takes one away from the self and into Nature, a form that pays little heed to the ego of the writer or to what is commonly known as “self-expression.”  I sometimes begin introducing people to hokku by articles with titles such as “Hokku is Not What You Think it Is,” and that is quite true.  Most people really have no idea at all what hokku is, and that is not surprising after half a century of misperception and misrepresentation of it by propagandistic enthusiasts of modern haiku.

So what is hokku?  Read the articles in the archive on this site and you will begin to get a much clearer and more accurate picture than you have likely ever had from reading misinformation about it in books that incorrectly and anachronistically misrepresent it as “haiku.”


In previous postings I have written that the haiku did not exist until near the end of the 19th century, when it was “created” by a Japanese failed novelist, the journalist generally known today as Masaoka Shiki, or simply Shiki.  That is an historical fact, and easily verifiable by anyone willing to expend a minimum of effort in research.  Though the word “haiku” existed in Japanese long before Shiki, it had a different meaning than he attached to it.

What that means is that everyone — whether in books or magazines or on the Internet — who talks about the “haiku” of Bashō or the “haiku” of Buson or the “haiku” of Taigi is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically, spreading the misunderstanding and confusion that began in English and other European languages in the 20th century — particularly in the mid-20th century, when the foundational groups that gave rise to modern haiku were being formed.

As I have mentioned before, it is noteworthy that one such group — the Haiku Society of America — even put out a considerable propaganda effort to convince the editors of dictionaries and other reference works to declare the term hokku “obsolete,” as though a mere handful of people forming a little club could invalidate history, making Bashō somehow a writer of “haiku” when, by contrast, Bashō always referred to what he wrote as HOKKU, within the wider context of haikai.

But I have said all that before.  What the average person needs to know now is what that change in terminology — begun by the revisionism of Shiki in Japan — means about hokku today and its relationship — if any — to haiku.

To understand that, we have to go back to the time of Shiki to see just what he did, and what resulted from what he did.  In doing so we shall dispel a bit of myth and shall remain with the facts.

What did Shiki do to hokku?  Very little, actually, but that very little was to have immense consequences.  What he did was precisely this:

1.  Shiki removed hokku from its centuries-long position as the first and opening verse of a haikai verse sequence.  He did this because he did not personally consider such collaborative verses “literature.”

2.  Shiki decided to call this independent verse form “haiku,” not “hokku.”

That’s it.

Looked at objectively, Shiki really only made only one and one-half rather than two major changes, because hokku appearing independently were nothing remotely new, but really a very old practice.  In the old haikai, hokku could appear in at least three ways:  As part of a haikai sequence, independently, or embedded in other writings such as the travel journals of Bashō.  So to say that Shiki began the practice of presenting the hokku independently is simply an error.  What we can say is that Shiki began presenting the hokku independently under his new denomination “haiku.”

We are really left with only one major thing that Shiki did.  He made it impossible for the haiku to be written in the context of a linked verse (renga) sequence.

If we look at Shiki’s own “haiku,” we find that what he really did was just to take the hokku — which already could appear independently — and rename it “haiku” for his own purposes.  Shiki’s verses are generally acceptable as hokku, which shows how little he really did and how essentially conservative his verses were.

Shiki kept the connection with Nature — essential to hokku.  He also kept the connection with the seasons — also essential to hokku.

We can say, then, that what Shiki did was simply to initiate a trend of confusion that has continued up to the present.

It is true that when compared to older hokku, Shiki’s “haiku” are often shallow, and there is a particular reason for that, in fact two main reasons.  First, Shiki was an agnostic.  Old hokku was very influenced by the “philosophy” of Mahayana Buddhism, particularly that of the Zen sect.  That is not surprising.  Zen aesthetics are the basis of all the major traditional contemplative arts in Japan, whether hokku, the tea ceremony, gardening, flower arranging, calligraphy, even the Nō drama.  That is why if one understands the aesthetic principles behind just one of these arts, one understands them all.

In Shiki’s case, his agnosticism tended to manifest itself as a certain existential bleakness, which we find particularly in verses directly relating to his chronic illness.  Seen over the longer term, however, his agnosticism led eventually to a separation between “haiku” and spirituality, something we find emphasized in later 20th-century writers in English who declare either that there is no Zen-“haiku” connection or  that such a connection is overrated or overstated.  One often finds such writers quoting this or that modern Japanese, who when asked about the connection between “Zen” and haiku, simply look puzzled or say there is no connection.  What does one expect them to say?  Most modern Japanese know as little about the aesthetic foundations of the old hokku as modern Americans know about the influence of the Enlightenment on the founding documents of the United States.

But the fact is that it was modern haiku that decided to separate from “Zen,” for reasons best known to those who made that decision.  Of course by “Zen” here, I mean non-dogmatic, unitary spirituality in general, and particularly the aesthetic influence of that spirituality that manifested in hokku.

The result, then, is that there is a large segment of modern haiku that has separated and isolated itself from spirituality.  That is a notable difference from the old hokku, in which its aesthetics were a manifestation of the underlying foundation of Mayahana Buddhism, including as well Daoist, Confucianist, and even a bit of animism.

There is a second and not unrelated reason for the shallowness of many of Shiki’s hokku.  Shiki was strongly influenced by the Western literary and technological innovations that were flooding into Japan in his time.  One of these was the plein-air art of Europe, nature sketches “from life,” so to speak.  It made such a great impression on him that he took it as the guiding motif for the new “haiku,” and called it shasei, sketching from life.

The result was that many of Shiki’s “haiku” are essentially illustrations in words, brief word-sketches of this or that scene.  As such, they tend to be merely two-dimensional, and lack the depth and profundity of the old hokku, which had a wider aesthetic.  I often say that many of Shiki’s hokku are like the style of block prints made popular by such Japanese artists as Yoshida and Hasui — pleasant enough in their own way, but still illustrations.

In spite of that, if his changes had not been taken farther by those who came after him, we would still consider much of what Shiki wrote to be hokku — shallow and illustrative hokku on the whole perhaps, but still not radical enough to remove him entirely from the category.  We would see him as just another writer of hokku, but with a peculiar personal aesthetic.

That brings us to Shiki’s real significance in this matter.  Shiki questioned the old hokku tradition and its values, but aside from imposing his own title “haiku” on it, he remained, as we have seen, rather conservative.  But the mere fact that he felt enabled, as an individual, to take control of the hokku tradition and to bend it to his personal will, nonetheless implied the right of the individual to change hokku however one wished, and given that this occurred in a period of great cultural change in Japan, its effects were tremendous. Shiki was not even dead before one of his students — Hekigodō — asserted his own right to change the new haiku even more, and he continued until his verses were so radical and different that they had very little to do with the old hokku.  As haiku developed it became acceptable to drop the connection with the seasons, with Nature, and for all practical purposes, haiku became a new and different verse form, which is what it remains in most cases today.

Not surprisingly, what Westerners took from all this was that anyone could write “haiku” any way they wished.  That is still the creed of most modern haiku enthusiasts today.  And so haiku has become whatever anyone wants it to be.  As I have said before, something that becomes anything becomes in essence nothing at all.   That is why haiku today is impossible to clearly define.  It is simply too varied and fragmented, and it continues to vary and to fragment.  That also is one of the chief reasons why the modern haiku community is so filled with bickering and dissension.

It is not surprising that this is what has become of haiku, because in the modern West, “poetry” is seen as a form of self-expression — often of rebellion — which is why “haiku” was taken up by the “Beat Generation” in the 20th century.  Of course by then it was already confused with the old hokku, and people simply could not tell the difference because they had never properly learned or understood the aesthetics of the old hokku.  When someone told them that “haiku” was what Bashō and the other old masters of Japan wrote, they simply and naïvely accepted that.

It is very important to recognize that the hokku was fundamentally misunderstood and misperceived from its very first appearance in the West in the 19th century.  The early Western poets — the Imagists among them — simply saw in the hokku a reflection of their misperceptions both of Asian culture and of its literature.  Because hokku was an aesthetic blank for them, when they looked at it, it was like looking in a mirror; they saw their own faces — their own ideas about poets and poetry and the mysterious East — staring back at them.

That fundamental misunderstanding and misperception of hokku has been perpetuated in the modern haiku community right up to the present.  In fact as I have said before, so pervasive were the misconceptions about the history and nature of hokku that when I first began teaching that Bashō wrote hokku, not “haiku,” the reaction of the modern haiku community in general was first disbelief, then anger.  One would have thought the anger would have been directed at those who had so misled them.  But there are still no doubt those in modern haiku who cannot forgive me for pointing out that they are not successors of Bashō, and that what they had picked up from the writings of 20th-century haiku pundits had more to do with the personal preferences of those self-made “authorities” than with anything practiced prior to the 20th century.

Today — at least — people in modern haiku are at last beginning to get the message that Bashō did not write haiku, nor did all the others before Shiki.  And they are beginning to realize that what most of them are writing stems more from American and European experimentation and ideas in the latter half of the 20th century than it does with old hokku or even the haiku of Shiki.

Once people begin to realize that “haiku” is an inaccurate and anachronistic and mistaken term when applied to the hokku tradition, and once they begin to realize that what nearly all the haiku teachers and authorities of the 20th century were teaching had little to do with Bashō and the entire old hokku tradition, then they can begin to see things realistically.  They can begin to learn what hokku really is, as opposed to its ersatz form, modern haiku.

Seen realistically, the modern haiku tradition in general has virtually nothing to do with all that was written prior to Shiki, or even — as we have seen — with what was written as “haiku” by Shiki himself.  Any verse form that abandons Nature, that abandons the connection with the seasons, that abandons the essentials and aesthetics of the old hokku,  is neither hokku nor even is it what Shiki meant by “haiku” when he brought it into being near the beginning of the 20th century.  Instead, modern haiku is for the most part a new Western brief verse form with remarkably fluid boundaries, and should be recognized as such.  The notion that it has anything to do do with Bashō or haikai or hokku  other than as an offshoot created through misunderstanding and misperception of the original will finally be recognized.

I must, however, add one disclaimer.  There are a few individuals in modern haiku today that do maintain some relation to the old hokku, if not in name.  Generally these are people who, though writing haiku, have been particularly influenced by pre-Shiki hokku.  Some, influenced by Japanese haiku of the 20th century, follow aesthetics not quite those of the old hokku — there may be too much intellection or striving for “poetic” effect — and their verses tend to be like the conservative haiku style of the 20th-century Japanese haiku writer Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959).  In many cases, these individuals are still worlds away from much that is written as modern haiku, and are sometimes more akin to the conservative haiku of Shiki — thus removed from, but not as isolated from the old hokku as, modern haiku in general.

As for the rest, it is as I have said.  Modern haiku has in general virtually nothing in common with the old hokku but brevity, and sometimes not even that.

Now what is the point in saying all this?  Is it perhaps just to irritate modern haiku enthusiasts?  Not at all.  The reason I take the time to write this — apart from historical accuracy — is simply that in order to learn hokku, one must distinguish it from haiku.  Hokku is something quite different, with its own aesthetics, techniques, and principles.  These are impossible to learn if one is constantly mistaking it for haiku.

Once it is understood and recognized that hokku and haiku are generally two different things, individuals may then choose to write either or neither.  But at least they will be making a more informed decision than those who have never learned to distinguish the two.


Hokku is often described as “Zen” verse.  Actually it is the most “Zen” of all verse forms, but what does that mean?

“Zen” has several meanings.  Originally it was just the Japanese pronunciation of a word borrowed from China and ultimately from India.  That word is jhāna, meaning “meditative absorption” in the Pali language of the Buddhist scriptures.

In Japan, Zen Buddhism was (and is, to some extent), a very austere form of Buddhism with meditation as its central practice.  But like many things in Japan today, it is not what it once was, so we need to go to an earlier period to find what it means in hokku.

When Zen (Ch’an in Chinese) came to Japan from China and Korea centuries ago, its austerity gradually so permeated Japanese culture that its arts and crafts often exhibited the distinct aesthetic of Zen, particularly the tea ceremony, flower arranging, ink painting, and gardening.

In his interesting book Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shōei Andō follows perceptive scholars before him in asserting, “…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].

It is precisely for this reason that even Japanese writers of hokku who were not formally Zen Buddhists themselves nonetheless still generally demonstrated the influence of Zen in their hokku.  It was unavoidable in a culture so tinged with the Zen aesthetic.  We find that influence even in some of the revisionist verses of Shiki, who created haiku near the end of the 19th century and set it off on its erratic course — a man for whom there were “no gods, no buddhas.”

Hokku has its roots firmly and deeply in this Zen aesthetic, and that is why hokku is considered “Zen” poetry.  It cannot be disassociated from its Zen roots, because it is precisely this influence that made it what it is.

One must be careful, however, not to misunderstand what that means.  It does mean that hokku follow the Zen aesthetic, an aesthetic shared in common with the other contemplative arts, but it certainly does not mean that those who write hokku must be adherents of the Zen sect as a religious organization.  So we must distinguish “Zen” as a meditative aesthetic from organizational Zen.

What that means is that the writer of hokku follows the meditative aesthetic of poverty, simplicity, selflessness, and transience in writing, and of course one can approach that from many different ways, including the transcendentalism of Thoreau, the simplicity and non-dogmatism of modern liberal Quakerism, and so on.  The important thing is that writers of hokku recognize that they are simply parts of a wider unity in which there is no separation between humans and Nature — that ultimately all is One.

Haiku today — as distinct from hokku — is another matter.  There are some Zen-influenced writers of haiku, but in general modern haiku is completely removed from Zen, and in fact some writers and figures in the modern haiku community actually prefer that it be divorced completely from Zen and any kind of spirituality.  In this they differ radically from present day adherents of the hokku tradition, who regard non-dogmatic spirituality as inseparable from hokku.  Modern writers of hokku thus maintain its all-important spiritual roots, even though they may not use the term “Zen” at all.

“Selflessness” is a very important element in hokku.  It means the absence of the “little self,” the ego of the writer.  Hokku is a very spiritual form of verse in which the distinction between subject (the writer) and object (what is written about) disappears.  It is this that gives hokku its immediacy, with no “poet” standing between the reader and the experience.

Spiritual teachers liken the universe to gold, which can be made into many kinds of objects of many different shapes, but nonetheless never loses its essential nature.  In the same way, the universe manifests all kinds of objects as the “ten thousand things” — all the different things we see and experience — but essentially they are just the One manifested as the illusory many.

That means when we look at a stone, we are the universe looking at itself.  And if we write about the stone just as it is, without adding our opinions, without decorating or ornamenting it with unnecessary words, we are allowing the stone to speak through us.

The universe as “stone” speaks through the universe as “writer.”  That is why in hokku we always say that we must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  If we just use Nature as our tool, writing about it to express all the egocentric chatter that is in our heads, then Nature cannot speak.

Thus in many hokku no writer is visible.  There is only an experience, a “thing-event.”  That is the selflessness of hokku.

In much of Western poetry, writers talk a lot about themselves — how they feel, what they think, what they want or like, what they don’t want or dislike, what they did not do and what they should have done or might do, and so on and on and on.  In hokku there is none of this because of its principle of selflessness.

The mind of the writer of hokku thus becomes like a bright, clear mirror in which Nature and the changing seasons are reflected.  With the dust of ego wiped from it, the mirror is free to reflect without obstruction.  That is the mirror mind of the hokku writer.  A mirror does not comment on what it reflects, nor does it add.  And when one looks at the image, the mirror itself is not seen — only what is reflected in it.

Similarly and ideally, the mind of the writer of hokku should be calm and still, like the surface of a windless pond in which the bright stars can clearly be seen.  There is no separation — the stars are in the pond and the pond is in the stars.

This mirror mind takes us back to where we began — to Zen as meditative absorption.  That is why I recommend to all who want to write hokku that they take up the practice of meditation.  Ultimately it is not hokku that is important, but rather the state of mind.


Hokku is an art of spiritual poverty, of simplicity, and of transience.  Because its one and only subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it keeps as close to Nature as possible.

Hokku is one of the contemplative arts — arts that take us away from the madness and materialism of modern society into a state of peace and tranquility.  That is why hokku omits such topics as war, romance, sex, violence, plagues and catastrophes — and of course politics — all things that disturb or obsess the mind.  And though it may be at times earthy, it avoids crudity for its own sake, as well as vulgarity.

Hokku are very simple.  They are very brief, they avoid complicated words, and they do not rhyme.

In general, a hokku is simply a sensory experience — something seen, touched, tasted, heard, or smelled — placed within the context of a season.    There is no added commentary or ornament.

Further, hokku are selfless, to the greatest extent practically possible.  They generally avoid the words “I,” “me,” and “my,” unless it is confusing or impractical to do so.  And when a writer does mention himself, he does it in the same way he would speak of a passing fox or a smooth stone in a riverbed — objectively.

By writing in this manner, we re-unite humans and Nature and restore humans to their proper place — not as the lords of Nature, but only as a small part of it — the same thing we see in old Chinese landscape painting, in which humans are only a small and almost insignificant part of the whole, yet not separate from it.

The hokku, as a verse set in a seasonal context, existed as early as the 15th century — both as a part of the linked verse known as renga and as separate verse.  But it was not until the latter half of the 17th century that it began to mingle the “high” and conventionally elegant subjects of the overtly poetic waka with the “low” common expressions and topics formerly not considered poetic.  It was this mingling of high and low that gave birth to the kind of hokku we practice today.  The linked verse with which it was then associated was called “haikai” renga — “playful” linked verse.

Looking back, there were two writers we may consider the originators of our hokku.  The first was Onitsura (1660-1738).  He wrote verses that, while not having the overt poetic elegance of waka, nonetheless had their own elegance of simplicity.  Unfortunately he had no students who carried on his school, so the better known of the two writers today is the second — Matsuo Bashō, whose students continued to make his name known long after his death.  We can say, therefore,  that though our seasonal hokku dates from the 15th century, its atmosphere of mixing the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, dates to Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century.  Onitsura (c. 1661-1738) began writing our kind of verse near the the same time that Bashō wrote the famous “Old Pond” hokku that is considered the foundation of his school in 1686.  Even though Bashō (1644-1694) was born earlier, their writing of hokku in the style we favor began at almost the same time.

The kind of hokku I teach is not that of just one early writer, but rather a mixture of the best of all of them, from Onitsura through Bashō and onward into the 19th century, when hokku reached its lowest point because Japanese writers no longer lived lives favorable to hokku nor kept it fresh and new, but instead allowed it to become repetitive and stagnant.  It could have easily been revived if the writers themselves had been willing to live by its standards, but instead Japan became overwhelmed by a flood of Western influence, and as people became ever more materialistic and technologically-oriented, new kinds of verse replaced the old hokku as the favored practice of the public.

I began teaching hokku on the Internet in about 1996, after seeing how what replaced hokku — the modern “haiku” — had distorted and perverted its aesthetics and standards.  I realized that something genuinely valuable had been lost with the decline of the old hokku.

And so that is why I teach it today, a little green haven of peace and tranquility in the midst of our modern hurried mechanized, stressed, violent, self-centered, superficial and materialistic world.

The hokku I teach is specifically oriented toward a non-dogmatic spiritual lifestyle, in keeping with hokku as one of the contemplative arts.  Hokku has its roots in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, and it is that which gives it its particular clean, spare, and ascetic flavor.



Michihiko, who lived in the time of Issa, wrote:

Kare-ashi ya             yuki no chirakutsuku   kaze no ato
Withered-reeds ya snow’s  flitting              wind ‘s after

Withered reeds;
The snow flutters down
After the wind.

The wind has ceased, and the snow flutters softly down over the withered reeds.

The setting is “withered reeds.”  The subject is “the snow.”  The action is “flutters down after the wind.”  So this is another standard hokku, consisting of setting, subject and action.

“Withered reeds” is in keeping with the deathly yin of winter.  And of course the snow is yin.  And the ceasing of the wind is also yin — the change from motion to stillness.  And in that stillness, over the withered reeds, the cold snow flutters downward — a yin direction.

Sōchō wrote:

Yuki akari    akaruki neya wa    mata samushi
Snow light    bright   bedroom wa moreover cold

The bedroom is bright
But cold!

The brightness comes from the snow outside, but it is a winter brightness, meaning very chilly. This shows us the relativity of Nature — how there are no absolutes in Yin and Yang, but rather one thing is yin in comparison to another.  Light is conventionally thought of as yang, but being the light of winter, it is very yin in comparison to the light of summer — so very cold!



Here is my periodic disclaimer:

I do not teach modern haiku, which, as it exists today, has virtually nothing to do with the old hokku written by Bashō, Onitsura, Gyōdai, Taigi, and all the others who wrote up until the end of the 19th century.  It is inaccurate, anachronistic, and a mistake to confuse hokku with haiku, and the latter term should never be used to describe the former.

I have nothing to do with the modern haiku community, its practices or its goals, which are very different from those of the old writers of hokku.

Having gotten that out of the way, let’s look at another verse by Yaha.

Yesterday we discussed the significance of one thing versus many in hokku, and we looked at two verses, the latter by Yaha:

A single umbrella
Passes by;
The snowy evening

Yaha also wrote:

Hitogoe no   yowa wo suguru   samusa kana
Person-voice ‘s night-half wo pass  cold  kana

People’s voices
Passing at midnight;
The cold!

Yesterday I said that in hokku, one thing has more perceived significance than many things, and I used the “single” umbrella of Yaha in contrast to “many umbrellas” as an example.  Yet today there is this hokku in which I translate “people” and “voice” as a plural.

In hokku we must beware of rigid dogmatism.  Hokku reflects Nature, which is a living, changing thing, and our verses and our practice must be in keeping with that.

As I have said, Japanese had no distinction between plural and singular.  so when we see hitogoe (hito-koe), we could just as easily translate thus:

Someone’s voice
Passes at midnight;
The cold!

We must use common sense, however, combined with the aesthetics of hokku.  People generally do not wander about outside at midnight talking to themselves (well, they may in my city, but there are lots of strange people in cities!); further, the sense that there are at least two people passing outside, conversing in low tones, adds to the sense of contrast and solitude in the verse.  You will remember that Winter is a time of extremes, so verses that mix activity with passiveness, Yang with Yin, are particularly effective.

Having conversing people passing (Yang) outside at midnight (deep Yin), then, is effective precisely because of the contrast between the voices outside and the solitude of the writer and the time of night — and becoming, as readers, that person awake at midnight — listening to the voices passing by outside — we feel the cold all the more deeply in our solitude.



Yesterday we looked at this verse by Hokushi:

Karakasa no    ikutsu sugiyuku    yuki no kure

Umbrella  ‘s    many    pass-by      snow ‘s  evening

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

In contrast, Yaha wrote:

Karakasa no    hitotsu sugiyuku   yuki no kure
Umbrella ‘s      one         passes-by  snow ‘s evening

A single umbrella
Passes by;
The snowy evening.

This illustrates an important principle of hokku, related to its aspect of poverty.  The less we present in a hokku, the stronger the effect.  By “effect” we mean that all-important feeling of significance.  One umbrella passing on a snowy evening has more perceived significance than many umbrellas.  It has to do with the focus of attention, which is dispersed among many similar things in one case, but focused on a single thing in the second.  That is why in translating hokku, even though Japanese had no difference between singular and plural nouns, we nonetheless generally translate in the singular rather than the plural, except in the case of things that normally come in groups, such as clouds and raindrops.

To state the principle quite simply, one thing in hokku has a greater perceived significance than many things.  One can easily see that this relates to another principle of hokku, which is the avoidance of simile and metaphor.  Why?  Because they divide the attention between the “real” thing and the object with which it is being likened.  What underlies both of these — one thing instead of many, no metaphor or simile — is not dividing the attention of the reader.  The less divided the attention, the stronger the effect, the perceived significance, which is exactly what we see when looking at these two verses of Hokushi and Yaha.



We have seen that hokku avoids the use of the words “I,” “me,” and “my” unless it is awkward to do so.  That means there is no emphasis on the “I” as ego, but that does not mean those words are never used in hokku.  They are used when they are needed and when it fits the aesthetics of hokku.

We find such a use in this winter hokku by Chora:

Kaze no yuki   tatazumu ware wo   furimeguru
Wind ‘s  snow  standing me wo

The windy snow,
Blowing about me
As I stand.

In English that has both “me” and “I,” but they are used in keeping with the spirit of hokku.  Chora writes about himself the same way he would write about the snow blowing about a rock or a tree — objectively.

Hokushi wrote a verse that is very satisfying, yet it applies far more to Japan than to America:

Karakasa no    ikutsu sugiyuku    yuki no kure
Umbrella  ‘s    many    pass-by      snow ‘s  evening

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

One sees the paper umbrellas held up as the snow falls delicately onto and around them — a very Japanese scene.  But in the United States, people use umbrellas when it rains, not when it snows.  Somehow it just does not seem right to Americans to obstruct the falling snow with an umbrella as one walks through it.

Old hands here will recognize the simple structure of this verse, a standard hokku having setting (the snowy evening), subject (many umbrellas) and action (passing by).  It is not only one of the best forms for those beginning to learn hokku, but also one of the best forms no matter how advanced one happens to be.



I have already said that Issa’s hokku reflect a scarred and sad childhood.  That is why he tended to project his emotions onto other creatures and things:

Asabare ni   pachipachi sumi no   kigen kana
Morning-clear at pop-pop charcoal ‘s good-spirits kana

This bright morning,
Pop! pop! goes the charcoal
In good spirits.

This reminds one immediately of Hans Christian Andersen, who similarly had a difficult childhood and constantly projected human thoughts and emotions onto creatures and things. “Crick! Crack! said the furniture” — that sort of thing.

This is a very old way of behaving, in which what is unconscious in a human, instead of being made conscious, is projected onto the outside world.  Do you remember childhood pictures in which the sun and moon have human faces, flowers have voices, and so on?  It is the same kind of attitude.

Personally, I do not like it in hokku.  I prefer things as they are, free of the projections of the writer.  That demands a more mature attitude from the reader.

In Issa’s verse, it is not the charcoal that is in good spirits; it is Issa.  So very often Issa is not really writing about sparrows or snails or other things — he is writing about Issa, projected onto those things.  That is why much of his verse is so unsatisfactory as hokku, though it greatly appeals to sentimentalists.

Bashō wrote:

Kinbyōbu  matsu no furubi ya   fuyugomori
Gold-screen pine ‘s   aging ya winter-seclusion

The pine
On the golden screen ages;
Winter seclusion.

“Winter seclusion” was a common topic in old winter hokku.  It is remaining inside for long periods of time because of the inhospitable weather outside.  It is somewhat like the old farm families in the United States being snowbound.  With no place to go and very little to do, one turns inward.

That is what happened to Bashō.  As the minutes and hours passed, he looked at an old gold-leafed screen on which a pine tree was cleverly painted, and in the slow passage of time he felt the pine on the screen aging along with everything else, though it was painted and not living.  That is basic Buddhism.  Everything passes, everything changes, nothing remains forever, whether a pine painted on a screen, a pine growing on a rocky crag, or even the crag upon which it grows.  Bashō is experiencing the transience that is so much a part of hokku.



Yesterday we discussed emotion in hokku, and how it is better not to present it openly but rather indirectly, through the objective elements of a hokku.

There are certain old hokku, however, where direct mention of an emotion is found, for example in Rōka’s

Kanashisa ya   shigure ni somaru   haka no moji
Sadness     ya winter-rain at/by dyes    gravestone ‘s written-characters

We may translate as:

Winter rain dyes the letters
On the tombstone.

Even though the emotion “sadness” is stated directly, this is a far more reserved and objective verse overall than the overlong and overdramatic verse of Bashō,

A night of  the sound of oars striking waves,
And of freezing bowels;

What do we learn from all this?  That in hokku emotion should either be indicated by use of certain objective elements in a hokku, or else it should simply be stated directly and objectively, simply and undramatically, as in Rōka’s hokku — which is far better as hokku than the awkward example of Bashō given here.

One further thing to notice in Rōka’s verse.  We talk much about Yin and Yang here, because they are important to the aesthetics of hokku.  You will remember that winter is the most yin season, and that water is yin as well, as are cold and darkness as opposed to light.  Look again at Rōka’s hokku:

Winter rain dyes the letters
On the tombstone.

The winter rain, the darkening of the letters, both of these are yin and in harmony with one another, as is the lifelessness of the tombstone.  It is this overwhelming yin effect that contributes to the sadness.



In the last posting, we saw a hokku into which Bashō put too much overt emotion, which spoiled it.  How should emotion be expressed in hokku?  Indirectly, as in this verse by Issa:

Hitōri to    chōmen ni tsuku    yosamu kana
One-person   register in marks   night cold kana

He notes in the register;
The cold night.

Notice that there is no overt mention at all of emotion, and yet the verse evokes a certain feeling in us as we read it.  That is because the fact that the fellow registering at the inn is single — alone — is reflected in the cold of night.  The cold emphasizes his aloneness, just as his aloneness emphasizes the cold.

This verse teaches us that emotion in hokku is evoked by what it includes, not by stating it openly.  When stated openly — which some writers of hokku attempted from time to time — it usually fails by saying too much and saying it too obviously.

If there is a flaw in Issa’s verse, it is that he focuses on the personal a bit too much.  It reminds us of the “lonely” paintings of William Hopper.  Issa does not exceed the bounds of hokku here, and one comes to expect his verses to be more personal than those of other writers.  Nonetheless, in this tendency we find both the popularity of Issa and his weakness.



As I have said before, only a fraction of the hokku of Bashō are worthwhile, roughly about a fifth of them or less.  This verse is not one of his best:

Ro no koe nami o utte   harawata koru   yo ya   namida
oar ‘s voice waves 0 strike bowels freeze night ya tears

First of all, the verse is awkwardly long in Japanese and even worse in English.  Second, it sounds too literary, as though Bashō had been reading old Chinese verses (which of course were part of his literary background).  Third, it is a bit too dramatic for hokku, which again relates to its literary appearance.

Putting it into English is a bit awkward because of its length, and one has to move elements about, but what it means is essentially

A sound-of-oars-striking-waves-freezing-bowels night; tears.

We could attempt to put it into more normal English as perhaps

A night of  the sound of oars striking waves,
And of freezing bowels;

Visually it is really unbalanced and no matter how one translates it, it is still unsatisfactory as a hokku.  We could try to improve it, but inevitably the addition of “tears” would spoil it by making it too emotional for good hokku.  Hokku are not and should not be about emotions; they are about sensory experience.  Perhaps that sensory experience might bring tears, but to say so goes too far, and takes us back into the realm of Chinese lyric poetry — a kind of devolution of hokku — in spite of the fact that Bashō, as in this verse, sometimes attempted it.  So Bashō here says too much both by using too many words and by adding emotional excess.

It should be a lesson to us neither to make hokku awkwardly long nor too obviously emotional.



December has begun, and with it has come a deeper cold in my region.  The next few nights are expected to be at or below freezing.

Taigi wrote a hokku expressive of such growing cold:

Tsumetasa ni   hōki sutekeri   matsu no shita
nail-pain at      broom left        pine   ‘s    under

The “nail-pain” of which Taigi speaks is the pain one feels in one’s fingernails when the fingers become very cold.  So what Taigi is saying is that he went out to sweep up the fallen leaves, but quickly found it so cold that the ends of his fingers began to hurt, and so he abandoned his broom beneath the pine tree, and went quickly back indoors.

This is a difficult thing to translate literally into English and still have it sound natural, so we will have to approximate, perhaps something like,

My fingers freezing,
The broom is left
Beneath the pine tree.

The verse expresses well that transitional time  from autumn to winter, when one has not yet realized how cold it has become.  Going out to sweep up the leaves left by autumn, we find that the cold of winter has unexpectedly come, and it has come so strongly that it forces us to abandon our broom and hurriedly return inside — where it is warmer.

Structurally this verse is simple:

Setting:  My fingers freezing
Subject:  The broom
Action:  Is left beneath the pine tree

It is important to remember that the setting of a hokku is not limited just to the wider physical environment.  It may also be a condition in or under which something takes place, and in this verse that condition is “My fingers freezing.”  In English we cannot just say “My fingers hurting,” because the reader will not know why they are hurting, so we must be more explicit and make clear that they are hurting from the cold.

Keep in mind that the point of what we do here — of talking about and translating old Japanese hokku — is just to help you to learn how to write hokku in English, or in whatever your native language happens to be.  Old hokku are enjoyable to read, but if we do not write new hokku as well, the tradition will die out.  So the point of discussing what the old Japanese hokku writers did and how they did it is to show visitors to this site how to continue the hokku tradition in modern times, in modern languages.  It does not matter if that language is English or Russian or Norwegian or Welsh, or any other language.  One can write real hokku in it if one understands the aesthetics and underlying principles and techniques.



December will soon begin, and with it comes the holiday season.

How does one deal with holidays in hokku?  The same way one deals with a season.  A holiday verse is like a miniature seasonal verse — in other words, it should express the character of the holiday, how it manifests — with emphasis always upon Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

The most important holidays of the year come in December — in the winter.  Why is that?  It is because in older times, when people lived closer to Nature and the seasons, December was the time when the days were at their shortest, and darkness seemed to threaten the world.  So people needed a time of hope and cheer and encouragement, and they began to celebrate the “rebirth” of the sun in the darkest part of winter, telling themselves that light and warmth would come again to the world.

Some of us still celebrate the holidays in that old way — remembering and celebrating the Winter Solstice, that point in the wheel of the year when the days stop growing shorter and begin once more to grow longer — Wintersonnenwende, as it is called in German — the time when the sun “turns” in winter, and the light of day again begins to lengthen.  In English it is often called the Winter Solstice, from Latin solstitia, meaning the time when the sun “stands still” — that critical point when it seems to pause in the lowering of its arc across the southern sky before reversing.

There should be nothing new in this to students of hokku, who will remember that when either of the two elements — Yang or Yin — reaches its ultimate point, then it changes into its opposite.  That is exactly what happens at the Winter Solstice.  The growing yin of decreasing light changes into its opposite, and the “yang” day begins to grow longer again in comparison to the “yin” night.

I prefer the old term “Yule,” which is the word still used in Scandinavian countries for what others may call Christmas.  Have you ever thought that celebrating the birth of Christ near the time of the Solstice is just another symbolic way of celebrating the encouraging return of light and hope?  The early Christians just adapted the older holiday to their use, so “Christmas” is just Yule under another name — as we see in the line from the well-known seasonal song,

Troll the ancient Yuletide carol.

And of course the other line,

See the blazing Yule before us.

The “blazing Yule” is of course the Yule log, an old tradition of the holiday, obviously connected with light and warmth.

So the Winter Solstice is Yule, and the whole holiday period is Yuletide — the time of Yule.  I tend to think of it as the Twelve Days of Yule, beginning with the day of the Solstice and continuing on to New Year’s Day.  That whole period for me is Yuletide — a time to be happy and hopeful.

It is also a time to think of others, which is something that is particularly emphasized in the wonderful old black and white movie based on the Charles Dickens story A Christmas Carol.  In spite of the latest Hollywood effort, the absolute best and definitive version of this kindly story is that in which the British actor Alastair Sim is “Scrooge,” the stingy, “rational,” selfish part of all of us.  So do not bother with other versions — just go that unsurpassed old version — and be sure it is in the original black and white, not any “colorized” attempt.  It teaches us that the holiday time is not a time to focus on the “self,” but rather a time to focus on others.  That is a very “hokku-like” attitude, and very much in keeping with the spirituality of hokku.

So, whether we call it Yule or Christmas or Noël or something else, the holiday season of December can provide some interesting hokku if we pay close attention to it.

Take one of the most pleasant seasonal songs, In the Bleak Midwinter:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Regular readers know that I often lament the use of metaphor and simile in verse, but it is really just the misuse or poor use of it to which I object.  It is used very effectively in these lines.  We could make one or more hokku of it, of course dropping the similes:

Bleak midwinter;
Earth is hard,
Water frozen.

That is a bit like the early hokku of Sōgi that present two things unified by a third, which in this case is the first line.  Making hokku like this does not, of course, prevent us from enjoying and appreciating the original verse, which had a different purpose.  And no matter which one likes better, we can still enjoy our own efforts based on an original, for example,

Bleak midwinter;
Snow falls
Upon snow

We should generally only write hokku based on other verses if they also faithfully reflect the character of the season and our own experience.

So as the days of Yule approach, we can think about not only winter hokku, but also holiday hokku, a subcategory of their own.

“December” comes to us from Latin, in which it means simply “Tenth month.”  It reminds us of old Quaker reckoning, in which the months were numbered, as were the days of the week.  For the Quakers, December was “Twelfth Month”

Going a bit farther back, our ancestors were more expressive — “Yule Moon,” “Wolf Moon,” and “Winter Moon,” as well as “Holy Moon.”  “Moon” is the origin of our “month,” which was originally based on the phases of the moon.

So December, “Yule Month,” is the first “real” month of Winter.  As part of winter, it again raises the possibility for good hokku of contrast — light amid darkness, warmth amid cold, and other such things.  And it brings with it the possibility also for holiday hokku.



A hokku appropriate to late autumn, by the woman Sono-jo:

A dog barking
At the sound of the leaves;
The windstorm.

It is an odd fact in hokku that the simplest are often the best, and this is a very good hokku because it has very strong sensation.  By sensation we mean that it affects the senses strongly.  In this we hear the dog’s frantic barking and the sound of the blowing leaves, and we hear the wind and we feel its force.  Everything in this verse is in motion, and that is very much in keeping with the strength of the windstorm.

Structurally, it is a standard hokku, by which we mean it has a setting, a subject, and an action:

Setting:  The windstorm
Subject:  A dog
Action: Barking at the sound of the leaves

In the original, the verse looks like this:

Ha no oto ni     inu hoe-kakaru     arashi kana
Leaves ‘ sound at   dog barking      gale      kana

The kana at the end is merely a word used sometimes for emphasis, but far more often in hokku merely to fill out the required number of phonetic units in Japanese, in this case the usual seventeen.

More important is the fact that by reading and pondering such verses and their structure, one will quickly learn how to write hokku in English and other languages today, but of course one must also understand the underlying aesthetics to avoid going astray.

I repeat again and again that the real subject of a hokku is the season in which it is written, that each hokku should express that season through something happening in it that shows the character of the season.  This verse of Sono-jo does that superbly.

By the way, I am tending to alternate between late autumn hokku and winter hokku in these few days before the beginning of December, because some readers live where it is already winter, others where autumn still lingers.  I am speaking of the Northern Hemisphere.  Readers in the Southern Hemisphere will be in quite another season!



An old winter hokku by Sōgi, who lived long before Bashō:

In the freezing night,
The ceaseless flapping
Of duck wings.

We can easily see its form.  It is:

Setting:  In the freezing night.
Subject: duck wings
Action:  the ceaseless flapping of

In other words, we have what is common to many hokku — a setting, a subject, and an action — a movement, something moving or changing.

Bashō wrote:

Shigururu ya   ta no arakabu no   kuromu hodo
Winter rain ya field ‘s stubble ‘s blacken up-to

Winter rain —
Enough to blacken the stubble
In the fields.

We can see that the pattern of this is different.  “Winter rain” is both the setting and the subject.  First the writer presents it to us, so we can see and feel it, and then he expands on it it with a further qualification — “enough to blacken the stubble in the fields.”  It is a different approach, not the normal “standard” hokku with setting, subject and action, but it is very effective nonetheless.

In all of these hokku we see again that a hokku is essentially two parts presented (in English) in three lines.  In Sogi’s verse the two parts are:

In the freezing night,
The ceaseless flapping of duck wings.

In Bashō’s verse the two parts are:

Winter rain —
Enough to blacken the stubble in the fields.

In both of these the shorter part functions as the setting, something very common in hokku.

Bashō’s verses were sometimes good, more often not so memorable.  We must remember that only a fraction of his hokku are really worthwhile.  He wrote another winter verse:

Fuyu no hi ya   bajō ni kōru    kagebōshi
Winter ‘s day ya horse on freezes  shadow

The winter day;
A shadow freezing
On the horse’s back.

We get what he was after, but it does not quite work.  What he really meant was that HE was freezing on the horse’s back, and when he transfers that sensory experience to a visual shadow, he is pulling us in two different directions, which does not work well in hokku.

We have to remember that Bashō was not any kind of Superman of hokku, he was just a writer who sometimes succeeded, sometimes not.  What Bashō did do was to live what he wrote about.

Kikaku, whose hokku are usually suspect, did write a rather good winter verse:

Kono kido ya   jō no sasarete   fuyu no tsuki
This brush-gate ya lock’s fixed   winter ‘s moon.

This brushwood gate,
Locked up tight;
The winter moon.

We feel the motionlessness, the stillness, the un-move-able-ness of the cold of winter, and the white light of the moon only adds to the chill.  Blyth translated the second line as “Is bolted and barred,” which not only emphasizes the effect but is also euphonic.

And last, for today, a verse by Tantan:

Hatsuyuki ya   nami no todakanu   iwa no ue
First-snow ya wave ‘s reach-not     rock ‘s on

We have to rearrange the elements to make it come out right in English:

On a rock
The waves cannot reach —
The first snow.

It is not a high rock, but just enough above the rough water so that the waves cannot wash away the first snow that has fallen upon the blackish mass of stone.

After reading these hokku, you will probably feel like putting on a sweater or heating a nice warm cup of herbal tea!  But I hope you will also pay attention to how each of these verses manages (or fails, in one case) to let Nature speak.





The almost frantic desire of contemporary society to drop whatever is perceived as no longer fashionable in favor of whatever is new should hold no attraction for writers of hokku.  Such chronic dissatisfaction as just another manifestation of the illusion that abandoning what one has for what one does not have will make one happy.  And of course change for the sake of change is the very basis of our modern sick and wasteful consumer society, and a major cause of the rape of the natural environment and ultimately of climate change.

The book Blowing Zen (H. J. Kramer Inc., Tiburon, 2000), was written by a man who learned to play the shakuhachi in Japan — Ray Brooks.  A shakuhachi is a kind of bamboo flute.  At one point, being a novice student, he was playing shakuhachi outside in winter when an elderly Japanese woman passing by heard him practicing a piece called Haru no Umi — “The Spring Sea.”  Finally it was too much for her, and she stopped to correct him, saying “Dame! — Dame!” meaning “No good!  No good!”

She was not criticizing his playing, but rather the fact that he was playing the melody out of season.  That old lady had the perspective of hokku, which pays attention to such things and considers them important.

As I have said before, the aesthetics of all the contemplative arts are essentially the same, so it is not surprising that the old woman perceived the inappropriateness of a spring melody being played in winter.  It is like seeing a Christmas wreath on the Fourth of July — out of place, out of harmony with the season.

Modern haiku long ago abandoned this aesthetic, but in hokku I like to value and observe it, finding no reason to change simply for the sake of keeping up with the fashions of the moment in literature.  Not long ago, realistic painting was out of style and “old-fashioned.”  Now it is again very popular.  Things come into fashion and go out of style, but the essential aesthetics of the best hokku transcend fashion, being rooted in the spiritual aesthetic that gave birth to the contemplative arts.

Change is a part of the universe.  But the craze for the new simply because it is new is a sign of immaturity and instability.  The constant desire for something new and different that pervades modern culture is simply the symptom of a society that constantly tries to replace one distraction with another, but finds — like a drug addict — that the pleasure decreases with each experience.

In spite of its appreciation for the old, hokku is always open to what is new and fresh, because its subject matter is always in keeping with the present season, whatever that season may be.  Hokku excludes neither age nor youth, but sees both in relation to the constant change characteristic of existence.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden,


That is something  society in general has yet to learn, but it is very true.  Writing hokku is not about constantly being in fashion and up-to-date by the standards of others; instead it is about a fundamental transformation in the mind that allows us to perceive the world and our place in it — as a part of it — as constantly changing, yet ever fresh and new.




Winter is at the door.  In some places it has already come.  So it is time to begin considering what a winter hokku should be.

Remember the Yin and Yang of the seasons, the interplay of the two universal forces.  Yang is the active force — light, warmth, movement; Yin is the passive force — darkness, cold, stillness.  In the wheel of the year, spring is diminishing Yin and growing Yang.  Yang grows in spring until it manifests as summer, in which Yang reaches its maximum and Yin its minimum.  And as you will remember, when one of these elements reaches its maximum, it begins to change into its opposite.  So as we pass the very height of summer, Yin begins to grow again, as Yang begins to decline.  Autumn is growing Yin and declining Yang, and at last we again reach winter, which brings us Yin at its deepest, and Yang at its weakest.

Added to that, as writers of hokku we must remember that these two forces — Yin and Yang — also manifest in the changes of day and night.  Morning — like spring — is growing Yang and diminishing Yin.  Midday, like summer, brings Yang to its maximum, and then it begins to decline into the growing Yin of afternoon.  This continues through evening until we reach the depths of night, in which Yin is at its maximum, Yang at its minimum.

Did you ever wonder why it is — traditionally — that some people in some places and circumstances may see ghosts at night?  It is because night is the most Yin time, and ghosts are considered part of the Yin world.

We see that Yang and Yin apply to everything in similar ways.  In human life, birth and childhood are growing Yang; as young adults, humans reach their most Yang period,  and then the decline of growing Yin begins — people start to age and begin — like Nature — to wither.  We can compare that time to late summer and autumn in the year, to afternoon and evening in the day.  And finally comes maximum Yin, which is the deepest part of night in the daily cycle — the ending of life in the human cycle — and in the seasons it is winter with its cold and stillness, when the energy of plants has returned to root and buried seed, until the growing Yang of spring brings the energies of life forth again.

Snows are already falling in the high country.  Frost has come to many regions.  The energies of Nature are retreating — Yin is growing, Yang declining.

Some might think that because Yin is the predominant element of winter, that everything in winter hokku should be cold, still, and silent.  That is a mistake.  Keep in mind that Yin and Yang never separate, even when one is at its extreme.  So even in the Yin cold and stillness of winter we will often see Yang manifesting in some way, and it is this interplay of the elements — the predominant against the weaker — that gives us hokku.

An excellent example is this very powerful verse by Gyōdai:

Akatsuki ya   kujira no hoeru   shimo no umi.
Dawn     ya whale  ‘s  roaring  frost ‘s sea.

Whales roaring
In the frosty sea.

That is a rather literal version — but effective.  In English, however, whales do not “roar,” so we would say

Whales spouting
In the frosty sea.

Anyone who thinks that hokku are always about the very small and the very close up will see from Gyōdai’s hokku that that is not always so.  But let’s take a closer look at the verse and see how it manifests not only winter, but the interplay of Yin and Yang.

Predominant, of course, is the force of the season — Yin.  We find that in the words the frosty sea.

The hokku takes place at dawn, when growing Yang first becomes visible.  And of course the blowing and spouting of the whales, with its force and great noise, is also Yang.  But the overall feeling of the verse is very, very cold.  So we see a great and powerful Yang force — the whales — but in spite of their size and power, they are just a tiny element amid the immensity of the Yin of winter.

Structurally, it is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action.  We could diagram it like this:

Dawn;  (setting)
Whales (subject)
Spouting in the frosty sea (action)

You will notice, of course, that really there are two elements that make up the overall setting of the verse — dawn and the frosty sea.  Such a secondary setting incorporated as part of the action is very common in hokku.

Notice the selflessness of the verse.  There is no human anywhere in sight.  All we see is the profound power of Nature — its immense cold, and the Yang of the whale who manages to live in such cold amid the frosty waves.

That last characteristic is something to remember, because things that live in extreme environments tend to manifest just the opposite.  That is why here, amid the great cold of the frosty sea — we find the powerful Yang energy of the whale.  It must be strong enough to resist the opposite element to flourish in it.

That, of course, explains why traditionally, if one was looking for the most powerful ginseng roots to use as medicine, one searched for them in the frozen mountains of North Korea.  Growing in such a Yin environment gives the root great Yang energy.  It is the same principle in Gyōdai’s hokku.

Winter hokku, then, will manifest the season in an interplay of forces.  In some we may see almost only Yin, for example in Chiyo-ni’s verse:

No ni yama ni   ugoku mono nashi   yuki no asa
Field at  mountain at   moving thing is-not  snow ‘s morning

In fields and mountains
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

That is a very Yin verse.  We see the fields and hills covered in snow, and amid all that chilly, white immensity, not one thing is moving.  That is the stillness of winter.  We see what a contrast that is with the spouting, plunging whales and blowing, frosty waves of Gyōdai’s verse.  But notice that even in the Yin silence and stillness of Chiyo-ni’s hokku, there is the Yang element of light and morning.  In such things we see the interplay of Yin and Yang, with their respective strengths varying from verse to verse.

It is important to recall that it is Yin that brings out the meaning of Yang, and Yang that brings out the meaning of Yin.  That is easy to see.  When do we most appreciate the soft warmth of a thick blanket?  In the Yin of winter.  And when do we most appreciate the heat and bright crackle of a wood fire?  Again, in the cold of winter.

Modern people are often very insulated from the seasons, in great contrast to our ancestors.  Remember the Little House on the Prairie books of our childhood?  They show us what it is like to live closer to Nature and in greater awareness of it.  Winter has great significance when we live close to it.  If you have never read that series, I suggest you do so, because if you are living removed from Nature, it will help to remind you what a life close to the seasons is like.  We cannot write hokku if we do not experience the seasons and their changes.

It is precisely for this reason that R. H. Blyth suggested that if one wanted to write this kind of verse, one should live in a house with a roof that leaks — or at least one with a roof that has the potential of leaking.  That is really a kind of Jungian statement.  Blyth meant that we must live in circumstances in which we cannot avoid the effects of the changing seasons leaking into our lives and our consciousness.  Without that — shut away in perfectly insulated, temperature-controlled environments — how can we experience Nature and the changes of the seasons enough to write about them in a manner that really expresses them?

Let’s look again at Gyōdai’s verse:

Whales spouting
In the frosty sea.

That is the Moby-Dick of hokku.  It is just as dark and powerful in its own way as the novel of Herman Melville — said to be the greatest American novel.  Did you know that Melville actually went to sea for long periods of time in the 19th century, and experienced the kind of environment about which he wrote?  Can you imagine Moby-Dick having been written by someone who lived all his life in a comfy apartment in the midst of a large city?  Of course not.  How then can we expect to write effective hokku — verses that manifest the character of the season — if we are not even exposed to the seasons and their transformations?

I am not, of course, telling everyone who lives in a city apartment to sign up on a ship or to take a trek to the Arctic.  But it is very important for anyone who wants to write hokku to become familiar with its primary subject matter — Nature and the seasons.  Do that in whatever way you can, whether it is visiting parks in the city or making periodic trips to the countryside to renew and refresh your sensibilities.

Winter is a very good time for hokku because it is a season of extremes, and thus the season can potentially have a very strong effect on us.  The result can be as good as the “whale” hokku of Gyōdai, or as good as the “snowy stillness” hokku of Chiyo-ni — if we learn to step aside and let Nature express itself — let Nature speak — through our verses.



Gyōdai wrote:

Aki no yama   tokorodokoro ni   kemuri tatsu
Autumn’s mountains   here-there at   smoke rises

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

It is a pleasant verse, and reminds one of Appalachia, of seeing smoke from cabins rising here and there among the gold and red leaves of autumn covering the hills.

But it is a verse of early to mid autumn, and now we are entering deep autumn, a more severe and chilly time that leads us directly on to winter.

There is a hokku by Shōhaku that can be understood as early or as late autumn, depending on whether we translate it by the old lunar calendar or by the newer calendar.  Under the new calendar it is:

I go nowhere —
No one comes.

Read thus, it expresses the beginning of the pulling away from the activities of life that we find in autumn as the days shorten and the nights grow longer, as Nature begins to wither.  One thinks of a hermit life amid the coloring and falling leaves.

The first line is literally “tenth month.”  It is like the old Quaker calendar, in which the months were numbered rather than named, but even more literally it is the “tenth moon.”

But what does “tenth month” mean?  Actually, two different things, depending on whether we read Shōhaku’s verse according to the modern calendar adopted in Japan during the Meiji period, or by the old lunar calendar of Shōhaku’s day.

We have seen that by the new calendar the “tenth month” is October.  But by the old calendar it is November.  So that gives us two different feelings expressed in the same verse, depending on which calendar we choose.

By the old calendar it becomes

I go nowhere —
No one comes.

This gives the verse a darker feel.  The leaves have already been swept from the trees by the rains and cold winds.  The gold and crimson colors are gone, giving way to bare branches and dim, grey skies.  Here the verse expresses the inhospitableness of the weather through the actions — or rather the lack of actions — of the writer.  He visits no one, no one visits him.  But it also expresses a kind of late autumn of the soul, an isolation and apartness that those growing older notice as they see they are no longer of interest to young people, and those their own age either have their own affairs to deal with with or have left this world.

All too often, it is the story of the elderly in America.  I remember  a Korean fellow I met in college.  He was staying in a cheap, rundown apartment building in which numbers of old people also lived, because it was all they could afford.  Watching their poor lives from day to day, seeing their isolation and how they were treated, he remarked to me, “America is Hell for old people.”  I have never forgotten that “outside” perspective on how this country treats its elderly.

But getting back to hokku, this growing isolation of individuals in the late autumn makes “things to the contrary” matters of significance.  That is why Buson could write

A person came
To visit a person;
The autumn evening.

It is quite a bland verse until one reads it in the context of the season as explained above.  There is a significance to making a visit in autumn, a significance to receiving a visit, and this significance too is expressive of the season.

By the way, I rather consistently translate the common line aki no kure, found in large numbers of hokku, as “The autumn evening.”  Technically it could also be translated as “Autumn’s end,” and that should be kept in mind not for linguistic reasons, but because it gives us a very good line for many hokku of the deepest part of autumn that is just about to become winter.

So for those of you interested in technicalities, the line can be understood either as:

Aki no kure
Autumn   ‘s   evening

or as:

Aki no kure
Autumn   ‘s   end

Shiki wrote this simple verse, which is a bit too interpretive for good hokku.  It is both true and not true:

I am leaving,
You are staying;
Two autumns.

Yuku ware ni    todomaru nare ni    aki futatsu
Go     I  at           remain      you   at    autumns two

One could loosely paraphrase it as:

With me going
And you staying,
There will be two autumns.

Shiki  is seeing the situation from a dualistic point of view:  When I am gone, we shall each experience our separate autumns.  But there is also the unitary point of view, in which you and I are both autumn, along with each reddening and falling leaf.  That is the wider perspective.

One must always keep in mind that when we are talking about weather and what is happening in Nature, a lot depends on where one is.  A month that is golden autumn for some is already icy winter for others.




There are some hokku difficult for young people to understand — difficult not because of complexity, but because one must go through certain experiences to fully appreciate them.  One of the most obvious of these is Buson’s verse:

Chichi haha no    koto nomi omou    aki no kure
Dad      Mom  ‘s    matter only think   autumn ‘s evening

Thinking only
About my mom and dad;
The autumn evening.

At first this seems a rather bland hokku, but a great deal depends upon the reader knowing how hokku work.

We know that a hokku is an expression of a season, in this case the season of autumn.  Autumn is the time of aging and withering and eventually dying.  That is the key to understanding this verse.

When Buson says that he is thinking only of his parents, he means it in the sense that they keep coming into his thoughts for some reason — that even when he tries to think of other things, the faces of his parents keep returning.

Why is that?  It is because in the autumn, one realizes both what one is losing and what one has lost.  Autumn is the time of growing yin, the time of things — of life — returning to the root.  It is the time of withering plants and falling leaves and the diminishing of warmth and light and the increasing of cold.  All of these things combine to bring Buson’s mother and father constantly to mind.

He does not tell us if they are aged — in which case one has the sorrow and concern of seeing their lives fading — or if they have passed away, in which case one has the grief that never really goes away, the bittersweet memories easily evoked by the season of autumn.

One can see that the last line,

The autumn evening

is very important.

So there is a world of feeling in this verse.  It is at the same time very personal and very universal.  Buson thinks of his parents, but when we read it, it becomes a hokku about our own parents, whether we are near to losing them or have lost them.

Dante says in the Divine Comedy that there is

Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria….

That there is

“No greater sorrow than to recall a happy time in misery.”

Time is the thief that steals all things — our childhood, our youth,  and leaves us

Thinking only
About my mom and dad;
The autumn evening.



Perhaps you remember my “Fall” hokku:

The river —
It flows out of and into
The fog.

Fog is very important to autumn hokku, and important to ink painting — one of the other contemplative arts — as well.  Fog both hides and reveals as it moves and changes.  I have always been fond of those wonderful old Chinese paintings of mountains emerging from fog.  Just as in hokku, what is seen — or mentioned — is made even more significant by what is not seen or mentioned.

Keep in mind that when three people read the same hokku, they will have three different experiences.  Yes, each will be focused on a river and the fog, but each will be different.  That is because on reading a hokku, each person draws from his or her own memory and experience to create the new experience.  So a thousand people reading the same hokku will have a thousand different experiences.

One must be careful not to make hokku too “poetic.”  Look at these two verses, the first exactly what a hokku should be, the second in hokku form but really too poetic for hokku:

Dense fog;
What is being shouted
From hill and boat?

It is a scene where on a clear day, one would easily see a river passing at the base of a steep hill.  But now there is a thick fog, and in it someone in the river boat and someone on the hill are trying to communicate by shouting through the fog that muffles all sounds.  The writer hears the shouting, but cannot clearly see either person, nor can he distinguish what it is that is being shouted.

In forming the hokku thus, Kitō conveys to us the “hiding and revealing” power of the fog.  We hear shouting, but do not understand the words in an autumn world where much is hidden by the fog.

Obviously this is a “question” hokku.  A question hokku derives its power from an asked, but always unanswered question.  What is being shouted in the dense fog?  It is that questioning feeling — that “not knowing” that is the whole point of a question hokku.  To answer it — even by saying we do not know what is being shouted — spoils the effect.

Perhaps you are familiar with the American composer Charles Ives.  One of his best-known works is titled The Unanswered Question.  It is an instrumental way of presenting the question of existence — and in Ives’ work, that question — as in hokku — is never answered.

Kitō’s hokku, then, does what hokku should do, but does not go beyond it.  By contrast, here is a verse by Buson.  You will recall that Buson was a painter, and he often strives for painterly effects in his hokku, which makes them a bit artificial.  It is worth remembering that Buson — not Bashō — was the favorite of Masaoka Shiki.   It was the “painter” aspect of Buson that Shiki liked, which contributed to Shiki’s notion that his new “haiku” should be a kind of illustration or sketch from life.  But let’s look now at Buson’s verse:

Morning fog–
A painting of people passing
In a dream.

It is really too intentionally beautiful for hokku, and is somewhat like an impressionist painting.

Literally, what Buson wrote was:

Asagiri ya   e ni kaku  yume no hito dōri
Morning-fog ya   picture in painted dream ‘s people pass

So if we moved things around a bit, we could translate it more literally as

Morning fog:
Painted in a picture —
Dream people passing.

Either way, however, it does what hokku should not do — it pulls our attention in two different directions by comparing one thing with another.  Instead of just telling us that people are passing in the morning fog, he goes beyond and tells us that it is like a picture of people passing in a dream — of dream-people passing.  Any time we have to use the word “like” to explain something in hokku, it is a warning sign.  Hokku should let things just be themselves, not be “like” this or “like” that.

To explain this further, let’s look at another Buson hokku in which he took things to a similar but even greater extreme:

Ichi gyō    no kari hayama ni   tsuki wo insu
One line   ‘s    wild-geese  foothills at  moon
wo seal

A line of wild geese;
Above the foothills,
The moon as seal.

It may not be readily obvious to someone not familiar with Chinese and Japanese painting, but what Basho is doing here is comparing — LIKE-ening–a line of wild geese flying in the night sky of autumn to a line of calligraphy — of writing — on a scroll.  And carrying the simile further, he then says that above the foothills, the moon is pressed as the seal.  In such a painting, there is generally a reddish-orange seal that is either the mark of the painter or the mark of an owner.  Such seals were often round (though sometimes square or rectangular or oval), and contained stylized Chinese characters.

So Buson is likening a passing line of wild geese on a moonlit autumn night to a vertical scroll on which there is a line of black writing, and he is likening the bright autumn moon above the foothills to the reddish-orange round seal mark of the painter.  He thus pulls the mind of the reader in two directions — one a real scene, the other the work of a calligrapher-painter.  Hokku, in my view, should not do this.  It leads, as I have said, not only to artificiality, but it also does not allow a thing to simply be what it is, to stand on its own merit and power.

Since I first posted this, someone has used part of what I wrote above on another site (http://haigaonline.com/issue16-2/welcome.html), and has added this comment:

Coomler dislikes the poem for the same reasons that first attracted me to it. I don’t read the image as a “real scene” that is being compared to a painting. Like all good art, the poem is open. It could be describing the painting itself, or could be simply what it purports to be: wild geese at moonrise, realized in the artist/poet’s eye as a synthesis of art and experience. In other words, ekphrasis.

This is approaching hokku from the perspective of Western poetry, which in my view is an error.  It is not that “Coomler dislikes the poem,” but rather that Coomler dislikes it as hokku, for the reasons stated above.  However if one treats it as a Western poem (by approaching it from the perspective and conditioning of Western poetry), then it is perfectly fine.  Seen from that perspective, this verse by Buson is a literary conceit, meaning a literary comparison/likening of two quite different things.  But such cleverness — while perfectly acceptable as “poetry” — is not hokku at its best, which avoids cleverness.

Of course Westerners will often like such verses very much, because Western poetry is filled with simile (one thing likened to another) and metaphor (saying one thing is another).  A conceit is an extended metaphor.  We are accustomed to it this kind of thing, we recognize it, and we might mistakenly think it is just fine because to us it is common in poetry.  But hokku is not poetry as we understand it.  Instead, hokku should be a direct sensory experience — seeing, touching, tasting, smelling and hearing.  Hokku should not be an intellectual experience, and when we use simile or metaphor, we take hokku away from the concrete and into the realm of the abstract — the world of the mind and intellection, what we call “thinking” in hokku.  But hokku are experiencing, not thinking.

That does not mean Buson’s two verses are bad.  In their own way they are interesting for what they are.  It is just that what they are is not really what hokku should be or what hokku should do.  Fortunately, not all of Buson’s verses are like this, but when reading him, we somehow feel we can never really trust him to tell us the truth; he too often strives for an effect, and so Buson’s verses give us the same uncertain, untrustworthy feeling we get when looking at an exhibition of photos in which some have been altered by computer to enhance their effect.

For those curious about Buson’s original, here it is in transliteration, with a very literal translation:

ichi gyō no     kari ya hayama ni     tsuki wo insu
one-line ‘s   wild-geese ya  foothills at moon wo seal

Ichi gyō/ichigyō(一 ) calls to mind the vertically-written, single-line sayings — ichigyō mono –particularly Zen sayings — that were often painted on wall scrolls.



Some Japanese hokku seem to defy translation into English, even though their meaning is not difficult.  An example is Kyoroku’s:

Descending geese —
Their cries pile on one another;
The cold of night.

As one group of geese comes down from the sky, followed by yet another, their cries seem to layer one upon the other.  This piling of cry on cry only intensifies the cold of the night.

Does this verse seem a little familiar?  It should, because it is similar to Gyōdai’s

Leaves fall
And lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

In Japanese, forms of the word meaning “to pile up, to collect on one another” are operative in both, which I translate here as “pile on one another” in the first case and “lie on one another” in the second.