One of the first problems a new student of hokku encounters is the selection of material, and this question arises: What subject is worth making into a hokku?

The answer is that to make a hokku interesting, one must pick an interesting experience. But how do you recognize one? As the old saying goes, “That which interests is interesting.” If an experience does not interest you, does not catch your attention, it is unlikely to interest anyone else. But keep in mind that hokku is generally interested in small events that seem to have a significance we cannot quite put into words, and should not try.

What then makes an interesting experience in hokku? We can find out by looking at some good examples.

Buson wrote:


Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

Why is that interesting? Because of the relationship between seeds and water and spring. Not only do we see and feel and hear the spring rain when we read it, be we also feel a kind of hidden energy in it, because we know the rain soaking into the bags of seeds will make them sprout. And sprouting seeds really make us feel the spring. We can almost sense the power in the seeds, ready to burst out in sprouts.

To make such a hokku, someone had to notice — had to pay attention to — the rain falling on the bags of seeds. A great part of writing hokku is simply paying attention to things that most people do not bother to notice because they think them of no importance. But hokku are all about such “unimportant” things that are nonetheless felt to have significance if one only pays attention.

I have written before that it is not seeing what others see that makes a poet, but rather seeing the significance in what others see but think of no importance. That is certainly true of a good haiku writer. If you do not notice and feel the significance in small things, it will be difficult for you to write hokku.

That principle applies even to Shiki, the fellow who, near the end of the 19th century, decided to call his hokku “haiku,” which later became the cause of much confusion. Here is what Shiki saw:


Turning to look
At the man who passed —
Only mist.

The interest here is in the quick feeling of surprise and puzzlement. The man was there just a moment ago, but now only mist is seen. This sense of someone disappearing into mist is felt to be somehow significant. If we try to explain why it feels significant, we lose the poetry. So in hokku we only present the experience, so that the reader may sense that odd feeling of significance in such a small event as well.

In both hokku we have looked at, there is the sense of seeing something in a different way, a way that feels new to us, a different perspective. In Buson’s verse, instead of stacks of dry seed bags, we see them in the rain, getting wet. In Shiki’s verse, instead of turning around to look at a person who passed and seeing him, we see only mist. It is such little differences of perspective, of things slightly out of the ordinary, that make us see the world in a fresh way. And it makes for fresh and interesting hokku as well. So when choosing a subject, look for things seen in a different way, from a different perspective.

Rofu wrote:


Ebb tide;
The crab is suspicious
Of the footprint.

There are lots of things to see on a beach at ebb tide. Most are rather ordinary. But then we see a crab scuttling along the wet sand, and suddenly pausing at the impression someone’s foot has left. In that pause we feel the crab’s hesitation and uncertainty, his suspicion of this out-of-the-ordinary depression in the sand. Rofu has selected this out of everything else on the beach because it enables us to see the crab in a different way, from a different perspective — and we also see the footprint in a different way, from a “crab’s eye” view.

Ryōta wrote:


Someone passing
Over the bridge;
The frogs go quiet.

Here the writer has again been paying attention to something that seems very unimportant on the surface, but nonetheless is felt to have unspoken significance. I have put it into the present tense because I like it that way; it seems more immediate and present.

Shiki wrote a similar verse:


Stepping onto the bridge,
The fish sink from sight;
The water of spring.

So the subjects appropriate for hokku are in general just ordinary things, written down in ordinary language. But they are ordinary things that when seen from a new or different or unusual perspective, give us a sense of unspoken significance.

Wakyu wrote:


At the sound
Of one jumping,
All the frogs jump in.

As an event in our modern, busy world, it does seem like much; but we feel the nature of frogs and their green and watery world in it. Hokku is often about the little things that, as Blyth says, we knew, but did not know we knew until we read the verse.

We could call hokku the verse form for people who pay attention.

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Hokku in English has very definite standards and principles, and these extend even to the appearance of a verse on the page, specifically to lineation, capitalization, and punctuation.

An English-language hokku is a verse of three lines, the middle line often — but not always — visually longer than the others. Here is a typical hokku, by Taigi, set in the season of spring:


A boat passes;
The waters of spring
Beat on the shore.

Note the seasonal heading in parentheses.  This is the modern replacement for the old Japanese “season word.”  Seasonal headings are important when sharing and anthologizing hokku, which are arranged and read according to season, just as hokku are written in a given season (summer hokku are not written in winter, etc.).  So all hokku are written for one of four seasons, at least in those regions that have four seasons.

Note these characteristics of the hokku form:

The first letter of each line is capitalized.
There are two parts, a longer and a shorter:
Longer:  The waters of spring / Beat on the shore.
Shorter:  A boat passes;

In some hokku the shorter part comes first, in others the longer part.
The two parts of hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation, and the hokku ends with appropriate punctuation.

Follow these standards and you will have the accurate form of hokku — the container which holds the content, just as a shell holds a nut.

In hokku everyone follows the same form. That is because the form works excellently, is very appropriate, and has proved its worth. But equally important, it gives no occasion to bickering over form. It thus contributes importantly to a sense of community in hokku. We speak the same “language” of form, the form works superbly, and that enables us to concentrate on content.

Now regarding punctuation, its great virtue is that it guides the reader through the hokku smoothly and effortlessly, and without confusion. It enables very fine shades of pause and emphasis, very important in how we experience a hokku.

As a general guide, here is how to punctuate hokku:

A semicolon (;) indicates a strong, definite pause. It is generally used to enable the reader to absorb the setting of a hokku, for example in presenting the setting before moving on to the rest:

The spring wind;

A dash is used to indicate a longer, more meditative and connective pause, in cases such as

The spring wind —

It is typed as two hyphens.

One may also use the ellipsis (…) for that purpose:

The summer wind …

A question mark (?) is usually used to ask a question that in hokku is never answered:

The spring wind?

The exclamation mark is used sparingly; it indicates something surprising or unexpected:

The spring wind!

The comma (,) indicates a very brief, connective pause. It is often found at the end of a line that begins with a preposition:

In the spring wind,

A hokku always ends with punctuation, whether a period (.) — which is the most common — or a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!)  again, very sparingly used, and also the sparingly used final ellipsis (…), used to indicate something unfinished or ongoing.

That is hokku form in a nutshell.

As for length, we should not exceed by too much the standard, which in English is usually no more than five words for the first line, a maximum of seven for the second line, and no more than five for the third line.  Generally fewer is better, though sometimes a line other than the second will need to be the longer line.  Think in terms of two short lines (usually at beginning and end) and one long line (usually in the middle).  For example, we have already seen the verse

A boat passes;
The waters of spring
Beat on the shore.

That has three words in line one, four in line two, and four in line four.  This kind of flexibility is necessary, so line length is not absolutely uniform, but changes according to the requirements of an individual verse.  One just has to be careful not to make a line awkwardly long.  Usually a hokku should consist of no more than 15 words in total, and fewer are generally to be preferred.  Pay attention to the overall rhythm of a line in relation to the whole.

This flexibility is very important in English language hokku, because a thing in English may be as visually brief as the word “fly” or as long as the word “dragonfly,” so we must be sparing while not becoming too rigid. The standard of “poverty,” if followed, ensures that in hokku we use only a few simple, ordinary words, including only what is necessary for clarity and good grammar.

There is thus nothing peculiar about the appearance of hokku in English. It uses ordinary language, ordinary words, ordinary punctuation. And again that frees us to concentrate on content, because though form may make something appear to be a hokku visually, it is only when appropriate content is added to correct form that we get a real hokku.

So in hokku, form and content work together and require one another, just like the shell of a nut and its contents.



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Every now and then I like to mention hokku’s “evil twin,” senryu.

Unlike hokku, senryu does not express a particular season.  Nor does it express Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Instead, senryu points out (with a Nelson Muntz-like “Ha, Ha!) the quirks of human nature.  It pokes fun at everything.  It tells the truth, but it is often an uncomfortable truth.

Hokku is spiritual and contemplative; senryu is earthy and satirical.  It reminds me of the Shadow in Jungian psychology — the dark underside of human consciousness, all those things people ordinarily keep hidden from sight, things which they themselves are unaware of, but which pop up now and then at the most unexpected times and in embarrassing ways.

Here are a few senryu very loosely translated to make them more accessible in English:

Tending baby,
The lullaby of the father
Is a bit off.

This shows us the difference between mothers and fathers.  The father is in strange and unfamiliar territory, but he does the best he can, trying to sing a lullaby but not in full command of the words or music, which he keeps getting wrong.

A child with candy;
“Let’s play! Let’s play!”
The others say.

This is something that continues from childhood onward, even into the sudden interest old people with money find younger people taking in them.  If he had no candy, the others would not play with the child, and without the money, the old person would be ignored.

With his face
Turned to the blackboard,
The teacher yawns.

He would not dare do this facing his students, who might get the all-too-obvious impression that the subject is boring the teacher as well as the students (which, of course, it is!).

The nurse —
She has come to detest
The girlfriend. 

Senryu, like hokku, often require a certain amount of intuition, of “following the dots” to make the whole picture.  In this one, the nurse has been tending a good-looking young fellow, but his girlfriend keeps visiting him, and of course the nurse, who has formed an attachment to the young man, is jealous.

Storming off
In a huff,
He forgot his hat. 

This is very psychological, and senryu often has as its point the experiencing of psychological states.  In this one the fellow got upset and stormed off in anger, but forgot and left his hat behind.  Now he is faced with how to go back and get it without looking foolish, and it is precisely this state of mind that the senryu intends to evoke, and it is that state of mind that is the point of the verse.

She goes to the movies,
She dislikes her husband. 

This, again, requires connecting the dots.  When she goes to the movies, the woman sees appealing men on the screen who have all the attractive qualities her husband seems to lack, so she comes home from the films feeling disappointed and cheated.

He talks about heaven
Like he has been there —
The preacher. 

This is the realm of TV evangelists and other ministers who pretend to knowledge they really do not have “deceiving himself as much as his hearers,” as Blyth comments on the Japanese version of this verse.

You can see from these few examples that the purpose of senryu is very different from that of hokku.  Senryu is very “worldly” in the sense in which religious people use the term — attached to the things of this world — while hokku is not.




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Shiki wrote:

A frog
Floating in the water jug;
Summer rains.

Yes, it is a summer hokku, though it may not seem like one to most of us, who associate the summer with dryness.

The reason for the incongruity is that what is conventionally translated as “summer rain” or “summer rains” is “Fifth-month rains” in the original, and it meant the fifth month by the old lunar calendar.

Today we would place those rains in June through the middle of July, because that is really what Shiki was writing about.  But that period is the rainy season in Japan, an aspect of its climate which differs greatly from that in most parts of the United States — and that is the reason why this very “wet” hokku seems rather out of keeping with the nature of summer rains in the United States.

This fact illustrates why one cannot just take the “season words” of one country and apply them universally to hokku written anywhere.  The United States has its own seasonal characteristics, which not only differ at times from those in Japan but differ also from one another within the boundaries of the country.  Multiply this by the number of countries in the world and climatic and bioregions within each country, and one begins to see how illogical it is to attempt to have universal “season words.”

That is one reason why in hokku, we do not use season words as such, preferring to indicate season by categorization of each verse, which means simply marking it as a verse of spring, summer, autumn (fall) or winter.

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Some people are curious about the use of one line only in hokku.  The answer is quick and simple:  Don’t do it in English.

Why not?  Particularly, why not, when old Japanese hokku were printed in a single, vertical line?

The reason is that English is not Japanese, and what looks reasonably short in the mixture of Chinese characters and Japanese phonetic symbols in which old hokku was written looks awkwardly long in English.

For example:

A cicada cries at the gate of the empty house; the evening sun.

But put it into English-language hokku form, and it loses the awkwardness:

A cicada cries
At the gate of the empty house;
The evening sun.

The original is by Shiki, incidentally.

People are forever experimenting with the form of modern haiku, but in hokku there is no need for that.  The form already exists and works remarkably well.   So we can apply the old adage here:  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Now and then a hokku experience may seem to work better in two-line form, and if that is the case, there is nothing to prevent us from using it on the rare occasions when it does seem preferable to three lines.  But that is a rarity, and for the great majority of verses, three lines work best.  So there is no reason even to discuss two-line hokku here until such an occasion arises — or until someone asks about it.


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A hokku should stand on its own feet, without any need for a “back-story” in order to be understood.

You never know when a hokku will jump out at you.  We are having hot weather today, but I had to go out for a while to buy some vegetables.  On the way, I passed this:

Puppets hang
Unmoving on their rack.
The heat!

No need for how I happened to run into this, because it should be immaterial to the experience of the hokku itself, which as already mentioned, should be able to “stand on its own feet,” without explanation, without any wider context than that given in the verse itself.

Readers who have been paying attention through recent postings will quickly sense the relationship between the unmoving puppets and the heat.

When composing, we should not be deflected by the superficial “story” context of a hokku experience, but should instead concentrate on its “thinginess” — on the things in it and the experience of the senses.

Byth tells us that “This poetry of things is not something superimposed on them, but brought out of them as the sun and rain bring the tender leaf out of the hard buds.”  In hokku we see into the life of things — not into the abstract thoughts of the writer.  That is a major difference between conventional poetry and the “poetry” of hokku.

I often tell students that it is best not to think of hokku as poetry at all.  Instead we should think of it as an experience of the senses, expressed in things and actions — or in the case of this verse, in things and the absence of action.


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The previous posting describing the use of patterns in learning hokku can be very helpful with what is one of the biggest problems for the beginning student — how to organize the raw material of an experience to make a hokku.

It is summer now, and world-wide we are experiencing, so far, the warmest summer on record.  That heat manifests the season in many ways.  One of them is thunderstorms.

Suppose you are sitting on the porch on a hot summer evening, and in the growing darkness you hear the far-off roll of thunder.  All of that fits together to manifest the character of the season, which is exactly what we want in hokku.  But how do you organize it?

Here is one way:

An evening
Of distant thunder;
The heat!

That is only seven words and eleven syllables!   If we examine it, we can see that the setting is “the heat”; the subject is the evening, and the action is “distant thunder,” which, you will note, does not even need a verb for us to feel the action.  It will be obvious to you from reading the verse that our customary divisions of  setting-subject-action are tools that we need not apply too rigidly, though in beginning to learn it is often helpful to make them clearly distinct.

Of course there are other ways of organizing the experience, but this is a very easy and direct one.

When you have a hokku experience and are not sure how to organize it, it is often helpful to jot it down somewhat as I did above with the “thunder” experience, such as,

Sitting on the porch in the evening heat, listening to far-off thunder.

Then try to pick out from that elements that give the essence of the experience.  Space is a consideration, because hokku should be brief and simple.  We must not put too much in or it will be unwieldy and awkward, nor too little or it might be confusing or weak.  It is often helpful to experiment and try several versions, and you may first come up with something like,

Sitting at evening,
Listening to far-off thunder;
The heat!

That is longer than the first version, and it also does not flow as smoothly and simply; so you must then decide if you prefer the shorter or longer versions.  It is a matter of which you find the most satisfying and effective, along with how well and quickly the sensation will be grasped and experienced by a reader who does not already have the whole picture in his or her memory.

Do not think there is always only one answer — only one way — to write each experience.  As a rule of thumb, it is a good idea to choose the way that gives the strongest and simplest experience upon first reading.

It is often helpful to write a few version, then to put them aside and read them later in the day, or a few days or even a couple of weeks later.  Often time will make any awkwardness or shortcomings clear, and sometimes a better version will pop into one’s head fully formed.

By the way, this “evening thunder” example is really borrowed from a very old Japanese hokku.


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