Renga Roots: Haiku Before Haiku

First published in the Haiku Foundation journal Juxta 4:1, October 2018. Originally written in May of 2012, with revisions in March and December of 2017.

Steven D. Carter. Haiku Before Haiku: From the Renga Masters to Bashō. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. 164 pages; 5.5 by 8.25 inches; perfectbound. ISBN 978-0-231-15647-9.

It’s hard to break new ground in popular English-language haiku and renga scholarship, but Steven D. Carter has done it. His book, Haiku Before Haiku: From the Renga Masters to Bashō, is an informative exploration of the “haiku” poetry that preceded the first of the four great haiku masters in Japan. Of course, Bashō wasn’t a haiku master at all, since he never wrote haiku—the term wasn’t applied to what he wrote until the end of the 19th century, hence the irony, and catchiness, of the book’s title. Instead, what Bashō wrote was hokku, or the starting verse of linked poetry creations known at various times as renga, haikai no renga, and renku. Now, with Haiku Before Haiku, we can see more clearly into the context and history of haiku poetry before Bashō perfected it, and into the renga collaborations from which it sprang.

Students of haiku in English know the four great Japanese haiku masters and their work, and have the general idea that what we now call haiku existed for centuries before Bashō, and that hokku was sometimes preserved as an independent verse form even though it began life as part of long sets of linked verse. Carter’s book provides a more in-depth view of this poetry than ever before. Keene and Waley and other translators have given us glimpses of this early poetry, but never in as comprehensive and focused a way as Carter has now done. The book is eminently readable by any haiku or renga enthusiast, yet also provides the scholarly apparatus for those who wish, for example, to explore the sources of all the poems.

In the book’s 18-page introduction, the author explains that what we know as the haiku form was already 500 years old before Bashō got his hands on it. We learn that the first renga anthology, called the Tsukubashū, was published in 1356, compiled by Nijō Yoshimoto, who Carter says “was adamant about treating renga not as a pastime but as a legitimate genre within the larger tradition of uta [song]” (6). He explains that the hokku began its circuitous path to becoming an independent verse form because Yoshimoto’s “endeavor to elevate renga to a higher aesthetic sphere demanded focus on the hokku, in particular” (6). Carter reminds us, too, that “social interchange would always remain a feature of the renga aesthetic” (5) and that “many hokku were in fact prepared beforehand” (10), rather than written in the moment as some people believe—or preach that it should be. Carter also states that “the fact that Bashō later altered the text in order to suit the narrative purposes of Oku no hosomichi is undeniable, as is the conclusion that for him the hokku was to that extent and in that context, at least, an independent form—a form that was no longer an initiating verse” (10).

After his introduction, Carter presents 320 hokku poems ranging in date from the 13th century up to and including twenty hokku by Bashō himself (Bashō died in 1694). On each left-hand page, many poems appear with headnotes that identify the location and circumstances of composition. On each right-hand page, Carter classifies each poem by season, and identifies the season word when the season isn’t directly named. Also included are the romaji, text source (all sources are itemized in a bibliography at the end), and other notes, such as explanations of prominent allusions, plus other glosses. Each of the 55 poets is also given a brief biography, often with an identification of which renga school he or she was part of.

What’s amazing about the contexts provided for each poem is how many of them were part of 1,000-verse collaborations, and even the occasional 10,000-verse renga. Think about that for a moment—such a huge scale. I suppose renga is what the Japanese aristocracy—“the very center of elite Japanese literary culture” (8)—did with its time when it didn’t have television and the Internet. Indeed, the number of these creations is staggering, including the number of 100-verse renga, known as hyakuin, eventually the most dominant form of renga (the 36-verse kasen form did not emerge until the Edo period, from 1603 to 1868), as well as what was known as kusari renga, or a “string of verses” of indeterminate length. Carter notes that the full texts of these long creations, often written as memorials or celebrations, were seldom preserved, even to the point that not one single text of a complete 100-verse renga survived from the entire 13th century (3). Nevertheless, many of their hokku were preserved, which underscores their perceived value as an increasingly independent verse form, and as literature rather than mere social pastime as so many of the renga were. He also notes that, “Like all texts, hokku survive the demise of the events that produced them, taking on a different life” (14). Because of their focus on the seasons and nature, each poem is as immediate and easily accessible today as it must have been when it was written.

Here are some favourite selections of hokku from Haiku Before Haiku, each one exhibiting chiefly objective imagery, as well as the traditional subjects and seasonal references that we know from later hokku and haiku:

Beneath a tree,

autumn wind shows itself

in a single leaf.

—Junkaku (24)

Who would guess

they could ever scatter?

Cherries in full bloom.

—Gyōjo (44)

Ah, the deep woods—

so quiet one can hear

blossoms fall.

—Shinkei (48)

Cooler still

after I leave it—

the shade of the trees.

—Sōgi (60)

My days may be few—

yet I cannot complain

to such a moon.

—Sōgi (62)

Blossoms scatter—

never knowing

our regrets.

—Ōuchi Masahiro (70)

The road home—

longer for all

after blossom viewing.

—Sōchō (80)

A thin snowfall—

made deeper by moonlight

in the garden.

—Inawashiro Kensai (88)

In a flowing stream—

leaves weighted down

with light snow.

—Sōyō (104)

A hazy night—

and somewhere out there,

the absent moon.

—Miyoshi Chōkei (112)

Ah, for some pain—

to make me forget about

the moon, blossoms.

—Satomura Jōha (114)

One cherry tree—

a tollgate for people

for near and far.

—Satomura Jōha (114)

Wind in blossoms—

the sound of an axe

cutting firewood.

—Satomura Jōha (114)

Wind and waves

chide any who would sleep

on a moonlit night.

—Oka Kōsetsu (122)

Ah, solitude—

it does have a color.

Evening showers.

—Nishiyama Sōin (140)

What kind of flower

I don’t know, but ah—

such a scent!

—Matsuo Bashō (144)

Come on, kids!

Let’s have ourselves a run

among the hailstones.

—Matsuo Bashō (152)

A few other poems warrant additional attention:

Spring departs—

the clear moon oblivious

of passing time.

—Sōseki (1471–1533) (94)

(not to be confused with the novelist Natsume Sōseki, 1867–1916)

Carter says that the preceding poem includes “A rare ‘abstract’ statement” but adds that it “is traditional in the way it focuses on the gap between the natural and human worlds” (95).

Leaves on the reeds

will be suffering too—

after a storm.

—Ikkadō Jōa (108)

It is worth noting this hokku’s tone. In the jo-ha-kyū tradition of renga’s tonal development (an elevated and formal beginning, a paced and exploratory development, and speeding up to a positive ending), which Nijō Yoshimoto established in the first renga anthology of 1356, we have learned that the hokku was typically supposed to be upbeat, celebratory, or complimentary. Yet that is not always the case with the hokku in this book, as the preceding poem demonstrates. Perhaps the tradition to have a more elevated tone in the opening stanzas, including the hokku, was not adhered to stringently, or perhaps not yet, but most examples in Carter’s book do present what seems to be a noticeably elevated tone.

Plum branches—

umbrellas taking shape

in spring rain.

—Wife of Mitsusada (134)

Carter tells us that the wife of Sugiki Mitsusada was “often called the first female haikai poet” (135), which tells us how male-dominated haikai poetry must have been, even to the extent that this “first” female haikai poet, who lived from 1583 to 1647 (rather late in the period covered by this book), is identified only in relation to her husband. This dominance of males seems to be in sharp contrast to tanka, where women traditionally reigned supreme. Might this gender split also have something to do with the tanka being more overtly emotional, and the early hokku and later haiku being traditionally more objective, as if the males who dominated its early history were too reticent with their emotions, along with a narrow presumption that women are more emotional than men?

You may have noticed that the previous poem seemingly has two seasonal references—plum and spring rain. However, these are plum branches, not plum blossoms, even though it’s hard not to think of blossoms. But a number of other poems include more than one season word. Many English-language haiku poets labour under the notion that haiku should never have more than one season word, but I contend that this is limiting to actual experience and inspiration, and that usually only one potential season word actually functions as a season word if more than one appears in a verse. I believe this stance also applies to renga and renku composition, although any sort of refinement to remove redundancy—seasonal or otherwise—is to be welcomed. Nevertheless, we see plenty of hokku in Carter’s book that present more than one season word. Perhaps season words and guidelines for how to handle them were still evolving in the “haiku” before Bashō, but the following are selected examples from Carter’s book, including his classification of which season predominates:

      • An early spring— / sent back into seclusion / by morning snow. —Sōchō (80) [spring]

      • Chat about the snow / on Fuji’s peak— / and summer is no more. —Sanjōnishi Sanetaka (90) [summer]

      • All I waited for: / blossoms, glowing leaves, / then this morning—snow. —Sanjōnishi Sanetaka (94) [winter; snow; Carter calls this “A tour de force that comprehends an entire year in its 17 syllables” (95)]

      • A dusting of snow— / and I forget about blossoms / on withered fields. —Miyoshi Chōkei (112) [winter; snow]

      • Falling onto water, / snow in winter is— / spring snow. —Miura Tamenori (136) [winter; snow]

      • Green, so green— / new greens sprouting / in snowy fields. —Konishi Raizan (142) [spring; new greens]

Perhaps these and other poems raise more questions than they provide answers, but that is part of this book’s intrigue. It flings open a door to pre-Bashō hokku in an accessible way, and hints at the many renga that spawned them. What a treat it would be to devour even just one of those 100-verse or 1,000-verse renga from which they survived, or to be a fly on the wall to have witnessed their composition. In his introduction, Carter notes that “The hokku that I have translated in this book will in an ironic way . . . offer something new to modern haiku enthusiasts—poems that make a clear connection back to the traditions of Japanese court poetry while inevitably gesturing forward to Bashō, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, and Masaoka Shiki” (12). Indeed, haiku and renga enthusiasts now have a bigger—and clearer—picture of haiku before haiku. Perhaps, as a result, they also have a bigger and clearer picture of what is possible in contemporary haiku and renku, thanks to these old hokku that gesture forward beyond the great haiku masters even to us today.