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Spring 2007, vol 5 no 1

What Does It Mean to Read Haikai Linked Verse?
A Study of the Susuki mitsu Sequence in Kono hotori ichiya shi-kasen
by Toshiko Yokota

I. Introduction

Haikai linked verse, which emerged from the tradition of renga linked verse, acquired its position as an independent literary genre to which Matsuo Bashô (1640-1694) and his students contributed. Compared to traditional linked verse, which demands that a poet depict hon'i, the essential nature of things, using only the vocabulary of the traditional court poetry based on highly meticulous rules, haikai linked verse gives more freedom to a poet in vocabulary and themes, and in expressing his own emotions and feelings. As renga reached stagnation because of oppressive rules, haikai linked verse gained popularity among wealthy townsmen as well as intellectuals in the urban cities of the Edo period (1603-1868).

However, the departure of haikai linked verse from renga did not mean its total divorce from the traditional genre, because haikai linked verse also operates on rules adopted from linked verse. Following the rules of haikai linked verse, poetry masters, their students, and guests gathered for haikai sessions called za, and spontaneously composed poems. This nature of linked verse as a literary genre, which requires spontaneity with performers in the za operating within the framework of the rules, was inherited by haikai linked verse.

Haikai linked verse has a unique feature in that each participant in the session simultaneously plays roles of both author and reader in the process of composition. After one poet composes a verse, the next interprets the meaning, and composes the following verse. The other participants also ponder over possible links to the verse. In this paper, I will examine one of the representative sequences, Susuki mitsu (having seen pampas grass), written by Yosa Buson (1716-1783), Takai Kitô (1741-1789), Wada Ranzan (d.1773), and Miura Chora (1729-1780)1, and attempt to explain issues associated with the reading of haikai linked verse--namely, how the poets respond to the verse to which they must link, especially within the framework of very demanding rules, and how the rules affect the readers in the past and today when they read a sequence as a written text.

II. The Rules of Haikai Linked Verse and The Susuki mitsu Sequence

Following the tradition in renga, the one hundred verse sequence, or the hyakuin, had been considered the formal length of one sequence. It was not until the time of Bashô that the kasen, thirty-six verses, becomes the most prominent length of a sequence. When a session begins, the shuhitsu, the referee, records verses on sheets of paper called kaishi. On the first page of the kaishi, six verses are recorded, on the second page, twelve verses, on the third page, twelve verses and on the fourth page, the final six verses are recorded.

The entire operation of linking a verse to the previous verse is made possible by following rules. Like renga, the life of haikai linked verse is in the harmony and progression of ideas and images. In order to accomplish the task, the idea of category plays an important role in the process of composing a sequence. Categories include a variety of objects and aspects, in both the natural and human worlds. The major categories, which have thematic emphasis, are the four seasons and miscellaneous. Sub-categories include Love, Travel, Lamentation, Buddhism and Shintô. Minor categories, characterized by lexical content, are mountains, dwellings, and waters. Consequently, the rules governing the operation of the entire sequence are mainly formed by the seriation of thematic and lexical categories, and the restriction on recurrence of these categories, and on the repetition of certain words in a sequence.

Following are the general rules of haikai linked verse which the poets in the Edo period, such as Bashô and Buson, followed.2

Rule #I:.Seriation

The rule of seriation serves the principle variety and harmony of imagery. (1) Spring and Autumn (These categories must continue at least three verses, and may continue up to five verses.)

(2) Love (This category must continue at least two verses and may continue up to five verses.)

(3) Summer, Winter, Travel, Shinto, Buddhism, Lamentation, Nocturnal Things, Mountains, Waters and Dwellings (These categories may continue up to three verses.)

(4) Falling Things, Plants, Famous Places and other things. (These lexical categories may continue up to two verses.)

Appreciation of verses in Spring, Autumn and Love categories, which is no different from the time of renga, indicates the inheritance of traditional ideals of beauty.

Rule #2: Restriction on repetition

It is considered that three verses in a sequence is the basic unit of one sequence. The second verse should never be too close to the first one in its meaning, reference, pronunciation or association, and the third should never return to the first. As in the case of renga, avoidance of repetition is the most fundamental rule.3 Renga rules list things that may appear only once, twice, three, four, five times in hyakuin.4 These listed words invoke strong imagery, and therefore, are permitted to appear only a set of number of times in a sequence. Haikai rules, however, are less strict, and generally allow one more appearance in a sequence. As a kasen is approximately one third of a hyakuin, things which are allowed to appear three times in a hyakuin may appear only once in a kasen. Therefore, in a kasen, it is advisable to avoid using the same word.5

The following is an example of the restriction on repetition.

The words such as peony, crimson leaves, daffodils, dragon, blood, ghost and other things may appear only once in a sequence as they give striking images.

Rule 3: Intermission

The rules of intermission also serve the principle of creating various patterns, and avoiding one verse clashing with the previous.

(1) Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, boat, dream, tears, moon, pillow, smoke, inn, house, rain, man, woman etc. (These categories and words must be separated by more than five verses.)

(2) hand, mouth, mountain, river, bird, blue, yellow, red, white, black, love, transitoriness, lamentation, etc. (These words must be separated by more than three verses.)

(3) Shinto, Buddhism, the same living things, trees, grasses, nocturnal things, falling things, famous places, etc. (These words must be separated by more than two verses.)

Rule #4: Hokku, the first verse; wakiku, the second verse; [daisan], the third verse; and ageku, the last verse of a sequence

Conventionally, topics such as Shinto, Buddhism, and Love may not appear on the first side of the first sheet. However, hokku can have any topic so long as it has a kigo, seasonal word, which accords with the season of the session. And it is customary that the main guest greets the master of the session, incorporating the time, the place, and the occasion into the verse. A hokku must also have a kireji, cutting word, an expression to mark ending of a line, and must stand as an independent verse. In the wakiku, the poet must respond to the greeting, and link with the verse in the same thematic category with hokku. While wakiku has a supplementary nature to hokku, the third verse diverts from the first topic, and sets the direction of the following sequence.

The last verse must end with the same season as the previous verse, and may not introduce a new topic.

Rule #5: The places of images of the moon and cherry-blossoms in a kasen

Appreciation of the beauty of the moon and of cherry blossoms is deeply rooted in  Japanese traditional poetry, and by the time of haikai linked verse, one kasen always contained three images of the moon and two of cherry blossoms, and these images came to have fixed places in a sequence as the representative images. The places of the moon are generally accepted as follows: the fifth verse of sheet 1 side 1, the eighth verse of sheet 1 side 2, and the eleventh verse of sheet 2 side 1, and the places of the cherry blossoms are the eleventh verse of sheet 1 side 2, and the fifth verse of sheet 2 the side 1.

These rules, which emerged from the renga tradition, all serve the principle of haikai linked-verse: harmony and progression of ideas and images. As Bashô states in Sanzôshi, "Kasen has thirty-six steps to go forward and not even one step backward.”6 The movement of haikai linked verse is always forward, as In the case of renga.

How, then, are these rules applied to the actual composition of a text? In the case of the Susuki mitsu sequence, Spring and Autumn continue at least for more than three verses, except for the one case of verse 35 and 36, and continue for up to four verses. Winter, Summer and Travel continue up to three, and Love up to two. Except in one case of Spring, these examples fulfill the rule of seriation. The text also fulfills the rule of repetition as no striking image is repeated throughout the sequence. For example, the nightingale, which is permitted to appear twice in a sequence, appears only once in verse 11, and money, which is also permitted to appear twice, appears only once in verse 25.

The rule of intermission is also applied to the text. The following words, which must be separated by five verses, actually appear only once. The word autumn appears in verse 2, ferry in verse 3, lodging in verse 3 and rain in verse 6.

The wind, which must be separated by three verses, appears only once in verse 2, and the color black also appears only once in verse 27.

The moon appears three times, and cherry blossoms twice. Although they do not appear exactly at fixed places, they are distributed according to the rules: the first moon appears in sheet 1 side 1, the second moon in sheet 1 side 2, and the third moon in sheet 2 side 1, and the first cherry blossoms appear in sheet 1 side 2, and the second in sheet 2 and side 2.

Compared to renga, haikai linked verse has fewer rules and the surviving rules function loosely in the case of haikai. However, that does not mean that the rules are completely ignored. The above examples prove that the text is composed within the framework of rules of the renga tradition, and consequently confirms that the rules form a part of the common grounding of the four poets who composed respective verses of this kasen.

III. Rule-Based Reading of the Text

The unique characteristics of haikai linked verse is in the performative nature of za, the haikai linked verse session, where all the authors play the role of readers in the course of composing a sequence. The task of each participant is interpreting one verse as a reader, and linking a new verse as an author based on the rules. When the readers of Buson's time read a text composed by other poets on a different occasion, it is doubtful that they read the text for the sole reason of pure artistic appreciation. They had a specific purpose when they read, namely, to read the text as a part of their training as a poet and to improve their technique of linking. Therefore, it is inevitable that when they read, they constantly question how they can link to the specific verse, searching for other linking possibilities within the framework of the rules. They actively read each verse in a sequence, and the rules function as the common grounding between the poets in the session and the readers in those days.

When present-day readers read haikai texts, the majority of them read for artistic appreciation but there are those who read for the purpose of training as a poet. No matter what the purpose of their reading may be, it is not possible to read and understand the entire operation by Buson and his school without knowledge of the rules. The rules, forming the common grounding between the poets in the past and the readers today, function to encourage interpretive exercises in the mind of the readers and help them to reconstruct the meaning of the text.

Now, we shall consider how the rules influence the reading of the text. For example, the rule of seriation of the category of Winter, affects the interpretation of verse 11. 'A little bird comes' is a seasonal word [sic] of autumn. However, because of its relationship with the previous verse that belongs to the category of Winter, verse 11 also may belong to the category of Winter. Therefore the reader can interpret the verse as the speaker's waiting for the arrival of a nightingale in winter, not in autumn.7

However, in the case of verse 34, the rule of seriation is superseded by another rule that prohibits putting a verse of Love before a verse of Spring.8 Verse 32 and 33 belong to the category of Love, and if the rule of seriation is applied, verse 34 could belong to Love; however, as it is placed before verse 35, which belongs to Spring, it is determined to be a verse of Miscellaneous. Another problem of this verse belonging to the category of Love is its lack of explicit reference to Love, although the word 'conceal' implies a verse of Love. As in the case of renga, verses of abstract nature cause a problem in categorization.9

The rule of distancing between two verses also affects the reader's interpretation. The rule, which must enact changes, makes the reader aware of the difference between two verses, even if these two may be closely linked. For example, verse 1 and verse 2 both belong to the category of Autumn, and describe the same scene; therefore, the reader without the knowledge of the rule of distancing would tend to read these two verses as a unity. However, the reader with knowledge of the rule focuses on the minute difference between the two, and finds the temporal setting is added in verse 2. Verse 20 and verse 21 present a similar case. Both belong to the category of Summer, describing the same scene in the same context. However, the rule makes the reader aware that the focal point is shifted from the white clouds in the distance to the purple flower of wisteria near at hand. What Carter states, "the aim of the principle of distancing is to concentrate interpretive energy on the spaces between verses and to allow for the minute distinctions that create a constant change and variety in hyakuin", is definitely applicable to haikai linked verse texts.10

Compared to renga, haikai is given more freedom in its choice of vocabulary and theme, and is known for its comic nature. However, this sequence by Buson and his students presents a similar feature by alluding to the classical texts. Verse 5 alludes to The Diary of Tosa (ca.935), and verse 25 to Chinese classics. One of the purposes of allusion to classical texts is to elevate the vulgarized haikai to the level of Bashô's style. Another purpose of allusion is to add variety to the text. Here the rule to move forward reminds the reader that the images evoked from allusion remain of a changing situation, and never dominate the progression in a sequence.

The rule to link a verse only to the previous verse makes the reader focus only on that verse and to interpret it in its relation to the previous verse, and to understand how the poet could develop the sequence in a very unexpected direction. For example, if the reader had no knowledge of the rule, he could not understand how the unexpected shift from verse 8 to verse 9 is made possible. From verse 5 to verse 8, the context continues to be the world of Heian courtiers, but suddenly Buson introduces the completely unexpected image of an 'old brazier covered with a hood'. Here, the reader is reminded of the rule to link only to the previous verse. In other words, verse 9 is made possible because of verse 8, not because of the other previous verses. This kind of unexpected verse also reveals the other unrecorded possible interpretations of one verse.

By reading a verse linked to the previous verse, one meaning emerges within a given situation. Then if the verse is read with the following verse, another meaning of the verse emerges within another situation. For example, 'the window feels heavy' (in verse 6) because it is 'the daughter of Tsurayuki' (in verse 5) who attempts to open it. However, when verse 6 is read with verse 7, the meaning of verse 6 in the new context is completely different. Because of the sickness of a courtier (in verse 7), the window feels heavy, and the rainfall (in verse 6) enhances the gloomy atmosphere of the night (in verse 7). This example confirms that the rule of reading with the previous verse makes the reader aware of the plurality of meaning of each verse.

The hokku, the initial verse, has a unique place in a sequence as it has no previous verse with which to link, and it stands as an independent verse with a seasonal word of the time of composition. The reader with knowledge of the rule of the hokku can also recognize both surface meaning and another meaning as a greeting of the poet to the new guest of the session. Taking the aspect of greeting in the hokku into consideration, Nakamura Yukihiko, a scholar of Japanese literature, interprets that pampas grass is a metaphor for the aged poet Ranzan, who participates in this session at his house in spite of his illness, and bush clover a metaphor for a guest poet, Chora. Buson, the reader of the group, welcomes Chora, joining them for the first time, in the first verse, and in the second verse, Chora responds to Buson's greeting, in which the rising wind is a metaphor for the role of Buson and his students in the beginning of the “back to Bashô” movement.11

All of these examples of rule-based reading attest that the rules govern the reading of the text, and these rules make the readers realize that each verse waits for the readers' interpretation as an open text.

IV. The Role of the Readers in Reading Haikai Linked Verse

In a rule-based reading of a text of haikai linked verse, the reader plays an active role in constructing the meaning from a given verse. The reader who actively reads the text based on the rules does not extract the meaning input by the author as if it were a permanently fixed object. There are always passive readers who read a text as a closed text to establish a final meaning to it. However, this means neither that their interpretation is the permanent meaning of the text, nor that each verse is open for other interpretations. The meanings of the verses vary depending upon the reader, and one reader can construct more than one meaning. The readers play an active role in the process of reading haikai linked verse.

Another claim that the meaning of one utterance depends upon a situation also proves to be valid when the reader focuses on three consecutive verses. A verse is linked with the previous one, and one meaning emerges in one context; and if it is linked with the following verse, another meaning emerges in another context--that is, the meaning of the second verse depends upon the given situation.

As thematic unity as a whole is not the goal of the genre, one cannot expect to find a unified theme in reading one sequence of haikai linked verse. However, the experience of reading one sequence never ends in chaos and the reader can appreciate changing ideas and images in the process of reading. This is because the rules and conventions operate throughout the composition of a sequence, and the readers share the reading strategies--that is, the knowledge of rules and conventions. These ‘informed readers’ of haikai linked verse do belong to an ‘interpretive community.’12 The interpretive community in the genre of haikai linked verse exists as a real community of readers who share the knowledge of rules and conventions, and they interpret the text, applying the reading strategy to the text.

V. Conclusion

The preceding examination of the thematic lexical categories of the Susuki- mitsu sequence demonstrates that the sequence is composed based on the haikai rules, which are inherited from the renga rules. Four poets could leave a kasen as one text because of their common knowledge of rules. The rules function to form a common grounding for the poets in za. Within the framework of the rules, each poet interprets a given verse as an open text, and links a new verse to it.

When the text is read as written, both by the readers in the past and today, the rules function not only as the tools for superficial decoding of the text, but as entrance to interpretive exercises on a deeper level. With the help of the rules, the readers, as active participants, can construct a meaning of each verse in the sequence, and at the same time, they are made aware of other possible meanings of each verse nor recorded in the text.

The rule-based reading of a sequence of haikai linked verse reveals the active role of the readers in constructing the meaning of the text, and shows that a reading is a phenomenon occurring in the minds of readers. Based on rules--that is, the common grounding of the reading strategies--both the readers in the past and the present form an interpretive community and interpret the open text as educated readers.


1 Buson played the principle role in elevating vulgarized haikai poetry after the death of Bashô. This work marks their return to the Basho movement. See Cheryl Crowley, "Collaboration in the Back to Bashô Movement: The Susuki mitsu Sequence of Buson's Yahantei School" for the detailed information.

2 For detailed information on the haiki rules, see Imoto Nôichi, Renku dokuhon, pp.211-221.

3 See Steven D. Carter, The Road to Komatsubara, pp.38-39.

4 Carter, pp.43-52.

5 Hiroyuki Isui, Renku e no shôtai, p.69.

6 Cited in Imoto, p.184.

7 Yukihiko Nakamura adopts this rule for interpreting this verse. See Nakamura, Kono hotori ichi-ya shi-kasen hyôshaku, p.50.

8 Nakamura, pp.82-83.

9 See Carter, p.77.

10 Carter, p.84.

11 See, Nakamura, pp.35-37.

12 See Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in this Class?, p.171. Fish presents the notion of interpretive community, that is, a group of readers who share the same reading strategy which governs their reading operations.


Carter, Steven D. The Road to Komatsubara. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Crowley, Cheryl. “Collaboration in the Back to Bashô Movement: The Susuki Mitsu Sequence of Buson’s Yahantei School” in Early Modern Japan, Fall 2003.

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Horton, H. Mack. “Renga Unbound: Performative Aspects of Japanese Linked Verse.” Harvard Journal of Asian Studies, 1993.

Imoto, Nôichi. Renku dokuhon. Tokyo: Taishûkan Shoten, 1987.

Inui, Hiroyuki and Shiraishi Teizô. Renku e no shôtai. Tokyo: Izumi shoin, 1989.

Nakamura, Yukihiko. Kono hotori ichi-ya shi-kasen hyôshaku. Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 1980.

Ogata, Tsutomu. “Hairon” in Haiku hairon. Vol. 33 of Kanshô nihon koten bungaku. Tokyo: Kadokawa shoten, 1975.

Sakurai, Teizô. Renku bungei no nagare. Tokyo: Izumi sensho, 1989.

Yokota, Toshiko. Buson as Bunjin: The Literary Field of Eighteenth-Century Japan. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of California, Irvine. 2000.

Appendix I

(The translation of the Susuki mitsu sequence of Kono hotori ichi-ya shi-kasen)

1. susuki mitsu hagi ya nakaran kono hotoriBuson

I saw pampas grass. Isn't there a bush clover around here?

2. kaze yori okoru aki no yu niChora

Wind rises in the autumn evening.

3. Fune taete yado toru nomi no futsuka zukiKitô

The ferry halts, I must see an inn, the second-day moon.

4. kikô no moyô ippo ippen Ranzan

While traveling, landscape changes with each step.

5. Tsurayuki ga musume osanaki koro nare ya Chora

Isn't that the time when the daughter of Tsurayuki was little?

6. hajitomi omoku ame no furereba Buson

The half-panel shutters feel heavy as rain is falling.

7. sayo fukete yûzuru naraseru on'nayami Ranzan

Deep in the night, the sound of bow strings for an ailing noble.

8. ware mo isoji no shunju o shiru Kitô

I also came to realize that I have reached fifty years old.

9. nan'ji ni mo zukin kishô zo furubioke Buson

Old brazier, shall I put a hood on you, too?

10. aiseshi hachisu wa karete ato naki Chora

The lotus flower I loved has withered away.

11. kotori kite yayo uguisu no natsukashiki Kitô

Little bird, I tell you that I miss a nightingale.

12. sakazuki saseba nigeru agatame Ranzan

When I offer a cup of wine, the country woman shyly turns away.

13. wakaki mi no Hitachi no suke ni hoserarete Buson

A young man is appointed to an office in the province of Hitachi.

14. yae no sakura no rakka ippen Kitô

A fallen petal of multi-layered cherry blossoms.

15. ya o oishi ojika kete fusu kasumu yo ni Chora

Shot by an arrow, a stag lies down on a hazy evening.

16. haru mo oku aru tsuki no yama dera Buson

Spring comes late at a mountain temple under the moon.

17. ôgame no sake wa itsushika su ni narinu Kitô

The sake wine has turned to vinegar without being noticed.

18. goshaku no tsurugi uchi osetari Chora

I have finished forging a five-foot sword.

19. manjû no Tada no watamashi hiyori yoki Buson

The moving of Mitsunaka to the Tada castle on a fine day.

20. wakaba ga sue ni oki no shirakumo Kitô

Beyond the young leaves, I see white clouds offshore.

21. matsuga e wa fuji no murasaki saki nokori Chora

On a branch of a pine tree, the purple of wisteria remains.

22. nen'butsu môshite shinu bakari nari Buson

I have nothing else but to chant the holy name and die.

23. waga yama ni gokô no mukashi shinobarete Kitô

In the mountain I reside, I reminiscence of the Emperor's visit in the past.

24. nigetaru tsuru no matedo kaerazu Chora

The escaped crane never returns even if I wait.

25. zeni nakute hekijô ni shi o daishikeri Buson

Penniless, I wrote a poem on the wall.

26. hi o mochi izuru on'na uruwashi Kitô

The woman bringing out a light is beautiful.

27. kurokami ni chirachira kakaru yoru no yuki Chora

On black hair falls night snow.

28. utae ni makete shoryô owaruru Buson

Having lost a lawsuit, a man is expelled from his land.

29. hiyae da mo kotoshi wa ine no tachi nobishi Kitô

Even in the dry rice field, this year the rice grows steadily.

30. matsuri no zen o narabetaru tsuki Chora

Festival dishes are arranged under the moon.

31. koakindo aki ureshisa ni tobi aruki Buson

A humble merchant joyfully runs around on an autumn day.

32. aigasa shô to uba ni tawarete Kitô

Jokingly I invite an old woman to share my umbrella.

33. inishie mo ima mo kawaranu koigusa ya Chora

Feelings of love never change in ancient times and now.

34. nani monogatari zo himete misezaru Buson

Whatever the story, she hides and does not show.

35. Kisagata no hana omoiyaru yûmagure Ranzan

I contemplate upon the cherry blossoms of Kisagata at dusk.

36. oboro ni Shiga no yama hototogisu Kitô

A mountain cuckoo cries in the haze of dawn in Shiga.



Toshiko Yokota Toshiko Yokota is an assistant professor of Japanese language and literature at California State University, Los Angeles. She has taught many courses on a variety of subjects in Japanese language, civilization and literature. Her current research focuses on cultural production in 18th-century Japan, peace education and Japanese pedagogy.