Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
Contents Archives About Simply Haiku Submissions Search
Autumn 2007, vol 5 no 3


Tomegaki : Flow of the Springtide

We decided to write shisan, a twelve-verse renku, on this particular occasion. This form of renku is not so popular as kasen, traditionally the standard form of renku, or hankasen, half-kasen, which is often regarded as an expedience when time is limited. Shisan is even shorter than half-kasen, and yet it does have the sense of completeness which half-kasen lacks. This is mainly because the four-page structure of kasen is preserved. Each page has three verses, and we need four pages to complete. Thus we can write shisan, regarding it more or less as a miniature kasen. In modern times when everybody is so busy, and we cannot meet so often, I think this form of renku has a great advantage, for we can usually finish it in one sitting.

waves of the spring-tide
flowing along the pillow —
strings of tangled hair


I proposed to use a hokku by Buson to start our renku this time. I am fond of using a classical hokku to start a modern renku because it gives us a wonderful sense of the presence of a classical poet sitting with us. There are two advantages of this feeling. First it inspires us to regard ourselves as would-be disciples, however distant, of a classical poet. Second it enables us to possess what T. S. Eliot called 'the historical sense'. We can look at the past from a modern viewpoint and we can see the present with some past in our mind. This is exactly what Basho did in his time. He always had Saigyo, Sogi and other poets of the past in mind when he wrote his verses about his own time.

Buson's hokku which I have chosen is a wonderful poem. It describes the strings of tangled hair that run along the pillow like a stream. He compares this to the flow of spring-time, thus giving a concrete image to an abstract idea, and at the same time, giving a depth to a concrete image. The poem has some sexual suggestiveness which is appropriate to the spring season. I think the poem was well accepted by the members of the group and prepared them for the composition of their own verses.

white blossoms faintly glow
in a tiny walled garden

The second verse was given to me. Buson was active in Kyoto for a long time. His grave is at the Kompukuji temple. Kyoto is also famous for walled gardens. Some temples have walled gardens, but what I had in mind when I wrote my verse was town houses where walled gardens play important roles in terms of lighting and landscape. Walled gardens are very small but it may not be too much to say that they are the core of town houses. I did not wish to emphasize the sexual suggestiveness of Buson's verse, but at the same time, I was eager to carry on its romantic charm. That is why I planted a stock of plum tree in the walled garden, and described their blossoms visible through evening darkness. Sensitive readers can even enjoy their fragrance carried by the spring breeze, I suppose.

the door open
to a waiting carriage
the horses' whinnying

The verses that follow are all by other members of the group. I am afraid I cannot comment on them so closely as I did on mine. However, I can at least say how I felt about them and what I appreciated in them. The third verse carries us closer to our age. Horse carriages were introduced to Japan after the Meiji Restoration, I believe. We no longer have them in ordinary scenes. So we are in the near past in the third verse. There is no allusion to a specific place, so we can be anywhere, Kyoto, Tokyo, London, or New York. What is important about the third verse is to get away from the scenes of the previous two verses to enable us to start on our new poetic journey.

from the jack-in-the-box
out pops Pikachu

The fourth verse is a fresh start on a new page. I am not familiar with Pikachu myself, but according to the author of the fourth verse, it is a character well-known throughout the world. A horse carriage is a kind of box. The fourth verse takes up this idea, and turns a horse carriage into a jack-in-the-box. What I prize most in this verse is its unexpected quality.

the smell of acetylene
at my nose and on my feet
the coolness of geta

The fifth verse takes us into the childhood reminiscences of a summer fair or festival with many shops selling trinkets and cheap food. Acetylene was used to light these shops and its smell was pungent, if I remember correctly. The shops look very hot lit by acetylene, but the wooden clogs feel cool on the feet. I think this verse brings out this sharp contrast very well.

obi pattern for happy occasions
7 treasures in 7 circles

The sixth carries on the sense of festivity, but the occasion is different. I am not quite sure what the occasion is. It can be a wedding or birthday or the festival of seven, five, and three year old children we celebrate in Japan. This verse is somewhat vague about the occasion, but it is very precise in the description of the obi pattern. Moreover, it heightens the sense of festivity by insisting on the lucky number 7.

jizobon festival
an ancient stone cave
survived the earthquake

The seventh verse is probably the most up-to-date verse we have in our renku as it refers to the big earthquake we had recently in the Noto Peninsula. Fortunately, we did not have a large number of casualties, but many people lost their houses. Even today, we have many people living in temporary housing provided by the government. This verse describes an ancient stone cave that survived the earthquake and a festival carried out before stone images by children. What is nice about this verse is that there is a hint of tragedy in the prevailing sense of auspiciousness. This verse also gives us a long historical perspective through the image of the stone cave.

on the all-night jazz players
the morning moon rises

The eighth verse describes another modern scene. I do not know if the writer of this verse was thinking about New Orleans, which had a natural disaster similar in its effect to the earthquake described in the previous verse, but the combination of the moon and jazz gives us a fresh impression. The moon is traditionally sad and melancholy, but this verse gives a somewhat different impression of the moon. In any case, the life force inherent in jazz links very well with previous verse

my broken heart
after a long sigh and deep grief
drowned in liquor

The ninth verse is a poem on love. Traditionally, love verses are expected to be elegant, but this verse is opposite. It may not be too much to say that this verse is down-to-earth both in its description and style. We must remember that haikai was started as a kind of revolt against the elegant style of waka. From this point of view, we can describe this verse as having the strongest haikai flavour in this renku. In reading it, I even questioned how genuine was the love described in the verse. I think it possesses some comic quality hidden below its surface, and I love this verse all the more for this.

complaining and murmuring
yet my computer goes on

The tenth verse contrasts a computer with a human being. The lover in the previous verse is so weak and fragile, but the computer somehow goes on in spite of its overworked condition. We like to regard ourselves as masters and computers as slaves, but this verse shows that slaves are stronger than masters. Well, this may have been so since time immemorial. However, this verse brings out the irony of modern life very well.

at the distant end
of the withered grassland
a house on the hill

When we came to the eleventh verse, I asked the writers of the remaining two verses to remember Buson once again, for I thought it would be nice to end our renku with some reminiscences of this great master. The eleventh verse describes a scene which reminds me of a painting by him, which he called "Spring Forest and Thatched Roof". In this painting, you see a man climbing a road which goes through a bamboo thicket, and a distant thatched house at the foot of a mountain half buried in the trees. I do not think the writer of the eleventh verse had this particular painting in mind, for the season is different, but somehow the eleventh verse captures the spirit of Buson's painting very well. Some people might question the linkage of this verse with the previous one. I see no problem myself, for the man in Buson's painting is climbing up the hill road with the same determination as the computer.

through a latticework window
a will-o'-the-wisp wavering


The final verse also strongly reminds me of Buson. He wrote an interesting haibun about a badger that came nightly to his door to frighten him. He also wrote an interesting hokku about 'the will-o'-the-wisp'. Considering these things, I cannot help believing that 'the will-o'-the wisp' of the final verse is the spirit of Buson going away, saying that our revels now are ended. I may be reading too much in the final verse, but it has a wonderful sense of finale, not the full stop like the ending of an opera, but a gentle withdrawal like the ending of a noh play.

There is only one more thing I wish to say before I close my short comment. It is a kind of warning to my readers. I think everyone is entitled to read poetry in his or her own way. What I have said above is only my own reading. I do not expect everyone to agree with me. I do not think my colleagues will accept all the things I have said. On the other hand, I am hoping that what I have said might enable you to discover new things in your own reading. It would be a great pleasure for me if you could share at least some of my feelings in reading the twelve verses.

Nobuyuki Yuasa, Tokyo


Relevant elsewhere in Simply Haiku:
Flow of the Springtide
Flow of the Springtide (Japanese version)

Copyright 2007: Simply Haiku