Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
Contents Archives About Simply Haiku Submissions Search
Autumn 2008, vol 6 no 3


Four Seasons and Love
An Analysis of Twelve Classical Kasen, by Dick Pettit


Did the Basho and other renga groups of the time have a fixed plan for whichever season they were in? This, to be enforced by the lead poet, prompted perhaps by the scribe, consulting his sleeve? On the meagre evidence available to us, certainly not. Rather, there was general agreement on what, say, a winter renga should be, but both leader and other players were free to make many minor and infrequent major alterations to the main Autumn Moon and Spring Blossom positions. Further, there were no regular places for the Love, Summer, and any extra Autumn and Spring sequences; or for any Winter verses after the opening. All these could be put in or omitted ad lib.

The evidence is scant if you can't read Japanese. There are, as far as I know, English translations of only 15 Basho renga available: 3 Spring, 2 Summer, 3 Autumn and 7 Winter. Also single works by Soin, Tintan, Chiyo-ni, & Buson. However, the small number favours my argument: if there is as much variation in the five winter renga detailed here, far more would likely be found if we had a few dozen of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, extant in the Japanese collections.

In the Winter kasen, Autumn Moon usually comes among the three (occasionally two or four) Autumn verses at v.5 & v.29. It can be the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd of those Autumn verses. It can be pulled forward by two verses in both positions, but the Moon at v.29 can come as early as v 23. I feel the second moon marks the beginning of the final kyu section.

Spring Blossom appears only three out of five possible times at v.17, but all five at v.35, except that it is once pulled forward. Spring Blossom at v.35 is unlikely to be moved, but where it is, as in Month of Frosts, Winter comes at v.36. The Spring sequences have two or three Blossom verses.

After the Spring and Autumn verses, there are no rules. In the Winter kasen, Winter can come 1 to 4 times, with 1 to 3 verses each time; Summer once or twice with 1 to 3 verses. Love verses come 1 to 3 times, with 1 to 4 verses each time.

Five Basho Winter Renga

Poetry I Sell, Shi akindo no maki, 1682
Winter Shower, Shigure, 1684
Withering Gusts, Kogarashi, 1684
Month of Frosts, Shimotsuki ya no maki, 1684
Kite's Feathers, Tobi no ha, 1690

Side 1
1 Wi WiM Wi Wi Wi
2 Wi Wi Wi Wi -
3 - NwYr AuM Wi -
4 - Sp Au - -
5 AuM Sp Au AuM AuM
6 Au SpFl Au Au(?) Au

Side 2
7 - Lv - - Au
8 Wi Lv Lv - -
9 - - Lv - Sp
10 Lv Su - - Sp
11 Lv SuM Wi - -
12 - Su - SuLv Su
13 Su Lv Au Su -
14 Sp - Au - -
15 Sp - AuM - -
16 Sp - - Sp Sp
17 - - SpBl SpBl SpBl
18 AuM Su Sp Sp -

Side 3
19 Au Su Sp(?) - -
20 Au Su - - Wi
21 Lv - - - -
22 - - - - Su
23 - - Wi Su -
24 - Wi Wi - Lv
25 - WiL - - Lv
26 - Lv - Au Lv
27 Wi Lv Su AuM Lv(?)
28 Wi Au Au Au -
29 AuM AuM AuM Au AuM
30 Au Au Au - Au

Side 4
31 Au - - - Au
32 - - - SpBl Wi
33 - - Lv Sp -
34 Wi Lv Lv Sp -
35 SpBl SpBl SpBl - SpBl
36 Sp SpM Sp Wi Sp


Autumn and Spring Kasen

The first halves of the Autumn and Spring renga are fairly regular for Autumn and Spring verses, the main variation being in the optional Autumn Moon at vs.13, 14, or 15. Winter, Summer and Love verses appear or not as the players choose.

The second halves though, are much freer, the only consistent features being an Autumn Moon in five of the seven renga somewhere between vs.22 and 25, and the Spring Blossom verses at v.35, one of which is pulled forward to v.29. It seems probable that more renga would show greater variation.

Why so much uncertainty about what went where? First, it must have seemed at many points that the next continuation would naturally (or surprisingly) be, say, a Winter verse, or the first of a Love sequence. Another reason, given the playfulness of renga, might be where one player having 'thrown up the ball' for a Love sequence, the next one refuses to take the bait and produces a different, equally plausible, verse. Other games are possible.

The Love and season positions were not fixtures, but to a complete or minimal extent, variables; just as were topics, types and closeness of links, and tone, register and person of verses.

Three Autumn and four Spring Renga

Tub of Ashes, Akuoki no, 1690
If Fine, Aokute mo, 1693
Farewell to Sora, Sora sen, 1689
Plum Blossom, Ume wakana, 1690
Beneath the Boughs, Ko no moto, 1691
Fragrance of Plums, 1694
Hototogisu (Chiyo & Shisenjo) 1726

Side 1
1 Au Au Au SpBl SpBl SpBl Sp
2 Au Au Au Sp Sp Sp Sp
3 AuM AuM AuM - - - -
4 - - -        
5 Sp Sp - Au AuM AuM AuM
6 Sp Sp - Au Au Au Au

Side 2
7 Sp Sp Wi Au Au Au Au
8 - - - Su - - -
9 Su Lv Lv - - - -
10 Su Wi - - - Su -
11 Lv - - - - - -
12 Lv . - - Lv - -
13 - - AuM Au Lv - Sp
14 AuM Lv? Au Au AuM AuM Lv
15 Au SpBl Au AuM Au Au -
16 Au Sp - - Au Au -
17 SpBl Sp SpBl SpBl SpBl SpBl SpBlM
18 Sp - Sp Sp Sp Sp Sp

Side 3
19 Sp - Sp Sp Sp Sp Sp
20 - Au Wi? - Lv - -
21 Wi Au - - Lv - -
22 - AuM Lv Lv - - -
23 AuLv Su Lv Lv - Au Au
24 AuLv - Au Lv - AuM Au
25 AuM - Au - - - AuM
26 - - AuM - - - -
27 - - - - Su Sp Lv
28 Su Wi - - - Sp Lv
29 Su - - Su Au SpBl Lv
30 - - Su Su AuM Su Su

Side 4
31 - - - - Au Su? Wi
32 - Wi - - - - -
33 - - Wi - - Wi -
34 - - - Wi - - -
35 SpBl SpBl SpBl SpBl SpBl - SpBl
36 Sp Sp Sp Sp Sp - Sp


To what extent was all this controlled by the lead poet? Who can say? Basho is known to have been a particularly laid-back master. As well as hints, advice and orders from the sabaki, there must have been many initiatives from players.

The Fun They Had

Very few of the seasonal positions were completely regular, and none were sacrosanct. The players put in Winter, Summer and Love verses where they pleased, as part of the playful variation of different kinds of verses and links. Autumn and Spring verses are nearly regular. The Autumn Moon comes normally at v.5, unless there is a moon at v.1 or v.3. The Autumn Moon at v.29 can be pulled forward - it can come at v.23. Spring Blossom usually comes at v.17 and v.35. Players were at liberty to make changes from what was expected, as they felt suitable. There are many instances in renga of players teasing each other in various ways.

The point of this article is to urge that we should do the same. Fifteen years ago few made more than token uses of Moon and Blossom verses. Now probably most groups use full templates. To experience something closer to that of the old renga players, we should take the freedom they had.

A comment might be that we are not out to make modernised copies of 17th century renga. Maybe not, but it's worth knowing the effects and tricks of the classic masters before moving on. While renga remains 'linked verses', we shan't move out of sight.

Dick Pettit
April 2008


Key to the tables

Au autumn
Sp spring
Wi winter
Su summer
Bl blossom
M moon
Lv love
NwYr new year

Copyright 2008: Simply Haiku