The Link Is the Thing

Published in May, the Penguin Book of Haiku is an eye-opening introduction to haiku’s traditional (mostly) and traditionalist modern forms. Adam L. Kern’s translations, commentaries and unabashed selections bring fresh insight to the old “game” of haiku, a collaborative poetic form distinct from the standalone “haiku” the world knows today.


The Penguin Book of Haiku “ is translated by Adam L. Kern. Kern studied Japanese literature at Harvard University, where he earned his PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations before joining the faculty for nearly a decade. In Japan, he has been affiliated with the University of Kyoto, the University of Tokyo and the National Institute of Japanese Literature. Kern teaches Japanese literature and visual culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

the washbasin’s

drip-dripping gives way to

crickets chirping!

— Nozawa Boncho (c. 1640–1714)


This is the hokku, the initiating stanza, of the “Washbasin Sequence” of thirty-six linked verses which appeared in Sarumino (Monkey’s Straw Raincape, 1691), a major and now classic anthology of hokku and witty linked verse (haikai no renga). The hokku, usually written by a master poet or guest of honor (in this case Boncho), set the tone for the collaborative verse-composing session to follow.

Here are the second (wakiku) and third (daisan) stanzas in the sequence:


with oil burning low

an early-to-bed autumn

— Matsuo Basho (1644–94)


fresh new straw mats,

having just been installed,

in the moonlight!

— Okada Yasui (1658–1743)


“The art resides less in any individual verse than in how that verse links or will come to be linked to its surrounding verses,” explains Adam L. Kern in his introduction to the newly published Penguin Book of Haiku. “A player needed to pick up on some aspect of the previous verse, either latent or superficial, riff on it, cast it in a new light, thereby changing the perception of that verse itself. The challenge and fun of haiku largely resided in having the players perform this sense-shifting collaboratively and more or less on the spot. Spontaneity, the ability to think on one’s feet, wit — these were the cardinal virtues.”

So what is so clever about the sequence above? For assistance, we may turn to the Commentary section of the book under review, where as a further aid to appreciation the Japanese transliteration of each verse is also presented.

Boncho, we can see clearly now, has set the scene in autumn (crickets) after a rain shower. In the second stanza, the Grandmaster poet Basho shifts the narrative indoors while continuing the idea of an end to the drip-dripping with his introduction of a lantern that is barely flickering. In Yasui’s verse which follows, the lantern appears to have died out, and the moonlight now casts a suggestive glow on the host’s fresh new straw mats.

These opening stanzas feature wordplay and other literary tricks that add layers of meaning and wit that we do not have time to explain here (buy the book!), so allow this reviewer to quote one more stanza from the “Washbasin Sequence,” the seventh, to illustrate the kind of “fun” that poets had playing the old game of haiku:


reaching a gallop

upper-arm strength no match for

the spring colt

— Mukai Kyorai (1651–1704)


This verse comes bursting out of the “birdsong” and “fluttering snow” of the previous stanza to “surprise” comic effect. One can almost picture the group of poets rolling around in laughter as Kyorai charges into the timeline with this pace-changing verse. And here is the rub. Taken out of context, and familiar only with the form of the standalone modern haiku, a reader of this verse today “might suppose that Kyorai himself were galloping along, though in reality he would have been inside, perhaps sipping sake.”

In this way the “Washbasin Sequence,” which opens the “Haiku” chapter of the Penguin anthology, demonstrates two important features of the original haiku linked verse form: one, that “meaning is not limited to individual verses”; and two, that “imagination, even memory, plays a greater role than direct observation at the moment of composition within the game. The notion that the modern haiku is a verbal snapshot of an actual experience as it unfolds is dubious in the premodern haiku,” writes Kern.

And with that single example of an extended linked sequence shared, Kern moves on to present — out of their original context where context still remains — 1,000 or more eminent examples of haiku (and modern-day haiku) in its numerous modes. While being at pains to remind readers that they should “regard any given verse as but one installment in a perpetually unfolding group-authored composition,” Kern nevertheless showcases the practice of linking in the book by throwing originally unrelated stanzas, sometimes written centuries apart, “into conversation” with each other. So, for example, we get:


pale moonlit night…

in the mood to run off with

a watermelon

— Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902)


a fox sneezes

at a whiff of muskmelon —

moonlit night!

— Kaya Shirao (1738–91)


a wild boar

warily snorts its snout —


— Minoda Ushichi (1663–1727)


hunting for bushpig!

swooshing through pampas grass

nocturnal voices

— Kobayashi Issa (1763–1827)


Kern also includes among his selection a good number of linked “challenge verse” (maeku) and witty “response verse” (tsukeku) exchanges. For example:



so this is the floating world!

so this is the floating world!



sprig of blossoms

clutched by a poetic soul

passed out cold!

— Author unnamed, 1773


These two strategies of presentation help to keep the book bouncing along.


Enter Shiki


glancing behind

the person met in passing

shrouded in mist

— Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902)


Haiku as it is widely understood around the world today, Kern contends in his compelling introductory essay, is effectively the creation of one Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902). Writing at a time when Japan was modernizing and westernizing following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Shiki sought to demonstrate that the Japanese did in fact have an individualistic (and thus intellectually resonant, Western-style) poetry prior to sustained contact with the West — a poetry he called “haiku.” The word “haiku” had hitherto been an abbreviation of haikai no (renga no) ku (witty linked verse).

“Best known as the last of the Four Grandmasters of Haiku, Shiki might be regarded more distinctively as Japan’s foremost poetic modernizer,” writes Kern. “By boiling down the hodgepodge of collaboratively authored, premodern verse games into only the most refined morsel, straining out unsavoury impurities, Shiki can be credited with having cooked up the haiku as a form of standalone poetry.”

Shiki had observed that the first stanza in a linked-verse sequence [the hokku] had in the past been extracted and presented as a poem on its own. Hokku were written mostly in seventeen syllabets and either obeyed or played upon certain other compositional rules such as the use of a kigo (season word) and a kireji (cutting word), requirements which underpin the rule book for modern-day haiku. In his introductory essay however, Kern points out that there were at least five other major modes of witty linked verse besides the hokku which dispensed with these formal characteristics; namely, the challenge-and-response maekuzuke verse-capping exchanges, senryu comic haiku, bareku “dirty sexy” haiku, zappai seasonless haiku and the hiraku, the “ordinary stanza” in linked verse which while having “season” and “cut” words lacked the necessary “gravitas” of the hokku initiating stanza.

“Characteristically involving a comic clash in diction between the elegant language of classical poetry and the ordinary language of the contemporary masses, clever wordplay — specifically punning — or some other humorous twist, this wit was the stuff of witty linked verse. The exception in traditionalist modern haiku, wit was the rule in premodern haiku.”

Bringing the denigrated, bowdlerized, lost-to-modernization elements of haiku back into circulation is what the Penguin Book of Haiku is all about. In reasserting the relevance of haiku in all its incarnations variously serious, crude and comic, Kern does the haiku-loving world a great service and gives us all a good laugh at the same time.

Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal

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