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Haikai: Comic Linked Verse

The haiku form was taken from that of the opening verse of haikai, which meant "comic linked verse." The opening verse of a haikai was called the “hokku.” As the name implies, haikai often dealt with contemporary subjects in humorous ways. One person would begin the haikai, by composing the hokku, and others would add on more verses, creating a continuously evolving poem. Haikai was a popular social activity from the medieval period onward.

The names of the poets who contributed the successive segments of the haikai are on the right.

Haikai #1:

"Throughout the Town"


Throughout the town
above the welter of smelly things
the summer moon

Bonchô

Throughout the town
above the welter of smelly things
the summer moon
how hot it is, how hot it is
says a voice at every house-gate

Bashô

How hot it is, how hot it is
says a voice at every farm-gate
although the weeds
have not been worked a second time
the rice comes into ear

Kyorai

Although the weeds
have not been worked a second time
the rice comes into ear
the charcoal ash is shaken off
the dried sardine broiled at noon

Bonchô

the charcoal ash is shaken off
the dried sardine broiled at noon
but in this back country
the use of coins is not yet heard of
what a bother to travelers

Bashô1
(This haikai continues for a total of 36 verses)

Haikai #2:

"Beneath the Boughs"


Beneath the boughs
the soup with fish and vegetables
flecked with cherry petals

Bashô

Beneath the boughs
the soup with fish and vegetables
flecked with cherry petals
the sun goes gently to the west
extending the day's fine weather

Chinseki


the sun goes gently to the west
extending the day's fine weather
the single traveler
walks on scratching where lice bit him
as spring come to a close

Kyokusui


the single traveler
walks on scratching where lice bit him
as spring come to a close
not yet grown used to wearing
his sword in a protective case

Bashô2

(There are a total of 36 verses in this haikai, composed in 1691)

1. "Throughout the Town" was taken from Earl Miner, Japanese Linked Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 302

2. "Beneath the Boughs" was taken from Earl Miner and Hiroko Odagiri, trans., The Monkey's Straw Raincoat And Other Poetry of the Basho School (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 82.

Questions for Discussion

1) Have each member of your group read a stanza out loud. Do you think you would find this activity an amusing way to pass the time with your friends? What word or other games might you play now that have the same effect?

2) What happens to the poems with each stanza? How do the poems evolve?

3) Write your own haikai. The rules are that the opening verse has to be seventeen syllables of three lines (5-7-7), the second verse fourteen syllables (7-7), and thereafter alternating verses of 5-7-7 and 7-7. Your haikai can be about any subject (usually humorous).



Haiku by Matsuo Bashô

Haiku, the famous short poetic form of Japan, was brought to its height by the master Matsuo Bashô in the seventeenth century. Haiku remains a popular art form today.

Haiku #1: Te wo uteba kodama ni akuru natsu no tsuki

as I clap my hands
with the echoes, it begins to dawn --
the summer moon


Haiku #2: susuhaki wa ono ga tana tsuru daiku kana

housecleaning day --
hanging a shelf at his own house
a carpenter


Haiku #3: hototogisu otakeyabu wo moru tsukiyo

hototogisu (little cuckoo) --
through a vast bamboo forest
moonlight seeping


Haiku #4: kareeda ni karasu no tomarikeri aki no kure.

on a bare branch
a crow has alighted
autumn evening.


Haiku #5: akebono ya shirauo shiroki koto issun

in the twilight of dawn
a whitefish, with an inch
of whiteness.


Haiku #6: kirishigure Fuji wo minu hi zo omoshiroki

in the misty rain
Mount Fuji is veiled all day--
how intriguing!1


1. Haiku taken from Makoto Ueda, trans., Bashô and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991) pp. 102, 314, 317, 374.

Questions for Discussion

1) Every haiku has to have a seasonal word. See if you can find the seasonal word in each haiku.

2) What qualities make the haiku popular? What are its strengths? Limitations?

3) Write you own haiku.