Haikai: Comic Linked Verse

Haiku is derived from the opening verse of haikai, or "comic linked verse." As the name implies, haikai often dealt with contemporary subjects in humorous ways. One person would begin the haikai, and others would add on, creating a continuously evolving poem. Haikai was a popular social activity from the medieval period onward. In the following examples, each verse was written by a different famous poet; in Haikai #1, for instance, the three poets Bashô, Bonchô, and Kyorai took turns writing the linked poem.

"Throughout the Town" (Excerpt)

Throughout the town
above the welter of smelly things
the summer moon (Bonchô)

Throughout the town
above the welter of smelly things
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 (Bashô)

[This haikai continues for a total of 36 verses]

From Japanese Linked Poetry, edited by Earl Miner (Princeton University Press, 1979), 302.

"Beneath the Boughs" (Excerpt)

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 (Bashô)

[There are a total of 36 verses in this haikai, composed in 1691]

From The Monkeys' Straw Raincoat and Other Poetry of the Bashô School, translated by Earl Miner and Hiroko Odagiri (Princeton University Press), 82.

Classroom Exercises

  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).

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