Monday, July 1, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Tentori (Point-Scoring) Haikai and Haikai Twist

In the narrow sense of the word, haikai, which gave birth to haiku, originally referred to the humorous poems found in the first imperially commissioned anthology of poetry. It was later used to describe popular comic linked verse (haikai no renga), distinguishing itself from the more refined, classical linked verse (renga). Broadly speaking, it is used to "describe genres deriving from haikai or reflecting haikai spirit, such as haiku, haibun, renku, and haikai kikobun, literary travel account."1 During the second half of the 17th century, there were innovative movements within Japanese haikai circles, and they had transformed haikai from an entertaining pastime to a respected poetic form.2 … Matsuo Basho made an enormous contribution to the refinement, success, and popularization of Japanese haiku and its related genres.3 (excerpted from my essay, "Make Haibun New through the Chinese Poetic Past: Basho's Transformation of Haikai Prose," which was first published in Simply Haiku, 8:1, Summer 2010 and then reprinted in Haibun Today, 6:1, March 2012)

Although literary historians have often talked about three successive major schools of haikai -- the Teimon, Danrin, and Shomon (the Basho school) – in the later half of the seventeenth century and “have identified the Genroku period (1688--1704) with the ‘Basho style’.” 12 However, recent studies have showed that even at the summit of his career, Basho was just one of several prominent haikai masters, and was far from having the largest number of followers or having formed the most influential school. 13 After his death in 1694, his disciples had varied views on writing haikai, emphasizing different aspects of the “Basho style,” and eventually formed their own followings. Within years, Basho’s school faded quickly, and his disciples and their followers used his name and legacy to form individual factions, fighting fiercely with each other to expand their local base of poetic influence…

During the first four decades of the eighteenth century, most of Basho’s first generation disciples passed away. The internal fighting became worse, and haikai lost the elegance and beauty that Basho had imparted to the form. “The ‘grandchildren disciples’ of Basho either reverted to the superficial humor of the Teitoku and Danrin schools, or else wrote verses of such utter simplicity and insignificance that they hardly merit the name of poetry.” 19

Even worse was the rise and great influence of a highly commercialized form of haikai -- tentori (point-scoring) haikai. During Buson’s day, there was a group of professional verse-markers (tenja) who mainly relied on their literary talents to make a living. Through the aid of a go-between, the verse-marker set the verse, the haikai practitioners responded to it with their verses, and then the verse-marker graded them with points (ten). The verse-marker and the go-between were paid for their service, and the practitioners got their points and competed with each other to see who earned the most points. This type of haikai has helped popularize the genre and also been highly successful in the early eighteenth century. 20

However, there were a lot of downsides to this popular trend. The verse-markers were mainly driven by commercial rather than educational goals: the more the practitioners, the greater their income. As for the practitioners who indulged themselves in this type of  haikai, “it no longer was necessary to display depth of feeling or even a knowledge of tradition provided one was clever enough to twist the seventeen syllables into an amusing comment.”  21 One of the poetic characteristics the haikai masters had advocated was to create a haikai twist, and its creation was dependent on the poet’s “skillful balancing of  the conventional meaning, i.e., the honi, of a topic with whatever new and startling insight [he/she was] able to add to it, typically creating a clash between the worlds of ga [the elegant and refined] and zoku [the mundane or commonplace].” 22 (excerpted from my essay, "Reviving Japanese Haikai through Chinese Classics: Yosa Buson and the Basho Revival," which was first published in Haijinx, 4:1, March 2011 and then reprinted in Simply Haiku, 9:1, Spring 2011)

Take Basho’s famous frog haiku below as an example:

The old pond;                               Furu ike ya
A frog jumps in --                         kawazu tobikomu
The sound of the water.                 mizu no oto

Basho added an extra layer of meaning or surprise by using a kigo, kawazu (frog), in an unusual way. With its circle of associations, kawazu provided a special pipeline to the reader, increasing the complexity and capacity of the poem. 9 For example, there are some 140 poems classified under the section titled “ponds” in Fubokusho (Selected Poems from the Land of the Rising Sun), a standard waka anthology, none of them depicts a frog. 10 More importantly, read in the context of classical Japanese poetry and the haiku poetics, kawazu is a seasonal word for spring used in poems since ancient times, and had always referred to its singing and calling out to a lover. The preface to the first imperial anthology titled Kokinshu describes “listening to the warbler singing among the blossoms and the song of the frog dwelling in the water” 11 as in the following poem:

On the upper rapids
a frog calls for his love.
Is it because,
his sleeves chilled by the evening,
he wants to share his pillow? 12

Instead of giving “the song of the frog,” Basho focused on the water sound of a diving frog. He was the first poet ever to defy the poetic essence (honi) of the frog by emphasizing the “splash” that it makes, working against what one would expect from reading classical waka or renga. 13 In juxtaposing these two seemingly incongruous worlds and languages of ga (elegance) and zoku (vulgarity), Basho humorously inverted and recast established cultural associations and conventions of the frog. In doing so, he created a comical effect: a “parody of classical poetry that refers to the frog as expressive of romantic longing.” 14 (excerpted from my essay, "The Ripples from a Splash: A Generic Analysis of Basho’s Frog Haiku," which was first published in Magnapoets, 7,January 2011 )

The tentori practitioners were less versed in waka and renga, learned little from their commercially-minded verse-markers, and thus concerned themselves with the craft of haiaki less than with writing some seemingly dazzling poems to score high points and to impress their fellow practitioners. When writing haikai, they favored the zoku over the ga to score points, failing to create a haikai twist on the honi of a topic. 23

The most obvious and harmful result of this trend was that haikai became a commodity. The verse-markers didn’t help cultivate literary taste and knowledge of haikai, but rather they focused on producing points for the haikai practitioners who showed little interest in the craft of haikai, only in accumulating the points needed to impress each other. This pitiful situation did not improve until a group of Edo poets published the anthology, Ink of Five Colors, in 1731, emphasizing the skillful use of literary devices, such as word plays and similes. 24  This publication stimulated some aspiring poets to advocate the “Back to Basho” movement that openly expressed its opposition to the prevailing tentori haikai. It took almost a decade to let the haikai revival proper begin. In 1743, the fiftieth anniversary of Basho’s death, a memorial anthology was published by his followers, firmly indicating their intention to spread his poetic ideals. Furthermore, some dedicated poets followed Basho’s journey to the north of Japan, building memorial sites along the way. 25 …Finally, the Basho Revival movement “came to the fore in the 1760s and climaxed during 1770s – 1780s… [and was] led first by Taigi (1709 – 71) and then by Buson (1716 – 83).” (excerpted from my essay, "Reviving Japanese Haikai through Chinese Classics: Yosa Buson and the Basho Revival," which was first published in Haijinx, 4:1, March 2011 and then reprinted in Simply Haiku, 9:1, Spring 2011) For more information about the movement, see Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, pp. 33-7.


  1. Over years of grouping and regrouping among Basho’s disciples and their followers, there were two major factions: the rural Shomon, which was divided into two sub-factions, the Mino and Ise factions, and the urban Shomon. The division was related to the different periods of the Basho style during which he made stylistic changes exemplified in various anthologies published by his supporters.

    Rural Shmon poets looked to the style with which Basho experimented in the last years of his life, the karumi (lightness) style. This style “emphasized simplicity and ordinary language and situations,” and the verse anthology, Charcoal Sack, was considered by the followers as the “epitome of good haikai.” Urban Shomon poets closely followed the style of Basho’s developed in the Tenna period (1681--84), the kanshibuncho or Chinese style. “[It] was a literary, elevated style that drew on kanshi (poetry in Chinese) for its model,” and the verse anthology, Empty Chestnuts, was regarded as the “‘quintessential expression of Basho’s kanshibuncho period.”

  2. In her well thought-out essay, “Depopularizing the Popular: Tentori Haikai and the Bashô Revival,” Cheryl Crowley “[discusses] the characteristics of haikai that made it a part of popular culture…then [examines] the circumstances of the historical development of haikai that led to the rise of tentori (point-scoring) haikai, and …[shows] how the Revival poets' efforts to counteract what they saw as the cheapening effect of popularization as a defense not only for the dignity of haikai, but of their own as well.”

    The eaasy was reprinted in the Spring 2006 issue of Simply Haiku, and can be accessed at