Nijo Yoshimoto Criticism - Essay

Makoto Ueda (essay date 1967)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Ueda, Makoto. “Yoshimoto on the Art of Linked Verse: Verse-Writing as a Game.” In Literary and Art Theories in Japan, pp. 37-54. Cleveland, Oh.: The Press of Western Reserve University, 1967.

[In the following excerpt, Ueda discusses Yoshimoto's views on particular aspects of linked verse, including how it should be judged, its social and personal usefulness, and how to seek elegance in its composition.]

Japanese linked verse is a rare verse form in which a poem is the product of a combined effort by a team of poets. Most commonly, the poem consists of one hundred stanzas with, alternately, seventeen (5-7-5) and fourteen (7-7) syllables each. A small number of poets, directed by a leader, compose one hundred stanzas usually at one sitting; they may take turns to contribute a stanza, or they may wait for a volunteer, stanza by stanza. It is much like a group game; in fact it was a game in the early stages of its development, and lyric poets played it in their more relaxed moments. Slowly, however, linked verse came to take on a more sober color, and eventually in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it occupied the most prominent place in all the genres of Japanese literature. The poet who helped most in elevating linked verse to the level of a serious art form was Nijō Yoshimoto (1320-88), an eminent courtier and statesman who compiled the earliest anthology of linked verse in history. He also wrote a number of essays on the art of linked verse, thereby providing its theoretical basis for the first time. Many of the ideas presented in the essays had been known before him, but he was responsible for collecting, refining, and codifying them in definitive terms.

The poetics of linked verse is a unique one, for it requires, as it must, an extreme of pragmatic theories. The poet and the reader are nowhere more closely related than in linked verse, because here the reader of one stanza may become the poet of the stanza immediately following. To compose a stanza for linked verse the poet must first try to become a perfect reader of all the stanzas preceding his; he has to put himself in the positions of all his fellow poets sitting around him. One obvious consequence of this is a demand for the poet to suppress his individuality: the poet must work within the framework set by other poets as well as by the contemporary rules of poetic composition. In this respect the theory of linked verse stands directly opposite from that of lyric poetry; instead of speaking out his personal emotion, the poet must dissolve it for the sake of the team of which he is a member.

Yoshimoto's poetics is built around such pragmatism. He repeatedly emphasizes “an appeal to the people present” as the primary principle of composition. “In the final analysis,” he says, “the aim of linked verse is to delight the people present.” “In lyric poetry,” he explains elsewhere, “there are secrets of composition handed down from antiquity. But linked verse has no such ancient model; its main concern is to entertain the people present. The participants should never use a crabbed, ceremonious, or quaint expression in the name of an expert poet.” “Since linked verse is for the entertainment of the party,” he reiterates, “a good poet would compose a verse which delights the people present. Any verse which sounds uninteresting to the audience should be considered mediocre, however insistently the poet may claim to know the secrets of composition.” The basic assumption is that the poem exists not in the poet's mind nor in the text but in “an appeal to the people present,” in the excited mind of each participant in the game. Yoshimoto is quite clear about this: he goes so far as to suggest that the poet needs to have no thought of future readers in composing linked verse since his work will disappear when the game is over.

However, it would be dangerous indeed to pass an evaluative judgment on a verse by such an elusive standard as “an appeal to the people present.” Each individual has a different taste and responds differently to the same work of art. Yoshimoto is well aware of the subjective nature of literary criticism, particularly when he holds a pragmatic view of poetry as he does. He says: “In linked verse it is difficult to talk of good and bad lines in decisive terms, even for one who is an expert in that art. It frequently happens that a stanza which a poet thinks is mediocre receives a high mark from a critic with a different taste. It is not that the critic is at fault, nor that the poet has no critical ability. It is only that one feels different from moment to moment.” This leads him to the affirmation that to be a good critic is more difficult than to be a good poet. But Yoshimoto does not subscribe to relativism. Keenly aware of the subjective nature of an individual's judgment, he goes on to set up the standard of evaluation outside of the individual. It is not a personal feeling but the opinion of the majority that finally counts. He says: “You can safely assume that a verse is good if it is widely acclaimed in the world. Opinions of two or three men amount to nothing. Mencius, too, has taught us: ‘That which makes all men follow is good.’ You will eventually attain your goal, whatever it may be, only when you follow the way in which all men do it. Lone deviation will lead you nowhere.” The merit of a poem is conceived as something objective, something agreed upon and sanctioned by many. Indeed, there would be no linked verse at all if one did not presume certain standard norms commonly accepted by poets; without accepted norms, the poets would lose the way to unify their efforts.

What, then, are those norms? They differ considerably from society to society, from age to age, just as ethical and moral norms do. “It seems that the style of linked verse has changed as many as four or five times during the last fifty years,” Yoshimoto himself has observed. “In this respect linked verse is different from lyric poetry. Follow the style favored by your contemporaries.” In Yoshimoto's time and the prime days of linked verse, there seem to have been two principal norms. The one is yūgen, and the other is unity in variety.

Yūgen is a term frequently used in medieval Japanese aesthetics, although it meant somewhat different things to different ages and people. In Yoshimoto's usage the term seems to designate a certain idea roughly equivalent to elegance, gracefulness, or polished beauty. Important here is the fact that yūgen is conceived not as a personal, human emotion like joy or grief, but as a mood or atmosphere, as an objective feeling generated from an external object. “There is nothing more pitiful,” says Yoshimoto, “than to see an elegant object destroyed by a poet who uses crude words to describe it.” An elegant object yields the mood of yūgen around itself; the poet should carefully preserve and reproduce it in his verse. The poet's personal emotion should be suppressed, so that the mood of the object of nature on which his mind focuses will reveal itself most clearly. “Essential to linked verse are the word and the style,” one of Yoshimoto's disciples said. “Do not search for emotion. A verse written in crude words and in an unrefined style must be considered mediocre, no matter how interesting the poet's emotion may be.” Three factors, then, are necessary to create the mood of yūgen in a verse: elegant objects, elegant words, and an elegant style.

As for elegant objects, here is Yoshimoto's remark: “Scenes such as the spring haze thinly covering the blossoms and a warbler singing in the blossoms are celebrated in lyric poetry. They should be treated in the same way in linked verse, too.” Inevitably he has chosen seasonal objects in nature, universally accepted as lovely and graceful, for his examples of elegant objects. Elsewhere he enumerates objects that he believes can be recommended for themes of linked verse. For instance, the objects he suggests for themes of the opening stanza are:

In the First Month: the lingering winter, the unmelted snow, plum blossoms, warblers.

In the Second Month: plum blossoms, cherry blossoms. Cherry blossoms can become a theme as soon as one begins to wait for them, and should be made the most favored topic throughout the Third Month. They remain an important theme until they fall.

In the Fourth Month: cuckoos, deutzia flowers, trees with fresh green buds, thick grass.

In the Fifth Month: cuckoos, early summer rain, orange blossoms, irises.

In the Sixth Month: the summer shower, fans, summer grass, cicadas, glow-worms, the evening cool.

In the Seventh Month: scenes of early autumn, bush clovers, the Festival of the Stars (on the Seventh Day only), the moon.

In the Eighth Month: the moon, various kinds of flowers, wild ducks.

In the Ninth Month: the moon, tinted leaves, scenes of late autumn.

In the Tenth Month: the frost (through the Twelfth Month), the early winter rain, fallen leaves, anticipation of the first snowfall, winter grass (through the Eleventh Month), the chilly gust (through the Twelfth Month).

In the Eleventh Month: the snow, the hail.

In the Twelfth Month: the snow, the year-end, early plum blossoms.

The list sufficiently shows what sort of objects were considered elegant.

Elegant objects should be depicted in elegant words; it would be pitiful otherwise. “In choosing words,” Yoshimoto says emphatically, “search for the flower among flowers, the jewel among jewels.” He continues: “Ancient and old-fashioned works of linked verse seldom have a pleasant rhythm or a delightful line, because the poets were so intent on the clarity of meaning that they neglected to polish their words. Works produced by the people of rural areas sound lowly and coarse, too, because those poets are too absorbed in the technique of linking and pay little attention to the words they use.” Crude words can be distinguished from elegant ones by the way they sound. The former sound lowly, rough, fat, and untidy, while the latter are fluent and smooth. Neither the words of peasants nor the clichés of pedantics will do. What specific words are elegant is difficult to say: all one can do is to study standard classics and try to “memorize elegant words that great poets constantly use.” Yoshimoto suggests that a beginning poet study The Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems, The Tale of Genji, and several other classics of Japanese court literature. One can rest assured that words which appear in those books are all elegant.

However, it is not that words are elegant in themselves. Any elegant word can be made coarse by improper use. In this respect the poet can be compared to a carpenter:

A word can be appropriate or inappropriate, depending on the way you use it in your verse. An unskilled artisan can produce only poor handiwork, no matter what good lumber he may use for his material. A work of a master artist is always superb, even though the lumber used may not be of the highest quality. In linked verse, too, you should try to make your expression elegant, slender, and smooth. Avoid a gnarled, rough expression. You must first plane and polish your words. A poem that still shows the trace of your hatchet is not a good one.

Just as a desk, and not the lumber used to make the desk, is what finally matters, it is the poem, and not the words which make up the poem, that is at stake. The gracefulness of poetic style supersedes that of words or of milieu. Yoshimoto illustrates the same point by another comparison: “In linked verse the style is of the foremost importance. Whatever interesting thing you may say in it will not impress the reader if it is said in a tasteless style. Such a poem can be compared to a lovely lady in a hemp dress. Make your verse elegant and graceful. A poem written in a coarse style is always mediocre, even when it is on an elegant theme such as the snow, the moon, or the blossoms.” Neither poetic vocabulary nor poetic subject matter is enough to make a good poem. It needs the poet's art—a style that would properly control both words and material. And what underlies a proper style is the spirit.

Yoshimoto repeatedly refers to the importance of the spirit in linked verse. The spirit is inseparable from words. Without an elegant spirit, there could not be an elegant word or style. “Drive away,” says Yoshimoto, quoting from a Sung writer, “a crude spirit, a crude word, and a crude style from your verse.” “Words can be hurt by the spirit,” he says elsewhere, “and the spirit can be hurt by words.” “There is often a poet,” he continues, “who composes a poem with no elegant spirit and who tries to make it look elegant by the use of elegant words. He would constantly refer to ‘the spring dawn’ and ‘the autumn dusk’ and claim to be fashionable. Such a poet is always among the beginners.” Indeed, some great poets in the past made frequent use of such words as the spring dawn or the autumn dusk, and there is no harm in knowing such words and others like them. But more important is to know the spirit in which to use those words. “Learn the spirit above all else,” says Yoshimoto. “Wording is a superficial matter. Imitate the way in which great poets used the spirit.”

If one possesses the elegant spirit, one does not have to mind even the principle of elegant words. “In the use of words,” Yoshimoto says, “the poet should not as a rule go beyond the vocabulary of the imperial poetry anthologies. However, newly created words and colloquial words are also permissible in linked verse.” Even the principle of yūgen should not be a restricting factor here. “A poet who composes only elegant pieces without a fresh, striking feature should at times try a new style,” says Yoshimoto. “One cannot go wrong with yūgen, but sometimes one's verse may look trite and stagnant. Be very careful.” A poet who possesses an elegant spirit will not be restricted by precedents or by traditional and contemporary rules; he will go beyond them.

The idea that the poet should first follow the rules and then transcend them is also observed in the second of two main principles of linked verse, unity in variety. This principle is characteristic of and essential to the nature of linked verse as a literary genre. In fact, the core of this unique verse form with multiple authorship lies where variety is stretched to a point not accessible to a single poet. The linked-verse poet must risk unity for the sake of variety, but he can hope for a great variety within unity. The poet's individuality must be suppressed to serve the unity of the whole poem, but he would at the same time be required to contribute his uniqueness to help create variation.

Unity in linked verse is achieved on four levels primarily....

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Donald Keene (essay date 1977)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Keene, Donald. “The Comic Tradition in Renga.” In Japan in the Muromachi Age, edited by John W. Hall and Toyoda Takeshi, pp. 241-77. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, Keene provides a history of Japanese linked verse, credits Yoshimoto with expanding the range of allowable words in poetry, and commends his keen appreciation of the present.]

Renga (linked verse) was the most typical literary art of the Muromachi period. The many court poets of the traditional waka undoubtedly believed that their chosen form of poetry possessed greater dignity, and even the renga masters would probably have concurred in...

(The entire section is 6417 words.)

Earl Miner (essay date 1979)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Miner, Earl. “Some Principal Renga Poets.” In Japanese Linked Poetry: An Account with Translations of Renga and Haikai Sequences, pp. 19-57. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.

[In the following excerpt, Miner contrasts Yoshimoto's conservative views regarding what is appropriate for waka with his liberal attitudes concerning renga.]

“Renga is not exhausted by the meaning of the stanza that precedes or of the stanza that follows.”

—Nijō Yoshimoto

The history of the development of renga from its short version in antiquity to its successors in haikai and haiku is...

(The entire section is 1564 words.)

Steven D. Carter (essay date 1983)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Carter, Steven D. “Rules, Rules, and More Rules: Shōhaku's Renga Rulebook of 1501.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 43, no. 2 (December 1983): 581-642.

[In the following excerpt, Carter analyzes the evolution of rules for linked verse.]

Every literary work is composed according to genre conventions of one sort or another. Usually these conventions operate at the unconscious level of artistic creation, guiding the writer in the choices he must make. But occasionally the “rules” of literary art achieve a more explicit formulation in the literary record, as in the Italian sonnet, or even in the modern gothic romance. Such is also the case with...

(The entire section is 3754 words.)

David Pollack (essay date 1986)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Pollack, David. “Wakan and the Development of Renga Theory in the Late Fourteenth Century: Gidō Shūshin and Nijō Yoshimoto.” In The Fracture of Meaning: Japan's Synthesis of China from the Eighth through the Eighteenth Centuries, pp. 134-57. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Pollack explores Yoshimoto's involvement in promoting the use of Chinese elements in Japanese poetry.]

The minor art of poetry isn't worth a copper—
Best just to sit silently in Zen meditation:
“Wild words and ornate speech” don't cease to violate Buddha's Law
Just because he died two thousand years ago.(1)

So Gidō...

(The entire section is 11043 words.)

Jin'ichi Konishi (essay date 1991)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Konishi, Jin'ichi. “The Maturation of Renga.” In A History of Japanese Literature, Volume Three: The High Middle Ages, translated by Aileen Gatten and Mark Harbison, edited by Earl Miner, pp. 425-70. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Konishi explains that Yoshimoto's style was influenced by two opposing groups—the Reizei and Nijo factions.]


Codified renga (hereafter simply renga) flourished from the middle of the thirteenth century. The creation of numerous canons and rules for composition must have been a major impetus to its development. According to Nijō...

(The entire section is 3171 words.)

Donald Keene (essay date 1993)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Keene, Donald. “Renga.” In Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, pp. 926-70. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Keene examines Yoshimoto's renga advice and criticism, as well as the poetry collections he compiled.]

… The chief figure in the elevation of renga from a game to a demanding and artistically important art was Nijō Yoshimoto, a noble of the highest rank who rose in 1346 to be kampaku and head of the Fujiwara clan.1 Yoshimoto was a waka poet of some distinction. His early training was in the conservative waka of the Nijō school, and at one time...

(The entire section is 5666 words.)

H. Mack Horton (essay date 1999)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Horton, H. Mack. “Nijō Yoshimoto (1320-1388).” In Medieval Japanese Writers: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume Two Hundred Three, edited by Steven D. Carter, pp. 200-16. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1999.

[In the following essay, Horton discusses Yoshimoto's personal and literary heritage and his formative years as a poet. He also analyzes the poet's works and evaluates his legacy.]

Nijō Yoshimoto was the most important court literatus of the violent and divisive era of the Northern and Southern Courts (Nanbokushō, 1336-1392). Born into the highest stratum of the aristocracy, he served the Northern Court four times as regent, dominating court politics...

(The entire section is 12488 words.)