A common technique used in old Japanese poetry, one that is still used in haiku and tanka today, is known as honkadori, which emerged around the 12th century. It has been described as “allusive variation,” where a poet borrows or adapts lines from an earlier poem, using them in a new way, expanding or updating a well-known image or idea. Readers were expected to know the allusion, so these poems gave no hint of plagiarism, similar to the way parody today is clearly not plagiarism. These sometimes complex allusions enabled poets to revisit common subjects and extend the conversation begun by the source or foundation poems. Honkadori also added compression and density to new poems through their allusions to key poems and poets that preceded them. Readers gained a greater sense of satisfaction in recognizing the allusions, too.
Allusive variation is a poetic technique that is part of the scope of what I call déjà-ku, or haiku that bring to mind other poems. Most varieties of déjà-ku are laudable, including the use of shared subjects and seasonal references as well as parody, allusion, and homage. The less savoury varieties include deliberate plagiarism and a sort of accidental plagiarism called cryptomnesia (remembering a text but forgetting the source). It’s useful to learn a bit about honkadori to better understand the scope of déjà-ku as a way to look for it in our reading and to employ it in our writing.
For an overview of honkadori, the following excerpts may prove helpful. The first comes from Makoto Ōoka’s The Poetry and Poetics of Ancient Japan (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Katydid Books, 1997), translated by Thomas Fitzsimmons. The book’s second chapter, titled “Ki no Tsurayuki,” is described as covering “the basic concepts of poetry anthologies compiled by Imperial Order,” and discusses the Kokin-shū, the Man’yō-shū, and other collections produced over a 500-year period through the reigns of twenty-one successive emperors. Here is Ōoka’s passage on honkadori (53–55):
It would be difficult to pretend that all these anthologies are of an exceptional poetic quality. They contain a veritable orgy of repetitions and they often revisit familiar ground. Since it is not often possible to achieve creativity and originality in the space of 31 syllables [even less so in the shorter haiku genre], there very quickly emerged various ways to add to the brief form of the waka a larger richness of content [waka are now commonly known as tanka]. One of the most impressive methods is the honkadori, literally “borrowing from a basic poem.” As the term suggests, this procedure called for an author to build his poem around a deliberately borrowed fragment from a well-known waka. The goal of this borrowing from famous waka was to bring the reader to a realization, through the juxtaposition of two works, of the fragrance, the distant resonance, of the old text, and also to increase appreciation of the new work’s richness and complexity.
It was necessary that such borrowing come from old and famous waka so that the reader could readily discern in a new poem the voluntary use of the honkadori technique, otherwise the poem in question would involve simple plagiarism. The honkadori was not plagiarism; on the contrary, by rendering homage to a chef-d’oeuvre it gave the old work new life in another form. Obviously, it was important that the source waka be clearly identifiable.
The frequent use of honkadori reminds us of a crucial fact: that a thousand years ago, eight hundred years ago, a large number of courtesans, and other cultivated men and women, were able to hold in memory the most famous of ancient waka. In certain cases a brief, 31 syllable poem might be studded with references to two or three older waka, and sometimes this new work, its worth immediately recognized, benefitted from an actual kind of publicity. Such results would not have been possible, whatever the poet’s talent, without eminent readers able to understand and appreciate the virtuosity involved. In the absence of such readers these efforts to enrich the waka would have been stillborn.
One can say that the creation, by an author and his readers, of such an elaborate literary space had the effect of prolonging the tradition of imperial anthologies. In this select circle, the author was one with the reader. And one must not forget that in the event the very brevity of the waka was an advantage; it facilitated the memorization of a great number of older poems. These then are the conditions that permitted a technique of composition like the honkadori, undoubtedly strange to the western mind, to become so largely applied; for author and reader alike, it offered a unique opportunity for competition in the arena of poetic culture.
Put another way, composing poems and knowing how to appreciate them constituted one of the most refined aspects of life in high society. It was in this same context that the uta-awase, or “poetry contests,” as well as the renga and the renku were developed—all techniques of poetic creation and appreciation unique to Japan and rooted in the principal of community.
Ōoka’s comments also apply to haiku and tanka poetry today, and to some extent to hokku, haikai, renga, and renku traditions over many centuries. Waka employed honkadori more readily than did haikai and what we know today as haiku, but the technique of allusion, including allusive variation, has been common in all these genres, and may be judiciously employed by writers of haiku in English even today. As Ōoka notes, though, the allusion requires that the borrowed text be sufficiently famous for readers to understand that the game of allusive variation is afoot, and the same guidance would apply today. Judging whether a particular source text is sufficiently famous is central to the art of allusive variation, and if a source poem is not sufficiently well known, then it is an easy task for the writer of the new poem to clarify by appending a note to his or her work, such as by saying “after Buson” or “after Ryōkan.” Whether with or without this sort of guidepost, readers are still expected to know the literature and be skilled in the art of reading haiku and related poetry just as much as they might be skilled in writing it.
As mentioned, honkadori continues today. As but one modern-day Japanese example, consider this poem Momoko Kuroda, translated by Abigail Friedman, from I Wait for the Moon: 100 Haiku of Momoko Kuroda (Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2014; 31):
ittō no moto ōna zasu hotaru no yo
under a single lamp
sits an old woman alone—
evening of fireflies
Friedman comments that the poet “uses the phrase hotaru no yo or evening of fireflies, a seasonal phrase for summer that echoes a well-known poem by one of Japan’s most highly regarded Shōwa-period poets, Katsura Nobuko (1914–2004)” (31):
yuruyaka ni kite hito to au hotaru no yo
I meet someone
evening of fireflies
It is not simply awareness of the older poem that the new poem intends to convey. In most instances, the newer poem also seeks to bring with it at least some of the meaning, overtones, and contexts of the earlier poem. In this case, Friedman describes the earlier poem as follows (32):
Nobuko’s husband died two years after their marriage, when she was only twenty-seven and childless. She wrote the above poem a few years after his death, while she was in her thirties. Nobuko’s haiku hold a sensual awareness, and at times longing. Momoko’s differ in that they tend to play out on a more spiritual plane. Yet Momoko very much admires Nobuko’s writing. In her two-volume work of interviews with thirteen Shōwa-period haiku poets, Momoko places Nobuko first. After Nobuko’s death, a haiku award was created in her name, and Momoko was the first winner of that award.
You can see that this example of honkadori is also an act of homage. As Antonin Artaud said, “Let the dead poets make way for others.” Yet the only way new poets can see further is if they stand on the shoulders of giants. And thus, each generation gives way to the next. In the Japanese tradition, this changing of the guard is often accomplished through veneration—not an obliteration of old ways seen as possibly inferior nor a paralysis in the face of superior work that could seemingly never be bettered. Artaud goes on to reveal a Western stance towards creativity and uniqueness that is not entirely shared by Eastern poetry. He also says, when the dead poets make way for us, “Then we might even come to see that it is our veneration for what has already been created . . . that petrifies us.” The anxiety of influence, as Harold Bloom might have us believe, need not extend to Japanese poetic traditions, in whatever language. Indeed, the veneration of honkadori can be energizing and respectful, avoiding petrification.
In an essay titled “Modes of Quoting: Parody and Honkadori” (Simply Haiku 2:4, July–August 2004), Akiko Tsukamoto defines honkadori as “the art of quoting,” and offers the following summation:
Fujiwara-no Teika states that honkadori must not be “stealing,” but the difference between a genuine honkadori and a false one lies, in his view, in the effect on the reader (or listener, if the poem is recited). It does not mean that the reader can decide for himself if something is a honkadori or mere plagiarism. However, whether a honkadori is successful or not depends on the particular effect which appears or does not appear at the stage of appreciation. Teika’s aesthetics always assumes an objective reader possessing full knowledge and the ability to grasp well-made allusions and references. Of course, if an actual reader does not know the original poem he may fail to grasp and appreciate it, but Japanese court poetry was intended for a class of connoisseurs, which of course is the only context in which this sort of use of quotation can play the desired role.
Even if we are nothing like the class of connoisseurs of old Japan, I am confident that Western haiku poets and readers can still create and appreciate the effects of deftly handled allusion and allusive variation, even while each poem that uses these techniques takes a measured risk. Here, to close, is a poem of my own, written during our time of the coronavirus lockdown:
the stay-at-home order
extended again . . .
evening of fireflies
The preceding essay also appeared in Fireflies’ Light #24, September 2021, pages 145–150.
In his book Waka and Things, Waka as Things (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2017), Edward Kamens defines “honka-dori” (which he hyphenates) as “An allusive technique that gestures toward, ‘takes up’ (-dori), and recollects elements of a foundational poem or poems (honka) from the waka corpus. These referent texts provide a foundation for poetic techniques of imitation, alternation, and variation” (292). His book is about waka poetry, so it makes sense that his definition focuses on the waka corpus, and indeed the honka-dori technique was traditionally limited to referencing the three earliest imperial anthologies and “not from more recent works” (179), but allusive variation is also accomplished in younger haikai forms as well. Elsewhere in the same book, Kamens refers to the poet Shunzei’s “historical identity and critical reputation as a master of the allusive gesture, that cross-referencing poetic maneuver . . . that gives a special depth and resonance to his poetry.” He adds that “This is certainly the aspect of his art that has received the most scholarly attention, especially outside of Japan, and which also is celebrated (with good reason) as the salient, perhaps even defining characteristic of the poetic of his age” (60).
—7 September 2021