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Murmured ConversationsA Treatise on Poetry and Buddhism by the Poet-Monk Shinkei$

Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780804748636

Published to Stanford Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804748636.001.0001

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Poetry Contests and Criticism

Poetry Contests and Criticism

(p.114) Thirty-Six Poetry Contests and Criticism
Murmured Conversations
Stanford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

A practice in waka was to hold poetry contests (uta awase), when poems were subjected to varying praise and criticism which exposed even their slightest flaws while the poets' names were withheld from the company. While such contents were also held in the case of renga, these were actually hokku or tsukeku arranged by an individual poet into pairs or rounds and submitted for judgment to a famous master or senior poet. An example is the Master Bontō's Renga Match in Fifteen Rounds (Bontōan renga awase jūgoban) convened in 1415. Renga contests could have been rarely held with the degree of formality and ceremony that characterized waka contests, but informally, they were held quite often and, as Shinkei hoped, became part of a renga poet's training. Nevertheless, Shinkei clearly hoped for a higher standard of poetry in renga than was being produced during his time.

Keywords:   waka, renga, poetry contests, criticism, hokku, tsukeku, Shinkei, Japanese poetry

Through the ages, it has been the practice in waka to hold poetry contests [uta awase], during which the poets' names are withheld from the company while the poems are subjected to varying praise and censure until even their slightest flaws are brought to light.1 Is there nothing like this in renga?

Indeed, is it not because renga has heretofore lacked just such a critical attitude that every amateur and ungifted practitioner has been content to compose in any way he fancies, and the Way has become so shallow? It is only recently that I have started hearing frequent reports of a similar practice in renga, whereby the poets are divided into rival groups of Left and Right, and each verse is given a verdict of win or lose after being subjected to various criticisms before the assembly.2 Such competitions, if they included the participation of superior poets and became popular, would certainly constitute a guiding light in the Way.3


To date, no one has made a study of the renga contest, so it is not possible to determine to what extent its rules and procedures were established and when. There exist a number of so-called renga contests, but these are actually hokku or tsukeku arranged by an individual poet into pairs or rounds and submitted to a famous master or senior poet for judgment. One of these is the Bontōan renga awase jūgoban (Master Bontō's Renga Match in Fifteen Rounds) from 1415, consisting of 30 of what Bontō considered his best tsukeku, arranged into 15 rounds and submitted to Retired Emperor Gokomatsu (1377-1433; r. 1392-1412) for his marks and judgment. Again in 1521, Sōgi's disciple Sōseki (1474-1533) chose from his oeuvre 40 hokku and 200 tsukeku, arranged them into 120 rounds, and asked Sōchō to evaluate them; this manuscript is called (p.115) the Sōseki renga awase hyakunijūban (Sōseki's Renga Match in 120 Rounds). And at the request of the poet Jun'a from Shirakawa, Shinkei himself put together the Shibakusa-nai renga awase, 100 hokku in 50 rounds and 200 tsukeku in 100 rounds, at Mount Ōyama in 1473.

From the late Muromachi period, there is the manuscript called Shichinin tsukeku-han (Evaluations of Tsukeku by Seven Poets), the record of a contest held at the Honnōji Temple in 1490, which included among its seven participants the famous trio Sōgi, Shōhaku, and Sōchō. Each poet composed a tsukeku to sixteen difficult maeku, and they all debated the merits and demerits of each verse afterward, with Sōgi giving the final marks; this would be more in the line of what Shinkei means in this chapter.

It seems possible that renga contests were rarely convened with the degree of formality and ceremony that attended waka contests, but that informally, they were held quite frequently and, as Shinkei hoped, became part of a renga poet's training. At any rate, it is evident from this chapter that he desired to foster a higher standard of poetry in renga than was being produced in his day. And one of the ways he saw of encouraging this was to hold competitions in which superior poets could display their talents and serve as models, while inferior poets could be stimulated by the rivalry and criticism to improve their work.


(1.) The waka contest under consideration here is of a particular kind called hōhen no uta awase, a form of poetry debate where the members of the two opposing teams are allowed to argue the merits of their own poems and criticize those of the opposite team, as distinct from the other practice of appointing a judge.

(2.) There are actually two records of renga contests (renga awase) dating from before Shinkei's time. Both are called Hyakuban renga awase (Renga Contest in 100 Rounds). In the first, the famous rival poets Gusai and Shūa vied with each other in composing tsukeku to the same 100 maeku, and in the second, Nijō Yoshimoto and the same Shūa likewise matched their tsukeku, though not to exactly the same maeku. It will be recalled that in Shinagawa in 1468, five years after writing Sasamegoto, Shinkei discovered a manuscript of the Gusai-Shūa contest that included Yoshimoto's commentaries and was so excited that he added his own tsukeku to theirs. See HF, chap. 4, pp. 106–7.


(3.) SSG