Link & Shift: The Leap in our Understanding
by Kala Ramesh
Japan has given us a quintessential tool: link and shift, which allows us to say so much in few words. In each of the haikai genres — be it haiku, haibun, haiga, renku, tanka or tanka prose — this principle enables the poet to latch on to something bigger than each individual part, forming one organic whole.
The link and shift principle came into existence through renku, the collaborative verse form popularised by master Basho (and still practiced to perfection today). Renku is not a succession of individual verses; it is a sequence of dependencies — which is why linking verse C to the preceding verse (B) and shifting away from the one before it (verse A) works hand in glove for the progressive movement in renku. In their essay ‘Link and Shift: A Practical Guide to Renku Composition’,1 Tadashi Shôkan Kondô and William J. Higginson describe it this way:
‘Link’ (tsukeai) refers to the connections or relations between adjacent stanzas; ‘shift’ (tenji) has to do with the diversity of topics and materials and the progression of the renku.
By linking and shifting, renku poets magically take the participants on a journey through space and time, seasons and human traits. But can we not say the same thing about haiku, tanka, haiga, haibun, and tanka prose? In different ways, all use link and shift as an organising principle.
When writing haiku, we link and shift between the two images that are juxtaposed; in tanka, between the upper kami-no-ku phrase and lower shimo-no-ku phrase; and in haibun and tanka prose, in the narration of the prose itself and then between the prose and the poem(s). Link and shift allows us to move a very short poem through “many” dimensions (Tadashi Shôkan Kondô and William J. Higginson), while also creating an incompleteness that powers it (Prof. Richard Gilbert of Kumamoto University).
To achieve that shift, haikai poets apply a variety of nuanced techniques: kire (the cut — allowing space, rest, and movement between images), juxtaposition, superposition of images that resonate, and disjunction. Like a house of cards, each technique leans on the others, but all come under the dynamic principle of link and shift. In this article, I want to explore these techniques and show how poets use them to tell a story, or part of a story, to a point where the reader steps in to bring it to completion.
The Techniques of Link and Shift: The How and Why
To begin, let’s look at two techniques used by filmmakers to tell a story. Mise-en-scène (pronounced meez-auhn-sen) is a French term that literally means “to put into scene” or “staging an action.” Anil Zankar, a professor at the Film & Television Institute of India in Pune, explains:
At its simplest it could be defined as the art of combining the animate (the actors) and the inanimate (sets, costumes, properties, natural and other ambiance) elements to produce a cinematic scene. This usually includes set design, location, actors and their movements, costumes, make-up, sound, shot compositions, lighting. All these elements blend in the composition of a scene in a film. In other words, mise-en-scène is the capability of the director in making a harmonious whole out of the various parts.
Montage is another bit of film-world jargon. The dictionary defines it as ‘the technique of selecting, editing, and piecing together separate sections of film to form a continuous whole’. Isn’t this what we do when employing link and shift in our poems, piecing together and juxtaposing words and images rather than film ‘shots’?
This leads us to the Japanese technique of kire (the cut), which is so vital to the link-and-shift principle. Cutting creates spaces between two images, juxtaposing each to create something bigger than they could do alone. Uda Kiyoko, an influential figure in gendai (modern) haiku, describes cutting this way, in an interview she did with Prof. Gilbert:
So, yes, haiku “cuts” explanation. . . Haiku “cuts” scenes, actions everything, and cuts time and language. So, though it is said that “cutting” is really omission, I think that “cutting” is at the same time the essential proposition of haiku.
This juxtaposition of images acts like a spark plug, making a connection and starting the “motor”—the resonance that takes readers on that magical journey. As with a spark plug, the gap between the two images juxtaposed in haiku should be neither too wide nor too close in order for the images to click and come together as a poem. (For a more detailed article on kire, click here.)
Gilbert is well known for his research into the practice of contemporary Japanese haiku, and that research, along with an examination of Modernism from Pound and the Imagists, has made him a strong advocate of the idea that disjunction most often explains how a haiku works … and how it works wonders. In his essay ‘The Disjunctive Dragonfly’, he says that “juxtaposition alone is not enough to confer poetic power. Incompleteness, absence, and ambiguity are necessary; these are among the properties propelling disjunction.” He goes on to describe the various literary-poetic techniques used to create disjunction, from overturning semantic and perceptual expectations to animating non-sentient objects. In that same essay, he urges the following:
More than trying to achieve a ‘cut’, go for the ‘disjunction’ to create that surprise and that magical moment that brings so much joy to the reader.
Examples of Link and Shift in Haiku
Combining all the various aesthetic tools mentioned above, we can see how they are encompassed within the technique of link and shift.
Let’s first look at this haiku by Jo McInerney: 2
the windscreen wipers
slice our silence
As in mise-en-scène, three shots are very carefully selected and placed before the reader. As in montage, we see unconnected images (like film shots) cut and pasted to form a whole. This is also a lovely example of how the ‘cut’ is used in haiku to show the juxtaposition of two parallel images. These nuanced techniques organically strengthen and layer the storytelling aspect of the poem.
summer storm: The reader is given a picture of a summer storm, which brings to mind the onset of the rainy season. As a reader, I can see myself out there in the open, viewing the sky. Is there a hint of a storm brewing in the minds of the people in the car, too?
the windscreen wipers: The second line actually puts me behind the steering wheel, or I might be a passenger. I hear the rapid movement of the windscreen wipers as they swish from left to right.
These first two lines create the scène in which the action will occur.
slice our silence: This is an amazing leap that takes us into the interior worlds of these two people – who might they be? A couple? A parent and a child? Perhaps people with some sharp difference of opinion? We are all familiar with such silences. The story is left unfinished for the reader to fill in the details. In haiku this technique is called the semi-circle, where some space is left for the reader to step in.
A tanka of mine3 will demonstrate how link and shift and layering between images work to convey, in 17 words, something that defines who I am against the backdrop of culture:
on our front doors
and mine in plain wood
reveals us inside out
Let’s see where the breaks occur in this tanka. In lines 1 and 2, ‘aum’ and ‘front doors’ form the main keywords or setting — they situate the tanka, mise-en-scène, so to speak. Lines 3 and 4 cut away and go into the nature of the aum sign. Each line and image forms another layer (the montage effect) until we come to line 5, where I (the narrator) take you (the reader) into the cultural and geographical backdrop of my neighbour’s aum and mine: our different upbringings, how our inner worlds work. The shift in that last line, with its bit of disjunction, brings unity and completion to the poem.
Three years ago I experimented with another form of disjunction, superposition (the action of placing one thing on or above another, especially so that they coincide): 4
I dip my feet
in a river the river
joins the sea
The way I see it, three totally different images weave in and out of a 12-word poem:
I dip my feet
in a river
in a river the river
joins the sea
Think back to the linking equation mentioned earlier (verse C links to preceding verse B and shifts away from verse A). In this poem, we have the feet at one end of the equation (A) and the sea at the other (C). On a larger scale, one small life (feet) is being connected to something larger, the cosmos (sea), through the steady flow of existence (river). By overlapping, the images create the necessary resonance: The narrator and her feet don’t literally join the sea, but the resonance shows how everything is connected, in the same way that ‘petals on a wet, black bough’ provide a new way to see the crowd’s faces in Ezra Pound’s famous ‘In a Station of the Metro’—another poem that relies on superposition for its impact.
Examples of Link and Shift in Haibun and Tanka Prose
The method of link and shift throws some light on how storytelling can be enhanced when writing haibun and tanka prose as well. Juxtaposing or superposing ideas, images, and words makes more room for interpretation.
Before we look at examples, we should note that there are different kinds of linkage that can occur between the prose and the poem(s). In his book Renku Reckoner,5 John Carley describes the three tiers of linkage: word/object, core or content, and scent.
‘Kotobazuke — word links — and monozuke — object links — occupy the lowest rank,’ he says. ‘These are forms of linkage predicated on the word choice or primary content of a verse. We are dealing with everything from crass puns to abstruse flummery [to] the simple association of one object with another.
‘The middle rank.’ he continues, ‘is composed of kokorozuke — core or content links. . . [A]n added verse most often reads as an extension of the action or setting of its preceding verse, so forming a distinct pair. Despite some potentially ingenious twist, there is a narrative connection between them. Even where the link is more subtle and indirect, it remains amenable to understanding.’
Carley goes on to note that the third tier — nioizuke, scent linkage — was developed by Basho, who placed it uppermost: ‘Nioizuke evokes a much more tenuous set of associations, which are nowhere specified in the text itself. . . The reader is obliged to engage with the poem as an active interpreter.’
Scent links rely on connotations, in the same way that a flower might be conjured by its perfume. As Carley explains,
According to Basho’s followers, Basho said he used this word (scent) to mean a link that operates without references to verbal or logical similarities, links that are impossible to predict, and rely primarily on mood, intuition and instinctive feeling. Scent links ultimately allowed Basho to link in ways that assumed that renku can attain a condition close to that of music.
In the haibun below, I have tried the ‘scent’ link.
Aditya — The Sun God6
I get away from the crowd, on to the top of a hill. On the other side is the peacock valley, where I see retired men sitting in groups, chatting their idle hours away.
A young couple passes me by. Suddenly, she stops midway, pulling his sleeves, saying, “Look, look! How beautiful!” I see a copper-red plate swivelling as it slips downward. Sheer vibrancy envelops the entire lake below in burning oranges and reds. A sacred moment, this twilight, perfect because it’s neither day nor night, neither light nor darkness and without a double, it has come to stay in my mind.
string of jasmine
her plait in step
with her hips
I wrote this haibun in 2008, when I was still new to haikai literature and hardly knew much about link and shift. The haiku contains no immediate connection with what’s described in the text, but instinctively it felt right. I was struck by a string of jasmine in the young woman’s hair, swaying in step with her hips, perhaps conjuring the motion of a pendulum measuring time, or a censer perfuming the air. Yes, there’s a bit of wordplay (plate/plait), but the link goes beyond that. This poem captures a moment in time that, through intuition and the musical rhythm of the swaying jasmine, I tried to make timeless and sacred.
The following haibun by Cyndi Lloyd not only contains mise-en-scène, montage, juxtaposition, and superposition, but also is a strong contender for Basho’s ‘core’ or ‘content’ link.
of all my wounds
After high school, I join the United States Navy and spend the winter in Great Lakes, Illinois, training to be a hospital corpsman. A Uniform of the Day specifies the required outfit. Most days it’s Winter Blue: a polyester-blend fabric that’s supposed to be navy blue, but really is black — trousers, long-sleeved button-down shirt over a white T-shirt, socks, shoes, garrison cap, a black belt with a brass buckle.
My shipmates and I practice our skills on each other, checking capillary reactions, inserting IVs, bandaging wounds, feeling for distension, taking blood pressures, testing reflexes. We settle like crows, some of us lying on gurneys or the floor, others standing over each patient. Always, we watch each other.
Two guys practice on me. While one palpitates my abdomen, the other unbuttons my shirt to place the stethoscope over my heart, his wrist rubs my breast. Abdomen guy’s hands press toward my pelvis, travelling closer to the pubic bone. I freeze. Dad taught me not to fight or flee, telling me, be quiet, so we don’t get in trouble.
the sound of lake water
under frozen snow
For weeks, these guys practice their sleights of hand, sexually groping my body. I watch other girls being molested. Some of them freeze. Some giggle. A couple cry. Something ruffles inside me. Are my younger sisters at home sobbing?
chain of command
another footstep cracks
Multiple links and shifts are made in this haibun, not least among the haiku themselves. The first haiku sets the scene, foreshadowing the naval content in the prose with oceanic images (flooding, waves along the shore), but with a dark psychological undertone: those waves hide wounds — which we learn about by the third paragraph of prose.
In the second haiku, the motion of the waves along the shore resembles that of a buffer shining a floor (a typical job for a sailor), and the resulting shine can be superimposed with that of the frozen snow on a lake. Here the haiku picks up on content in that third paragraph (‘I freeze’) and on the sense of hidden danger and pain in the first haiku. It also hints at what could be a submerged memory, one that parallels the abuse suffered at the hands of her shipmates. The narrator, one feels, is on ‘thin ice’ and could plummet into that pain at any moment.
That moment nears in the final ku, which brings back the image of ice. Now, however, it’s beginning to crack, the result of one heavy footstep after another. The steps are those not just of the naval chain of command, but also of others in her life (hinted at by the remembered words in her father’s voice — be quiet, so we don’t get in trouble — and the awful question the narrator asks herself — Are my younger sisters at home sobbing?). The word ‘chain’ implies so many things: being bound, being held back, and also a continuing progression, as one commanding male figure after another continues the abuse. And once the ice cracks, so too will the memories come flooding — an echo of that first haiku. While the prose narrative itself is very powerful, the haiku and their leaps create an underlying resonance that drives home the pain and anxiety felt by the narrator.
For an example of link and shift in tanka prose, let’s examine this piece of Jenny Angyal.
Along the winding, wooded path, May apples hide their white petals under leaves like green umbrellas. Dwarf crested iris splash the streambank with purple. And then a rustle in dry leaves draws my eye as a toad disappears into the duff. Her movement reveals two tiny clusters of rare ‘showy orchis’ — pixie flowers on stems barely two inches high, each bloom with a lavender hood and a snow-white tongue.
Two days later finds me trudging back and forth along the same stretch of trail, wishing I’d made better note of landmarks as I scan the base of every promising tree trunk for the elusive orchids. I’m about to give up when, just as before, a rustle in dry leaves draws my eye. The toad hops twice and vanishes against ridged tulip-poplar bark . . . but not before she’s shown me the magic blossoms once again.
to whatever spirit guide
at each moment
the mockingbird invents a song
Jenny is a master at using montage to layer her poems, which is done beautifully in this tanka prose, as image follows image along the wooded path. In both walks, the toad makes an almost supernatural appearance to point out the rare orchids. The tanka picks up on that narrative, first suggesting the speaker’s relationship to the toad:
to whatever spirit guide
at each moment
and then pivoting with ‘at each moment’ into the final shift, the shimo-no-ku: the mockingbird invents a song
In the prose, the toad and ‘showy orchis’ are superimposed in the reader’s mind — as if the toad were magically transformed into the flowers. In the tanka, Jenny introduces the mockingbird, which through its call can transform into many creatures. The tanka connects intuitively to that same magic of discovery expressed in the narrative. By interweaving montage, juxtaposition, and superposition in a nuanced manner, she develops her storyline. To me, it is link and shift at its best.
Finally, let’s study this haibun by Roberta Beary.
when the husband is home it’s police procedurals & serial killers.
up the night staircase
when the husband is away it’s lost puppy shows & soppy endings.
the ticking clock
Roberta has used her inimitable style of brevity to utmost perfection in this haibun. The prose consists of just two parallel sentences. The first describes the husband’s television preferences — shows of violence, of law and order, in which violators are tracked down and, presumably, delivered over to justice. When he’s not there, the family — whether the wife by herself or with their children — apparently escape his domination of the television set and watch more sentimental shows. On their own, the sentences could be read as a humorous take on stereotypical views of male/female preferences, the split of head and heart. A reader might also detect underlying issues — a controlling husband, perhaps, who needs defined boundaries, or a wife who longs for something different.
The haiku expand upon those sentences and, through link and shift, create resonances that add nuance and meaning. The first haiku links to the prose through the idea of family but shifts back in time to the ancestors, picking up on the title and its graphical wordplay in ‘PasTime’. Through scent links — ‘night’, ‘shadows’ — it hints at the dark crime shows and raises a question: Is the husband bound by his lineage? Like his favourite shows, this haiku feels ominous —and that feeling carries over to the second sentence, helping to accentuate the underlying issues raised earlier.
‘Night’ reappears in the final ku, but now it modifies the flower named for the Greek hunter who fell in love with his own water-reflected image. In the myth, upon realising his love could never be reciprocated, Narcissus died (or committed suicide) and turned into a flower. The haiku links to the prose by suggesting that the husband and wife/children watch shows that are reflections of themselves. It could also connect to the previous haiku, in how the viewer’s own reflection can be seen in the framed portraits. But the myth is generally one of unfulfilled love — and that, more than anything, lends its ‘scent’ to the haibun. Through subtle links, shifts, and suggestions, Roberta infuses the blank spaces in this haibun with meaning.
To Sum Up. . .
The Bhagavad Gita has a striking exposition of how consciousness, although we view it in different ways, is one. An often-used analogy is how electricity is one, but if you plug an iron into it, it gives us heat, while if you plug a refrigerator into it, it gives us cold. In the same way, I maintain that kire, juxtaposition, resonance, disjunction and superposition are all avatars of the same core principle. Although used in varying degrees of intensity, they all zero in on link and shift — the one powerful and dynamic technique that we need to master in order to grasp haikai poetry.
Author’s Note: My special thanks to Rich Youmans and Jenny Angyal for all the inputs and brilliant suggestions and for being with me through the writing of this article.
1: “Link and Shift: A Practical Guide to Renku Composition.” Researched and written by Tadashi Shôkan Kondô and William J. Higginson.
2: Jack Stamm Award 2009.
3: Skylark 6:2, Winter 2018.
4: Moongarlic #4, May 2016.
5: The Renku Reckoner by John Carley (Darlington Richards, 2015).
6: Moonset, the Literary Newspaper, Autumn/Winter 2008.
7: Unsealing Our Secrets, 2018, ed. Alexis Rotella.
8: Contemporary Haibun Online 13:4, Jan. 2018.
9: Haibun Today, December 2019.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in contemporary haibun online 16.2 (August, 2020) and is published here with permission of the author. Portions of this essay previously appeared in “the heart of haiku”, which can be found on the British Haiku Society website.
Kala Ramesh is a pioneer in the field of haikai literature in India. Her 2017 book Beyond the Horizon Beyond was awarded a Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize Certificate. Kala, who is also a classical Indian singer, has organised six haiku festivals and conducted countless workshops in haikai literature all over her country. As an external faculty member, Kala has been teaching haikai poetry to undergraduates at the Symbiosis International University Pune and to school children at the Katha Creative Writers’ Workshop since 2012. She was editor-in-chief of the 2016 world haiku anthology, naad anunaad.