As if being deified wasn’t enough, Matsuo Basho is credited with just about everything from discovering penicillin to being the first man in space. His literary exploits are legion: he is the father of haiku, travel writer extraordinaire, and single-handedly turned comedic linked verse into high art thanks to the mysteries of scent linkage. Or something.
As ever the truth is somewhat different: independent hokku predated him by centuries; his journeys, whilst not wholly fictitious, were idealizations; and, thanks to a succession of master poets, linked verse had scaled the heights of artistry a good few times before - haikai renga included. However Basho did re-engineer the generative mechanism of linked verse in a way that changed its nature irrevocably. And without his tinkering such short sequences as have emerged in recent years would be unthinkable. Scent linkage was indeed the key to it all. If not in fact a wrench.
Strictly speaking nioizuke, or something rather like it, had already been around for some time in the shape of yosei (suggestive links) and uzumiku (buried links). Basho though made scent linkage his own, greatly developing the concept and placing it at the centre of his rapidly evolving style. Nioizuke, he informed us, was quite simply superior. As such it superseded all earlier approaches, which must henceforth be consigned to the dustbin of history.
For a man who liked to portray himself as humble this was strong stuff. So what exactly is this nioizuke ? And, more importantly, what does it do?
Sadly the English term - scent linking - is not particularly helpful, being part missed opportunity and part mistranslation. Zuke, we can pretty much agree, means ‘linkage’. And when spelt with the correct characters the word nioi does indeed mean 'scent' or 'fragrance'. But it also means 'radiance', 'insinuation', 'attraction' and 'to have the sense of something'. Nioizuke therefore describes a form of linkage which may be likened to a range of insubstantial emanations. Perhaps a more fitting term would have been 'aura linking' or, for the ageing hippies amongst us, 'vibe linking'. As the Irish would have it: If I wanted to get there I wouldn't start from here. But here is where we are, so 'scent linking' it is likely to remain despite the term’s rather narrow connotations.
As to the technique itself: there any number of memoirs, articles, learned papers and book chapters which set out to detail the divisions and degrees of scent linkage. Barely had Basho’s body cooled than his acolytes were at it like knives: hibiki, utsuri, hashiri, kurai, omokage, keiki - echo, reflection, run-on, rank, nostalgia, setting. Etc. Etc. Any search engine or book index will furnish details. Mostly conflicting. Even nioi turns up - this time as a specific subdivision of nioi the greater; it’s enough to have you chasing round and round a barren moor.
So let’s leave the learned to rehash the same old material and look instead at what scent linkage does. In fact let’s look first at what it doesn’t do...
This schema represents the conceptual structure of linkage pre-Basho. Each added verse generates a new pairing, whilst breaking the previous pair-bond. So A+B, with the introduction of C, becomes A~B+C, only for B+C, with the introduction of D, to become B~C+D. The series above therefore shows the close of a poem: (V~W+X) (W~X+Y) (X~Y+Z) .
To master this technique was to achieve a staggered series of fleeting pairs or cameos, each new tie serving to synchronise the present pairing whilst disrupting the previous relationship. Various types of linkage were employed ranging from the bald and sometimes crass use of wordplay, through extra-textual reference, to narrative, scenic, logical or topical extension - a category recently referred to by some commentators in English as ‘propositional linkage’. Common to all was that the pairings they yielded were apprehensible - the reader needed to get them in order for the poem to work.
In general the types of linkage based on single words tend to be grouped under the heading of kotobazuke, and those that rely on overall sense or meaning under kokorozuke - but both these terms can now be forgotten as nioizuke does something completely different.
Nioizuke generates associations based on scent, emanation, aura or vibe. Relationships are evoked; they are indirect and implied. Scent links are open to interpretation. In fact they require interpretation. Not only do they not unite verses in a way which is intellectually amenable to the reader, scent links generate uncertainties which can only be reconciled by feeling, by empathy and instinct. A white space is opened between the verses which the reader must navigate as he will.
In this model the purpose of each added verse is not to create a new pairing but to recast the content of the previous verse. The reconciliation of the tensions created is an act more akin to syncresis than synchronisation but it is in this white space that the principal expressive power of the poem is realised.
Significantly, the staggered effect of earlier linking styles is now greatly diminished. We have instead a much more direct and compelling impetus. The intangibles which power each resolution endure in the mind of the reader, a factor which allows the poet to orchestrate extended dynamic effects: the semantic content of each added verse, its actual text, obeys the obligation to continuously shift, but the emotive tenor of the white space may evolve more sinuously, and over an entire passage of verse. In the world of nioizuke
, meaning has become more fragmentary, but perception has gained consequence.
There are few Basho texts, it should be cautioned, that employ scent linkage throughout. Some participants are more conservative than others, and there are many instances where links are ‘layered’, offering a conventional relationship alongside a metaphysical one. But with his proclamation of nioizuke
the great man had well and truly let the cat out of the tool box, at a stroke ramping up the speed, cohesion and emotive power of haikai renga whilst casting the reader as participant rather than consumer.
In so doing he prepared the ground for the highly contracted and imagistic sequences typical of much contemporary renku - sequences which employ outright juxtaposition between consecutive verses. Tangential they may be, but the best achieve more. In the hands of the truly skilled artist nioizuke can generate that oddest of paradoxes: a text which makes almost no sense at all, but is somehow more enduring, and right.