Renku EditorÍs Notes
In this issue
Welcome to the second Renku Column of 2004. Once more we have the pleasure of including three sequences of differing types. I wonder: how much consonance do they exhibit?
Composed originally in French, the 36 verse Kasen with its multilingual translation, carries strong echoes of the early work of Octavio Paz and the first serious occidental response to the challenge of renku. The poem also appears in full English translation along with the text in French and English of the foreword by Micheline Beaudry.
The Shisan, composed via fax and email, comes from Japan. The poem is an example of the 'interlingual' approach frequently adopted by the Association for International Renku. The English version is not a post-facto translation but rather a parallel text that evolves as the poem is in progress, the interpenetration between languages being fundamental to the shaping of the whole.
The 12 verse Junicho is a further example of email renku, composed at a rate of one verse per day by three poets resident in three countries. This piece is accompanied by a short article outlining the characteristics of the Junicho as a form. Readers might care to compare this with the definition of the Shisan given in Volume 1 # 6 of Simply Haiku, December 2003.
So what is it that makes renku renku?
In her address to the Global Renku Symposium in Tokyo, October 2000, the poet Ai Yaziki drew on 'Renku no Fukkatsu to Sono Shorai'--the position statement advanced by Meiga Higashi in the founding issue of 'Kikan Renku'--widely regarded as the definitive publication of its type. Master Higashi wrote:
"The linking verse is deduced from the preceding verse but it has no other logical connection with the leap-over verse. A work is composed by repeatedly linking a succession of such a verse ad libitum. This ingenious process of poetry composition was developed indigenously by our ancestors and has been found in no culture other than Japanese. In the final analysis, any verse that embodies this characteristic dynamic should be recognised as renku regardless of its mode and other principles of composition."1
Whether 'link and shift' is the sole defining parameter is perhaps open to question. It is with regret that this column must relay news of the death of Master Higashi and we are left to speculate on the degree to which he was being deliberately polemical.
1 Trans: Fusako Matano. Ed: Barry Hayter
"More tea, Vicar?"
The presence or absence of link and shift notwithstanding, why does so much English language linked verse disappoint? And who is a better poet than whom?
The questions are related. Consider: the table below details the candidate verses for the first six positions of a recently completed Nijuin renku (20 verse sequence).
Persons with a bent for accounting will already have noted that, of the fifty four verses offered, only one in nine was successful and that, of those, two had undergone revision.
This is a massive rate of attrition. Some would say: a sad catalogue of wasted effort. So . . . were all the candidate verses equally suitable, and the lucky winner chosen on a whim? Or were the unsuccessful verses merely proof of poor artistry; the product of unskilled and inadequate minds?
The latter point is more easily dealt with. Even a cursory acquaintance with multi-authorial composition rapidly confirms that the 'most skilled' poet does not invariably originate the most appropriate verse. In an art form that demands, above all, range of experience and breadth of emotion, we are rarely more than a syllable away from being reminded that the single human mind pales before the multiplex consciousness of a cohesive and creative group.
Regardless of the mechanism by which any given verse is selected, it is clear that a broad spectrum of options is more likely to yield a fruitful direction for a poem's progression. Whilst it is possible to argue that indecision and an embarrassment of riches might cause a sequence to flounder, it is highly unlikely that the most effective solution is to eliminate choice altogether and accept whatever candidate is first offered for any given verse position.
Sabaki or no, it seems inevitable that the best linked verse can only be written on the basis of multiple submission, be it the fearsome 'degachi'--competitive submission between several poets--or the merciless scrutiny of 'hizaokuri', where the hapless individual can find no escape from the interrogatory spotlight.
And here it seems we run up against a serious impediment to the further popularity of renku composition; having bought the T-shirt we are now invited to wear it. Renku involves the kind of ego loss that other haikai genres only sing about. The renkujin are condemned to toil in the certain knowledge that the larger proportion of their candidate verses are bound to be rejected. And it is hard indeed to see the product of one's incontestable genius shunned in favour of some idiot droolings about pomegranates or the like.
There are certain pragmatic responses to this dilemma. One solution is not to write renku. Another is to 'put it all down to experience'--perhaps keep a record of unsuccessful verses and use them in future writings: the basis of a haiku, a senryu, tanka.
This is a cheering prospect, and in respect of an individual's poetic output it may well be a productive course of action. But in purely renku terms it risks missing the point. The multiplicity of verses, the mad, funny, bitter and beautiful strands that are passed over in favour of combination x or assemblage y, are not lost at all. They remain as superpositions of the 'concrete' sequence, a potentiality that conditions the actuality. They cannot be unwritten nor, once they have been shared, can they be unread.
Modern Japanese renku aesthetics offer a number of profoundly metaphysical analyses of the 'group mind' and/or 'renku mandala', which may or may not appeal to a given reader's sensibilities. But even a person living in small-town Lancashire and voting Conservative can admit that, at its simplest, these extra, spare, orphan verses serve to reveal one person to another, to provide stimulating surprises and generally stir the semiotic pot.
Which is where we came in . . . perhaps one reason why so much English language linked verse disappoints is precisely because it lacks a sense of 'za'--togetherness--offering instead the sort of hard boiled repartee best left to a point scoring exchange between Bogart and Bacall.
The fact of the matter is that renku is not a set of individually penned verses stacked end-to-end. And even very gifted poets often write pretty dreadful stanzas.
We are therefore faced with a simple choice: either we write linked verse on the principle of Buggins' turn, and politely chorus 'That's very nice, Dear', no matter the quality of poet A's first offering; or we bite the bullet and develop an approach that will involve treading on a few intellectual bunions every now and then.
And if that's not a very inviting prospect . . . so be it. If renku is a pastime it can avoid all discomfort. If it is art, it cannot.
John Carley, Rossendale, Lancashire. 27th February 2004
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