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Autumn 2007, vol 5 no 3


Tomegaki : Within Touching Distance

Length of renku & sabaki arrangement:

I was the convenor and general factotum. Once we had assembled, I suggested a 24-verse renku, as giving a few more non-seasonal verses vis-à-vis the seasonal & love ones - more space to do odd things. In the rotating sabaki system each person whose verse is chosen chooses the next. Thus there were normally three bidders for each verse (usually offering three verses each), and one player sitting out & acting as sabaki (with full powers). There were a couple of solo efforts. There are disadvantages to this system, but it worked fairly well for us, all being experienced players.

Within Touching Distance - convenor's comments

I hope Diana Webb, Francis Attard & Frank Williams, much valued colleagues in this renku, will agree, that however good or bad it is on the whole, it comes fairly close to what we set out to do in kinds of verse and linking. The verses of a renku should go into new territory: things which have not been noticed before, and have new slants on them. No haiku clichés, please. The verses are what the reader will remember and treasure. Yet these scenes are given their point and prominence by the links, even though the two are not separable.

Links can be divided into two kinds: those which move easily from one verse to the next, so the renga moves to the new situation painlessly, without thought having to be given to unravel it (examples are the first eight verses of 'Summer Moon' and of 'Three Poets at Minase'); and those where the two scenes may at first seem to have little in common, but the pleasure is in working out the correspondences. The first make a fast and smooth sequence, the latter more thoughtful and 'poetic' halts. Management by the sabaki and players can make changes in the length and type of run.

These two have much in common with 'close' and 'distant' links, though they're not the same. Earl Miner in 'Japanese Linked Verses' uses a Japanese commentary in which there are four grades of link: Close, Fairly Close, Fairly Distant and Distant. But, as his translations show, while there are clearly close and distant links, the gradations between them can't be so easily differentiated: for example verses may be closely linked on a minor detail, while far apart on the important, heart-link, connection.

This brings another consideration: word-links and heart-links, that is linking on a maybe minor detail, and linking on the whole emotional import of the two verses. The second may be more 'significant' - but is in danger of being heavy; while the first can be swift and light - but possibly trivial. Again, the grouping of these give the renku its movement.

Real Renga: The disease of renga is not degenerate instances of the above, but whimsical, indirect, contrived or otherwise invisible links. The inspired player, wafted on the Wings of Poesy, chases a strand of feeling over the hills and out of sight. The self-possessed one makes a Knight's move, landing on a related idea before moving onto another to which there is no through connection. The intellectual contrives a cryptic crossword clue which baffles everyone. The linking player should not take a "now you see it, now you don't" attitude, but should be able, if challenged, to say "The connection is this." It's surprising how often, where the link is conscious and clear, there will turn out to be other interesting sidelights; whereas indeterminate linking leaves one in doubt about where to look for whatever connection there may be. There's a further reason for this injunction: I'm sure everyone has had the experience of approving a verse which seems to follow very well, only to go back to it later and be unable to see the connection. So, try as we might, there will be, under the exigences of group composition, a few duff links - as there are in the thirteen Bashô renga available in translation.

This is the place to mention the Bashô scent links, and with them the places in the canonised renga where links seem obscure. Also an anonymous 17th century renga master, who is known to have said that links should not be obvious, and even be hard to see. As for the last, the Japanese had been writing renga for 400 years or so - it's not surprising someone should want to do something new. Very few in UK have been playing for even 20 years, and they and more recent comers have learnt to write Real Renga only sporadically. The Bashô scent links were new only in their codification - they can be seen in medieval renga, often in conjunction with word links. In Bashô many scent links can be glossed, as does Makoto Ueda, as narrative continuations. Where there seems no link, it should be remembered we are reading translations, which may well miss something in the idiom; or there is some topical reference in the verses which is lost: "allusions which now only darken the pages they once illumined" (Dr. Johnson on Shakespeare).

Ergo: we should aim for clearly linked verses. Those who set out to write poetic sequences are venturing on a demanding and interesting art form; but "if it don't link, it ain't renga".

All this said, we should try to keep the renga light, move freely from thoughtful to humorous verses, use the different kinds of narrative, different persons, speech tones, comments, and so on. There can be interplay between the persons as well as between their verses: the implied 'How charming', 'Well, he would say that', 'Rubbish' and so on. All the tones are possible, from ecstatic, pious, & enthusiastic, to doubtful, sceptical, & satirical.

A last point is what I think must be true, though it doesn't appear in the literature. There is an unspoken dialogue throughout a renga, shown partly by positive, negative and neutral verses, and repartee, but also by the speed: one section may go smooth and fast, another be broken up and hesitant. It would be impossible to sketch this diagrammatically - it's more like a stream with eddies, which changes in its force: that is, there will be diversions. Movements may cease at key points, and it baffles continuous interpretation. Nevertheless, something is going on, in counterpoint to the surface activities.

This brings us back to the player's verses: the links are the oil, but everything depends on the depth of experience & feeling, and the skill, that the comrades put in to the ku (or ga). There's also the za, or group feeling. 'Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.'

Dick Pettit

Relevant elsewhere in Simply Haiku:
Kocho : Within Touching Distance

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