Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Winter 2007, vol 5 no 4


Tomegaki and Kanso : Plum Tree

The generative dynamics that drive renku are not complex. But they are manifold, overlapping, historically rooted, and subtle. As a consequence quick-fix solutions to a better understanding are at best extremely partial, and at worst wholly illusory.

It would be fascinating to trace the genesis of the term 'back-link', and map the meanings variously attributed to it. As mentioned during the course of our poem 'back-link' is a very blunt approximation of an array of considerations intended to generate a progressive and creative dynamic. That this should be represented as a paranoid compulsion to forensically comb a text for 'repetitions' is a travesty.

The impulse for 'ready reckoner' solutions is no more clearly seen than in the seasonal passages of renku and their associated kigo. The required seasonal aspect, and the season word/expression employed, are the starting point not the end point of verse creation. A verse which merely ticks the boxes will not be a good verse. A sequence which is governed by this approach will not be poetry.

Personally I cannot recommend the use of a Japanese saijiki unless one is of, or very familiar with, Japanese culture. The danger of parody, tokenism or superficiality is too great. But whatever approach one adopts it is salutary to reflect on the genesis of any given season word. A kiyose is a simple list of accepted season words, it is an aide memoire. A saijiki is lexicon wherein the presence of a word is explained by exemplars, and often accompanied by etymology. A term only exists in a saijiki because it is a shared cultural emblem with a complex of associations, replete with literary precedent and folk memories. These resonances are the poet's clay.

Bizarrely an overly simplistic and literal tendency also extends to questions of linkage. Basho was generally reluctant to voice any opinion which might be construed as a 'rule', but in the matter of linking styles he was uncharacteristically direct, identifying three levels of refinement: word level, mentation, and empathy. He regarded this latter approach, that of 'nioi', as being his greatest contribution to the development of haikai aesthetics. But what would he know!

Nonetheless, as has been observed during the course of our poem, a sequence which relies purely on the most abstracted of these approaches to linkage can be wholly unrewarding.

And there's the nub, or perhaps the rub. Renku is above all about unity in diversity. We must balance the tangential with the direct, the traditional with the experimental. This is the dichotomy at the heart all Shomon haikai.

John Carley

An individual haiku, like glass, is translucent or transparent and shows more clearly than its own outline what lies behind or beyond the glass itself. Roland Barthes, in Empire of Signs, insists upon that protean potential wherein an “exemption from meaning” allows haiku to signify, paradoxically, nothing and everything at one stroke. Memory betrays me . . . . Who wrote that haiku is perpetually in search of a context?

Renku equals a path upon which meaning or its absence can be traced. This way, being rustic but long traveled, is made of sand. Context, from link to link, is therefore ever shifting.

One might modify my forgotten commentator’s claim for haiku in search of a context by adding that the individual link in renku is perpetually in search of an author. It cannot exist without its own composer and yet it exists, also, only by virtue of the author of the link that it follows and the author of the link that it precedes, each of whom shapes considerably its character.

Furthermore, one has the excellent reader who, in haikai in general and in renku specifically, joins the many authors proper --- this, through the creative act of interpretation.

The communal nature of the renku project, in every respect, overturns conventional preoccupations with authorial autonomy and ownership, each link being a product not only of the ongoing contextual changes but, in the constant give-and-take of the collaborators, a product of not one but of many hands.

From yet another point-of-view, this communal activity lends to renku its temporal but salient status as a temenos, a sacred precinct of protection, if only for the duration of the building of the temple. Even so, in the end, one must part with this sanctuary and rejoin the bustling world:

towards the open ocean
to swim with sharks

Jeffrey Woodward

John Carley guided us through these uncharted and sometimes choppy waters by constantly reminding us of our destination. There were days that I felt we were lost at sea, only to find out that John had yet again moved us towards dry land. My ship mates Cristian, Vaughn, Jeffrey and Basho all scudded these waters. Vaughn, the man with the questions and the quest. Jeffrey, the lyre in sound and syllable .... John E Carley, our captain, never failed to invent ways and means for this journey to move forwards. John manned the sails of each verse and, in my case, wedded two of my lines with a part of another verse of mine, thereby creating a wonderful gestalt of sight and scent. This was ingenious. I wish to thank John for his time, patience and knowledge.

perfume bottles
from far away places
pressed forget-me-nots

Terra Martin


Related articles in this issue of Simply Haiku:
Triparshva : Plum Tree


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