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Summer 2009, vol 7 no 2


Beneath Thin Snow: Notes

Side 1  
beneath thin snow
how brightly coloured the leaves
on this mountain path
Shohaku (tr. Darlington): Shohaku (1443-1527) was one of the leading renga poets of the Muromachi period, and a disciple of Sogi. He wrote this hokku as the opening verse of the hyakuin (100-verse renga)  Three Poets at Yuyama in early winter 1491.

usuyuki ni konoha irokoki yamaji kana

Proposal of this hokku at the beginning of December engendered some discussion over its seasonality, and whether there wasn't in fact some contradiction in a verse containing both snow and fallen leaves. However, though it has associations with autumn in the west, the latter is a winter kigo in the Japanese tradition, perhaps partly explained by the inclusion of November in Japanese poetic winter, in contradistinction to much of the northern anglosphere.
a halo of morning frost
on the old bull
CM: Shohaku’s ‘brightly colored leaves”, reminded me of something I’d photographed on my morning walk past the bull’s pasture. The rising sun struck his frost-covered back in just such a way he was outlined in a halo of light.
a pair of thrushes
ruffling their feathers
while I shave
"I want some water"
his wife calls from upstairs
pale and feeble
in the heat haze
daytime moon
AW: This verse called for a moon and thinking about this I noticed the moon in the sky in the morning, looking very pale. I do like to draw from real life, or sometimes strong memories, for renku links when I can, as I find it tends to produce better results than pure imagination. The link with the previous verse was the suggestion of weakness, perhaps illness. Because of the seasonal requirement there is the heat haze which, as this was written in England in December, was entirely imaginary!
a mound of pearly silks
tumbles from the basket
SS: It is summer, everything seems hazy and colourless. In my mind the roundness of the moon suddenly solidified into the rim of a basket from which poured a rainbow of embroidery silks. We had to adjust the language to avoid clashing with the hokku, so they became pearly, like the moon. It was sad to lose the pouring rainbow but that often happens in renku.
Side 2
this time
it's Saké then Heart of Fire
closely followed by Irish Cream...
KE: I tried for an unusual grammatical structure; (sort of dialed it in,) and flew back in time to New Zealand where a man's voice called the races over our radio. He always began with 'This time...” to show that the gate was about to fall. Sue's verse above was at that time full of colour; I saw jockeys in their silks, wind ruffled, all action and noise. I invented racehorse names, which were also somewhat colourful.

My verse was chosen, but Moi thought they were drinks. Apparently one of my fanciful names was also alcoholic. I told her no, they were racehorses chosen because of the colours. Thus a discussion was sparked re Susan's verse which rivalled the hokku and so had to be changed.

I researched some cocktails and decided to incorporate a little humour, nodding to Japan, passion and Ireland, the home of our principal (but absent) sabaki. At least two of the three drinks are pearly, which matched the changed pile of silks.
along the quay, vendors
hawking their wares
CM: My links are for the most part, intuitive and I haven’t a whole lot to say about how they come about. But this one I remember, because I read Kathy’s verse as a sampling of alcoholic drinks,  even though I didn’t recognize “Hearts of Fire”.

I simply considered that unlike Sake and Bristol Cream, I’d as yet not discovered this exotic drink! But after my verse was chosen, I found out it was about horses. At any rate, the unique brand names (horse names) led me to ‘wares’ being sold quayside.

the pucker
of her nipples in the cool
sea breeze 

KE: For one reason and another it was decided to replace verse nine, so we were all asked to try. It was difficult. As I said at the time:


" is quite a prescription: link both ways, write of

both Spring and love, and not repeat anything from the uchikoshi verse forwards or backwards either."


I wrote three fairly over-the-top verses, not as contenders

for the place, but to amuse and hopefully stimulate ( ie

encourage) the others. The original verse had been both

clever and sassy with a twist, so we were sorry to see it

go; it seemed unlikely that we'd find another to fit as well

as it had, and I think we all felt the pressure of trying to

do it.


In fact, only three of us submitted verses. After due

discussion and with my protests that five verses from me

were at least one too many, we took a break of a week or

two. In the end I was delighted to see it slotted into the

place you see it today.


So. For me the support of others is intrinsic to

creative/risk-taking composition, (and isn't all writing

risky?) So thank you to all of you.

at the Valentine's dance
wheelchairs roll to the beat
rattling through
the station where we parted
so many years ago
AW: Shake, rattle and roll? The Valentine's dance made me think back, and this verse is a composite of many partings, which so often seem to happen at railway stations. Is this why Brief Encounter is so enduringly popular?
all our tomorrows blighted
by peak everything
KE: We were halfway through. Sabaki, (now Norman again) had brought us up to date re requirements for this verse, suggesting current affairs or politics for the topic. We did have fun with it. There were dazzling poems that were bang on the mark, satyrical, ironic and amusing. I wrote more than my 'quota' but no-one seemed to mind. We were getting to know each other at this stage. I showed a little of my real-life concerns, (well we all did,) but this one ended up in the slot.

We were all affected by the sadness in Alison's poem; many responses reflected that, including mine.
workhouse walls
still hold the crumbling echo
of mothers' cries
ND: After Alison's end-of-love parting, then Kathy's blighted tomorrows, there was a temptation to ease back the pressure and respond with a lighter verse, and I toyed with this approach, but nothing I made was very satisfying. Perhaps I should take courage and instead of looking for an escape from the growing lamentation, build the wave still higher? And so this verse was born. Sue commented at the time that it sounded rather dickensian, but the workhouse has specific and powerful connotations in Ireland, where it is associated with the Great Famine of the 1840's, whose folk memory remains alive and well even in these post-Celtic Tiger days.
katydids' songs of praise
at Amma's pink ashram
KE: In the days immediately preceding Christmas we struggled, searching for an Autumn poem that did not link beyond Norman's ie introduced new material, and which lifted the mood of of our renku. There were long spaces during Christmas and many poems submitted afterward, but one by one they were found unsuitable. I began to think we wouldn't find anything before the New Year and sensed that we all wanted to move on.

The katydid verse had a difficult beginning, with cold research for kigo. Then I got some pictures via Facebook from my son in India which showed me the Ashram where they were staying. It's pink. I checked to see what insects were in Kerala at that time.... bingo!
a rose window
in the vast indigo sky
the moon
SS: The "songs of praise" lifted the spirit of the poem at this point. We needed drama for the autumn moon verse. My thought process went through church windows into a kind of van Gogh painting which seemed to express the feeling of exultation of praise; the moon becomes a window of light through the blackness of the sky.
one scarecrow working
a field of broken pumpkins
CM: Without reading Susan’s explanation, I felt that glimmer of hope (the moon) in the dark night sky. I  wanted to echo this loneliness in my own verse, yet at the same time show the constancy of the moon and the scarecrow unfailingly present in their respective roles.
Side 3
dominoes topple
hardly a murmur
from the crowd
vanilla and mint ice-creams
"that's mine! that's mine!"
SS: It is summer, "hardly a murmur" turns into shouts; and quiet expectation turns into excited possessiveness. I see me arriving on the beach with loaded ice-cream cones and the children claiming their own.
how would it be
if every country's flag
flew white?
ND: Frivolous speculation combines with naive yearning. Contrasting with the grasping possessiveness of Sue's verse, I mined my imagination for a concrete image encapsulating a utopian selflessness. That row of flags outside the UN fades to the colour of purity, of surrender to oneness. Hey, we can dream.
threaded with ribbons
of sound this catcall night
KE: Again, there were many delightful verses. I loved being in the fray there with them; we chatted back and forth, discussing what we needed next, aspects of each other's and our own poems, links, grammar and form etc.
So my cats' ribbons came to be. I remembered nights when these amazing sounds seemed to undulate like gaudy streamers that wove into my dreams.
on bare boughs
tiny starlet blossom
gaze heavenward

MW: On sleepless nights I often looked out at a grand old copper beech which has since been chopped down. Now I have a unimpeded view of Venus and recently Jupiter.

My reference to the bare beech boughs come from that memory and incidently I prefer the bare 'on bare boughs'. The 'starlet' blossom reminds me of the showy quality of Jupiter and the beauty of Venus. I was looking for a kigo moon/sky line to complete the verse. Gazing heavenwards is hopeful which is a spring quality. However this was all interlaced with sadness over my daughter Lola who has been very ill. She is a young aspiring actress and needs to get better so she can get to Drama college and follow her dream. So the feeling behind this verse is very personal and I am so happy its tucked in between ' threaded with ribbons of sound' and the beautiful 'meltwater'.


meltwater - he speaks
of harnessing the sun
AW: The suggestion of our sabaki, of including a reference to the inauguration of President Obama, seemed perfect for the upbeat, forward looking mood required of an ageku. However, doing this while also writing something meaningful to those reading outside of that context, and also including a seasonal reference to spring, while giving a nod to the starting verse and both linking to and shifting from the lovely, delicate images of the previous one, was rather a tall order! Luckily I happened across the word 'meltwater' which seemed to sum up the emotional release so many people felt at the inauguration, while also providing a spring kigo. I combined this with a reference to a phrase from the new president's inauguration speech which struck me as both prosaic - referring to solar energy - and poetic - a metaphor for so much. I was delighted that it resonated for people, so much of renku is about a collaborative effort to find what's best for the poem as a whole, and when you can contribute something that works it's a very good feeling!

Carole MacRury (USA): This was a 'different' renku for me with a new interface. It wasn't as structured, we were never sure of how many players we had, and we had poems chosen by two sabaki's which I found a bit unsettling, knowing that each sabaki would have different tastes. I wondered how this would affect the completed piece.

I found myself feeling oddly disconnected at times and couldn't keep up with the commentary. I worried about those who hadn’t written a verse, wondering at times if we weren’t going too fast. Things like that.


I saw this as more of a teaching renku, but have to add I contributed little in that regard. I tend to scent link or respond intuitively to verses and don’t really like explaining them afterward.  But I’ve gone back now, at Moi’s request and attempted to offer hints as to my thinking in the hopes it might be of interest to those new to renku.


Colin Stewart Jones (Scotland):


Gerald England (England): Carole sums up my feelings regarding the structure and

expresses it well. The method of construction of this renga differs somewhat from previous ones I've been involved with.


I understand Moira thinks we could offer the bewildered outsider some insights by discussing how the renga was formulated, but I feel that could do more harm than good if so doing created a precedence about how things should be done when the reality is that there are many different approaches to renku. As with haiku itself there isn't one

definitive formula.


Alison Williams (England): I felt like I faded in and out of this renku like the Cheshire Cat! I was following every move at the start, then I got the flu over Christmas and it all went hazy. As I re-emerged in the New Year I found it still going strong and joined in again. That's the wonderful thing about collaborating online - no one can tell if you're writing renku in your pyjamas!


Susan Shand (England): It is really interesting reading the process notes. Reading renga/renku isn't quite like reading other kinds of poetry. The links between verses in renga are as vital as the verses themselves. Seeing other contributors' process like this really helps to reveal the different ways of linking in an observable practical way and also the different ways in which people create their verses.


I learned a great deal from this collaboration, especially in the discussion and interaction about and around the relative merits of verses. There was time to discuss and to come to agreement as a group. I enjoyed the challenge and the chat, the creativity, and the connections of friendship I made. It was so enjoyable that I stuck with it through 'Flu and a high fever.


Kathy Earsman (Australia): Our finished renku looks great. Reading through it I flash back to what was happening in the world and to me, between the lines and tides of emotion that flood and wane there in various colours.

The others' disclosures re how their verses were written have been very helpful for me. There is something affirming in writing collaborative poetry. Bonds form between the participants as well as between the verses. I was engaged with this one from beginning to end. I miss being part of it now.

Norman Darlington (Ireland): Writing Beneath Thin Snow was a new experience for me in a number of ways. Like most renku writers, I am accustomed to participating in collaborations where the number and identity of the poets are agreed in advance. In the Facebook Renku Group, with some 100 members, we followed a looser regime, with every verse open to offers from all. While this made for a less controlled environment, it appeared to suit some of the participating poets, who would produce more spontaneously creative verses feeling under no pressure to produce for any specific position, as and when inspiration struck.


For two extended periods during composition, I found myself disconnected from the internet, and so ended up running a kind of time-share sabakiship with Moi. While some of the poets may have found this a little disconcerting, I thought it sat comfortably enough with the unpredictability of who would offer for which verse when. All of the above might have combined to produce a poem both fragmentary and uneven, yet when I read the finished work I find it imbued with an easy elegance and surefootedness that seem to belie the circumstances of its composition.


What to take away from this experience? I certainly feel less dogmatic in drawing any direct correlation between environmental stability and control by the sabaki, and the necessary quality of the resulting work. What began with the primary aim of engendering enthusiasm in a process and art-form has -apparently against the odds- produced a piece of art of which I feel we can all be justly proud.


Mary White (Ireland): I also wore pyjamas and sat at the kitchen table while my family had a late snooze. I loved checking in everyday and was happy to observe until I began

to feel sad that it was ending and that pushed me into getting the lead out and writing something. It was my first Renku and I have learnt much from participating in it. Because it is written slowly there is time to absorb the process.


Composed in the Facebook Renku Group during December 2008 and January 2009

Related articles in this issue of Simply Haiku: "Beneath Thin Snow"  a Triparshva by Carole MacRury, Colin Stewart Jones, Gerald England, Alison Williams, Susan Shand, Kathy Earsman, Norman Darlington, Mary White.

Copyright 2009: Simply Haiku