Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
About Simply Haiku
Autumn 2006, vol 4 no 3
welcome to this, my last, Renku Column. It is three years since I put
on this particular hat. Even were I a better editor that would be quite
long enough. Renku is a vital art form, one which cannot be adequately
surveyed by a single person. I am delighted to announce that my successor
will be the poet and linguist Norman Darlington. If you are unfamiliar
with Norman's substantial contribution to the advancement of renku as
a high art I have only one word to say. No, not 'Google'... Shame!
all is not lost. Norman and I recently had the honour of participating
in a Kasen renku composed to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the
death of Basho's disciple Kikaku. This poem, composed 'interlingually'
in both English and Japanese, has recently been published in a limited
edition booklet as an accompaniment to a rather more significant text,
a translation, by Prof. Nobuyuki Yuasa, of Kikaku's extraordinary and
affecting monograph An Account of our Master Basho's Last Days.
The full English text of the 'Account' appears elsewhere in this edition
of Simply Haiku. To hear a reading of the English text of the commemorative
Kasen please follow this
link. You will also find details of how to purchase a copy of the
booklet containing all texts in both English and Japanese.
At right is Kikaku's Statue at the Jyogyouji Temple. His grave, in the
grounds, is pictured below.
the theme of commemorative verse: composed to celebrate the 360th anniversary
of the birth of Master Basho at Iga-Ueno in October 2004, Withered
Crow is a fine 20 verse piece which further demonstrates the ability
of renku to reach beyond linguistic and cultural boundaries. Any reader
unfortunate enough to have waded through earlier editorials will know
that I believe experimentation to be most effective when grounded in
experience. For all that it is invidious to name this or that person,
Raffael de Gruttola's approach surely supports this contention. Withered
Crow is very much within the mainstream of contemporary renku.
In other issues of Simply Haiku you will find work by de Gruttola that
is audaciously innovative. Such attitudes bode well for the future.
can access the archives by issue, or search for topics and authors,
via the toolbar that heads each page of Simply Haiku.
relative merits and demerits of the use of formal structure as a tool
in poetry, as in other arts, is a debate which does not lend itself
to a glib resolution. The Mimosa Bouquet is a Shisan renku,
a form which your retiring editor finds particularly challenging. Written
simultaneously in Japanese and English, this text shows how the four
by three framework can be used to very good effect, the resultant poem
being poised and graceful. It should be noted that the poem was written
in a face-to-face setting by poets who are well versed in formal styles.
Persons new to renku might find the rather freer Junicho pattern
more suited to their requirements. Further information on the Shisan
and Junicho patterns, plus many exemplars, can be found using the Search
Shisan pattern also provides the framework for Through the Skylight,
a dialogue by turns sentimental and wry between English poets Diana
Webb and Frank Williams. It is interesting to consider the differing
circumstances of composition of these two Shisan. One is face-to-face,
the other remote, being composed via email. One is the work of six poets,
the other of a pair. One group of poets have a close attachment to the
cultural and historical ambit in which the genre has developed, the
other are grounded principally in a different literary and social heritage.
One might expect the impact of these divergent factors to be very marked.
But is it?
surprisingly, for this author at least, the answer is 'no'. And the
scholar and theorist Tsutomu Ogata has an explanation. Renku, he submits,
is composed at the intersection of three axes. This is 'za no bungaku',
the 'locus of literature'. The first axis comprises the ensemble of
persons and place in which the poem is composed. The second exists in
space, uniting the present participants with all those other persons
who have an understanding of, and enthusiasm for, the genre. The third
axis is temporal, fusing haikai poets past and present.
by email tends to blur the first and second of Ogata's axes. But the
theory is attractive and stimulating, not least because it places scant
importance on the strident claims of space, time, or ethnicity.
Perhaps that last
sentence should have included the word 'age' too. Consider this poem:
wishing the stars were
more than stars
her baby’s fortune
is a tan renga. The head verse is by a gnarly old American called Robert
Wilson. The added verse, the tsukeku, is by Nami, a young Japanese student
fortunate enough to be taught by Ikuyo Yoshimura. Perhaps, as this is
my last Renku Column, I have become tiresomely sentimental. Or perhaps
this is a brilliant response from one poet to another, almost a gentle
page Tsukeku offers a series of such answering verses, all
composed by young students in response to various haiku by Robert. This
'call and response' is the basic unit of dialogic verse. Here's a challenge:
try and add a third verse to the pair above in such a way as to avoid
any direct thematic extension and/or any reference to the head verse.
Congratulations, you are writing renku. Probably.
is a lot of confusion in the west over what exactly constitutes renku.
In one sense the answer is relatively simple. ‘Renku’ is
the contemporary term used in Japan for what was earlier referred to
as ‘haikai-no-renga’ – ‘linked haikai verse’.
More specifically yet, renku is linked verse composed after the style,
or in the school, of Matsuo Basho. It is ‘Shofu haikai-no-renga’.
number of years ago, in a seminal editorial for the magazine Kikan Renku,
the late, and highly respected, renku poet and theorist Meiga Highashi
sought to arrive at the sine qua non of renku without resort to literary
precedent. Higashi-sensei 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 recognized as renku regardless
of its mode and other principles of composition."
first sight therefore Higashi appears ready to embrace any approach
which adopts ‘link and shift’. But Higashi-sensei was writing
for an audience of Japanese linked verse poets for whom certain understandings
were a given. One of these, it seems to me, was that poetry is the art
of utterance, or perhaps better: the art of expression. Occidental poets
forget this at their peril.
supposed imagistic purity of haiku, particularly when viewed through
the prism of inadequate translation, has led to the unfortunate conclusion
in many countries outside Japan that haikai poetry is composed of sememes
alone. It is odd that in a poetry journal one should find oneself remarking
that the art of meaning is in fact called ‘philosophy’,
and that morphemes are conveyed by graphemes, which in turn imply phonemes.
Sound is important.
audience would also have automatically understood the ‘hai’
in ‘haikai’. But what does it mean, this ‘hai’?
Playful? Yes, certainly. Surprising? Hmmn, yes –
but not as in ‘contrived’. Subversive? Yes, often.
Recontextualising? Argggh, ugly word. But, yes, very much so.
‘Hai’ has its own zeitgeist. It does not light candles to
itself, or get hung up on the difference between dogma and doctrine.
It is by turns subtle, and downright silly. ‘Hai’ is animated.
It never stands still.
Higashi’s audience would have understood the implications of ‘ren’
too. In a narrow sense this element does mean ‘link’. But
it means more than that. It implies ideas of ‘compare’,
‘contrast’, ‘match’, ‘assemble’
and ‘correspond’ – qualities which are also present
in the word ‘awase’. The crucial point here is that renku
is not a string of pearls. The high artistry of renku does not lie in
the shape or shaping of any particular verse, much less in the unassailably
concrete perfection of this or that semantic component. The art of renku
is to be found in the resonant space between the verses. It is perceptible
in the broad sweep of a folio or movement, in the breaking of the ‘renku
this author then renku is indeed reliant on the generative mechanism
of ‘link and shift’. But it is also a dialogic entente characterized
by mercurial mood changes and tangential associations. It is an art
form which uses words, in all their gloriously synaesthetic aspects.
For Japanese poets a part of this wealth is phrasal metre. I wonder...
what metre, what cadences do you use. Or is 'meaning' independent
of such things?
Rossendale. July 2006.