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Autumn 2006, vol 4 no 3


Renku Editor's Notes

Hello, 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!

Springtime in Edo

But 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.

Withered Crow

Continuing 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.

You can access the archives by issue, or search for topics and authors, via the toolbar that heads each page of Simply Haiku.

The Mimosa Bouquet

The 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 tool above.

Through the Skylight

The 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?

Perhaps 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.

Composition 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:

moonless night---
wishing the stars were
more than stars

a mother frog tells
her baby’s fortune

This 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 reproof.

The 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.

A Last Word

There 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’.

A 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."

At 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.

The 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.

Higashi’s 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.

Lastly 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 wave’.

For 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?


John Carley. Rossendale. July 2006.


Copyright 2006: Simply Haiku