Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Winter 2009, vol 7 no 4


Yellow Moon: Tomegaki

The leaders and the led

In contemporary Japanese renku circles it is customary, on the completion of a poem, for the poem leader, the sabaki, to post a tomegaki. This word has the same root as that for a 'clasp' and is a kind of debrief that draws some important strands of the compositional discourse together. The participants will also post a kanso. This might be given as 'an appreciation', though in practice it is not de rigeur to be unfailingly flattering. Nonetheless, tomegaki, kanso, these words are redolent of status relationships: I lead; and you are thankful.

When we read an original Shomon (Basho school) sequence it is well to remember that the text before us is far from verbatim; it is not that which was recorded during the renku party itself. In most instances the Sosho (Master) and/or a designated disciple undertook a comprehensive revision prior to publication. In some instances this extended to the effective substitution of entire passages of verse, though the names of the contributors of the original texts were appended to the verse positions. There are some recorded instances of participants complaining about this. But very few.

Conversely, as notions of Japanese linked verse spread to English-language poets during the latter part of the last century, there are countless examples of sequences written where a pair or handful of poets simply took it in turns to append their 'best shot' to the preceding verse, no questions asked, and certainly no suggestion that a minor amendment here or there might be beneficial. Such rudeness!

What I'm fumbling at here is that renku is a genre that has arisen in a millieu which is more group minded, and deferential/ directive, than is typical of the English-language literary context , at least than is typical of the literary practice derived from the norms of European culture (African-American Hip-Hop collaborations look far more like a renku party to me). If renku is to develop as an English-language genre we will need to find a middle way between the hierarchical methods of early modern Japan and the assertive individualism so typical of the occidental haijin.

Linkage and emotional tenor

I'm delighted that participants have remarked on how nicely the sequence reads. In part I believe this is down to our attention to the 'poetics of utterance': the cadences, pauses and alliterations; those qualities that Ezra Pound termed 'euphony'. As well as being pleasing in its own right this attention to the musicality of language acts as a kind of phonic glue that allows the mind to accept linkage so tangential that it might otherwise be interpreted as random. In respect of the semantic content we have also taken care to layer much of our linkage; often we've given a primary or 'obvious' strand for the reader to access whilst coding deeper levels of relation.

It is my belief that these buried strands echo in the mind to generate an impression of depth and richness. But, as Basho was keen to point out, his new poetics go above and beyond anything to do with meaning or even core association (c.f. imizuke, kokorozuke). Basho was interested in the intangible, the emanation, the vibe (c.f. nioizuke). It is a commonplace that Basho propounded this 'scent linkage' to be used alongside the more direct methods. But what is less remarked on is the consequence of effectively realised 'scent linkage' over a passage of verse.

We know that in renku the obligation to shift from the content of the verse-before-last is the only absolute rule. And we know that this means that anything resembling a theme, narrative or reasoned exposition can only exist between an adjoining pair of verses. But if we succeed in evoking a tangible emotional tenor in and between verses, one which persists in the mind, we can gradually develop and modify this scent, this colour, over the course of several verses. The analogy is a good instrumental solo: we cannot surely predict the next note or phrase, but when we hear it there is a sense of 'rightness', and the sequence of notes and phrases evokes an emotional tenor which progresses and develops. Obviously it must do so, otherwise the piece is 'out of tune', 'disjointed' or simply 'noise'.

I think our piece has this conducting strand, this evolution of emotional tenor. This is most certainly not thematic verse, it is rather an example of what the haikai poet, translator and theorist Eiko Yachimoto refers to as 'the renku wave'.

John Carley, England

The led and the leader

Working with an experienced sabaki was a great honour for me. I certainly read and learned a lot more, at the very least, what some Japanese words actually mean. We all gave a little bit of ourselves and our place in the universe, and overall I found the link shift process to be a pretty mellow yellow journey.

Barbara A Taylor, Australia


Online poetry journal Cordite's 'Haikunaut Island Renga' issue gave us all something great — a chance to meet and work on/learn about renku together, and also the inspiration for us to make a new group dedicated to similar goals.

Taking part in the 'Yellow Moon' Junicho was incredibly valuable (and thanks again to John for leading it) as it pushed me to research, to practise and to rise up to the high standard of writing the other Snailers were producing.

My 'shells' ku ended up slotting into the sequence quite naturally and I was thrilled — but better yet was the 'hewn shale' verse — because more than anything else I submitted for consideration, it was the most collaborative. Thanks to the group my last bit of the chain was so much stronger. It's through the co-constructive aspects of the renku process that I learnt the most.

Working on a renku is easily one of the most stimulating and challenging linguistic practices in the English language; it forces you to ask, how best to create AND to read renku — and even more, it's addictive, it's fun and you get to do it with great people.

Ashley Capes, Australia


The breadth and use of linking devices should be simple in renku, yet it is not so evident without experience. Like trying to take a photograph in focus, from a fresh perspective with unfamiliar equipment. I was constantly challenged and surprised as would be any eager student.

Perhaps the least seasoned of the group, fortunately I came with only a few ridiculous notions, though each stanza's progression and discussion opened my mind more to fascinating theory and fundamentals established over hundreds of years.

Self conscious at first, I was able to try my wings without fear of ridicule and with full support of the other renjin. Enjoying the full benefit of a team experience, I was able to forget myself and relish listening to the others, following John's able guidance and wealth of knowledge.

Most of all, the exercise helped me to learn to look beyond the obvious and apply it to the written word. In that intimate environment, we all became teachers, reinforcing our understanding of the historic consequence of haikai-no-renga.

William Sorlien, USA


'Yellow Moon' was the second completed renku I've been involved in, the first being 'Haikunaut Island Renga', composed on Cordite and led by Keiji Minato. Ashley asked John Carley to lead 'Yellow Moon' on his 'issa's snail' blog. What an honour that John accepted, as he is a great teacher! He thoughtfully guided us through it, explaining his choices and at each stage giving us further information about renku and the special terms used — and all in good, common English. He debunked myths and tuned our ears to the rhythms of a Junicho with a sense of humour. He encouraged us to ask questions and to comment on every verse and responded to all. The result was a wonderful sense of enthusiastic camaraderie between all participants and a true learning atmosphere.

The six players involved, including John himself, turned out to be from the Northern and Southern Hemispheres in equal balance. How delightful it was that John encouraged the three Australians to write from our own experience, including that of seasons, even if it would mean footnotes if ever published. Naturally, I am putting my hand up for more.

Lorin Ford, Australia

Related item in this issue of Simply Haiku: 'Yellow Moon: Junicho' ~ John Carley(sabaki), Lorin Ford, Barbara A Taylor, William Sorlien, Ashley Capes, Joseph Mueller.


Copyright 2009: Simply Haiku