A Hundred Gourds 2:3 June 2013
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Renku: Explaining it all Away

by John E. Carley

Some things I feel passionate about. And this is one of them. I want to address the merits and demerits of the participants in a composition explaining, whether briefly or at length, what precisely they intend by advancing a, b or c as a word choice, as a conceptual choice, or as a mode of linkage, when they have proposed, or are just about to propose, a candidate verse. Here we go…

Merits? There are none. That’s it. You can stop reading now if you like. Demerits? They are legion, and I’ll get to them in just a second. But first a touch of clarification. Above I do say participants in a renku composition, the key word being composition. If it’s a renku workshop, or a renku seminar, or a renku demonstration, or a renku fun-session, or any form of structured renku learning situation, then clearly a free dialogue, trialogue or even catalogue are not just desirable, they are a minimum condition for a worthwhile outcome. Discuss away; your cat will remain unharmed.

The situation I have in mind is a group of peers, people of equal experience, using a formal sabaki or no, attempting to write renku of the highest quality: the kind of renku Basho and Co aimed for. None of that poetry as a game malarkey (Irish, but not an expletive). High art. Fuga no makoto. And we’re just in time for the hokku. So bring on Vinnie, Minnie and Winnie (who, being egalitarians, eschew all notion of leadership).

a mobile phone call
much to my surprise
the April night

Vinnie: “I think we should use this one of mine. It’s fresh. Modern, thanks to the mobile phone reference, but that ‘April night’ feels like classical kigo. Thought it was Issa but in fact it's from Donadei - La Ragazza della Notte d’Aprile. Full of suspense and romance. Anyway, it's April so it fits. And it flags up where we want to go: wasn’t it Fukuda, who said that everything flows from the hokku?”

I won’t comment on the verses. The exchanges are the nub here. Obviously these people are pleasant enough and enjoy each other’s company, but what does Vinnie actually tell us about the hokku that isn’t already evident at first reading? As it happens I’ve read that book by Donadei, but is Vinnie telling me that I wouldn’t properly get the verse if I hadn’t? Is recognition of the reference to La Ragazza della Notte d’Aprile essential? And what’s that stuff about Fukuda? Given that he always had half an eye on renga as well as renku theory, it is highly probable that Fukuda did indeed say, or was hazardously translated as saying, something along those lines. But what’s the relevance? Or is Vinnie just engaged in a bit of enthusiastic name checking in order to boost our estimation of his hokku?

Winnie certainly thinks so, and retaliates by citing Higginson. Mistakenly, of course. But the candidate does at least get her vote. Provisionally:

a mobile phone call
much to my surprise
the April night

Winnie: “Ooooh, I like this Vinnie. But it doesn’t really do the cutting thing. Higginson says a haiku can be either way but a hokku has to have a kireji. At least I think so. My sister's got my copy of The Handbook!”

Minnie, less of an equivocator, is not prepared to wait until Winnie’s sister returns from Guatemala with the loaned copy of the Haiku Handbook in order to check on the thingamibob. Instead she has felt compelled to write a responding verse:

Minnie: “And here's my come-back Vinnie – “much to my surprise” as the bridge. That's like kokorozuke: heart link. Maybe I've left the season open. But ‘beer drinking’ is definitely spring kigo in these parts - winters are hard and we don’t get out much. Makes for big families! Here goes - it’ll pop your cherry!”

scribbled on a beer mat
absent moon

Minnie’s enthusiasm is commendable. But even before producing the actual text she has told her partners that the verse is deliberately experimental, that the link back to the hokku is predicated on a given phrase, that this style of link should be compared to a specific Japanese technique, and that though the seasonal reference may be rather oblique, it is nevertheless authentic because of the particular circumstances of her home state. Oh yes, and that they are sure to be stunned by the verse. Now that’s a lot of priming! But how do the said partners respond? Let's look at the putative opening pair again, then at the feedback:

a mobile phone call
much to my surprise
the April night

scribbled on a beer mat
absent moon

Winnie: “Yeah, no argument. It’s everything you said and more. Hey but ‘absent moon’…”

Minnie: “I told you it’d be ‘much to your surprise’!”

Winnie: “Now I know for sure that we can’t do that. I once ended up in a Kasen with John Carley. He was pushing everyone around, like he does, but I remember him saying the moon had to be in a moon verse; it definitely had to be the main thing. You can’t demean it or something because it’s noble.”

Vinnie: “Yeah the guy’s a pain. More to the point he's plain wrong. This isn't a Kasen - we should experiment. Put a footnote in if needed. Come on Winnie, you’re up next. What's in your sky?!”

They talk further about moon positions without moons in them until Winnie is placated. The third verse, Winnie’s, now appears on-screen ...

a mobile phone call
much to my surprise
the April night

scribbled on a beer mat
absent moon

a single swift
ghosts off the screen
at 13,000 ft

Vinnie: “Woooah!”

Minnie: “Yeah, yeah. That’s amazing. How does that work? I get it on some level but I just can’t see how you work out the link.”

Winnie: “Well I was thinking of unusual absence - like the moon - and I remembered that swifts don't land for years after fledging. True. They even sleep when they’re flying. Like the moon, lol. Which isn’t in the sky either - like, they're not in the nest. Anyway we need a nature verse. So the swifts just came to mind. “

Minnie: “Truly. But it’s pretty left field. I mean it’s a great verse but you know, even with a note, I'm not sure if people are going to be able to work it out.”

Vinnie: “Yeah, now you say that I’m not too sure either, Min. I mean, it felt like a fit straight off, but when you think about it it's pretty... oblique. Even for you Winnie! Maybe we should, you know, vote on it. Or go another way here at #3?”

Ah! but the problem with votes when there are only three participants is that it ends up as two against one. Which is perilously close to bullying. Our friends know this instinctively and so begins an increasingly dilatory round of exchanges in which nothing is achieved beyond the realisation that the chaos which eats at the margins of our souls can only be kept at bay by ever more lavish pledges of mutual fidelity. As the protestations of sincerity grind ever more finely our poem slips quietly to its doom.

Which is a shame, because they had instinctively loved that third verse. It instantly felt right, until they started trying to explain it to one another. At which point the spell was broken and the gnawsome doubts crept in.

So we arrive at the point of this particular exercise. Ladies and Gentlemen, are you concerned that the emperor may indeed be naked? Is renku nothing more than a conspiracy to self-deceive? Does the whole edifice crumble unless we lard our verses with explanation after explanation?

Hats off to anyone who has answered ‘yes’. Because that at least would account for the exchanges we’ve witnessed between our friends above. Why else would we want to surround our candidate verses with masses of additional information? If the extra content is essential to an understanding of the verse doesn’t that mean the verse is deficient? If the bumf is there simply to add gravitas to our candidate doesn’t that mean we fear the verse is weak? If we must lay claim to the authority of A. N. Expert doesn’t that mean we are unsure of ourselves? If it is truly necessary to cite 風雅の誠 why not have done with it and write in Japanese throughout?

Similarly, with prepping our colleagues for the quirks of the verse we are about to offer, the systematic management of expectations is best left to politicians. If you really think that beer drinking is spring kigo the best thing to do is move state, take up macramé, and sacrifice your cat to the darkness. It won’t make the slightest difference to the quality of your writing, but it will give the rest of us a laugh. The same goes for lengthy expositions of the rationale behind our linkage: what can pre-loading the space between verses do other than limit the scope for resonance? What’s the first lesson in a writing class? It’s show. Show don’t tell. If your linkage works it doesn't need describing or rationalising. If it needs describing or rationalising that's because it doesn't work. Write another verse. It's quicker.

The essential truth is so basic here that we are in danger of losing sight of it altogether. When we write renku our partners are not primarily respondents, they are first and foremost readers. A colleague cannot move on to the composition of an answering verse until they have first experienced the verse to which they wish to respond. It is better that the said experience is theirs and theirs alone, without the encumbrance of specious justifications, special information, cute insinuations, or emotional manipulations.

There's a very good reason for this: Basho. Basho explicitly and purposefully moved the ground away from word links, object links and analysis in his poetics to put intuition front and centre. Another word for this is artistry.

The white space of interpretation is where the real action of a sequence takes place. If we freight it with prepared opinions we diminish its power. And I’m not talking about discussion of the phrasing, or the cadence, or the wider phonics of the candidate verse, but about its meaning and the reasons for its linkage. If we wall it in with precisions we impede imagination. If we vaunt reductionism we are no better than Dawkins.

With his proposal of scent linkage Basho placed the magic of instinctual recognition at the heart of renku; are we really so careless of the great man’s aesthetics that we’ll willingly explain it all away?

bio photo John Carley is a mostly decrepit Englishman from the Pennine hill country of Lancashire. Fluent in a number of European languages he has also published literary translations from Urdu, Bangla, Sylheti and, more recently, Japanese. His essays on linked verse technique have been published variously in French, German, Spanish, Bulgarian, Russian and Japanese. He is the author of the Renku Reckoner website.

Full Disclosure: The verses purportedly written by Minnie, Winnie and Vinnie are really the first 3 verses of Four Movements: The April Night, an experimental solo sequence written by John E. Carley in 2004.


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