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A Hundred Gourds 3:2 March 2014

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Renku Theory



The how and the why of renku composition were important to John. His extensive research reached far beyond those who regard renku as a parlor game. His conclusions on composition were reached after years of intensive study and practice of established, centuries old modes of literary endeavor.

As Basho did in his day, John recognized that in the Shomon school of haikai the medieval, aristocratic renga notions of propriety were “at best marginal, at worst an impediment”. He determined the principals of fuga no makoto (poetry as truth and art) were “best not dominated by rules.”

Attuned to the factual analysis of the canon of haikai literature as he was, Carley worked beyond the sphere of academic boundaries, applying his well-trained ear to emulate the ‘voice’ of the original poetics, seeking the ambience of the original written word and applying it to the contemporary. John's background as a musician could explain the strong emphasis on relaying the original cadence and rhythm in his written verse and sequences. His efforts were in keeping with the ideal of moving a piece of linked verse poetry forward.

“These translations are informed in part by a desire to consistently emulate some features of the source text which have tended to be obscured in earlier academic translations – not least the impact that a regular set of proportions and cadences has on the reading experience.

Earl Miner and Hiroaki Odagiri broke a lot of ground, but, bluntly put, took a lot of liberties IMHO. I’m keen to explore the possibility of revisiting their classic translations.

But I’d like to examine Miner and Odagiri’s take blow-by blow in order to know exactly what the received wisdom has been.”

Carley focused great attention on the phonic and metrical properties revealed in source texts of Edo period haikai verse, attributes which he would rigorously apply in his own verse, and in his role as poem leader.

Writing sessions with John were unique for the lyrical quality he brought to verse construction. This is not to say a rigid template was forced on every stanza. On the contrary, John encouraged diversity in composition in keeping with the idea of renku as ‘mandala’, not only in topic but also in pacing and flow from one verse to another.

One could compare this flexibility to an Audubon bird clock that chimes birdsong on the hour. It never ceases to amaze how each species’ example unfailingly matches any mood or tempo in any piece of music, from the Stones, to Charlie Parker to Glenn Gould, the gentle riffing floating effortlessly above any beat, lacking true attachment, yet perfectly in time.

Over time John established a method to apply to the free verse style of English language haikai that closely resembled the discipline of the Japanese sourced, teikei sound constructions of 5/7/5 – 7/7.

“Verse structure/extent – we’re more or less following a pattern of accentual metrics ... which goes like this:

Long verse. Seven stressed syllables:
2/3/2, 3/2/2, 2/2/3 (3/1/3, 3/3/1, 1,3,3) total range 13:15

Short verse. Five stressed syllables: 3/2, 2/3 (4/1, 1/4) total range 9:11

The rhythm(s) is/are a different argument. And that’s by ear. I guess the wider issue is the extent to which phonics should/must/may feature in the first place.”

His considerable years of practice and study in the field allowed him to arrive at informed opinions on a range of renku topics.

On leading a poem:

“… The first thing is that people really *do* like poems which are guided. The second is that very few have the confidence to take the lead themselves. As you and I know it is very often simply a question of biting the bullet and making a decision.

A negative way of looking at this is that people prefer to be critical rather than open themselves to criticism. A positive way: people have high standards and expectations from the art form. So it only takes a little push to get them to into the firing line.”

On explanation of verse choices:

“Ancillary information: the damage is done when this stuff is in the wind *before* a verse choice is made – if it feels right it *is* right. If the colour and cadence move the piece forwards then the logic is irrelevant.”

On aspects of linking verse:

“Any verse that links purely through the fact that it is ‘autumn’, ‘moon’, ‘love’ or ‘blossom’ is anyway defective. The same goes for any verse which links ‘vegetarian’ to ‘black hole’ purely on the fact that Einstein didn’t eat meat (and not a lot of people know that, because I’ve just made it up – oh f***, just googled it –turns out he was, in the end!). Ok then, he didn’t invent black holes – that was God.

So if there’s enough grace, consonance, whatever, in the way the language is used – if it feels as though it moves despite being obscure then fine. If not – I’d bin it.”

On thematic construction:

“But maybe I'm too heavily influenced by a kasen I'm currently doing. How about these four by Izen, Basho, Shiko and Izen. This is the opening of 'ha' .

Bon-end accounts,
we argue the price
for one load of fish sushi

the habit of a nap
proves hard to change

son-in-law comes
unsmilingly
to make his report

a letter from China
auguring good luck

That's not just thematic (mercantile affairs) it's full on narrative progression. Which of course renku doesn't do. (No wonder no-one has wanted to publish this in translation!)”

On short form linked verse:

“Tan-renga – its essential nature seems to have been distorted by the impact of maekuzuke. I’ve nothing against verse capping. Just observing that it’s not the same genre. So what most often happens in a modern context when you put two (English language haikai) people together to write a call+response is they turn cerebral and/or witty by default. It’s a shame, because the aesthetics of tan-renga – all the issues of linkage, dialogue, instinct, etc. – are just the same as renku.

Tanka – yeah, there’s not a lot of trace of ‘upper verse/lower verse’ left. Most people writing in English I’ve spoken to about it don’t understand the question.”

On 'back-links':

“Somewhat to my surprise Basho does in fact honour the three verse intermission criterion between appearances (sometimes as a pair) of ‘creature’ verses. Well more or less anyway (that intermission criterion comes from ‘The Enlarged Sneeze Grass’ technical manual of 1678). So he was mainstream in that respect. The person verse stuff (so beloved of Hokushi) he regularly throws out of the window.

But the question is really about whether there is any uchikoshi no kirai in the mind of the reader.”

Shades of Basho and company's Kirigirisu No Maki! The point being, the pursuit of art in league with quality writing, finding that elusive space between the verses, can sometimes overcome the need of formalities and rules.

“Interesting points you raise about mannered writing.

I’ve experienced the tie-up myself in the last six months … still, there’s an awful lot of superstructure going on. I always thought the maxim was ‘learn the s**t, then forget it’.

But it seems like the academic training only values the first part. “What we need is *enthusiasm* and *flow* – a bit of the old ‘haikai’ for instance.

Right, that’s enough of that. Here’s some poetry – the last four of the first face of ‘ha’ (so 15 thru 18) of the Kasen that starts off with the famous ‘voices of ducks all white on the nite’ hokku.

astride his hat
the tatty robe gets
stitched back together

autumn’s crows proceed
to eat someone

the other day
a typhoon struck this beach,
the moon so clear

in drops of mist
his brush catches the dragon

Tōyō, Bashō, Kōzan, Tōtō

A bit OTT, but fun!”



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