A Hundred Gourds 2:2 March 2013
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page 9  

Poets’ Picnic – a tomegaki

Maybe… maybe a tomegaki, that is. The word tomegaki is Japanese and refers to a sort of debrief written by the person responsible for leading this or that poem. I’ve always been under the impression that a tomegaki is rather like a horseshoe: best if it’s knocked into shape and nailed on whilst still hot. But the truth is that I was astounded to see from the footnotes to the poem that Poets' Picnic was completed at less than six weeks typing distance from this present ramble. It feels like an age has passed. Funny what a concentrated bout of translation from Japanese will do. And a large amount of narcotics.

The narcotics are doctor’s orders, so we’ll pass lightly over that one. The mention of translation is relevant though. But first a general note on the Imachi as poem – any Imachi, not just Poets’ Picnic.

I like the Imachi. For one thing it is an interesting length. Particularly given that it is a ‘single sheet’ poem i.e. one without formal movement boundaries.

With the shorter twelve verse sequences such as the Junicho one can just about get away with relying on strong verse to verse linkage to hold the poem together, to make it feel purposeful. But apply the same approach to the eighteen verses of an Imachi and it falls apart. The emperor is seen to be clothed, but rather haphazardly: flippers certainly, but trombone instead of snorkel; Hawaiian shirt glaring out beneath black velour tuxedo. Eeesh!

Unlike the present author Basho clearly liked the sound of his own voice (ho-ho), but he had a damn good reason for banging on about jo-ha-kyu – the dynamic pacing paradigm which made the thirty six verse Kasen the ideal vehicle for his style. Four sides or movements. 6/12/12/6. That makes six verses to start out tight and calm, two passages to ratchet up, then space out, and a final six to finish tight and fast with a flourish.

The point here is not that longer renku poems must use the jo-ha-kyu pacing paradigm. But that they need a pacing paradigm. The eighteen verses of an Imachi, in the absence of a conscious control of speed and impact, almost inevitably carry more than a hint of the amorphous. We’re talking here about those gloop monsters beloved of black and white sci-fi; try typing Quatermass Experiment into YouTube – you’ll get the idea. To be clear: renku is not thematic. And it does not tell a story. But there are more forms of cohesion than thematic or narrative progression. Think ‘emotional tenor’, or ‘register of language’, or ‘arcane vs. obvious’. Etc. By way of analogy, take a really good trumpet solo: how many times can you predict the next note? But does that mean they are played at random? And is everything delivered with the same intensity? Or can you discern patterns? That’s the challenge of the Imachi. You can’t get away with happenstance. The eighteen verses demand a structured approach to modulation, not just of individual verses, or pairs of verses, but of discrete passages of verse. It’s not easy. And as to whether Poets’ Picnic pulls it off? It's your call.

As it happens the same pair of renku masters who came up with the massively popular twelve verse Junicho are also responsible for the longer Imachi. In reality Mr and Mrs Okamoto probably came up with one type of sequence each, but could never agree on who had which idea first, and so adopted the joint approach in order to preserve their marriage. A good word, that. No, not marriage – preserve. One of the other things the Okamoto’s sought to preserve with the Imachi (and by contrast to the Junicho) was a slightly more traditional approach to icons such as autumn moon and spring blossom. Having them present for a start. And then recommending that they appear in slightly more conservative settings. Ditto love verses. Ditto the number and duration of season verses in general. Quite how many of these recommendations the participants in Poets’ Picnic chose to implement is another question. I blame whoever was in charge (oooops!). But then if you think we’ve taken liberties you should see the size of Magister Basho’s poet’s licence. That’s why he always had so many disciples around: it took a pair of men just to fold it flat.

Talking of Basho... this is where the translation stuff comes in. And questions of emulation.

As we were about to set out on the peregrination of Poets’ Picnic one of the participants raised the vital issue of ideal syntactic structures, the question prompted in part by a recollection of forceful but oddly vague assertions that certain things were simply not permissible. Two legs bad. Etc. When can a renku verse be cut?

This is dangerous territory, mostly because the people who get really vehement about it also believe in the lizard conspiracy. And the Zen fairy. But rather like a refugee from a Hellboy comic I've spent most nights this past decade examining the entrails of dead Japanese renku whilst homunculi wearing haiku moment headbands chitter in darkling corners of the room. Yay, I know of that which I speak. But mercifully I'm not going to speak of it here - not much anyway - mostly because if you go to the Renku Reckoner and press the button at right called aspects of prosody it'll bring up a central list amongst which is cut or uncut - and this gives chapter and verse on the theory of it all.

The central point is that Japanese renku verses do indeed use all sorts of syntax breaks and pauses in the pursuit of variety of phrasing, but this is rarely in association with the high levels of semantic turn that are typical of haiku-like juxtapositional technique. The one thing you do not get in Basho's best quality renku is a whole series of cut and turn verses lined up in a row.

Which brings us back to Poets' Picnic and the fresh insight I got from reading a poem which felt as though it had been written an age ago. The variety of phrasing, of verse structure, is a pleasure. I would hold it up as exemplary because it closely emulates the kind of range one encounters in Japanese. There is freedom here. But it is not just free verse. There is a distinct long verse/short verse movement. There are cadences that mesh, and repeat.

Ah yes, how long is a long verse? But that's another story...

                                                                                                              John Carley, Rossendale 21/12/02


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