A Mosaic in Words

WHR November 2002

WHC Renku Seminar
Haikuforum Seminar on “Traditional” Renku in English
Session 4:  A Mosaic in Words

Paul MacNeil
Florida, US

For this the 4th installment I shall try to discuss a few separate parts of what is the mosaic of English-language renku, yet is in a sense traditional. Following that is the completion of the demonstration shisan: “A Fox Circles”.

While we may sometimes read Japanese renku in translation, we write in English. What many players of this game try to do is to pay homage to the long tradition and practice from another culture.

For the 1997 Renku Contest of the Haiku Society of America (HSA), judges Jean Jorgensen and Christopher Herold commented in part:

There exists a wide variety of opinions as to what constitutes a true, well-wrought haiku, and there are elements of Japanese haiku-craft and tradition that do not readily translate into the English language. Most of the parameters peculiar to renku, on the other hand, are perfectly clear and, with concerted effort, can be adhered to regardless of the language employed. These parameters include such basics as avoiding repetition (both of subject matter and of grammatical construction), correctly positioning seasonal and non-seasonal elements (as well as moon and blossom stanzas), establishing sufficient linkage (thus avoiding derailment of readers’ momentum), and making substantial shifts (thereby avoiding narrative, which narrows the scope, and thus the impact of the work. Most certainly these traditional requirements are clear, and are not affected by syntactical differences between languages.

Within these traditional guidelines it is only normal to expect subjects, methods of linking specific to our language, aspects of season and geography, and even the variety of flowering plants to reflect cultures different from classical or modern Japan.

It is the usual custom for the starting verse, the hokku, to be representative of the season when the renku is written or at least started. I add the latter clause because renku can be written at one sitting or gathering, and also over a period of time. I have written in person where a renku was completed in a day, and also where one kasen took a long weekend. In one instance a special Internet setup was created for practitioners around the world to write on-line simultaneously. We finished the middle of a kasen started in an e-mail method (East-West) It was later completed via e-mail again. I spent one computerless summer reverted to the less than tender mercies of the US Mails to work on a renku with two partners. As the saying went in the US after WWI: “How ya’ going to keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve see ‘Paree’?” The returning soldiers, as from perhaps all wars, had widened horizons. So too with the advent of the Internet tool to write renku. I missed the computer.

We can have Internet partners writing in English from many parts of the world, from many geographies and cultures. As such, certain understanding of this disparity is needed, either as players play, or agreed to beforehand. I believe the issue of season, kigo words, can be fairly treated with some simple agreements. The saijiki (indices of season words) of Japan in older times were base upon the climate of Kyoto, the seat of the Court. Latitude-wise, this is also about in the middle of Japan. But spring in Hokkaido comes at a great remove from that in Okinawa. The difference was solved by the Royal authority of the capital. Even based in the northern hemisphere, I can indeed partner with someone in the Antipodes. They call spring and its idioms the same as I — just half a year apart. What may confuse in this case is the naming of a month to substitute for kigo. What is needed for international renku is a little understanding. The same is true in N. America. Partners in Alaska and Saskatchewan have different ongoing experiences of the seasons than players in Pennsylvania or Florida. But what is shared is some notion of the change of seasons and that is what can be the subject of renku verses. Write of your own experience, but have an eye toward what is best for the group effort. Now, those on the Equator, say Singapore? — well, flowers bloom all year, so I guess the season is dictated by how much rain is falling! Ahh well, no schema is perfect. Season-influenced verses account for only about half of renku, anyway. I studied the season count in four haiku no renga with Basho and another including Buson (all kasen length, 36 verses). The Buson work had 18, those led by Basho had 15, 16, 21, and 22 with kigo.

There are also matters of cultural differences among partners. Images from different life-histories can only enrich the variety that is so much the essence of renku. Either a master or the group as a whole in the democratic method I have discussed, can deal with a word or subject that may be too obscure, or that does not have a meaning cross-culturally. Others that are regional characteristics that can be deduced from context are fine and should only add to the whole. I have learned that one object in Britain is a “bin liner” that in the US is a “trash can liner.” But I can readily see the point, and besides, “bin liner” is a lot easier to say.

To conclude discussion of the shisan (12 verses) renku begun last time, you can follow along from the full text in the 2nd Seminar installment:

What’s in a Name / Defining Renku

The 7th verse follows the two love verses. A verse before or after “love” can, not must, either be a “lead in” or a “following love” verse. In this case, my image of rocks showing between waves is a very concrete one. It is non-seasonal, active, literal. But, as some readers have pointed out, Dr. Freud might have a field day with it. While it is not a love verse, it can be read as a contrast verse that follows on the love theme of physicality in the previous stanza. The link is the “between-ness” of the silk. It switches away from softness. The between of silk is now rocks between walls of water. This is a very dramatic shift, high action.

Ferris followed it with a clever linkage, a bringer of “Ahh” from some readers, but a subject that contrasts, should I say “sharply” with the previous verse. A strong shift. She has begun spring, and she has put the blossom verse here as well. This is a beautiful and quite unusual look at a flowering plant. The thorns that will later protect the fruit are covered by the profusion of blooms. I should mention here, that the “blossom” verse usual to Japanese renku is the cherry, sakura, and occasionally the plum blossom. Many who write traditional English-language renku follow that practice. Most writers who have been my partners have agreed to use a strong symbol of spring, a harbinger of change, one having the delicate impermanence of beauty, that may or may not be cherry or plum. Ferris has chosen the blackberry blossom with which she has some apparent familiarity. In person, I have never had the Japanese cherry experience. Fiction is certainly a part of renku if you wish, but it is easier for me to write of citrus groves, apple or peach orchards, trillium or crocus from my own life history.

I decided to follow in the second spring verse, #9, with a similar tone of quiet and beauty. It was required by the form for me to write another spring stanza, but I also decided to make this the one for the moon as well. It is usual in Japanese haiku and renku for an otherwise unattributed “moon” to be considered as an autumn kigo. I don’t usually write this way since I see the moon in all seasons as we all do, but to avoid any confusion I made “spring” a part of the verse. “Mist” is a spring kigo, but mist can be seen in several weather conditions in different seasons in different geographies. I nailed it down as “spring mist.” This verse will probably be read as night, the usual scene of moonrise, and is a quiet verse despite the movement of moon and mist. The link is not dramatically accessible. It is a word opposite. The thickness is contrasted to the thinness of spring mist. There is an element of linking with something being obscured by another.

Any renku form with only two players will necessitate that occasionally a writer goes twice in succession. I find that when I write the first I am totally focused on the previous verse. When it is again my turn to follow my own I try to recapture that creative mood as if I hadn’t authored the first of this new pair of stanzas. The priest, and here it is either a Roman or Greek Catholic priest who swings the censer, creates a mist. A very different kind of mist from that of the 9th verse. The subject shift is to indoors, perhaps a huge cathedral, and here is introduced another of the human senses — smell. So far in this shisan we have seen a lot, the most common of the senses, maybe felt the temperature of snow flurries, heard the Hopi chants, felt the silk while lovemaking, at least thought about the sharpness of touch, and now smelled incense. The 12th verse will also bring us a sound. Variety.

The creative Mrs. Gilli moves us in #11 from a church to a jungle, or at least a tropical scene. It is outdoors. A guide is perhaps cutting lianas, tree ferns, or tall grass. Here we have a tool, an object swinging as the priest swung the incense. We can also imagine the cameras, lights and recorders of the film crew. This is quite a dramatic shift (of subject). Yet the other link is clear. An aisle has become a path through the jungle.

For the 12th and last verse I almost put in a hammock, but in the end thought perhaps that you readers might imagine it instead. This is a sound verse with some action. The action is not right close in hand as a machete, but scattered around a USA neighborhood where oh so many householders are mowing the required patch of green grass. The link is the cutting of grass now by a suburban tool. I hope it is a quiet verse. If you like, picture me in the hammock, work done, sipping a tall, cool, adult beverage.

Next, I will be joined by two women to write a shisan renku in front of the group — warts and all. I hope we can demonstrate how a few rules agreed to in advance, and the ongoing help and agreement from each team member, allow the creation of literature (Art if you will) without the pitfalls of anarchy. The only thing that I have done out of sight of the group, the Seminar, is to have proposed a hokku, and get its acceptance by each of my soon-to-be partners. Next: a winter shisan. As we three question and answer on the List, we may post several times a day to each other, or daily, or less often as family and professional duties allow. Of course we all will welcome your questions.

– Paul (MacNeil)

Tue Feb 14, 2000
Originally posted to WHChaikuforum as the fourth essay-lesson in the Haikuforum Seminar on “Traditional Renku in English

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