A Hundred Gourds 3:2 March 2014

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Essay: on Gendai Haiku and ‘Bristlecone’, a Muki renku

By Eiko Yachimoto

I have been writing renku both in Japanese and English for more than 15 years and feel it is high time we somehow cut horizon for the renku criticism to better introduce renku, a unique genre of literature. With this in mind I have tried a critical essay on a renku I found in the renku column of A Hundred Gourds.


bristlecone pines;
they straddle two dimensions—
mountain wind


opening the stone,
a sapling sprung forth

William Sorlien (WS)

a red wheelbarrow
leans against the fence
its tyre deflating

Sandra Simpson (SS)

how many tassels
has a cardinal’s galero?

Tzetzka Ilieva (TI))

la bella luna
shares a doorway
with the mourning dove

Pat Nelson (PN)

planting daisies
how pale my hands!



disturbed beneath
the wrack and mire
turtles all the way down


only Poseidon’s trident
was found washed ashore


so auspicious
second-hand yard schlock
recovered from the storm


in the eye of a stranger
old lover’s gaze


at first I laugh
and then I cry
watching the city lights


from executive suite-
tents in Zucotti


pigeons and pinstripes
scatting across
the canvas squares

Barbara A. Taylor (BT)

does it shine,
also on the Sea of Tranquility?


a neon sign
in the palm reader’s window
only half-lit


at the station
fresh out of tickets to sell



high up above
an Escher-like
grid of power lines

Ashley Capes (AC)

a radio voice
talks about the blue jay sky


crackle, crackle…
the hen’s eggs sizzle away the day


the scent of cilantro
from my old umbrella


inside the volumes
of Van Gogh’s letters
one pressed flower


we promise to meet again
for the next meteor display


Why did I feel urged to write my experimental review on Bristlecone?

I even have translated Bristlecone, a new triparshva renku, into Japanese. The answer relates to one gendai haiku haijin who died his quiet cancer death on 29 June 2013. The haijin by the name Toru Sudo had been a guest at AIR (the Association for International Renku, which I am a member of) one time and we became friends. Before we compose another renku together, he passed away …

On 21 June the secretary of Sudo’s haiku group received his mail submitting five new haiku, a usual practice a haijin does when he/she can’t make it to the kukai. Here is the fifth haiku:

sagan nite ugan o gyoshi hikigaeru           Tohru Sudo

with his left eye
gazing at the right bank
an old toad

His unexpected death caused waves in the haiku group. Mitsuo Matsumoto, another friend of mine, took initiative and gathered Sudo’s friends in Shigitatsu-an, a hut for poets. On 31 August, we wrote a kasen starting with his very last haiku. The waki was written by Mitsuo:

kankan-bo ga jitensha o kogu         Mistuo Matsumoto

a panama hat
riding the bicycle

Then Kifu Futagami, the sabaki wrote the Daisan:

zen’ei o umi no soko made tsuranuite         Kifu Futagami

the vanguard
persistently pursued down
to the sea bottom

The session under the thatched roof equipped with only one electric fan and two mosquito coils made the dead man walk; a good many memory verses have been incorporated into the kasen with 14 participants.

In addition to this kasen, the group has decided to publish a feature issue of their magazine to be dedicated to Sudo, the founder. I was invited to contribute a piece.

I decided to send my translation of Bristlecone, which I name A Muki Renku , believing it would please the dead poet. Unlike most haijin of Japan, he had been known for his deep understanding of poetry, from Greco-Roman to modern European; his mindset always included the world outside of Japan. In fact he had been a leader of Gendai Haiku Kyokai for as long as 10 years.

According to the rules of a new triparshva, there are three categories: gendai, shasei and cultural just like in a new junicho of 12 verses which Ashley Capes introduced in the exposition below:

Readers, the category of gendai, which has a lot to do with A Muki Haiku, is a link between the live kasen session in Shigitatsu-an and Bristlecone, A Muki Renku.

Let us briefly confirm three categories of a new junicho:

The cultural category comprises half the poem. It contains six topics: art, film, literature, music, politics, and religion. Each appears once, in any order. Gendai and shasei are descriptions of style, not content. The terms reflect their usage amongst contemporary writers rather than a strictly academic interpretation.

There are two gendai verses. These are intentionally modernist, atypical or otherwise challenging in terms of structure, style and/or content. They tend to be prominent.

The four shasei verses are more flexible. They draw directly on lived experience, are observational, uncontrived, and devoid of compositional artifice – qualities generally associated with the maxim to sketch from life.

-- from the renku reckoner web page by John E. Carley.

I understand the number for each category is increased proportionately for a triparshva of 22 verses. My understanding of gendai and shasei cannot help being associated with the two different haiku leaderships in present day Japan. In Japan there are two strong haiku associations: Gendai Haiku Kyokai and Traditional Haiku Kyokai. Mr. Sudo, the dead poet, had been on board of the Gendai Haiku Association for nearly ten years. The association had been founded in 1947 soon after Japan surrendered and thereby ended WWII. I recall reading that a muki haiku, or a haiku without a season word written by ‘some’ aspiring haijin made ‘some’ old master frown during WWII and the radical departure from the haiku tradition eventually gave an excuse to ‘some’ governmental authorities for arresting those people who believed in vanguard haiku – this incident usually referred as Kyodai (Kyoto University) Incident is a history which must not repeat itself anywhere in the world. I assume Gendai Haiku Association was founded celebrating the new age, released from the oppression of free speech. Compared to the gendai’s background, the word shasei has the strong association with Traditonal Haiku Kyokai founded much later in 1987 by a grand-daughter of Takahama, Kyoshi for the purpose of reconfirming the tradition of ka-cho-fu-getsu, or blossom, bird, wind and moon.

Haijin in the Gendai Association do write a haiku with a kigo, but they heartily respect a muki haiku. Both ‘zoh’ and ‘muki’ become no season when translated into English. So-called “zoh”, or no season verses, in a long history of renga and renku, are said to have given birth to a senryu, but zoh verses have nothing to do with the striking emergence of a muki haiku during WWII. The word muki , which literally means no season, should rather be called a zero-kigo haiku. And some of them are considered most prominent of all gendai haiku.

In introducing Bristlecone to Japanese readership I would like to call it a muki renku. Here I quote from Ashley’s exposition: quote allowing Cultural allusion verses to take the place of the seasons as the key substructure to the renku. unquote I am happy to find that a new junicho, even though it does not use kigo, has got the key structures which would, in my opinion, help avoid the text becoming too distant from the renku tradition. Ashley says, “a new junicho would not do well to bury the reader in Intertextuality. Some respite is needed, and thus there must be room for Shasei verses and their immediacy”. Though I do not think burying the reader in intertextuality is the sign of a successful renku writing, I understand his explanation. I like the way it touches the need of a soft and nuanced verse to create a wave, which Japanese sabaki uses as one of his sabaki technique.

The goal of my review is not only to prove what is important depends neither on rules nor templates, but also to prove that a traditional renku, too, depends not so much on rules and templates as fresh, creative, spontaneous and intuitive links. I am afraid to observe that some beginners depend too much on outlines and templates that are readily available and looking somewhat authorized.

I was attracted to Bristlecone for its vivid tempo, successive images and fearless links, in other words, for its strength and energy. Understanding the rules applied to Bristlecone has been a daunting challenge, though. Neither gendai nor shasei is the concept used for the purpose of verse allocation in a typical Japanese renku composition.

In evaluating link offers from renju (participating poets), a Japanese sabaki usually use the following yardsticks:

1) effect of seasons which include moon and blossom
2) topic coverage, including love, to enrich the renku world
3) concept of ji-ta-ba to be used for the purpose of avoiding a renku from becoming monotonous. “ji-ta-ba” means to evaluate the offer by asking these questions; is it a person verse, or a landscape verse? If it is a person verse, is it a first person verse or a third person verse?
4) a renku wave created by mixing a breathtaking verse of its own value and a yari-ku or a light verse that works like a nuanced punctuation.

The yardsticks above were not used in Bristlecone as such, but I observe that the category of cultural can be taken as a rough replacement of the topic coverage, and that I can sense a vague similarity between the yardstick 2 and Ashley’s reasoning for a light ‘shasei’ verse.

As for the yardstick 1, I tried to fathom seasons from the unusual depth. Can’t we consider that the essence of the seasons is time and being timeless is also relevant to time? You may already know but ‘gendai’ in Japanese means ‘modern times’. The concept of muki too depends on season for that matter. This renku, starting with the impressive hokku about the astoundingly long life of Bristlecone pines, which I translated into Jomon Matsu, has an acute sensitivity to time. This explains why I found it a very strong renku at my initial reading. Here I would like to emphasize that haikai, or renku/haiku/haibun, is the genre based on this sensitivity.

The starting verse of the second folio, ‘turtles all the way down’, resonates with the presiding bristlecone pines with their bone-white bark covering grains of the wood. I also love Verse #10: ‘in the eyes of the stranger/an old lover’s gaze’. This natural sketch of a convincing moment, in my playful second reading, gave me an astronomical number of DNA types over the long span of time. I also love a light and nuanced grasp of passing time in Verse #19 while the ‘eggs sizzle away the day’ crackling. Ageku, the last verse is, of course, very time conscious as well. All renkujin know that the adjective ‘old’ is a magic word in a renku and we try to limit its usage to once in one renku. I ask myself a little question: couldn’t the old umbrella in verse #20 have been edited to ‘my faded umbrella’ ? This question, however, does not change my high score of this renku.

Now the yardstick 3. The 6th verse with ‘how pale my hands’ stands out for its immediate ji utterance after a landscape or ba , the beautiful moon verse. Verse 3 composed as a honkadori from a famous poem by William Carlos Williams makes a vivid ba or a landscape verse and the sharp image of verse #17 with power lines is also a delightful ba. In the past my observation was that there was a tendency of too many ta, or third-person verses when renku was written in the English language. With the ageku about ‘we’ and several other first person verses well scattered, this renku is exceptional from the view point of ji-ta-ba as well.

I have to admit that the first folio reads rather radically compared to one in a kasen, and that we normally do not compose about a pressed flower at the blossom position. However, a pressed flower inserted to a bound volume of Van Gogh letters works as a special blossom verse. I can imagine how intensely Gogh must have appreciated the full almond blossom in the sun… The precious keepsake creates a wave peak, at least for me … This renku clears the yardstick 4.

My review approach may be annoying some of you, but my point is to emphasize that a sabaki has ample discretion and a participating poet can submit just about any link he or she feels fit for the position without worrying about the rules and the templates. That can be said to ALL renku forms. Each and every renku is not a complicated rule-bound composition, but it is supposed to be the most futuristic body of literature in which each of us can live, encounter and confirm the strength of humanity albeit vulnerable and changeable as an individual each of us is. For me going to a live renku session leaving my everyday life behind is fun, responsibility, and therapy at the same time; it always takes several verses before each of us has tuned into poetry and to shared consciousness of the particular place and the particular time of a session. As the session progresses, fuelled by everyone’s interactions and each poet’s mental and spiritual endeavour, we start to feel as if we were in a vague fictional cosmos that has emerged from the text, so to speak. It is always the case that the magic of all magics of the enormous world of renku lies in each little image poem expressing our awareness, frailty, lined with nuanced breathing and a faint light of our hope. In a renku , so called rules and forms are helpers and never dictators.

Even though Bristlecone was not composed in a live session, I sensed the liveliness from the text. Here I find the most important yardstick not mentioned before: enthusiastic love of poetry shared by participating poets. The passion being in the core of gendai haiku, especially the Muki Haiku at its birth, I can now see why Mr. Sudo, the haijin of the Gendai Haiku Kyokai was eager to promote renku while most haijin in Japan would choose to stay in each of their own cosy haiku circle only.

I feel honoured to have been allowed to translate a Muki Renku written in the renku tradition into the Japanese language*.

Eiko Yachimoto
1 October, 2013
Yokosuka city, Japan

*Japanese translation of the new triparshva follows:


縄文松のまたぐ異次元深山風        PA gendai1
 大石割って萌えでし若木         ウイリアム shasei 2
あの赤の手押し車はパンクして       サンドラ literature 3
 頭巾ふさふさ司教様です         イリエヴァreligion 4
悲しみは月と一緒に戸口から        パット music 5
 蒼白き手のひな菊を植え         サンドラ shasei 6


ぬかるみの世界の芯ぞ亀又亀        ウイリアム genda 7
 海神の槍のみ流れ着く岸辺        イリエヴァ art 8
嵐過ぐ中古安物のみ戻る          PA shasei 9
 行きずりの人にあの人の瞳        パット shasei 10
笑いそして涙ににじむ街灯り        イリエヴァ film 11
 ホームレス見下ろすスィートの窓     パット politics 12
壁一面糞をちり撒く鳩の群         バーバラ gendai13
 発光ありや「静かの海」聴く       サンドラ music 14
手相見の窓辺のネオン故障中        パット religion 15
 ちょうど売り切れ列車の切符       ウイリアム film 16


エッシャーグリッド頭上の電線      アシュレ art 17
 ラジオが語る空青い鳥         パットpolitics 18
一日をひび割れすすむ卵あり       バーバラ shasei 19
 古い傘からコリアンダの香       イリエヴァgendai  20
本になる「ゴッホの手紙」押し花ひらり  サンドラ literature 21
 次に隕石降る夜会おうね        イリエヴァ shasei 22

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