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Earthquake Season: Tomegaki

When a renku sequence is completed in Japan the poem-leader (sabaki) will often write a tomegaki (closing note). This can take the form of a general debrief, addressing a variety of points raised during the course of composition, or it may take a single issue and examine it in some detail. In truth the present notes stretch the concept of 'tomegaki' somewhat as they are written a considerable time after the poem's completion.

What it is, in terms of what it is not

The seasons must be important to renku. Every glib description of a particular type of sequence is couched in terms of how many spring blossoms or autumn moons there are and the order in which they must appear (if in doubt see the notorious Renku Reckoner by a certain Carley J E). As for the many season words themselves: the Big Boy's Book of Kigo can now boast as many as 15000 listings. That's enough to write 813 Kasen without danger of repeating oneself. Or, for those serious about their rules: one must now write 813 Kasen before one is allowed to repeat oneself.

In so far as the New Junicho casually dispenses with such technicalities it is tempting to analyse it in terms of what it is not. As Wilde observed: the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it, but first let's look at the New Junicho in terms of what it does. Definitely.

What it definitely does do

Renku is not poetry-by-numbers. By junking a barrow-load of convention the New Junicho does the invaluable service of pointing out that renku verses might have the correct number of lines, the correct number of camellias, the correct number of happy thoughts, and employ the correct type of seisokuzuke (correct-linkage), yet still be in every way ghastly. Of themselves moons, blossoms and frogs-in-ponds guarantee absolutely nothing whatsoever. Such things may be the prompt or context for good writing. They do not constitute the writing itself.

More of definitely

An interesting feature of the New Junicho is that whilst it dispenses with a host of the more familiar fixed topics, the ones it introduces are not just plucked out of the air. As Ashley Capes remarks elsewhere in this journal, give or take a few silicon chips, the topics in his newly proposed cultural category find their counterparts in the more high-brow medieval linked verse known as ushin renga, which in turn fed into the Basho-school haikai-no-renga. For all that they no longer appear at fixed positions in Basho's Kasen such topics as religion, philosophy, literature, drama, and song are very much present. So much so that in the opening movement – jo – they are effectively barred!

Neither is the idea of gendai (modernistic) verses without precedent. In his recently advanced Rokku the contemporary Japanese poet and critic Haku Asanuma devotes an entire movement to verses which must employ experimental prosody. But perhaps more surprising is the evidence from Basho's own writing which suggests a degree of ambivalence towards strictness of form; some of Kikaku's stanzas in the latter part of The Verse Merchants (Shi Akindo) are so radical that editors duly 'corrected' them, believing them to be the result of transcription errors. Or drunkenness. And in terms of content, so pervasive is the effect of official deification that it is sometimes difficult to understand quite how unusual some of Basho's subjects and treatments were.

The word 'deification' brings us inevitably to miserly Masaoka. Much as one would like to dismiss Shiki out of hand his theory of shasei remains a valuable, if far from unique, examination of how verses centred on lived experience protect a poem from artificiality. Given that the New Junicho dispenses with fixed seasons and seasonal topics perhaps Mr Capes' proposed shasei verses can take up some of the slack in terms of grounding us in the real world.

Which is where we came in. Or rather, where the itch of temptation started. It is a truly radical step to formally dispense with the seasons of said 'real world', so it is inevitable that the New Junicho will be scrutinised in terms of what it may or may not do as a result.

A bit definitely, or perhaps not very

So let's throw together some headers which describe the functions of seasonal reference in renku and see how the New Junicho measures up:

Correctness

Argument: Some people believe that the inclusion of an appropriate season word, at a preordained juncture, is a requirement. It ensures that a verse is correctly composed i.e. that it follows the rules.

Counter: Such people have strange personal habits and should be shunned.

Variety

Argument: Renku is not thematic; it is quintessentially anti-thematic. Central to the genre are notions of totality and oneness-through-variety. The natural world is seen as indivisible from the affairs of man. Verses which express the full range of seasons are therefore guarantors of diversity and extent.

Counter: The topic categories of the New Junicho do not proscribe any form of content. Given that in renku a topical designation is a contextual element only there is no more reason for a New Junicho 'literature' verse to exclude a mention of 'winter' than there is for a Kasen 'winter' verse to avoid also referencing 'literature'.

Reality

Argument: It is important to be real in one's writing. One should depict lived experience. A lack of artificiality is most readily found in relation to the natural world.

Counter: It depends on whose natural world. What it the value of writing about cherry blossoms if you live in the Sahara? For many, lived experience is as likely to be urban. Or virtual. And when was the last time you pounded rice cakes?

Vertical Axis

Argument: Season words and topics have hon'i (poetic essence) – the cluster of values and associations which are conjured up by the mention of a particular bird, agricultural activity, festival etc. These overtones can add layers of resonance to a verse where a direct reference would sink it.

Counter: Films, tunes, books, characters, political events have hon'i too. "Bzzt. Bzzt. One... small… step. Bzzt."

Special Sensitivity

Argument: Something in the national psyche makes the Japanese soul uniquely attuned to the relationship between man and creation. The seasonal almanac, the saijiki, represents a special resource of poetic insight which is lost if we can no longer rely on the seasons as a centrepiece of our poem.

Counter: There's nothing like a bit of racial stereotyping to warm the cockles, eh!

Cohesion and Linkage

Argument: When a group of verses share the same season they follow a logical chronology. Specially in longer forms of renku as a timeframe unfolds it adds an element of cohesion. Even in the shortest forms, like the Junicho Old, where a pair of verses share the same season the automatic association allows other elements in the verse greater scope to tighten or loosen the linkage at will.

Counter: Yes. True. But to link through the season alone is poor writing. What should be a contextual element mustn't be elevated to the foreground. If renku is not thematic, a season cannot be treated as a theme. The New Junicho avoids this pitfall.

Cycles

Argument: The structure of the Kasen makes it plain that fine renku relies more on re-contextualisation than on novelty. We can see this clearly in the loosely cyclical distribution of the seasonal passage. As autumn moon comes round again we don't just duplicate the earlier verse, we use the superficial sameness to show difference.

Counter: Hmmn. Also true. But that's really only crucial in the Kasen, and to a lesser extent in the Triparshva, or a long Rokku. And if you are skilful enough you can achieve the same effect by other forms of subversion of what is initially seen as a repeated element of one sort or another.

Stages

Argument: Highly prominent verses such as autumn moon and spring blossom work in combination with the folio divisions to act as staging posts in a poem's development. So a seasonal reference can evoke the cyclical qualities of the seasons whilst marking the linear evolution of the poem itself.

Counter: True again. But again also only really relevant to longer sequences. Junicho the Older doesn't have folio divisions and doesn't oblige spring blossom or autumn moon either. If that's all the arguments you can muster we're done here.

Conclusion

Nobody ever learnt anything by following a set formula. Art is not created by default.

The New Junicho has merit by dint of innovation alone. But it has more to recommend it. The new method highlights aspects of practice which have been lost or ignored whilst obliging a comprehensive re-evaluation of attitudes to seasonal reference, both as components of a verse, and as elements of the overall structure of a poem.

It may be that the approach Mr Capes has originated will not lend itself as readily to longer sequences. But Earthquake Season was only ever intended to be a twelve verse poem. And the experience of reading it is more important than the meaning of 'New', 'Junicho' or 'Renku'.

Erm, while we're on the subject of making things up – there's no such word as seisokuzuke (correct-linkage). Sorry.

John Edmund Carley (UK)


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