Judges' Commentary for 2006
2006 Judges' Comments:
We received six anonymous entries for the renku contest this year, two each of thirty-six stanzas (kasen), twenty stanzas (nijuin), and twelve stanzas (junicho). We found much to like in at least one of each length, despite a number of problems. At first, we felt that a kasen is more work, being longer and requiring more time, but we also considered that the shorter forms can be more challenging, since the verses must cover a range of topics comparable to that in a longer kasen while maintaining a sense of continuity. Ultimately, we felt that one of the twelve-stanza works offered the most enjoyable reading experience while exemplifying the renku ideal of linking and shifting. And we found a twenty-stanza work worthy of an honorable mention.
We hope our comments will help all who read renku to enjoy them even more, and those who write renku to deepen their art. We enjoyed reading this year's entries, and encourage renku authors to prepare poems in all three lengths for next year's contest. Though the shorter forms may seem less impressive than the full-length kasen, in fact each length offers particular challenges. Perhaps in the next year or two we can have winners in each division, for 12-, 20-, and 36-stanza renku, with a "best of show" Grand Prize.
2006 Judges: Hortensia Anderson, William J. Higginson, and Johnye Strickland
First Place Winner: "Chinese New Year" (junicho) by John Stevenson, Yu Chang, and David Giacalone
The twelve stanzas of "Chinese New Year" move easily through the seasons, starting with the title verse in early spring and a second verse on the mid- spring topic of a "leaking roof"; in the second group of three stanzas we have a "down jacket" of winter. The "orange blossoms" of the third three-verse sequence indicates early summer while providing a lovely blossoming fruit-tree image, a neat haikai twist on the usual blossoming fruit tree of spring in longer renku that makes up for the felt omission of a flower stanza among the opening spring verses. (In fact, the requirement in a junicho differs from that in other renku; any flower in any season fulfills its rubric.) The thoroughly Western orientation of the season words while maintaining the traditional seasonal calendar shows up especially well in the final two verses on autumn, mentioning the "harvest moon" and a "hayride." The phrase "room for all" in the last verse provides a particularly salutary, optimistic note for the conclusion.
Perhaps the greatest strength of "Chinese New Year" is the variety in its linking. As usual, the first and second verses link simply and closely, from the setting for a meal to a tea kettle. But the third verse, the daisan, moves dynamically away from this peaceful scene, from "leaking" to a boating catastrophe, a sunken riverboat. The "dueling pistols" recovered from same both suggest a reason for the boat having sunk, and a possible death by violence. (Note that in a junicho, no topic is excluded from the first "page," the first three stanzas. This is one of the significant traits that sets the junicho apart from its longer cousins, the nijuin and kasen.) Responding to the disasters of the third stanza, the next moves to the riverside with its sighing cattails, which then turn into lovers' sighs. The pleasure of the lovers' candlelight, however, turns dramatically toward religion, exemplified by feuding popes. The brief historical visit fades in "cloud shadows" to reveal the lovely orange blossoms, which suddenly transform into those on a new Florida license plate, revealing another side of human vanity and lack of concern for our fellows. The brilliant leap from the doctor to the privacy of a bathroom mirror sets the stage for another play of light on the face of the harvest moon, with its reassurance that while many things come and go, that moon returns. Finally, the moonlight becomes a simple setting for the final hayride.
There are a few problems with "Chinese New Year" which kept us from moving it to the Grand Prize level, as can happen in this contest. While "cattails" is a nice link from the riverboat in the previous stanza, it is also a summer season word, in both Japanese saijiki and American wildflower guides. As such, it grates against the wintry "down jacket" in the following verse. This points up the need for expanded season-word lists being available to renku writers, as including season words that go unrecognized by one's colleagues can undermine the flow of a poem for other readers who do notice them. Meanwhile, though each verse works very well in its context and shifts beautifully away from immediately preceding materials, the "retaliatory excommunication" of the popes in verse seven might be construed as somewhat of a throwback on the same theme as the "dueling pistols" in the third verse; this probably would not bother most Japanese renku masters, but some Western renku writers would feel a pinch. Also, "Chinese New Year" could use more attention to person- place, both in avoiding throwbacks and in increased variety of person verses. Having both the first and last stanzas "public" verses—that is, showing undetailed groups of people rather than clear-cut individuals—seems a large percentage for so short a renku. In shorter renku, such problems may stand out more than they would in longer poems. These comments should not discourage the authors, however, as "Chinese New Year" reads well and was enjoyed by all three judges.
Honorable Mention: "Dappled Light" (nijuin) by Andrew Shimield, Diana Webb, and Frank Williams
The twenty stanzas of "Dappled Light" have a sense of cohesiveness that most of the other entries lack. Some high-quality runs of successive stanzas help in this regard; for example, the run from the Buddha to meditation and a "fix on the moon" to the love verse beginning "she presses his gift" moves very nicely, though a first person or "self" verse would have been welcome for variety of person-place at #5, and "fallen" tends to give the autumnal maple leaf a wintry touch. (Some careful editing after-the-fact can help with problems like this that may not be evident during composition, but are easily repaired.) In the latter half, a "frozen" moon links well with the waiting cat, and the arrow's sound suggests the release of the tension we see in that previous verse.
"Dappled Light" also contains a number of technical problems that keep it from placing above honorable mention. There are three proper nouns in the opening page or section, one of which involves religion; while this would be acceptable in a twelve-stanza junicho, it runs against the grain in longer renku forms, where such things are restricted to later in the poem. There's also a throwback between the painter in the second verse and a "relief" sculpture in the fourth, both referring to visual art. A run of five consecutive "place" verses slows things down as the poem moves past the middle, and indeed, seven of the last ten are place verses. The seasonal work seems a little unsure. A run of autumn verses including the British holiday "Bonfire Night" (October) and a maple leaf drops away after only two verses, while autumn normally continues for three verses in a twenty-stanza renku. The only reference to summer seems to be mention of "Blackpool sands," evidently a vacation destination, but not a clear reference. (In renku composition, if the collaborators agree on the seasonality of a verse, it may stand as such; as a competition entry, however, seasonality should not be in question for other readers.) The two successive winter stanzas contain, respectively, "frosty" and "snow" in the first and "frozen" and "ice" in the second—surely repetitive use of similar language over and above the frowned- upon inclusion of multiple season words in single stanzas. In its favor, "Dappled Light" does have a three-verse spring sequence at the end.