Renku is a form that thrives on variety and imagination. As a long poem it benefits from changes of pace and tone: surges of liveliness are interspersed with moments of quiet, tenderness follows rough-spokeness, playfulness gives way to more somber thoughts—these are ingredients of a masterful renku. All three of the renku we chose, "The Smell of Earth" (Grand Prize), "a glass of red" (First Honorable Mention), and "The Hour" (Second Honorable Mention), had these qualities; each takes the reader on an extended and enjoyable journey through an imagined and imaginative landscape that, for the most part, sustained its energy.
Counterbalancing the importance of variety is connection—linking—brief synapses of communication that bridge the span between adjacent stanzas, and only adjacent stanzas. A good link offers evidence that one poet has understood the essence of the preceding poet’s stanza. Furthermore, reading ought to flow swiftly through areas in which connections are meant to be close (prologue, love sequences, conclusion) and in areas where shifting is emphasized (the rest of the renku), connections ought to be subtle, thereby slowing the flow and demanding a more sustained attention from readers. In these respects, much of the linking in the three renku we chose was very good.
These aspects—variety, linking, imagination, change of pace, and change of tone—made all three of these renku contenders for the Grand Prize. The following discussion of the details of the poems and how they conformed to, or worked against, the renku “rules” is meant to reveal our thought processes, but we do not want it to detract from the overall success and the enjoyment we felt in reading and studying these final three poems.
There were some weaknesses in the renku we received, including the three we chose for awards. Since writing renku is by no means easy and perfection in the craft is, as far as we know, unheard of, we were willing to forgive some aberrations. Also, it is much easier to accept flaws, even critical flaws, with the understanding that, as important as the rules and guidelines are, it is equally important that we have fun with renku and support one another’s efforts to create these unique word-sculptures. When there is obvious enjoyment by the writers, of the process and of each other, it shows in the liveliness and verve of the resulting poem. In this spirit, we offer the following praise and criticism.
We would like to commend both linking and shifting in all of the renku we received. Each has sequences, some quite long, that are delightful in the ways they connect and separate from one stanza to the next. Take for example verses 9 -12 in “The Smell of Earth.” Verses 9 and 10 give us the image of a bride walking down the aisle as a storm approaches, wondering to herself whether she will be able to conceive in the eye of it. When verse 9 falls away and verse 10 is read with verse 11, the woman, instead of thinking to herself, seems to be sharing her concern with her lover, whose reply takes on a slightly professorial tone, “let’s imagine / this magnetic tape / is your DNA.” As we move on to consider verse 11 with verse 12, the speaker of “let’s imagine…” becomes, perhaps, a border patrolman, and the whole tone of the paired verses takes on a hard, sarcastic edge. This is superb connecting. Another sequence in this poem worth studying is 15-20. It was this kind of variety and imagination, as well as deft linking and shifting that earned “The Smell of Earth” the Grand Prize.
Look at the passage of verses 7 through 10 in “a glass of red,” a nijuin renku and our choice for First Honorable Mention. In verses 7 and 8 we see a couple standing together before their heirloom bed (7), one clad scantily in lingerie (8). When verse 7 fades into the background and verse 8 is read with verse 9, the scene shifts to an art studio and the implication made is that the subjects formerly seen as lovers are now an artist and a model. Continuing, when verses 9 and 10 are read together, the scene shifts outdoors to where a plein-air painter is capturing a locomotive on canvas!
We found another example of good link-and-shift technique in “The Hour,” also a nijuin renku and our second choice for an Honorable Mention. Consider verses 8-11. Reading 8 and 9 together, we can imagine someone on the computer reading e-mail and checking out a site on the Internet with a map of the battles of the Civil War. Verse 10 moves that map from the Internet to a human body, where it is seen in the form of a tattoo. The person who was a rather neutral observer in verse 9 now offers a point of view. Read with verse 10, verse 11 changes the scene to a supermarket and the person with a tattoo is suddenly thumping melons while grocery shopping. The linkage could be interpreted in more than one way: that there is an “art” to selecting a melon (by thumping its “body”) or that the melon itself is nature’s “art.”
The good writing in “The Smell of Earth” fell off toward the end. Starting with verse 30, the connections are a bit too obvious (harvester — bale/hay — needle — clue — maze). Four of the last seven stanzas have to do with finding things (the needle, a clue, a way out of the maze, and a new level); two, 34 and 36 (the ageku itself), link penultimately to stanzas 32 and 34 respectively. The delight we felt throughout the rest of the renku was thereby diminished. In addition to these difficulties the ageku itself, required to express a spring theme, features no such kigo. We understand that it is hard to sustain energy to the end of a thirty-six stanza poem. If this renku was written at a single sitting then the writers did very well up to verse 30 and are to be commended for consistently high quality writing up to that point. A good variety of topics was covered with few instances of repetition. Two were notable, however, occupations (stanzas 8, 21, and 26), and tools (stanzas 1, 32). Generally, a minimal repetition of subject-matter (in this case tools) is not a problem if there’s sufficient space between the references, but since the first mention of a tool comes in the hokku, the mention of another, anywhere in the renku, is a serious oversight.
The poems chosen for Honorable Mentions also ran into difficulties toward their conclusions. In “a glass of red” verses 17 and 18 seem too close (small town / Dorothy / Kansas). More problematic, its lovely closing verses use summer kigo (picnic baskets and cottonwood fluff) rather than the spring kigo required. There is also an imbalance between natural scenes and stanzas featuring human topics, the latter accounting for about 3/4 of this renku’s subject matter.
“The Hour” also weakened toward the end. After verses 15-17 linked “bond” and “bound” to a quote about duty, the dictum of Murphy’s law continues the theme. In addition to this, the blossom verse presents a summer flower before the final spring verse.
We are happy to note that, of the three renku we chose to honor, two were written by more than two poets. Our feeling is that renku’s greatest wealth lies in the variety of voices involved—the more the merrier. It’s what makes renku-writing so amazing.
We enjoyed reading all the poems submitted to this year’s contest. Our critique is offered with the best of intentions and we hope that our thought processes will prove useful to those who wish to refine their renku-writing skills.
Christopher Herold and Patricia Machmiller, 2008 Judges