Judges' Commentary for 2005
There were seven entries for the renku contest this year, six kasen of thirty-six stanzas and one nij×in of twenty stanzas, all of which we received without knowing who had written them. After an initial read-through, we found that each of us had selected the same four entries, including the nij×in, as the best of the group. On re-reading, we were able to agree on a rank order for the three kasen, and we all felt that the nij×in ranked very close to the top. While our initial feelings were that a kasen is more work, being longer and requiring more time, we also considered that the shorter form is more challenging in some respects, as the verses must cover a range of topics comparable to that in a longer kasen while maintaining a sense of continuity. On closer inspection, we each felt that the nij×in had done the best job of offering a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience while the renku ideal of linking and shifting.
"City on the Hill" (nij×in) by John Stevenson and Merrill Ann Gonzales
While it maintains variety and forward momentum, "City on the Hill" simultaneously establishes a sense of complex unity by the cross-association of several overarching themes. It establishes a sense of doublenessÑ"city on the hill" seems both a real and present place and a utopian space in imagination. This doubleness works through the preface; after a more general opening verse, the wakiku brings the context of the city down to earthÑthis is a real place, home to one particular urban person, with a specific plant in a real garden. Then, the daisan opens up the fanciful, utopian dimension of this place: "the language/ of the honeybee/ in wide use". The wide is particularly effective in letting the reader re-contextualize the "place" as an imaginative invention like the spaces of Hesiod's Works and Days or Thoreau's Walden channeled through Yeats. The fourth stanza moves further into the realm of the shaping imagination and its connection to patterns in nature with Bach's "Little Fugue". Thus the opening section suggests a link between a utopian community and a real human place in nature, between the community at large and the individual, with the emphasis on the community.
The piece shows some wonderful tonal control. For example, the move from "we wander/ pathless heavens/ in our hot air balloon" to "fewer this year/ at the class reunion". On one level there is a mysterious elegiac backward pull that can let us read the hot air balloon ride as a kind of afterlife of the dead classmates. On another, there's the link between hot air and the empty small talk of the reunion that pulls in another direction without canceling or muting the previous association. We enjoyed these subtleties here and again, as in the expostulation that identifies "I'm supposed to be / Rumplestiltskin!" as relating to Hallowe'en, rather than using an obvious season word. This humorous tone plays well against an unpretentious use of cultural references that includes Bach and Shakespeare as well as the fairy tale. The images are concrete, but a subtle sub-text of relationships between people and between us and our environments runs throughout. All this despite the great variety of shifting images and situations that renku demands.
One interesting note: The authors of "City on the Hill" apparently chose consciously to observe the common "astronomical" seasons, rather than the traditional seasons of Japanese poetry that govern virtually all season-word lists. For example, we have "peonies" in the wakiku, which are normally an early summer topic in renku; here they serve to continue the spring imagery of the hokku. Later on, "fallen leaves" appears in a verse that must be in autumn according to its position and surroundings, though the set phrase "fallen leaves" is firmly in winter in the traditional Japanese view of the seasons. These references clearly alert the reader to which seasonal system is in play, and since the whole poem works consistently within this common understanding of the seasons, this feature seems an aspect of the poem's uniqueness, not a fault. (It's a bit like the use of a dictionary in Scrabble; the group has to agree on one, and then stick to it.)
There are a few problems with "City on the Hill" which kept us from moving it to a Grand Prize level, as could happen in this contest. In the preface, there is an immediate throwback of place-person-place. This kind of throwback did not reappear, however, and the general observance of the fine points of person-place variation in this poem is part of what set it above all of the kasen. At the same time, greater variety in linking methods would have improved this poem. A spate of linking by word rather than meaning or scent on the second side threatened to slow down the development, then the third side shifted to mainly meaning linkages. And the stanzas of "City on the Hill" often seem a bit shorter than they need be, with an occasional movement from a very brief three-liner to a two-liner actually longer both aurally and in syllable count. This tends to upset the prosodic rhythm, and is an area that all of our renku poets could pay more attention to. Finally, having two verses about blossoming flowers is nice, though not required in this short form; but having used a non-traditional blossom in the opening, if one wanted a blossom at the end it would be more traditional to at least use a blossoming tree.
These comments should not discourage the authors, however, as "City on the Hill" reads well and was enjoyed by all three judges on each round of reading and commenting on the renku.
Twitter by Peggy Willis Lyles, Mark Brooks, Christopher Herold, Paul MacNeil, Billie Wilson, Carol O'Dell
"Twitter" seems particularly fresh with its move from auditory to visual to tactile sensory images in the first three stanzas. And what has already been a sensuously rich opening ends with smell, from pine to apple. The seasons are particularly well handled throughout.
A number of linked pairs seem memorable: the #2 pencils suggest the beginning of school while also introducing the yellow/orange color of an autumn moon. The writers create first an exotic scene in "moonlight fades / blood on a street / through Pamplona", then move to a more mundane, local contest "another base hit / for the hometown girls." This pair's scent link is followed by a word link with "once organic carbon / now a famous diamond / on display". One judge laughed out loud at the link from a spouse asking "Honey" to help "tie these balloons / and then clean up that room" to "poof! / no more debt". This kind of variety in linking and the shifting meaning as a stanza plays first against the previous verse, then against the following, greatly enhances the readability of the renku.
The main problem with "Twitter" is the authors' apparent lack of awareness of the need for variety in person-place, which tended to bog down in runs of verses all from the same point of view, such as the run of "other" verses from 18 to 24 (verses about an apparent third person), and a preponderance of place verses (no people present) from 25 to 30, with the last three also all "other". Greater variety in this department, along with a little more attention to alternating stanza length and weight and avoiding almost telegraphically short stanzas, would have placed "Twitter" at the top of our list.
We hope our comments will help all who read the renku to enjoy them even more, and those who write renku to deepen their art. We each enjoyed reading all of the entries, and encourage renku authors to prepare poems in all three allowed lengths for next year's contest. Though on first appearance 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.
William J. Higginson