We judges walked a tightrope this year, attempting to balance our desire to promote English-language renku (through perhaps the most venerable competition in the genre) and our concern about misrepresenting deeply flawed work as worthy of emulation. Each of this year’s nine entries (five kasen, three nijuin, and one junicho) exhibited more than one of the following serious problems:
1) Failure to recognize that renku is something other than a sequence of haiku and senryu. The only verse that should exhibit the qualities we have come to expect in a haiku is the hokku. Most importantly, it is the only verse in a renku that is intended to stand alone as complete in itself. After the opening verse the poetry should not take place within the verses but between them, through the interplay of link and shift. One element of the hokku, that all but one of this year’s contestants used in many of the subsequent verses, was the cut (kireji). A renku with breaks in verses other than the hokku is generally choppy, monotonous, and unpleasant to read. Almost certainly such renku will fail to exhibit the continuous forward motion that is such an important attribute of this form of collaborative writing.
2) Failure to adhere closely to a prescribed order of seasonal, and other, verse requirements. We don’t mean by this to discourage an occasional departure or innovation. But to be recognizable as renku, entries need to be close enough to a known renku model that we can recognize a departure when it occurs. A few of the many examples of problems in this area included: multiple, sometimes contradictory seasonal references in a single verse; retrograde movement within a verse section; dropping and then reacquiring a season within what should have been a sequence of three consecutive seasonal verses.
3) Lack of balance. This aspect of craft includes overuse of certain topics (e.g. naming eight mammals in a twenty verse renku) thus minimizing the potential for variety; over reliance on either human or non-human images; unevenness in the flow of emotional tone; repetition of words other than articles,
conjunctions, or other words that will tend to recur often in naturally spoken English.
4) Apparent lack of understanding in regard to the required distinctions in overall tone between the opening, middle, and closing sections of the renku.
5) Retrograde linkages. No subsequent verse of a renku should repeat material from the hokku or even read as an obvious link or reference to material in the hokku. Care also needs to be used to avoid linking to the “leap over” verse (the one preceding the verse to which the poet is seeking to provide a link). The closing verse should not attempt to create a circle by harking back to the hokku.
6) Obvious errors of English-language grammar, spelling, and usage. (We are referring to situations other than those in which an exception is clearly utilized to invoke a particular effect.)
7) Lack of romantic love, particularly passion and longing, in the love stanzas. We could go on in this vein. The question arises then, why award a prize at all this year. Our answer comes in the words of one of world renku’s best friends in Japan, the late professor Shinku Fukuda. He said, “First, it has to be fun. If people enjoy writing renku, they will continue to do so and, in the process, naturally desire to improve their skills.” Since we are all, more or less, beginners in this genre, we think it’s appropriate to apply Professor Fukuda’s adage to the current works. Accordingly, we present “Last Year’s Blossom” for your consideration and enjoyment. While it contains some of the flaws described above, it also exhibits elements that are characteristic of the best renku elements that we can sincerely celebrate and recomment. Our further comments will focus primarily on these pleasures.
2007 Judges: John Stevenson and Christopher Herold
Einbond Award for 2007: "Last Year’s Blossom" by Andrew Shimield & Frank Williams
The authors of “Last Year’s Blossom” have done an excellent job of making the poetry happen between rather than within the verses. This allows for much more variety in the rhythm and tone of the work as a whole. Particularly satisfying examples of link and shift include the interplay of scale
between an image of dividing cells in verse #8 and a whale in verse #9; the contrast of gradual and rapid movements between verses #17 (a human sculptor of stone) and #18 (rapids cutting through a narrow gorge). Readers may wish to note that we came to recognize the “caravan” in verse #4 to be what we in the United States refer to as a travel trailer. While fulfilling its requirement to feature a summer moon image, verse #5 brings in the topic of military history through the novel approach of citing an historical event: the English Civil War battle that was fought at Marsden Moor took place on a summer day early in July, 1644. The final verse (ageku) presents certain innovations that we judges cannot endorse: the appearance of a second blossom reference and its positioning as the last verse, especially in a renku that also features a blossom in the hokku. We feel that the ageku does manage to downplay the mistake of creating a circle between the end and the beginning of the renku. The hokku is visual and cerebral, with an element of memory whereas the ageku is olfactory and tactile and very much in the present. Also, this verse represents very successfully the sort of open, expansive, and forward-looking tone with which a renku is expected to conclude.
The poets have succeeded in the love verses by focusing on the romantic love of human beings. More than this, renku love verses should be primarily about love between adult human beings and should not shy away from sexuality as an important element of that love. In both pairings of love stanzas, the relationship moves forward. The first kiss in #6 transitions nicely to the longing for more such romance in #7. While bringing some needed sensuality into play, verse #13 also adds the variety of a snippet of dialog. This titillatingly ambiguous remark morphs into the renewing of vows. For these and other renku pleasures, we congratulate the authors of “Last Year’s Blossom.”