Windswept Walk Comments by John Carley

British haiku and renku poet John Carley wrote the following comments to me on 28 October 2009, after I shared “Windswept Walk” with him. John’s comments appeared with the original renku in the Journal of Renga & Renku, #1, December 2010 (page 95), and are reproduced here with John’s permission. For anyone interested in the linked collaborative form of renku, I highly recommend John’s Renku Reckoner site. +

Trees be damned. I’ve printed off “Windswept Walk” and reviewed it over a couple of pints of Sunshine at the pub.

“Windswept Walk” is very interesting indeed. On so many levels.

I am struck by the thought that in sending the poems off into the void you created the potential for even higher levels of artistic selflessness than that which haikai-no-renga normally requires.

I once analyzed the stats of a sequence I was involved in (leading I think) where all the verse positions were “competitive” (degachi in Japanese). It came out that the likelihood of a candidate being adopted was something like 9:1 (so eight “wasted”) and even then the adopted candidates were 50 percent likely to undergo some sort of edit.

You’ve topped this: I wonder if one of the three vanished kasen actually got to verse 36, but was then swallowed whole by the Royal Mail. Or if another, at verse position #23, is still lodged between the floorboards of an abandoned caboose in a freight yard in Hyderabad!

“Windswept Walk” was a salutary read for me. I’ve spent a lot of time recently, in a blurry kind of way, wondering about the necessary requirements for a poem to be considered as “renku” (in the narrow sense of “contemporary Bashō school haikai no renga”).

The renku has some wonderful moments of verse-to-verse movement—which is hardly surprising given the caliber of people writing. There is a general aura of sparkiness, of wit and unpredictability. And so of course the piece justifies itself as a creative undertaking. Plus there is a distinct “performative” or “sociological” aspect too that the poem is a structured medium for interpersonal exchange.

Apart from the odd quibble or blip therefore it certainly satisfies Meiga Higashi’s minimalist technical criterion for “renku”, i.e., that it exhibits effective “link and shift.” And that’s where my ruminations come in: was Higashi being too “liberal”?

As you know I have a whole rack of axes to grind about the significance of stanza form and styles of prosody in English-language haikai. So let’s look beyond that, to the “whole poem” level.

I think that one of the reasons for the Bashō school’s rapid preeminence was that they got the sequence length correct. The kasen is long enough to reasonably satisfy notions of “including all things” but short enough to allow the poets to achieve concerted effects of dynamic control (jo-ha-kyu effectively realized for the first time in the field of literature).

But a crucial condition for the realisation of this paradox of variety and coherence is za no bungei—the literature of the collective assembly (or some such). I think the renku revival of the last half century (in both Japan and the West) has focused perhaps inevitably on the startling centrifugal forces that are at the heart of the renku generative dynamic. But this is unfortunate if we fail to consider that there are centripetal forces too. One such, perhaps the single most important, is the “collective consciousness” or whatever Jungian construct we want to put on the plural process of renku composition.

And in order for the “collective” to be meaningful I think it has to be “dialogic”—a toing and froing, a negotiation, ongoing, and over-arching.

Hence our starting point. The participants in Alan Summers’ colossal thousand-verse renga cannot conjoin in “owning” the poem. The 36 contributors to “Windswept Walk” necessarily committed an act of faith in consigning their verses to the void. And is the hyakuin, despite the skill of any given sextet of poets, simply too long at 100 verses to provide a tight and concerted reading experience for the audience?

I must be some kind of nut, because I find these issues endlessly fascinating.

Best wishes, John

—John Carley