Do Metrics Matter?

Notes on Renku
by John Carley


Do Metrics Matter?
April 2010


There’s nothing that can quite prepare you for giving a concerto in a salon in the Vatican. Except perhaps for Deep Space Nine: all those ranks of creatures in the most alien of robes, multifarious headgear obscuring what you feel should be basically humanoid features, but are reluctant to enquire about too closely, just in case.  Lots of billowing. Lots of enveloping. The silence that goes with being in thrall to the Dark Lord.

I’d got quite good at the bongos. Well, riq, bendir, tar, darbuk  – all of which are Arabic for ‘bongo’ – and was there to play a form of  13th century Christian devotional music which flourished, in the 13th century, thanks to the indulgence of the Muslim overlords of Moorish Spain. That was before smart bombs.

In truth getting good at bongos had taken a long, long time. In the end I achieved it by the simple ruse of giving up on the beat. Or the primary one anyway. Finally I learnt that all good bonghisti phrase their playing in a set of metres which are underpinned by the basic pulse of the music, but float above it. What you don’t do is go: boom, da-boom, da-boom. Well rarely. And when you do – it is deliberate.

I was thinking about this the other day whilst re-reading Gilbert and Yoneoka’s snappily titled ‘From 5-7-5 to 8-8-8. Haiku Metrics and Issues of Emulation — New Paradigms for Japanese and English Haiku Form’. I thoroughly recommend this paper. You will find it here.

What I do is memorise sections. When out on a recent  ginko a friend spotted the first bumble bee of the year and, exclaiming “haiku moment”, promptly went off to write a poem about a wasp. I was able to retaliate by shouting, “the eight beats in the segment are arranged into four sets of two beats each similar to metrical positions or mora thus we end up with three segments of four bi-moraic  feet or twelve feet altogether for a full haiku.” over and over until everyone went home.

Unlike me, Gilbert and Yoneoka know what they are doing. And one thing they are doing is to demonstrate that, like good bongo players, Japanese haijin express themselves in cadences which, far from being the core pulse of the poem, are in fact overlain on a stable and consistent base beat.  The hallowed and allegedly fixed phrasal cadences – the sainted 5/7/5 onji (only joking) – are therefore permissive of all sorts of slews and drags, syncopations and rests, because the unconscious mind recognises the fundament that is bubbling along underneath and automatically ties the surface metres to it – a phenomenon called “entrainment”.  Just to add insult to injury Gilbert and Yoneoka  treat this stuff like science; they set up experiments – wire some volunteers to sound recorders, polygraphs, or perhaps just the mains electricity supply -  and prove it.

Slews, drags, syncopations and rests – that sounds familiar. Likewise to our heroes. Here is a paradigm, they suggest, that just might get us beyond the weary old three cornered  17 syllables vs 2/3/2 stresses vs anything goes debate in respect of how we define our beloved English-language haiku. All of which would be great.  In theory. If anyone actually cared.

You see the thing is: haiku is what I say it is.  Or rather, haiku is what the editor of ‘Immanent’ says it is. So if getting published means using a tilde as kiremibob, it’s a small price.  And anyway last time there were Haiku Wars it meant blood on the tofu, Katie snapped her pencil and Tarquin didn’t speak to a soul for what seemed like an age. As for me, I just screamed and screamed and screamed until I went blue, which is not recommended when one is attempting to write one breath poetry.

Rather than reopen old wounds let us simply accept that the form of the English-language haiku is uniquely motile. Motile. A lovely word. The kind a poet would use. Which is a clue – less pedantry and more poetry please.  “Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem”, old chap.

He was a sharp one though, that William Seach. And the edge to his razor was surely “praeter necessitatem”. So given that this is supposed to be renku article let’s dispense with the Latin and bring on some real nonsense. It’s renku time!

the loan of a horse
to chase swallows
but how bitter
this our parting

Hokushi
a tattered heath in bloom
around the mountain

Sora
moonlight!
robe off
for sumo

Bashô
a glint of the sword
just as soon re-sheathed

Hokushi
otters a-leap
in the bluest of green deeps
the sound of water

Sora
cutting back brushwood
a ridgeway through bamboos

Bashô
• • •
hailstones are falling and somewhere – on mountainside,
at our left hand – Suge temple

Hokushi
four or five harlots
wandering abroad

Sora

Did you spot them all? These are the first eight from the kasen ‘Uma Karite’ by Basho, Sora and Hokushi.  The translations of the short verses are by Yachimoto and Carley; the long verses are by Carley after the style of Britton, Hearn, Stryk and Yuasa. But not in that order.

I have a sneaking respect for Britton’s versifications, whilst Hearn’s ‘dribbles of prose’ can sometimes seem strikingly modern.  Professor Stryk’s penchant for truncation is a mystery to me, but Yuasa’s quatrain is at least comprehensible on the grounds of an instinct for elegance allied to a powerful love of language.  The overall effect of this surfeit of cooks is a bit unbalanced though.  So let’s  go round again.

borrowing a horse
to chase swallows
oh, but this farewell

Hokushi
a tattered heath in bloom
around the mountain

Sora
“such moonlight!”
discarding his hakama
for a sumo match

Bashô
a glint of the sword
just as soon re-sheathed

Hokushi
as otters leap
into blue-green deeps
the sound of water

Sora
cutting back brushwood
a ridgeway through bamboos

Bashô
• • •
hailstones fall,
in the mountains to the left
Suge temple

Hokushi
four or five harlots
wandering abroad

Sora

This text is by Yachimoto and Carley. And the sixty four thousand dollar question is: in what way is the reading experience different to that of the earlier draft? Well actually the sixty four thousand dollar question is: what the heck happened to those harlots? But for that you’ll have to wait until we publish the full sequence.

This ‘unified’ text should feel more cohesive if only by dint of the fact that all verses are translated by the same team. This is not the place to go into the aesthetics of translation, but anyone familiar with an assortment of work from the real Britton, Hearn, Stryk and Yuasa will acknowledge that translation is necessarily an act of interpretation.  And that interpretations differ. It does help if translators read the source text though.

In the case of renku, one of the features of these source texts is that they are made up of more than one verse. And each of these several verses is phrased in a variant of the prime shichigochou cadence – a word which really should have something to do with Zen Buddhism, but turns out to just mean “sevens and fives”.  Significantly one verse follows the next, which follows the next, and so on. Each being written by a poet.

If they were simply fish mongers, or minor functionaries, this latter aspect of renku would not necessarily be a problem. But poets are a sensitive lot. And they are not just sensitive to the meaning of words like ‘motile’ , they also respond to their sound, and their emotional tenor.  The next thing you know the damned poets are tying all these words together in a quite deliberate way – weaving tapestries of correspondence that don’t stop at the verse boundary, but go on to inhabit the white space between verses.

One way to deal with this ultra-stanzaic web of semantic and phonic interdependence , for the translator, is to blank it. This is particularly useful as it allows us to dedicate entirely random quantities of words to the rendering  of any given verse,  just so long as we get the ‘sense’ right – an entirely justifiable approach given that poetry is the art of meaning.  Or is that philosophy?

Of course in the case of haiku, if we read the acres of waffle in which the beard-and-patchouli brigade of the last century were wont to luxuriate, metaphysics and the muse are one.  So we must go where the spirit takes us. And if it takes us to a 3m2 sheet of paper with only the word ‘expanse’ written in the top right hand corner – all well and good. As Basho said: “Go to the pine, if you would learn about the pine, but get there quick before it’s chopped down and pulped.”

Renku is different though.  Or the source texts are anyway. Reading them one gets the nasty suspicion that their authors regard poetry, at least in part, to be not so much the art of meaning, as of utterance.  The words used, the number of them, the shape of them, matters.  And they don’t just matter on a verse by verse basis, they matter in a verse to verse way. This is not just a matter of relative proportions, aspects of inter-verse linkage enter into it too.

There’s the rub. Even those people who talk of ‘deliberately incomplete literary artefacts’ acknowledge that a haiku is by definition a verse which stands on its own merits, in isolation. We may therefore mangle it as the mood takes us. But if we want to translate renku texts in a way that gives at least a hint of what the participants were up to we must deal with what Gilbert and Yoneoka politely refer to as ‘Issues of Emulation’. We have to move beyond the wholly inadequate formulation that “a long verse is written on three lines and a short verse is written on two”. Friends, you can write the Gettysburg Address on two lines. All you need is a wide enough sheet of paper. The ones the author of ‘expanse’ uses should be big enough. And bugger the pines.

So do metrics matter? Yes, obviously they do. At least in the case of renku translation – because metrics were an absolutely central consideration for the originators of the text we are treating.  And yes, this is not so much a paradox as the mother of all doxies because, whilst human experience tends to the universal, the number of grunts needed to convey any given strand  of sememes can vary wildly between grunters.  So a translation is the *hardest* place to address those issues of emulation; the art of utterance just sits there tapping its foot whilst the art of meaning is voluble one minute, taciturn the next. It is a truly tough cookie. How much easier to concentrate solely on the content of each verse; and if one verse requires three words to translate – and another thirty – all well and good. Surely  the reason Buson and Kito used those proportional cadences was because they were too damned stupid to do anything else.

But what if we’re writing renku of our own – fresh, new, adventurous texts – do metrics matter then?  Does it matter if my short verse is longer than my long verse so that my long verse is no longer long? Is successful emulation of Japanese teikei (fixed form) prosody a (sic) minimum condition for a piece of writing to qualify as ‘renku’?

No, it can’t be. It mustn’t be. The wonders of renku extend far beyond considerations of prosody alone, and our track record to date of examining those very real issues of emulation in English-language haikai is so abysmal that to stipulate such a minimum condition would be to put paid to the genre altogether.

But the suspicion must be that if we simply ignore metrics our writing is diminished.  Basho and Kikaku, Buson and Kito, Chiyo-ni and Suejo: they weren’t in fact stupid at all. As well as spouting all that high minded stuff, they also understood the nuts and bolts. If we wish to be like them, we need to be able to do the same. Reading Gilbert and Yoneoka might be a start.

As for me – I try my best, getting by not so much by dint of a fully formulated and commendably astute critical analysis, as by treating words as finger strikes. Which is where we came in – me, sitting on the stage in a salon full of frescos, blagging away on the bongos. Well, riq, bendir, tar, and darbuk.  But who was that Dark Lord? Like everything else in this article he was just made up, right? No. Actually this bit is true.  The guest of honour was one Joseph Ratzinger – the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – which is what used to be called’ The Inquisition’. Help!

Notes on Renku • John Carley
Do Metrics Matter? • April 2010
haijinx

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