Monday, August 11, 2014


Microcosmos, my latest book, is finally published!  Microcosmos is subtitled, The Art of the Solo Renga.  It is, as far as I know, the first collection of solo renga in English.

Microcosmos has three sections.  The first section brings together my own solo renga written over a period of about 30 years.  My solo renga are presented first and foremost as poems; to be read as poems.  My target audience is the reader who is engaged with contemporary poetry, but does not necessarily have a specialist’s knowledge of Japanese poetry or renga procedures.  In this way my collection of renga resembles a collection of sonnets; when publishing a collection of sonnets the reader does not have to know all the rules and constraints of sonnet composition in order to enjoy the sonnet as a poem.  In a similar way I present my solo renga as poems to be enjoyed by the interested, but non-specialist, reader.

The second section is a collection of 100-verse solo renga, known as ‘hyakuin’ in Japanese.  The 100-verse form was the form that emerged in medieval Japan and it is the form that all other forms of renga are derived from.  It is the 100-verse form that Sogi used to write his solo renga.  The second section includes my own 100-verse renga, ‘100 Verses at Sebastopol’. 

The second section also includes a 100-verse renga by Edith Shiffert, ‘A Return to Kona’.  I believe that Shiffert is the first to write renga in English, the first to use the 100-verse form, and the first to compose a solo renga.  Shiffert published this renga in 1964 in her collection of poems that used that title for the renga as the title for the collection.  Shiffert, remarkably, takes a syllabic approach to her verse construction.  This solo renga deserves to be much more widely known.

Writing in another style, section 2 includes a 100-verse renga by Jane Reichhold, ‘Masks of Madness’.  Reichhold’s approach uses a short-line, free verse, approach to lineation, which is a widely used approach among practitioners of Japanese forms in English.  Reichhold’s renga also uses a lot of word-play and has a snappy, scintillating quality to it.

Finally, section 2 contains two translations of 100-verse renga by Sogi.  These translations (by Earl Miner and Steven D. Carter) are published with the permission of their respective copyright holders.  The Sogi renga give the reader an opportunity to experience how Sogi used the renga form in a solo context.  In particular, the 100-verse renga that Sogi wrote towards the end of his life, called ‘Sogi Alone’, is a work of great beauty; it is this renga which inspired me to compose solo renga.

Section 3 of Microcosmos contains essays and asides.  Some of the essays are on technical matters, such as the way season and time interact in renga.  And some are expressions of appreciation.

Microcosmos is available through Amazon and is also distributed through Ingram; so it should be available through local bookstores as well.

ISBN: 9781492933229


Brian said...

Looking forward to tucking into this hefty new volume. Congratulations, Jim.

Jim714 said...

Thanks, Brian. Good to hear from you.


Brian said...

Jim, I left an earlier email at the address I used to use to contact you privately. I hope your hotmail account is still active?

I'm wondering if you might give me a handful of names of tanka poets currently working in the syllabic form to look-up and read. I seem to come across the occasional 31-syllable poem but not a general body of contemporary work (outside yours) in the traditional mode.

Many thanks,

Jim714 said...

English language tanka (ELT) is much more marginal than english language haiku (ELH). There are simply far fewer poets writing ELT than there are writing ELH. So there is a much smaller set of publications to select from.

This is because interest in ELT didn't really emerge until the late 80's or early 90's. Japanese poets tend to think of tanka as their national form and have the idea that tanka is so embedded in Japanese culture that it can't really be practiced by foreigners or other language groups. Higginson agreed with this and somewhere in his haiku manual he actually says as much. This discouraged english language poets from pursuing the tanka form. That changed in the late 80's when Jane Reichhold began encouraging people to look at tanka as a viable english language form.

After that a number of english language publications emerged devoted to tanka. All of them, as far as I know, where started by poets who advocated for and practiced free vese haiku. They therefore mapped onto tanka their own free verse, and minimalist perspectives. A few of the editors of these journals were actively hostile to a syllabic approach; the magazine 'Gusts' was, and remains, one of the most strongly anti-syllabic publications. Most editors of tanka journals in english will reject syllabic entries. Denis Garrison was an exception to this, but he is no longer active in ELT.

Unlike haiku, which started out with a commitment to a syllabic approach, tanka in english started out with a commitment to free verse lineation. There is an irony here: in Japan a five line free verse poem is called 'gyogoka', or 'gyogoshi'. In other words, the Japanese distinguish between formal and free verse five line poems by giving them different names. A few english language tanka poets know this, but don't consider it relevant.

The other factor that makes a syllabic approach to tanka difficult to present is that there are no famous examples of syllabic tanka poets that a new tanka poet can refer to. In haiku, the presence of a poet like Richard Wright has had a huge impact in that the excellence of his work, and his fame, works to support a syllabic choice. But there is no similar example for tanka.

But to answer your question, I would recommend 'Calligraphy of Clouds' by Yeshaya Rotbard as a really good example of someone who writes syllabic tanka. I think there are a few others and I will look further for you when I have a few moments to spare.

Good to hear from you.

Best wishes,