Eiko Yachimoto, JP






A zip shisan: Things to do


On graduating from the English Department, University of Minnesota, as a foreign student from Japan, I was asked my plans. My answer was quite vague; “I want to do something that combines linguistics and literature.”

On the day before my departure from Minneapolis, U.S.A. in 1982, I remember spending hours in my favorite bookstore. The books I bought then were those on the definition of poetry, the translation of verses, or the inner images of the artist. I admit they were daunting and I have not yet read all of them. But one book defined poetry as ‘designed language and called the language used in poetry ‘triumphant’ over the regular language used for daily communication. The adjective, triumphant, was striking. It seemed the writer wanted to emphasize that words in poems are the core of all the usages of language which surround the core.  

Ten years later, when I happened to sit in a bi-lingual renku session with Sanford Goldstein, a great tanka poet, in Iga Ueno, the birth place of Basho, I realized this was it. In other words, I was convinced of my goal to cut a new horizon for bi-lingual renku. Since then I have been learning what it is to write poetry together and have written quite a few renku and tomegaki (a short essay on the creation of a renku written by a sabaki, or a lead poet/coordinator).   I think I have been able to convince readers of the richness one experiences in collaboration. I am not sure, though, whether the renku texts were received as something that deserves the adjective, triumphant.

This doubt led me to examine ‘Things to do’ severely.  The yardsticks I used are the following excerpts from my past tomegaki:

  • The importance of a hokku, the starting verse, can never be
    exaggerated. With the support of a waki-ku, the second verse, renku is
    supposed to establish itself as a pure poem right there.

  • Secondly, renku has to have one or two poetic peaks where readers find
    themselves motionless for a while, totally forgetting links and shifts.
    Thirdly, a renku is genuine when it brings to you the subtle sighs and
    tiny smiles we experience in this world.

  • Renku is an art to educate us how to live and die and how to live again.

  • When you link to the previous verse, the depth and the breadth of your
    response surprises even yourself, because a hidden corner of your soul
    is so distinctly illuminated by the previous verse that the muse in you
    awakens in spite of yourself. Is it too much to say that we are humans
    because we write renku?

  • Renku is an art deep-rooted in the essence of language and has the
    capacity to nourish the human soul regardless of nationality.

  • Renku as the product of pre-arranged pseudo-harmony guaranteed by the
    imposition of traditional rules was surely disdained by Basho who once
    wrote on ‘a haikai even dogs won’t eat’.

  • Collaboration in renku requires a strong willingness to confront and
    deal with another soul. It should never mean to submit to others or to
    bury oneself in some social game.

I am pleased to publish our recent shisan: ‘Things to do’. Not because this is the final answer in a quest for ‘triumphant’ poetry, but because it turns out as a well designed poem, comparable to fine chamber music, thanks to the following factors:

1. We used a zip form prosody and wrote all long verses in two lines with 15 syllables
and short verses in one line with 11 syllables. This alternately repeated length gives birth to a rippling flow and makes the shisan pleasing to ear, just as Japanese
renku following teikei (fixed form) is. Thank you, John E. Carley for
inventing zip! The impact of this form is discussed further on in this

2. A rather casual starting verse, which is weak as hokku, is mightily
flanked by a grand-scale imagery of poetry. I can’t thank Norman enough
for the ‘milky way’ wakiku and for his love verse with a scene as if
from a Zola novel. Both links contribute to create vivid poetic reality.
The relationship between verse 5 and verse 6 is of the same nature.

3. The solid and the airy were naturally criss-crossing throughout the
renku to give the poem breathing life. I feel overwhelmed by the
extraordinary light power from ‘frozen diamond’ and fall in love with
the colorful sari as it changes color. And the veil over the canal
enhances atmosphere.

4. Richard Wright wrote impressive haiku on magnolia and seeing them
bloom some day is my little dream. An Englishman who saw this blossom
in the New World must have stopped for a while in amazement. No wonder
he named it, sweet bay magnolia. The word ‘heavy’ used here fits into
our total design with rocks, gravity and diamonds. Linda wrote us a
glorious blossom verse.

I can keep on finding, but I must stop. Being a person who loves to read a dictionary and a thesaurus, this poem is a source of pleasure to me. It seems I have found the field where linguistics is entwined with literature.

Now, I would like to explain the impact of a zip prosody from my viewpoint.

Where does poetry come from? Poetry is born in all corners of our souls, taking the shape of various imageries, which must be the source of all human languages. I feel that language, when uttered, is not so much a scientifically proven sign system as a mysterious stream of sound.

In Japan renku is a poem that undulates in the fixed meter of five-seven-five. A Japanese haijin or renkujin has this guidepost when he sets out to making a verse. Free verse haiku was once attempted by Kawahigashi Hekigotoh, an important disciple of Shiki, who, in my
opinion, elevated haiku to the lofty art level, but free verse haiku never gained the citizenship, so to speak. Today, people would not recognize a short free verse as haiku, regardless of the subject matter or of any allusion to Basho.

You could say that five-seven-five is synonymous with haiku. When the chosen English verse (or tsukeku) is recited in an international renku session, it is usually translated into five-seven-five too. Many years ago, one professor of English dared to translate English verses faithfully to their original meanings, intentionally forgetting the rigid meter. He recited them in front of the audience. I think it was his experiment. The audience did not accept that. I still remember the icy response and the frozen atmosphere.

From the view point of a bi-lingual renku coordinator, the tragedy of five-seven-five faithfully transferred into English haiku prosody is the capacity of English to hold more imageries than fit into the same number of Japanese syllables. This is inevitable because the two languages use completely different phonology (red takes one syllable but akai, three).

Let’s say a renku translator had to sacrifice one original image in the English verse so that it could fit into the Japanese fixed form. An English speaking renju may then offer a link based on the omitted image. Then a Japanse renju will have no way of finding the link. This is what
I describe as a tragic situation…

Having a teikei, or fixed form, on which everyone stands and depends, literally liberates individuals from creating every element of poetry on their own. Fixed form also prepares the communal stage, so to speak, for sharing each other’s verse. Wasn’t poem reciting meant for every member in all cultures of pre-historic time? A fixed form encourages many more people to write a poem even today. For some years I dreamed of the arrival of a shortened fixed form to be used in our bilingual renku sessions.

Zip haiku came to the world nearly ten years ago and I gladly experimented with the zip prosody by translating some of Hisajo’s haiku. It made a lot of sense and my experiment was a success. On the otherhand, many English language haijin who did not share my thirst for the fixed form did not welcome the arrival of a zip in the way I did.

Other than being a fixed form, I like the layout of a zip haiku: you can visualize the semantic units of one verse both horizontally and vertically, allowing you to savor the poem from multiple angles.

If there is a feature in haiku that is unique compared with all other forms of poetry, I would say it is its quality of never describing things. One sensei writes that haiku, helped with the mysterious power of language, only points the direction. As a reader, he writes, you are to find what is in that direction on your own. He teaches that the thing of immense depth and mystery can only be grasped alive this way. I am not qualified to examine the intricacy of the zip caesura, but I am
seeing the presentation of several semantic units separately in a zip positively subtle in this regard.

In response to my request, John E. Carley, the founder of zip, read our shisan. With gratitude to him, I share the part of his comments which dealt with a zip prosody:

The draft of the shisan below is based principally on my final approach
to the question of how to control the function of the caesuras in the
zip style of prosody. I think my original proposal - that the stanzas
should be centered on the caesurae - was too rigid and tended to place
too much emphasis and weight on the respective pauses. I therefore
reduced the spacing (from a triple to a double space). I also adopted a
'free hand' method of layout which is a mixture of typographic centering
and a 'natural' or 'cursive' imbalance such as one generates when
writing a zip on paper. The generality of this approach was influenced
by my observation of the way strings of kana are often broken into
clusters when written, as a part of haiga for instance.

I have also taken the liberty of moving the position of some of the
caesurae. This is intended to illustrate my own reading of where the
semantic junctions are and/or where the meter best accommodates a brief pause. It is perhaps worth observing that, although one should always resist the temptation to treat the long stanza as a kind of rebus or word puzzle, the caesura is often most successful when it facilitates
(or at least does not impede) a reordering to the semantic units based
on a vertical reading. So verse three for example could read:

up a steep slope - dislodging - mountain goats - small rocks

*special remark:  Moira Richards helped me in completing the tomegaki text. "arigato gozaimasu, moi."



                                       Things to do

                   a list of   things to do
between my barefoot   toes new coolness

              sipping tea   the milky way   to left and right

      up a steep slope   mountain goats
                dislodging   disturbing small rocks


                                         gravity   gravitation   does it matter?

                                    moonlight   on frozen diamonds
                   guides the old woman   home in time

              cauldrons bubbling   trouble   on that blasted heath


           warm colours   of Holi
      turn my pink sari   red to purple

              rain or haze   Canal Saint Martin   it must be

            drunk on love   and sake
                no lodging   too narrow for our need


             a four poster   with a large mosquito    net
         its petals heavy   in the rising sun

                 sweet bay   magnolia

           on a quiet lane   I catch a song   in the air


Lastly, I include kanso, or short notes written to me by the participants. Readers might get a picture about how our collab-session progressed through these kanso. The fact is I am deeply humbled by their generous words… Am I so fortunate to have been their sabaki!


In India, we use a term known as ‘saath sangat’ — the coming together of like-minded people, be it in religious matters or in performing arts. Indian classical music is extempore, where the musician delineates the raga (melody) on the dais, and if the accompanying artists (the drummer and the harmonium player) do not co-operate then there is utter chaos – which becomes blatantly obvious to the audience and mars the entire performance. So ‘saath sangat' is something that is treasured by professional musicians for it enriches the concert, uplifting it to great heights. All that I can say is that we witnessed that ‘saath sangat’ here to a great extent, as each poet was given all the space and the help to achieve her best verse. A truly rewarding experience and I thank Eiko for allotting the ageku to me and it was a pleasure to work with everybody toward reaching an ageku which took off...            



In this shisan we have been carefully guided on our exploration of this imaginary journey. With Eiko’s carefully considered directions and verse determinations, we have eloquently covered a great many and varied topics. From folio #1 which sets the untrampled journey off, through to folio #2, where there is a degree of trepidation, to #3 where peace and calm returns, so that finally in #4, there is utter contentment in its completion. The reasonings on each verse were very helpful as I endeavoured to understand more. All members shared in their respect for each other and for the sabaki making this a pleasurable experience. “Things to do” has touched on body, mind, cosmos, animal, insect, clothing, seasons, colours, place, plants, love, drinks, furniture and music – all nipped tightly to fit within the constraints of the genre. It was a privilege to work on my first zip shisan with someone as patient and understanding as our sabaki, Eiko. I thank you.                



This was my first zip haiku and my first zip renku. I liked the experience of working with a strict syllable count and I learned a lot about the structure and momentum of the shisan; but what I will remember is the interaction among the poets – the way we worked together to bring out the best in one another. Eiko you did a wonderful job teaching us and I hope you will consider leading another longer session...

perhaps a kasan?                       



I had written no more than two or three zip haiku and had participated in one shisan, prior to becoming involved with the endeavor here. It has been and continues to be a rich learning experience for me in both poetic forms as well as in the dynamics of participating in a collaboration. First, there was the practice in learning to write zip haiku. By the time we reached the last side, I began to acquire a feel for the 15- and 11-syllable lengths and was pleasurably surprised to find that they sounded 'right' when the count was correct. Second, when I'd written for shisan before, I was unaware of the concept of sides; my understanding is still imperfect and comes from participating in kasen and triparshva, where the 6- and 10-verse length requires reading as a sequence. By contrast, I find that the 3-verse sides I learned about here can be processed in steps; Because of the digestible nature of the sides, and because each verse has built-in caesuras that interact with the spaces of the links, I read the renku differently--not as a simple linear progression. I'm still enjoying it--each time I go through it, something different rises to my attention, and I expect that this feeling will go on for some time. The third thing I learned from my participation was the experience of working with you, Eiko: how as sabaki you thought ahead and took an active role in shaping the renku, rather than just waiting and picking what was offered.                           



This shisan makes a lot of sense to me (though I like writing in all forms). Summer just gone, I was treated to a play by our national playwright, Tartuffe by Moliere. The rules of play writing and versifications have always been much stricter in French than in English, even a play could only take place in one place, during the span of one day, round one single plot, encapsulated in the two following famous 'alexandrains' (=12 syllables). Qu'en un jour, qu'en un lieu, un seul fait accompli. (12 syll.) Tienne jusqu'à la fin le théâtre rempli. ... (12 syll.) [ one day, in one place, one single deed must keep till the end the theatre full] and all of that in rhyming alexandrains! Like many of my generations, we mocked that form of writing, refusing all constraints, thinking it obsolete... wanting the natural, the speech like, the 'just as it comes out'... It got reinforced in me by the Haiku world adopted stance on: no western poetic devices! The sheer beauty of that night and the rhythm of that play left me breathless. Admittedly, the magic of the evening: in open air in the dusk of a scented Provence, on the terrasse of a perched castle overlooking soft rolling hills, with a brilliant cast.... , yes, the magic of the moment surely added to the sentiments but the magic of the rhythm of fixed form verses is undeniable. The magic of language!             


I am looking forward to composing renku with my renju here, who participated from as many as seven different countries, face to face around one table some day!  We will drink, eat and laugh as we continue linking.

eiko yachimoto,20 October, 2009









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