As Lynx readers well know, the number of poets writing English language tanka has increased significantly in recent years. The annual Tanka Splendor Award now receives 700-plus entries. Two English language tanka journals have started in this decade (American Tanka and Tangled Hair). Lynx now publishes more tanka than it did five years ago.
In 1995, the Tanka Splendor Award began to include three sequences (defined as 4-7 tanka links). I assume the decision to add sequences to the award reflected, in part, the fact that English language poets had begun writing sequences, some of which were already being published in Lynx. The desire of English language poets to write sequences must come from our wish to say more, at times, than we can say in one 31-syllable tanka.
Donald Keene, discussing the history of Japanese tanka, has written about the difficulties early Japanese poets had in writing long poems, due to the characteristics of the Japanese language. According to Keene, - I do not speak or write Japanese - Japanese lacks stress accents and rhyming is too easy to keep the rhymes interesting in a long poem. Keene writes, "Faced with the difficulties in writing long poems ..., the Japanese had another choice, and they took it, though it was one that would have chilled most European poets. It was simply not to write long poems, but to confine themselves to short forms, especially to the waka." He continues, "Of course, many things could not be stated in the 31 syllables of the waka, no matter how skillfully composed: narrative cannot be related with such brevity, intellectual matters in which the mind as well as the heart is involved can seldom be treated adequately, events of national importance... or the poet's reaction to some social or religious issue are almost impossible to squeeze into a waka." (Donald Keene, The Pleasures of Japanese Literature, 1988, p.31, 33.) Japanese literary tradition also includes diaries, which do address these more complex issues, and diary authors often punctuated their prose passages with tanka - or later, haiku, but the diary, though a wonderful form, is not a poem. (See Donald Keene, Travelers of a Hundred Ages, 1989.) However, modern Japanese poets (responding I am sure to the same desire to say more than can be said in 31 syllables) have been writing tanka sequences for approximately 100 years.
(For early examples available in English, see poets translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda: Mokichi Saito, Red Lights, 1989, and Shiki Masaoka, Songs from a Bamboo Village, 1998. For more current examples, see, of course, Machi Tawara, Salad Anniversary, or issues of The Tanka Journal (Nihon Kajin Club, The Japan Tanka Poets' Club.)
To my reading, the sequences published in Lynx and Tanka Splendor, and in recent books by Jane and Werner Reichhold (In the Presence, 1998), Tom Clausen (A Work of Love, 1997), myself (In Each Other's Footsteps, 1996), Geraldine Clinton Little (More Light, Larger Vision, 1992), and Sanford Goldstein (At the Hut of the Small Mind, 1992) - to name only those on my bookshelf; there are surely more - are attempts to solve this problem of the limitations of the tanka form. (See also Randy Brooks's tanka sequence, Black Ant's Journey to Japan - Tanka Sequence, 1998 AHA Books Online - ahapoetry.com). Such sequences take the strengths of an individual tanka (its emotional force, the shift and non-linear connection between its two parts, its elusive
spirit) and use them to build a longer poem that can address more complex subjects. Most of us English language poets bring a background in Euro-American poetry to whatever we write. It is natural, it seems to me, that many of us would want to write tanka sequences to try to get at some of the topics Keene mentions as almost impossible to treat in 31 syllables.
Our desire to write tanka sequences does not come solely from our Euro-American poetry background, though, since modern Japanese poets, as mentioned, have arrived at the same conclusion and solution. Maybe it is human to always want to do more!
In "Some Developments in the House of Tanka" (Lynx Vol. XIV: NO. 2), Werner Reichhold says "... after writing ... many different tanka ..., (the poet) can put (them) together, partly adapted, building a longer poem." He adds, "There seems to be a lot of territory open to writers willing to explore a narrative interwoven with tanka." I agree that we have only begun to explore the possibilities of tanka sequences. One of those possibilities is writing linked tanka sequences.
We know that in the Heian period of Japan (A.D. 794-1185), lovers exchanged tanka; perhaps these were considered short linked tanka sequences. (See the Tale of Genji.) Of course, in Japanese poetry, renga became the form of linked verse most widely written. I am not aware of any long tanka sequences in the history of Japanese literature, with the obvious exception of the court anthologies (i.e. the Kokinshu), and these were compiled after the tanka were written and did not involve poets linking verses with each other. (However, my knowledge of Japanese literature is limited.) English language haiku poets have written renga for years and, recently, rengay. In my opinion, the extra two lines of a tanka allow the poem to become emotionally deeper. Tanka also reflect more directly an individual's poetic voice than do most of the renga and rengay I have read. At times, it seems to me, a tanka almost asks for the response of another tanka. Like tanka sequences written by one person, linked verse tanka sequences can address complex and narrative issues. They have the added benefit of another poet's point of view to make the shifts more varied and surprising.
The poetic interaction between the two poets can also add an element of welcome tension to the poem.
To my knowledge, the first English language linked tanka sequences appeared in the mid- 1990's. Sanford Goldstein and Kenneth Tanemura published a linked tanka verse, which they called "double tanka strings", in Lynx (Vol.IX: #2, 1994). Mirrors (Summer 1994), and This Tanka World of Strings,1995). As Solstice greeting 1994 Jane and Werner sent the 12 link poem -"A Touch of Ink". When I learned of this form, I was hooked. I love tanka and I love writing with people. In the past four years, I have written tanka sequences with ten different poets. All the sequences were enjoyable, challenging, and ultimately wonderful to write; some are even good poems! (See Lynx Vol. XII: #2; Vol. XIII:#3; Vol. XIV: #3; and Tanka Splendor 1997, for examples.) Lynx also has published linked tanka sequences which Nasira Alma wrote with Alexis K. Rotella, Sanford Goldstein, and Jane Reichhold. (See Lynx Vol. XI: #3, 1996; Vol. XII: #2, 1997; and Vol. XIII: #1, 1998.)
My partners and I have used a 6 link format, with each poet alternating links. After having written about fifty of these tanka sequences, I believe I have only begun to understand and explore this form. For instance, the poem can emphasize shifting or linking and, thus, can focus fairly tightly on one theme or can have a more kaleidoscope approach. The poem can be more or less explicitly personal, depending on how willing and/or interested the poets are in expressing direct personal feelings about their own lives, or the other poet's life. The poets can choose to write explicitly about their relationship. The poem itself can build to a climactic waterfall at the last link, can meander like a late summer stream, or start with a spring snow melt and gradually evaporate.
I believe that linked verse will be an increasingly meaningful poetic form in the future for English language poets. (Aren't we trying to learn to get along with each other better?) I believe that Euro-American poetry, mirroring the culture in general, has over-emphasized the glory of the individual (although each of us individuals is surely glorious) at the expense of shared experiences and has, often, overemphasized thoughts relative to feelings. I believe linked tanka verse, in particular, has a tremendous amount to offer at the present time. If you haven't already written linked tanka verse, try it! I'd like to read your poems.
Lord knows there is already an over-abundance of rules for writing renga floating in our all-too real world. There are some aspects of the art that have not been (and probably do not need to be) codified into set-in-cement rules but when all the partners are aware of these considerations the work can become richer and result in a more cohesive poem.
The first, and probably most often ignored, aspect of renga writing is that a renga is a poem which has a beginning, a middle and a closure. Unless partners have a long renga-writing experience, it is too easy to get caught up in the fun of punning, the lightning of linking and the game of wits while forgetting to give some attention to the architecture of the poem as a whole in relation to the situation in which it is begun. These renga can result in formless blah, blah, works where sets of links lack the discipline to work as active building blocks.
There are some thoughts and choices to be made before the hokku is written. Perhaps these can be best stated as questions partners might ask of themselves as well as of each other:
1. What is our purpose in writing this poem?
2. Will it have a theme such as colors, animals, weather, parenthood, grief and loss, or love and happiness, marital problems, current events, politics, aging, health, ways of viewing a common denominator?
3. Can this theme reflect a situation we now find ourselves in?
4. Does the hokku (first link) reflect the time of year when the poem is started?
a. This is the prime reason for the Japanese to insist upon a season word in the hokku. It "hooks" the poem into the reality of the passing seasons and automatically gives the poem a setting in nature.
5. Does the hokku "say something" or have a direct reference to the partner/s?
a. Traditionally, the host of an event invites the honored guest to begin a renga. Thus, the hokku writer often thanked him with a nod of recognition of his position or situation.
b. For these reasons, the hokku was very formal, with elegant references or, as in Basho's time, a reaction against this rule by projecting a joking attitude. However, even Basho still gave a reference to the host.
6. If the theme is an abstract premise, it should be stated in concrete terms.
Once over this three-line hurdle, one is ready to understand the three parts of a renga. The first six stanza are usually written on the first page and are called the jo or introduction. These six links should be different from the next 24 links in the following ways:
1. In the hokku is the premise, goal or remarks to the host as explained above.
2. These six links should relate more closely together than any others.
3. This section should be quietest, most proper, almost business-like, even restrained as is often the case when new partners are first getting to know one another.
4. Think of setting a scene in a play by having the links 1 - 6 describe a whole set-up (wide-angle lens photo), a close-up of a detail, a place (city, rural, resort, mountain) which is meaningful to all the partners, and even supporting casts of shepherds, shopkeepers... Remember renga is a poem -- a work of vision, phantasy and heart set in real images.
Another analogy for the three parts of the renga is to compare them to the three distinct periods of a dinner party.
You arrive at the appointed place, the host invites you in with words of welcome, politely asking you how you are, if the trip was long, etc. If it is a special occasion this is stated by wishing Happy Birthday, Happy Anniversary, Boo on the Great Pumpkin Day. Your remarks are cautious, and complimentary. You notice the interesting sights, smells (is dinner in a box or the oven?), feelings (glad to be here or gee, we thought we'd never find the place in the dark) but, all is said very carefully by speaking of other things.
On page two of the renga the persons have been introduced to one another (already the flirt has picked his prey and wants to sit beside her at the table) and here is the inspiration for those love links at #8, 9, 10! The good company, fine food and glasses of wine begin to raise the decibels. The conversation leaps from subject to subject (or aspect to objection), a small debate may ensue, even a few feathers can be ruffled.
Because this section has 24 links (as this part of the evening is the longest) there is plenty of room to show-off, shout, laugh, giggle, snicker, snore, find someone with similar interests (love verses in links #27, 28, 29) or wish it was time to go home. Just as in "dinner conversation" one can remember journeys made, interesting persons encountered, sights, impressions, books read; one need not "stay in the moment" but are allowed to let past meet past.
The back page - the last six links - can have as tone and pacing the disjointed, almost hasty dialogues which take place when one guest says, "Well, I'd better be going." Suddenly one must thank the host, make peace with the person who felt you had insulted him, remind someone to send you the book they promised, remember where you put your umbrella, realize this gathering was a very special event and, now that you are parting, you wish the best for each with a degree of optimism (a spring / flower link) and one last reference to the reason for the gathering ("don't count the years! for the birthday celebrant) which ties the last link back around to the hokku.
When one thinks about building a renga with these general floor plans in mind, it is not only easier to write the poem, the construction within the authors' consciousness becomes stable enough to contain the wildest leaps, links and kinks without coming apart at the seams into senselessness or sameness.
While writing a mail partner renga, do take the time to reread the renga and to ask yourself, "What does this poem need?" Lightness? Seriousness? World views? Intimate details? Another mood? Act in the same way you would to make a social evening balanced and interesting.
Understanding this scheme can make your appreciation of other persons' renga more pleasurable and gives you insights into the deeper meanings of the links. People just learning to read renga often complain that the form is too vague; so nebulous they cannot get into the work or stay interested in it.
True, renga do not have plots as Western literature often has but the subtle (!) use of the above ideas can give your renga the direction that is sometimes lacking. This concept also explains some of the more obscure renga writing rules such as:
1. On pages one and four, avoid controversial subjects, love, sex, war, religious and intimate affairs (as good manners would dictate at a the beginning and end of a dinner party). But in between, any subject you would discuss in the company of others can be invited in.
2. There should be a mixture of nature and human affairs links (the dinner conversation should be varied; not all grandkids or lawn care).
3. In moving through the seasons, more links (3 -5) are given to spring and autumn and less (2 -4) to winter and summer (talk most about the pleasant things).
Though you may be thinking that you are more interested in innovations and working to reform the renga, an understanding of these principles can be a starting point for making meaningful changes for new works.
Verses, hemistiches or links, there is a tincture of disjunctive linking, which extends through poetry from the Middle East to that east, which re-approaches western culture from the far side. Disjunctive technique is not quite freedom of association, though it probably shares its origin. Rather, in ghazal usage, it is an attempt to continue a theme through use of different metaphors. From a fresh perspective, the same point is to be made again. Renowned writers, such as Hafiz and Ghalib, have attempted more of a consistent, narrative sequence over the course of a single ghazal, but most typically the theme may be represented as a tree-trunk, with each couplet departing in a different direction and from a different point along it. And the theme is love; as Ghalib demonstrates, love's insufficiency.
There are a thousand such desires that each would require
an entire lifetime;
Many of my wishes have been gratified but even those many were too few.
We have always heard of Adam leaving the primal paradise,
I was more disgraced when I left your abode.
Drinking has been associated with my name in this
Once more, an era has arrived in which Jamshed's cup should appear.
In the more familiar Japanese tradition, each renga-link attempts to select out a single aspect of the statement made in the one previous. The thread selected may be elaboration of the situation in the preceding link, but it is often something less concrete, such as the use of a pair of opposites, association, contrast, juxtaposition, a pun or -- ineffably -- "fragrance." Honoring the principle of change, a different theme is sought for each link as in this renga by L. A. Davidson, Minna Lerman and myself:
rocked to sleep by the sound
at an old seaside resort lad
marmalade cat among
the red poppies ml
she helps with her grandpop's friends
at the VFW wd
Reflecting its origins as a game, however courtly, renga strives for diversity or wit over the emotional impact which might be obtained through consistent application to a single theme. To be sure, passion has its place in renga -- love verses stand witness; equally, the ghazal is a renowned host to wit. Cultural origins, Japan as compared to Arabia, Persia and India, show through. Passion and wit are given reversed primacy in the two cultural spheres practicing linked verse.
Creativity, rather than passion, is the most highly prized aspect of renga, where a sense of forward motion is always to be maintained.
The name of the form explains much that is different in the character of the ghazal. Aijaz Ahmad, introducing his book, Ghazals of Ghalib: Versions from the Urdu, recounts a winning tale of the word's origin. When a gazelle is finally taken in the hunt, all hope gone, it is said to cry out in its final extremity. The word for this cry is, "ghazal," pronounced, "guzzle." It may have named the beast.
Variously, K. C. Kanda, gives a derivative definition for the word: "speaking to women," or the manner thereof, although it obviously may embrace a manner for women to speak to men. Clearly, in the development and naming of this poetic form, the intention to present utterance in extremity was prominent. Amorous passion is the classical theme of the ghazal. The form has been used to address God.
Here lies an essential difference in linking style between renga and ghazal. Within the Japanese linked-verse sensibility, anything may change from link to link, and this Protean changeability constitutes a virtue. From the Middle Eastern perspective, it seems, any overt feature of the previous couplet may be sacrificed and the wittiness of the diversity will be fully appreciated; the narrator may change or disappear, the scene may shift from active to descriptive; the mood is free to move from anguished to ecstatic to cynical. Yet no change will occur in the abstract theme from which links of a ghazal derive -- among the host of others, the hopelessness of love, foolish affection, absence of the beloved, cruelty of the one who spurns or overt admiration, leading to the formal panegyric. Each couplet will be an example of its theme. And this is the source of linkage between couplets. Mythical figures may give way to philosophical musings, but the instances recounted will all tend to illustrate the thematic axis from which they take departure.
These two manners of disjunctive linking bespeak historical connections, which lace the Eurasian land mass, if they do not unite it.
Currents of language and culture, of which we are just becoming conscious, elsewhere have created richness from diversity.
Some people, perhaps led by William J. Higginson, once a radical, are trying to replace the word renga with renku. So Terri Lee Grell asks, "What's the difference? Does it matter?" I answer, "There may be some difference, but whatever difference there may be will merely confuse the matter."
As any book on the subject will tell you, the term renku first saw print in 1747, but it gained currency only after it was reintroduced in a 1904 issue of Hototogisu, a magazine under the editorial supervision of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) while he was alive, then taken over by one of his top associates, Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959). Scholars then began to use it retroactively, applying it to a literary genre which Matsuo Basho (1644-94), for one, never thought of calling other than haikai no renga or, in abbreviation, haikai. The process is similar to what happened to the other term, haiku, though it first saw print somewhat earlier, in 1663; it gained currency only some time after Shiki and his friends began using it as an equal or alternative of hokku. Once it was accepted, its retroactive use also was.
The retroactive use of renku and haiku has little to show for itself save the inordinate influence of Shiki and his friends. Academically, it was a mindless cop-out. It merely helped blur the conceptual distinction that members of the Shiki school wanted to make between what they were trying to do and what traditional haikai writers had done and continued to do.
Did the conceptual distinction have any validity? I'll skip commenting on haiku. With renku, the answer is moot. In large part perhaps because Shiki said, "Haikai no renga is not literature," the writing of renga was soon relegated to the position of amusement for the literatti - precisely the position to which Shiki condemned traditional haikai.
Renga, then, practically died out. A few decades ago poet-scholars such as Ooka Makoto and Ando Tsuguo composed and published some 36-link renga to show off their knowledge and skill, and that helped rekindle interest in the form. But aside from occasional modern words and images, the sequences they write strive to conform strictly to the traditional rules, and it's hard to say whether they are more "literature" than those composed till Shiki's days.
How about the term renku itself? I can only note that in introducing the latest round of his group's attempts in Tokutoku Kasen (Bungei Shunju, 1991), Ooka makes it clear that the proper name of the form is renga and he and his friends use the term renku only for convenience.
Is there any sense in trying to replace renga with renku in English when the former term is about to take hold? Yes, but only if you have an obsession to align yourself with whatever some of the present-day Japanese writers in the form do. In form, renga is renga is renga.
Contrary to popular opinion and due to several strokes of luck, I am not dead yet, just slow in coming out of hibernation after a long cold winter. Here in the Pacific Northwest we tend to hibernate most of the year and only come out when it's not dark and stormy outside, which is practically never. Count me among the Northwest writers who will admit it: I love the rain, the dark, the gloom here, because I love not having to explain why I don't want to go outside, don't want to "catch some rays," don't want to take off my favorite sweatpants and sweatshirt and warm wooly socks while I pluck away at the keyboard, locked in my cave, maybe talking on the telephone once in awhile, to call Pizza Man (he delivers), and the less sunny days outside the less excuses I have to make for cucooning.
I was so relieved when I found that term in the newspaper: "Cucooning. " It's supposed to be the "thing" of the 1990s, which I'm glad to hear because it gives me one more excuse: "am sorry, I can't come out and play today, I'm cucooning." What does it mean? Well, for us dreary and cynical Northwest writers it means we finally have a word for what we've been doing all along, but for the rest of the popular culture it means "staying home a lot and playing with your electronic toys." Yes, folks, I am alive and well but in a virtual sort of way, virtually alive (the Pizza Man can vouch for me) and virtually well, cyberlinking daily with strange people all over the world who fill my computer screen with the sound of cucooning (a sort of beep beep BEEP beep sound, depending on what sort of modem you have.)
I used to run this here Lynx operation, after Tundra Wind but before the Reichholds, but I was so much older then, I'm way older than that now. I used to think that nobody in the whole world was linking poetry, prose, rants and graffiti together as renga except us Lynx cadets (and, of course, those self-inflating others who are still trying to fish themselves out of the frogpond.) Once I checked into cyberspace, I found out something shocking: We are out-numbered! Renga and other linking forms are alive and well in cyberspace and boy do they kick our butts prolific!! Let me explain....
My first excursion into cyberspace was through a network called The WELL (Whole Earth Electronic Link) based in San Francisco and available by subscription to just about everybody in the friggin' universe. The WELL has several forums to choose from, one of them being the "Poetry" forum, and inside this forum are several sub-topics devoted to various poetry forms, including renga. Now, in this sub-topic "renga" are linked verse that have been going on practically since the beginning of time. If you printed them out, they would be, oh, say, 40 miles long by now. The just keep going and going and going, sort of like the little bunny. And there are hundreds of people linking from all over the world. Just like that: beep beep BEEP beep and the screen is alive with the sound of renga. It's an addicting behavior. It is nearly impossible not to log in daily to see how somebody else - maybe somebody in Japan? somebody in Iowa? somebody in prison? responded to your links. And somebody always does. They may not be great linker or even good links whereas then you can leave a message for the linker such as: "Excuse me but what the HELL are you talkin' about here?" And then you have great cyber-brawls on the side, over the validity or redundancy or hilarity of a link, and it gets to be way too much fun, so you end up never leaving your home. Pizza Man loves us.
Linked forms are not just occurring in "poetry" forums on networks. It turns out that the whole foundation of cyberspace is based on linking. Any one of you who has participated in an online "chat" such as Compuserve's "CB Simulator" or America Online or whatever, knows what I mean. On Compuserve, 40 people will crowd into a "room" and race to type lines in answer to other lines before all the lines scroll out of the range of the screen. It's like a rengarama free-for-all cumin' at ya faster than you can say SPLASH (which is one of the ways I like to announce my entrance into the free-for-all-kerploosh! the sound of cyberwater!) Not that everything on a chat channel is poetry, but if you know your renga, you would see as clearly as I do that what's happening in cyberspace is something that would make Basho proud. People are linking as fast they can without thinking about it too much. And what often comes out is poetry that is not intended poetry, which, of course, is the best poetry there is. I wish I could publish here some of the series of lines that have occurred spontaneously in a network chat-stuff that often makes me sit back in my chair and take my hands off the keyboard and just watch, in wonder and awe. But cyberpeople are very possessive of their momentary bursts of insight. And they are also stubborn on the notion that cyberspace is cyberspace and print is print and ne'er the twain shall meet. If you want to read cyberlinks, then you have to become a computer nerd like the rest of us. No print nerds allowed.
Another wondrous thing about cyberlinking is that you get instant feedback. I spend several hours a day writing prose, poetry and whatnot, and then, like all starving writers, I get this tremendous feeling of letdown because I don't really know where I've been, or what I am doing, or if I should just quit this particular form of self-torture and become an Amway distributor. And so I log onto a network and find a "room" and type in something like:
- Hey yall! What ya think of this haiku? "The old pond / frog jumps in/the sound of water." and then I need only to hit "Enter" and wait about three seconds and the screen might look like this:
- huh? frogs? are there frogs here?
- I dissected a frog once. It was an awful experience for me.
- didn't Bob Dylan write that?
- Basho, dweeb, it was Basho.
- who you callin a dweeb? who you callin a Basho?
- I think he really said "splash" or something like that..
- what makes the pond old? why do frogs jump? have I done my laundry yet?
- be right back... all this talk of water is making me have to go wee-wee...
- I think you can cut out the "sound" of part and just say "water." that would be cool.
- thinking of dissecting that frog is making me hungry...oh no, there goes my diet!
- reminds me of another haiku... just a minute, Gotta go to my bookcase...
And then another haiku scrolls by and then some more commentary and then another and then, finally, people start thinking up their own haiku and then other people respond off the haiku and OILA - this is usually when I just sit back and let the enlightening cyber-renga send me into wonder and awe.
I wish I could show you some of the cyber-renga I'm talking about but that's the glitch about cyberspace: it' s a restricted environment, it's not only illegal but just plain rude to publish the stuff that comes up on the network. You have to subscribe, which means, yes, I'm going to say it, so all of you with cyber-phobia plug your ears now, you have to BUY A COMPUTER AND MODEM AND TURN THEM ON AND MAKE THEM YOUR FRIENDS. I know it's tough.
But here's a tip: first buy yourself some nifty sweatpants and a sweat shirt and some wooly socks, close all the curtains in your abode and pretend it's raining outside and you have nothing better to do. Turn on the computer and modem. Call Pizza Man. Enter cyberspace at your own risk. And when Jane Reichhold starts sending you postal mail that says stuff like: "Where in the HELL are you? Are you ALIVE? Did you LEAVE the COUNTRY?" - that's a sign that maybe you ought to turn the computer off for a little while and see if your cat is still alive.
We come to play, to work, to learn. Sometimes we bump up against each other for more than twelve hours before going home, each of us having written only two or three verses. Sometimes it' s difficult to focus, and we bicker about what works and what does not, defending our links against overly tenacious clingings to tradition. Sometimes we laugh a lot, and are willing to waive all limitations (even the reasonable ones) for the sake of experimentation.
Who are we? A group of haiku poets who live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Most of us first learned of haiku, and linked verse, by attending classes taught by Carolyn Talmadge, a long-time teacher of haiku. The charter members of the group -- John Leonard, Lynne Leach, and Charlotte Lucey -- are poets who decided to get together more often, in order to revel in their mutual, and growing love of haikai in general, but more particularly to learn and practice the art of haikai-no-renga. Of these poets, John and Lynne are still current members.
The meetings have been going on for more than four years now, taking place at one, then another of the poets' homes. Other early regulars are Emile and Eugenie Waldteufel, Evelyn Hermann, Laura Bell and Marion Chroniak. A few poets have come to the group more recently, by other avenues than Carolyn Talmadge' s classes. I joined about three years ago, and Ebba Story began coming to meetings early in 1995. Most recent participants are Alex and Alice Benedict for whom this party was their first.
On June 28, we met at my home in Redwood City. As usual, those who could make it arrived at about 1:00 pm, bringing snacks, salads, wine, and desserts. It was a hot day, so, after catching up on each others' recent life adventures, we sat in my living room, where it was a little cooler, and began to weave our passion. I provided a large version of a summer renga blueprint, setting it up in a place that could be easily seen by all. To this we added key words and images as they were written, thus avoiding common pitfalls such as similarities of syntax, or repetitions of subject matter.
There was a marked difference between this meeting, and most of the others I've attended. We worked with uncommon ease and fluidity, adhering closely to our blueprint of season and non-seasonal verses, and shifting into broadly diverse topics with very few hitches. Part of this ease, I attribute to the large chart, but most of our success I attribute to some excellent advice given to me recently by Jane Reichhold.
During the writing of the renga we did together by email, she insisted that the linking and shifting flow of communication not be hampered or broken by questions, criticism, or even suggestions. She recommended that we wait until the final verse has been written before poets review their own stanzas to make changes or to fine-tune. I introduced this advice to the group, who adopted it wholeheartedly (for this session at least).
By midnight we were all weary but happy. We crafted a linked verse that, though nowhere near perfect, was one that we were all pleased with, and most importantly, the process itself was thoroughly enjoyable.
We send our deep gratitude to Jane for her advice. It seems likely that this session will prove a significant bench mark by which our future travels on this wonderful path of renga will be enhanced. We offer Sunlit Edges, hoping our pleasure is contagious
Writing renga requires an art of partnership rarely needed for creative efforts. In some aspects, two strangers doing a renga together takes the comic-tragic proportions of a blind date.
Whereas the success or failure of a date can regress into the twisting path of memory, a renga, when published, holds up to everyone's discerning eye what has happened between the lines of two persons meeting eighteen times over a longer period of time.
Even without Freudian training, the open, poet-hearted person can recognize the currents of emotion flowing across the rock-like words in a stream of sparkling dialogue. For a person who has written renga, it is easy to mark the lines of ebb and flow - when interested waned or, better still, caught fire from fire causing images to appear unbidden, without search or desperate grabbing on the dark banister of the remembered.
Each kasen renga, especially done as these are -by mail over a period of several months - uses timeless images that cast into a mold some of that slurry called the now-moment.
Since, as living creatures, the writers themselves are in a constant state of flux, no author is ever exactly the same person writing a renga with the same partner.
Also, one can never be totally oneself while writing a renga. Each link can only develop out of the previous link and any other theme or idea one has just evolved is abruptly switched or turned away from, there is no line of reasoning to follow or be guided by.
As in a maze, one must decide at the end of each lane whether to go left or right. With each link the partner writes a universe of choices, pushes a revolving door where nearly everything seems possible - and much of it feels untried.
In this way renga writing is helpful for the craftsman who has mired down in ruts of well-worn images or who seeks poetical material in only certain areas of daily life.
By having to carefully consider the partner's link, each writer is forced to enter new realms of experience and fantasy. In here new ideas and images emerge to enliven and enrich the completed poem.
Though solo renga have been and are still being written, even the best ones can feel smooth, slick, or too controlled. It nearly takes a split personality to create the jarring reality of two or more persons trying to hold hands while walking single-file.
And different hands have different shapes in writing renga also. Some feel good like a lover's touch or familiar like a brother's or sister's or the unearthly hand of soul mate. Others have the firm-timid grasp of teacher-student or hesitant-groping of teenagers in the tunnel of love or - when both are strong poets in their own right - the touch becomes polite Indian thumb wrestling.
The roles change, the kaleidoscope of personalities shifts with the slant of a different pen and though one may prefer to act the part of one type of poet, the words of a near-stranger can nudge one into pretending one is really someone else.
With English renga writing so new there are almost no opportunities to study and appreciate the subtle changes an author makes while switching partners.
In the autumn of 1989, as the result of the editing of Narrow Road to Renga, I was aware of the need to see these variables under a slightly more controlled situation so the reader could have first, a body of well-written haiku exemplifying the best in various methods of renga writing and second, be able to follow the changes in an author's patterns as each changes partners and third, to see in which ways each person stays true to his/her own personal way of writing and viewing the world.
Four persons - other writers - were chosen for the experiment because of special qualities of each one. Suezan Aikins, an artist who lives on a lonely point of Nova Scotia jutting into the ocean, fills her links with one person fully integrated into seasons and nature.
Francine Porad, lives on an island in the middle of Seattle, Washington (it's possible), where her life, as well as her artwork is filled with persons, people, and abstract images which are so close to her paintings. Nature alone rarely appears in any of her works.
Brent Partridge is at home in the land of fantasy, the real realm on the other side of ourselves which is mirrored in our natural world. Whatever is written in the partner's link, Brent takes it on a flying leap into the space the rest of us all too seldom venture.
Werner Reichhold is close and yet mostly off in the kingdoms under the sea and above the earth, here and there on the flying carpet of literature and legends.
The formal plan was that each of the five of us would start a Kasen renga (a formal 36-link poem somewhat following the traditional Japanese plan devised by Basho) in a twosome with each other. With a bit of calculation, who began with whom, we spaced out the hokku (first and beginning link) and introductions were begun. None of the other writers had previously done a renga together; I had done at least one renga with each of them.
Each couple decided their own rules and tolerances, agreeing on how close to stick to the kasen renga rules regarding the use of moon and flower verses. Each writer was responsible for his/her desecration or indiscretions. There was no overall renga master and the individual renga were not critiqued by the other writers. If questions arose, the hokku writer had the last word.
As printed here, the renga are given the divergent forms agreed upon by the partners, as far as typesetting allowed, instead of forcing all to work within one form. Thus the reader can study and compare the various possible ways of visualizing a renga.
After the experiment had started, it became evident that if all these partnerships had formed willingly, certain authors would not have chosen to continue doing a renga with a person of such divergent methods of seeing and writing. After compelling sensitive persons to perform such a private act as renga writing with persons not of their choosing, I felt they should be given the opportunity to also present renga done with someone by whom they felt complimented or who augmented their own style.
Near the conclusion, it was decided that each writer could add to the required renga, one which they had written with a a writer of their choice.
Thus, to the original five writers were added:
Charles B. Dickson, the winner of numerous awards for poetry and haiku, who had been initiated into renga by Suezan Aikins.
Francine Porad chose the renga, from the many she has done, titled "Touch of a Hand" written with Ruby Spriggs. Ruby Spriggs is the new editor of Haiku Canada Newsletter and Francine Porad has published Brussels Sprout for the last three years; it is a delight to read a renga from two poets who work so smoothly together.
Brent Partridge, deep in his involvement in his 100 verse solo renga The Wizard's Rook, now published as a book, submitted "Walking and Writing", a kasen solo renga.
Werner Reichhold chose the renga done with Ken-ichi Sato of Sakata, Japan for several reasons. Though "Spinning Meditation" was Ken-ichi Sato's first finished renga, he brings the Japanese sensitivity and interrelatedness with nature/human nature that we Westerners so admire to give this work the appearance of having been written by an old master. The fact that English is a second language for both of these men adds a different ring to the significance of words.
Wanting to demonstrate a renga done with more than one person, I've asked Lequita Vance and Paul O. Williams, both longtime renga and haiku writers, to permit the use of "Toward Summer" a kasen renga recently finished by the three of us. Here the reader can follow the switches in the order of who follows whom to keep the renga exciting and variable.
For readers not acquainted with renga, let me briefly add that the genre originated in Japan in the 1100's as an diversion and result of tanka (waka) writing. In contrast to western poetry forms, renga is a give and take, a dialogue between poets in which there is no connective narrative or realistic time sequence. The relationship between the stanzas is built on a system of various methods of linking either ideas, images, words, feelings, or concepts. The reader can, after simply enjoying the flow of the language, study the different methods of linking. Though it seems without structure, kasen renga all have 36 links, require the image of the moon in links #5, 14, and 29; flowers are to be used in #17 and 35. Depending on the level of achievement and partners' agreed upon rules, some renga follow strict mentions of the seasons, love verses at specific stanzas, while limiting the use of particular nouns. None of these authors count syllables to have 5-7-5, 7-7, 5-7-5; but they prefer to use short-long-short lines, with and without the closure.
Reading renga is much like watching a stream flowing by that is sprinkled with autumn leaves. Each leaf is different, it sinks or rises, goes stem up or sideways, but all are reacting to the approach of winter, the curving bank of the brook, going around the stepping stones skillfully laid across for the reader's passage. Enjoy the adventure; no two are alike.
Renga originated out of a group activity - poets assembled under the sponsorship of a high government official (often the Emperor or a Prince) where they wrote tanka in competition for prizes and afterwards began to amuse themselves by writing short renga (or tan renga) in which two persons contributed the 3 or 2 lines to make one tanka-formed poem.
According to Donald Keene, (Seeds of the Heart, Henry Holt Publishing, 1993), it was a woman who first added the 3rd link and thus, opened up the possibility of a "chain renga". His example is:
"As far as I know, the early renga were all written in groups as at a party or students gathered around a teacher where he was teaching. There was, however, a precedent set in another similar genre for a collaborative work in which each link was written in private and then sent to the one other partner for his/her link.
Even before the "discovery of renga" men and women were writing tanka as a way of expressing their feelings and commenting on or about the tanka greeting which they had just received. These correspondences went on for years (or as long as the woman could keep the man from breaking into her sleeping area to take by force what he wanted). The Tale of the Genji abounds in examples of such correspondence lasting the length of the relationship. The difference was that each person wrote a complete tanka and one of the household servants acted as postal service."
From the few reports brought down to us of how Basho worked, it is fairly clear that the renga writers gathered together as Keene reports above. However, it is also clear that whatever was written in one session was no the end of the poem. No, Basho took the poem with him to revise it and even re-order the links, add new ones from others who obviously were not attending the party. Yet, the postal system of 17th century Japan was not up to our system of doing renga by mail.
Due to the distances in America, where renga seemed to transplant itself best, people could not (or did not) gather in one place for the writing of a renga. Thus, the earliest ones here were sent, link by link through the mail. I would guess that 90% of the renga in the index of Symbiotic Poetry were written by this method.
The coming of e-mail not only made renga writing more fun, it was a lot quicker. Renga could be done in 3 - 5 days. As the Internet reached out to cover more people and features were created, it was possible for several persons to agree to 'meet' at one time in cyberspace, and now we are doing renga in 'real time' in which the links are on each person's screen the second they are submitted.
Now which method is "best"? All of these have the advantage of allowing the partners a space and a time of peace and quiet to formulate a link without pressure. This I value greatly. Yes, sometimes you read a link and the "answer" pops into one's head, but I often find when I ponder my partner's link for some time I find it is richer and more complex than it seemed on the first reading. Also, when one reads a link it is too easy to try to continue the action or situation instead of turning away with a leap to discover a new or unexpected connection. It is also good to have time to let a new link "cool off" and to see if it needs further revision.
Then, whether the renga is dropped into a mail slot, some buttons are pushed or if one walks into another room determines the wait for the next link. I must admit that I prefer a renga that "marches along" to one that drags out over the years. Too much happens between links - I am not the same and the partners have changed as times have also brought changes.
I have written in groups three times at Yuki Teikei Haiku Retreats at Asilomar with Kiyoko Tokutomi as master. After having written renga for so many years by the above method, working within a group was a great eye-opener for me. There are many advantages to this. First of all it is a great feeling of cameradity that occurs only in a group where everyone works on one common goal. This warm, fuzzy feeling when Mrs. Tokutomi nods her acceptance of your scarcely-thought-out link, or if someone is unable to suppress an "ahh" of admiration or laughter from everyone -- if the link was meant to be funny.
The rush to make a link before someone else does shuts out all concerns. The attention of 20 or more persons is riveted on a few words. To get a 36-link renga done in the 3 - 4 hours of an evening meant the links had to be on the tip of one's tongue. There was no time to revise and polish the links. They usually stood or fell as they came out. The writers with much experience in haiku and renga could, if they could think at all, pull out of their memory banks some old favorites, give them a new twist so they fit and wham! another link with their initials on it was in the poem.
One other group experience with renga also took place at a Yuki Teikei Retreat. Instead of all working on one renga, each person had a renga form on which they wrote their hokku, titled the work and set up any "rules" they wanted. This was somewhat like the participation renga are done in Lynx. Only instead of waiting months, we had the chance to immediately proceed with the poem. As soon as a link was written to the person's satisfaction, the paper was laid on a bench in the middle of the circle. Then you picked up another person's renga, read the rules and the open link and quietly wrote in your contribution and returned the form so someone else could continue to work on it. Needless to say the room got very quiet. Some worked very slowly and others wrote quickly. The rule was you couldn't answer your own link and if possible, do only one link on a page. As we got worn down, it was interesting to see the positions people assumed on the floor.
When the night guard threatened to charge extra for the use of the room, we -- the last knot of hard-core renga writers - reluctantly laid down our pens. However, the rest of the retreat, in odd moments, persons went on to finish about 18 of the renga. Copies of the holographs were then made and sent to all participants.
In 1987 when Japan Air Lines flew about 40 Japanese people over to the Nikki Hotel in San Francisco to teach us about haiku I tried to get a renga going during the long pauses when speeches were being translated. It was simply a notebook with a hokku and a note to pass it on. We got 12 -13 links before one of the organizers (American) pocketed the notebook and squelched the project.
In 1991 Michael Dylan Welch started some "chain renga" in the manner of a non-multiplying chain letter. He started out 4 - 5 renga, but only one was completed, returned to him and published in Frogpond.
At the moment I'm doing a visual "renga" started in England in which a picture was partly drawn and then passed along for the next person to add an image. Copies are then made and sent to all the previous participants so they have a record of the work's growth.
At a small local writers' workshop we once warmed up by doing the "exquisite corpse" method of writing. Here each person started with a haiku, a couplet, or verse form familiar to the author and then passed the paper to someone who was ready. After the second link was written, the paper was folded so the third writer could only see the second link. After about 10 - 12 linkages we read the completed work. What surprised us was how the impetus or pattern or subject that was strongly stated in the beginning link maintained its influence throughout the poem even though we could not look back to it.
This leads me to comment on the hokku. There are times when I've felt persons have not spent enough time considering the first link. Many of the prize-winning haiku would not be a proper hokku and many poems I would judge as a good hokku would not be startling enough to win a contest. Well, you say, what makes a good hokku? Most of those old-fashioned rules for a "real" haiku in addition to one that set the stage or makes a comment about this group or partnership. Often, the hokku was seen as a concealed statement about the host or other members of the group. Thus to begin with "the loose hinge / rusty and squeaky/ annoys the neighbors" is asking for trouble! unless the group is agreed to do a funny or sarcastic renga. You know there was a linked poetry form done in Europe in the 1700s called "flyting" in which people made fun of each other. The remarks became so scandalous and slanderous, so many lawsuits were started over these works that they were prohibited by law!
So as we turn our eyes back to the Japanese examples we find they usually started their renga with a mention of the weather or the season, and if they could, also of the place. Also the beginning should be serious, full of various interpretations or possibilities, or a question or theme for discussion. I feel the hokku should be faultless in form - this means that none of those 2-liners be written in three lines or ending in a verb. Even if one has a crib book up one's sleeve, it is not easy to find a hokku worthy of a group's time and attention. The old masters said that if the hokku was weak, the whole work was spoiled. That's a strong statement, but one that deserves some testing as you read through the various renga offered here.
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