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WHAT IS BEST?
Jane Reichhold

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 working together 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.

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.


Copyright © Jane Reichhold 1996.

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