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LET'S GET REAL WITH RENGA
Jane Reichhold

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.

  1. The situation that has drawn this group of poets to gather --their reason for writing the poem - can be stated (best if it is done indirectly) in the first two links.

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, fantasy 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).

  1. Insects are referred to only once (after you've mentioned the worm in the salad, drop the subject).
  2. Subjects should not be repeated - unless there is a theme and then there should be various aspects presented using synonyms and references (this IS poetry). Never use a noun twice on a page and avoid repeating it in the rest of the poem. (Once you've told the blonde joke, repeating five more will not make them funnier.)
  3. 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.

Article Copyright © Jane Reichhold 1999.

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