On Renga: A Letter to Richard Garcia



Dear Richard,


I’m no expert on renga, but that doesn’t keep me from having opinions. Opinion #1 is that most writing on renga (along with most writing on other Japanese literary forms) is precious claptrap with precious little to recommend it.


Renga was a middle-brow art form which allowed the 17th century equivalents of people like me to get together, drink sake, hang out with a “real” poet, and feel literary. The resulting work was more a souvenir of the evening than a significant work of art. Yes, I know all about wabi-sabi, the appreciation of unintended art and the aesthetics of the world in decay. I believe, however, that wabi-sabi was originally onomatopoetic, meaning, “doesn’t walk or talk so well.” In other words, a drunk.


That’s not to say that renga doesn’t have charm. It can have a John Cage-ian development and “logic,” completely fresh.


One book you might want to look at for background is Lenore Mayhew’s Monkey’s Raincoat : Linked Poetry of the Basho School with Haiku Selections, published by Charles E. Tuttle Company. She gives a lot of the rules and regulations that Basho and other renga masters concocted to justify their pay. And keeping in mind that the poems were the direct result of several evenings of group debauchery, the ones she gives are pretty good.


Renga came out of tanka and haiku came out of renga. Tanka is a five-phrase poem. In the West, the convention is five lines. In Japan, they’re usually written in two lines, just as haiku are usually written as one line. The syllable count is 5-7-5 in the first line of three phrases, 7-7 in the second line of two phrases. There is often a turn between the two sections, a la the Italian sonnet. Sometimes these poems were collaborative, the top section written by one poet, the bottom a response of another. These collaborations are now called tan-renga.


In a renga session, the “real” poet, the renga master, supplies the opening 5-7-5 verse, either improvised on the spot or composed earlier (here lies the origin of haiku). Then the next participant adds a 7-7 verse which is in some way a response to the opening verse. The third poet now must make a 5-7-5 verse which connects to only the 7-7 verse which proceeds it. It cannot relate back to the opening 5-7-5. The fourth verse connects to the third only, the fifth to the fourth, and so on. So the problem for each poet in turn is to keep attention on only the immediately preceding verse, ignoring the developing poem as a whole. Six to eight people would take part in the project and alcohol poisoning probably helped them keep their focus confined to a small place. The poem runs to a predetermined length, maybe thirty-six verses, maybe a hundred. There are various season words and themes which, according to the rules being played, must enter into the poem at specific places, but there are quite a few different sets of rules. The master supplies verses at certain strategic points and decides whether a certain verse should or should not be allowed in. And the poem is to be completed in one sitting.


Now, as you know, I don’t drink. And I take a dim view of using mind-altering drugs to “inspire” creative work. So I came up with a way for a group to write a disjointed, meandering group poem without chemical aids.


Seat your group in a circle. Everybody has a long piece of paper. Everybody has two minutes to write a three-line imagistic poem at the very top of the paper. When two minutes are up, everybody passes the paper to the right. Everyone has two minutes to write a two-line response to the three lines already on the paper. This response can be a continuation of the first verse, or a subjective reaction to it. The two new lines should be close to the first lines: they’re going to need the space. If you want, they can initial their verses. When two minutes are up, everyone folds the top of the page so that the first verse can’t be seen. Only the new verse is exposed and the pages are passed again. Now everyone writes a three-line reaction to the two lines they see. After two minutes, they fold the page so only the new work is exposed, and pass it on. Two minutes, fold the page, pass it on. Sometimes a strict “objective-subjective” alternation is useful for those who need structure/direction. Write, fold, and pass on until everyone has contributed to each poem and the pages have made it all the way around the circle. Now go around the circle and read the poems.


I first tried this out on some undergrad students at Warren Wilson College and it was a big hit. I’ve since used it with other groups (cops, college students) and usually we get at least one, maybe two “keepers” out of the exercise. I’m sure you can see the benefits.


Sometimes I use published haiku for the opening verses. Robert Hass’s The Essential Haiku is a good source. I also like Richard Wright’s Haiku: This Other World. It’s available in paperback now and is a really good book of “formal” (5-7-5) haiku. The Afterward, by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert L. Tener is, sadly, claptrap, but I’m glad to have the poems.


Eleanor Wilner came up with a “softer” version of linked verse which she calls renshi (shi means “poem.” Also “death,” “city,” the number four, “sir...” but we won’t get into that.). There one poet must use the last line of another’s poem as the title of a new poem. She included several of her own poems written from lines by her students in Reversing the Spell.


So that’s what I know about and my experience with renga. Hope it helps.