Friday, November 8, 2013

Let's Do Renku!

Every poet knows about haiku, those three-line nature poems popular with minimalist poets and masters of zen.  Those of you familiar with the history of haiku also know that haiku were originally not poems intended to stand alone, but were the kickstarter first verse of a collaborative poem, called renga.
Photo by GL

What is renga?

Renga is collaborative linked verse.  It starts with the haiku master providing a verse of seventeen syllables (a "haiku")* to start with, which will suggest the theme and tone.  The next poet follows this with a couplet of fourteen syllables (making a tanka of 5-7-5 followed by 7-7)**.

Another poet then contributes a haiku based on the couplet, which is then followed by another couplet.  And so the renga continues, with three-line stanzas alternating with two-line ones. 

Each stanza will follow on from the previous, but does not continue from earlier stanzas-- the whole poem doesn't tell a story, but is allowed to wander.  Each stanza thus is part of two miniature poems-- one when read with the stanza before it, and another one when read with the stanza following it.

Renga do not tell stories in the usual sense. They connect thoughts and images suggesting an overall picture, theme, idea or emotion. A great part of the fun of renga is the surprise, the imaginative leaps and tangents explored along the way.
--Larry Gross

Or, as one poet phrased it, "The result is a constantly changing mosaic which discourages development of a logical, sequential narrative."
Of course, since it's Japanese, there are all sorts of further rules dealing with elegance and flow.  For example, each tanka evokes a season, and the seasons must progress in a particular order-- you can't jump from a spring stanza directly to winter.  And there are guidelines for not over-using images: for example, a reference to the moon can't follow directly after another reference to the moon.  And you can only mention plum blossoms so many times.

In Japan, writing renga was a social activity-- poets got together in person to have renga parties, passing around sheets of paper with the verses.  (Say, that might be a fun thing to do at a local poetry reading-- how about at Deep Cleveland?)

And, hey, the Haiku Society of America has a contest for renga.

So, here's my proposal: let's use the blog to write a clevelandpoetics renga-- a collaborative renga with a Cleveland theme.

Who's in?

*actually, the first stanza of a renga is the hokku, not a haiku.  But that doesn't matter here-- it's identical to a haiku in form.
**yes, I know that English syllables aren't the same as Japanese, and Japanese don't write haiku in three lines.  For the purpose of this renga, though, let's go with the idea of a three line stanza followed by two lines.  We can be loose about seventeen syllables for the haiku and 14 for the couplet, but keep the idea that the haiku has a pattern of long-short-long, and the couplet has two longer lines.



Ray McNiece said...
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Geoffrey A. Landis said...

We'll be starting soon! Josh will be posting a piece on the philosophy of renga, and then I'll post one more post summarizing the process, and we'll get started.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau