Renga – Montage on Paper

Simply put, ‘renga’ is a cinematic poetry.

It’s also a Japanese form of collaborative, linked verse, which intercuts between “panoramic view[s] of nature and human sceneries”[i] and thus has much in common with film. Both forms are authored by a group of contributors and both forms have a ‘director,’ (or leader) – in renga, this person is known as the sabaki. The sabaki’s responsibilities are many, from verse selection and alteration, to guiding participants through the structure.

As a poetic form, ‘renga’ is at least 800 years old. It is still practised around the world, though today it is more commonly referred to as ‘renku.’ Whichever term is used, thanks to the internet, renga is spreading into other languages and cultures.

In order to understand renku, some familiarity with haiku is useful – not in the least because the lead verse of the renga, the hokku, is the precursor to what we now call a haiku. Traditionally haiku is a minimalist, imagistic poem reflecting the natural world. Use of kigo (season-words), ‘cutting words’ instead of punctuation, and a strict syllable count totalling seventeen, are important features of the poem.

So what does a renga look like? If you’ve never seen one, think of renga as an interconnected chain of haiku. Connections in renku are vital, because what happens between verses, is where the action lies. It’s the leaps of understanding a writer (and a reader) must make from verse to verse that makes renga so subtle and so addictive to write.

Further, a renga must ‘always be looking forward.’ It should also be a unified work. For this to happen, writers have several principles to guide composition, chief of which is ‘Link and Shift.’ I’ll try demonstrate the principles theoretically before providing a concrete example.

Firstly, when read, verse one will have a close relationship or ‘link,’ with verse two. Verse two and three will also be linked, but verse three should not refer back verse one – and so the pattern continues, with verse four having no relation to verse two and so on throughout the renga. Secondly, it is necessary that from verse to verse, some sort of ‘shift’ of focus occurs. In this manner, a renku always moves forward thematically, while maintaining internal connections.

Here’s an example, the opening of a twelve-verse renku, the Junicho form:

summer visitors
the children show off
marble-sized pumpkins

careless laughter
filling blue watering cans

at the picasso exhibit
a shadow
crosses the wall[ii]

Between verse one and two, ‘children’ can link to ‘careless laughter.’ Further, both verses imply a garden as their location, bringing in a second level of linkage. Kigo allows for a third level of linking, that of season, as both verses bring summer to mind.

Next comes the link between verse two and three, represented by the ‘blue’ of the watering can and the more subtle, implied reference to Picasso’s famous ‘Blue Period’ in the third verse.

So even as links unify the poem, each verse still shifts from the other. Firstly, from the outdoor world of nature and the garden with its ‘vegetables’ then its ‘watering can,’ we move indoors, shifting focus, to the human world of paintings and shadow. There is also a shift in mood, as a potentially ominous element is introduced. Finally, between verses one and three, there are no links, and across the whole poem so far, no words or images are repeated. In this way, the renku strives to never ‘look over its shoulder.’

It’s a challenging but immensely satisfying art form. If you’re interested in renku, amazing resources abound on the internet. The Renku Home, started by the late William J Higginson, the Renku Reckoner, maintained by John Carley and Jane Reichhold’s site, are all brimming with useful information. All sites have examples, theory and The Reckoner includes exercises. Issa’s Snail too, might be worth a look, an online space open to newcomers.

So find a group, join up and try your hand at renga! A wide range of forms exist, from the popular Kasen at 36 verses (great for a larger group of writers) to the Junicho at 12 verses and even John Carley’s 4 verse form, the Yotsumono (for two poets.) And read a few renku – once you can see the leaps a writer took between verses, you’ll find it easier to make your own when you participate in one.

Best of all, jump right in! Start writing – a good sabaki will always help you.

 

Notes


[ii] From the Junicho ‘Summer Visitors

Melissa Allen  (v1) Max Stites ( v2) Ashley Capes (v3)
Ashley Capes (sabaki)

(first published in WQ, Queensland Writers Centre)

New Renku up at the Snail

Issa’s Snail, a space I put together for renku/renga (a form of collaborative verse) after participating in the Cordite ‘Haikunaut Island Renga‘ just finished it’s latest Triparshva renku, you can find it here, along with Junicho & the current, ongoing Kasen, led by Graham Nunn.

John Carley, a highly knowledgeable man, has greatly assisted me & the other writers at the Snail, it’s brilliant to have him and we’re looking forward to the next renku.

In our current Triparshva you will find verses by

Barbara A Taylor
Colin Stewart Jones
Genevieve Osborne
John Carley
Sandra Simpson
William Sorlien

and by many others elsewhere on the site!

Haiku from Graham Nunn

[Mirrored post from kipple]
Currently leading our Kasen Renku at Issa’s Snail (see link to the right) is the talented Graham Nunn. Here are some of his own haiku:

dawn service
red scarf slashed
across the digger’s throat

~

nudist beach
all eyes stare
out to sea

~

rooster’s yellow beak opens the morning

~

makeshift bed
blood on the face
of the new born

~

at dusk
pink and blue clouds
of fairy floss

Graham Nunn
Unfortunately, Graham’s haiku collection, a zen firecracker, is sold out, but measuring the depth, his beautiful haibun collection is not, have a look here

More Haiku from Issa’s Snail

Today I’m once again mirroring a post from kipple in order to sample some more of the great poets contributing to interactive renku site Issa’s Snail (see link to the right)

wind and wattle –
a season without
a name

~

four dolphins ride
the lip of the surf –
laughter

~

a squabble of rosellas
unzips
the clouds

~

a welcome mat –
the tabby unfolds
on a handkerchief of sun

Anne Elvey

 

swamp gums
in blossom
honeyeaters luncheon

~

Uluru –
in the distance there sits
a hippopotamus

~

old wooden bridge
waves of sand
…drifting mist

~

Southern Cross Station
two silver trains glide in
a blackbird flies out

Rhonda Poholke

Haiku from Issa’s Snail

Today I’m mirroring a post from kipple  – where I collected samples from some of the great poets contributing to the interactive renku site Issa’s Snail (see link to the right) I hope to present more soon!

two worn Oxfords
all that’s left of father
in the wardrobe

~

a heron’s meal
interrupted by
a teenage jet-ski

~

one strand
carries a spider
weightless

Joseph Mueller

.

trying her name
ending with his –
the pen runs dry

~

Christmas Eve –
stepping into
a stranger’s footprint

~

heat haze
she runs up waving
a fan shell

Sandra Simpson

.

rainforest –
should I listen to bellbirds
or the currawong?

~

the stray tomcat
tries a kitten’s voice –
winter dusk

~

winter fly –
my death poem
unwritten

Lorin Ford