Recently, trawling through some of my old story and poetry files I came across a file marked Renga. When I opened it up I was met by the two and three line verses I wrote every day in 2010 from July through to November. Reading them back, what struck me more than anything was the way they so often captured time, that time, the very kernel of it, so that even five years on I knew exactly what day the verse was written on.
There were also powerful images and emerging truths. At the time I wrote, ‘After only eight days I find I am fascinated by the way in which renga has such ideas of its own, how out of a simple two or three line verse inspired by the particular: one’s own world or daily life, emerges a greater truth that at times may sound and behave like an ancient proverb, that may contain a simple but unexpected universality.’
Renga is a traditional form of collaborative verse dating from 10th century Japan where poets would gather and write verses together, whilst drinking tea or saki – subjects were the natural world, love, the moon. In renga each verse must have some connection with the preceding one but also depart from it, avoiding repeating a word or an idea. So the renga is carried forward and is always changing.
So how did it work? Traditionally poets worked in pairs or small groups, taking turns composing the alternating three-line and two-line stanzas – one poet writes the first stanza, which is three lines long with a total of seventeen syllables – the same structure as a haiku. The next poet adds the second stanza, a couplet with seven syllables per line. The third stanza repeats the structure of the first (another haiku) and the fourth repeats the second, alternating in this pattern until the poem is completed.
It is however possible to write Renga (or at least a form of it) alone – here are 5 of my Renga days from September 2010 – as you will see I took great liberties with my syllable count.
damp morning roads
on pale fawn
I polish and scrub
to liberate myself
swallows on the wire
you stop me, look hard and say
that what I do is good
It seems to me this will be a great way to chart a journey – India here I come. I hope to post my Renga among other things, while I’m away.