A PERSONAL INTRODUCTION TO RENKU
(2000, revised 2005)
Poetry in Japan has always had a communal aspect. Even the oldest repository of prehistoric myth, the Kojiki, records an instance of the gods making a poem together.
During the height of the glory of Heian-kyô, Kyoto as we call it today, poets would relax after a day of competition for poetry prizes by writing a longish "linked poem" together, each trying to outdo the other, but also trying to make a whole that somehow hung together, the way a Chinese or Japanese landscape scroll painting shifts easily from one season, one environment, one set of characters to another. This way of writing, and the poems it produced, were called "renga"—linked poems.
By the seventeenth century, the aristocracy was no longer in control of culture, and haikai renga—"funny renga"—was the property of the samurai and the merchant class, who now had the wealth and the leisure to pursue the arts. But until Matsuo Bashô came along, haikai was pretty vulgar stuff. It not only stopped appealing to literary precedents, it stopped appealing to good taste.
Bashô grew tired of the gossipy references, and connections between verses based almost solely on puns and a set of traditional word relationships. He decided that poetry could tell of common things in an elevated way, and that verses could be connected by moods, by shifts of character and scene, by harmonies of image and language. Today we call the linked poetry of his era and since "renku". And today renku is growing in Japan, here in North America, and around the world. My wife Penny Harter and I have been involved in linked poetry for years, as have a number of other members of the haiku community writing in English. In case you wondered, those brief nature poems called "haiku" started out as the opening verses of linked poems. (Return to top.)
During the 1970s at meetings of the Haiku Society of America, I first began seriously studying and writing renku. At that time, I was fortunate enough to have as a house guest Tadashi Kondô, a graduate student at Columbia Teachers College who had served as a personal assistant to Master Shiranshi Kudo of the Rakushisha ("Fallen Persimmon Cottage"), a modern replica on the site of the cottage in Kyoto that Bashô stayed in when he visited that city. Rakushisha was owned by Bashô's disciple and patron, Kyorai, and we can only imagine the renku sessions that they held there. But Tadashi actually attended renku sessions led by Master Shiranshi, and absorbed much of the lore of haikai during his undergraduate years, living and working in that cottage. I began writing renku myself in the 1970s, mainly under Tadashi's influence, but it would be years before I would realize my own direct connection with living Japanese renku masters.
In 1989, while traveling in Japan as a result of our book, The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku, Penny and I were invited by Tadashi and Kris Young Kondô to join a poetry session at the Jigensha Renku Club in Tokyo. Ryûkan Miyoshi, master of the group, was interested in reaching out to people around the world. We had a continuing relationship with Jigensha from then until Master Ryûkan's death in 1996. (Master Ryûkan's group favored the kasen—36-stanza—form, but he also invented a form called "The Thirteen Buddhist Ways" and featuring thirteen stanzas.)
After our first session with Master Ryûkan, he took Penny and me to supper at a nearby restaurant. Over steaming soba noodles, he asked us how it could be that such independent people as Americans—we—were able to take his criticism so easily, while his own group members got upset with his corrections to their verses. He also told us of the old renku saying, "When the master corrects your verse, if even the word 'no' [like English 'of'] survives, it is your verse." In other words, no matter how much the master revises your stanza, it will appear in the final poem over your name. (We told him that we were self-confident writers, quite used to working with editors, and therefore not invested in "getting our way". We also acknowledged that in the realm of renku we were beginners, and assumed that by taking his direction we would be helping the group to make the best poem possible.)
One time I flew into Tokyo after a haiku conference in Matsuyama and was met at the airport by Kris, who would host me that evening before my departure from Japan. Without my prior knowledge, she whisked me to a Jigensha renku session that had been scheduled that evening because it was the only time I could possibly meet with them. In the meantime, while in Matsuyama I had first seen the beautiful "red spider lilies" called higanbana in Japanese. When I arrived carrying a bouquet of the flowers that the Japanese haiku master Momoko Kuroda had spontaneously bought for me at the Matsuyama airport, the vase in the tokonoma was empty, and the flame colors of the flowers matched the reds, oranges, and yellows in the kakemono scroll master Ryûkan had already hung there for the session.
On another occasion the Jigensha group met at Gichûji, the small temple in Otsu outside of Kyoto were Bashô is buried, to write a renku with us and other foreign guests. I was told the night before that I would have to produce the hokku, the starting verse, and I foolishly felt the weight of the whole enterprise of international renku on my shoulders. I rose early, saw the striking image of a kite (the bird) soaring over Lake Biwa, and spent an hour shaping my verse. Looking out our balcony again, I saw Master Ryûkan taking the morning air on his, and he invited me to come to his room with my verse. He and Tadashi and I spent the next half-hour further refining my efforts. I was not alone. (Return to top.)
It was Master Ryûkan's dream to come to America to do renku here with American poets. Tadashi and Kris, also then members of the Jigensha club, planned the trip for August of 1992. Unfortunately, health problems prevented Ryûkan-sensei from coming, but six renku poets from four different renku clubs, from Tokyo to Osaka, made the trip. They spent a week each in California, Wisconsin, New York-New Jersey, and in Santa Fe, where Penny and I lived then, meeting and writing with poets from the region. Twenty-six renku involving the Japanese and American poets were completed during the tour.
Penny and I, knowing that writing renku is fun, but that doing it well can take some preparation, organized a group of interested writers that met during the July prior to the Renku North America tour, as the Japanese poets' visit was called. The group that studied and wrote together that July became the nucleus of a larger group that wrote with the Japanese poets. Many who first experienced renku-writing that summer have continued writing renku together, and expanding the circle of people involved. And not just in Santa Fe, but also in California, New York, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
During the Japanese poets' visit to Santa Fe, Penny participated in writing a kasen renku in a group led by Master Ichiyo Shimizu, of the Kabuto no Kai Renku Club in Osaka, while I worked on the kasen directed by Master Shinkû Fukuda, of the Ama-no-gawa Renku Club of Sado Island. (Return to top.)
In 1994, again at Tadashi's instigation, we were invited to attend a formal renku ceremony directed by Japan's greatest living master of renku, Meiga Higashi, and held at the Bashô Museum in Fukagawa, Tokyo, near where Bashô lived in his famous "Banana-hut" hermitage. On two different occasions, I was able to write renku under Master Higashi's leadership, and he gave Tadashi and me permission to translate the brief card of reminders and instructions that he uses in his renku sessions featuring the nijûin, or twenty-stanza renku form.
In 1996, the Master Bashô Memorial Association of Ueno in Mie
Prefecture, Bashô's home town, invited a number of Japanese and foreign
guests to participate in a grand renku session at the Sugawara Shrine,
where Bashô had long ago presented his first haikai publication.
It was the Association's 50th annual Bashô festival, and the foreigners
were honored guests. There I wrote in a group led by Master Seijo Okamoto
of the Haikai Sesshin and widow of Master Shunjin Okamoto, who invented
or "twelve tone" renku form. Other groups at that same event wrote renku
in 18, 24, and 36 stanzas. While there, I also met Dr. Shosui Asano, who
had edited a book on using haiku and renku in psychiatric therapy, and
the leader of another renku group.
These experiences with the nijûin and jûnichô led to Tadashi and I collaborating on the article "Shorter Renku", which was published in the Haiku Society of America journal Frogpond and led to the Society including these two shorter forms along with the 36-stanza kasen in its annual renku competition (see their web site for details). Our article is now available here on this web site. (Return to top of this essay.)
Renku take some getting used to. When reading or listening to a renku, do not try to follow a narrative or story line for more than a stanza or two. The short stanzas are only two or three lines each. They are not meant to tell a long tale, or to inform you, but to build up a composite image of the rich diversity of life, both human and otherwise. Notice the great variety of images and actions, characters and settings, constantly shifting. Feel the ever-changing moods, the ebb and flow of love and the seasons.
In a well-constructed renku, especially those of twenty or more stanzas, you should notice a three-part movement. The jo, or preface, usually includes the first four, six, or eight verses, depending on the overall length. This section is also called the "face" of the renku, because it normally occupies the first side of the formal writing sheets used to record a renku. Here the images and events are interesting, but not violent or disturbing. Think of them as you would the beginning of a party, when people are making introductions and getting to know something about one another. You may notice that the first two stanzas, in particular, seem to compliment some of the participants or the spirit of a place, and the moon will usually make its first appearance here in the preface.
In the ha, or development section, which occupies the entire middle of the poem, anything can happen. Here you will meet different characters and share in their love, elation, and tenderness, and in anger, illness, calamity, or death. You will travel distances in time and space. You and the other guests at the party will let your hair down and become like old friends telling one another curious stories.
The kyû, or finale, takes up the same number of verses as the jo. This is like a presto in music, moving swiftly and smoothly to the end, with straightforward linking from stanza-to-stanza. Finally, after the last blossom stanza, the poem ends on an upbeat note, as the guests optimistically say good-night and look forward to the next party.
Through all of this, the seasons flow, not in their calendar order, but in an order determined by the season in which the renku was begun and traditional aesthetics. Autumn and spring dominate, but summer and winter will put in their appearances as well. The moon shines or is obscured. Flowers blossom and fall. Animals and people come and go. The landscape and concerns change from moment to moment, now a mountaintop, now a kitchen, now today's headlines, and next the deep past—or even the future. Nothing stays for very long, however, except movement.
Enjoy a renku as you would enjoy music, for the varying motifs which come and go, threaded through the rhythms of first one voice, then another. Catch, if you can, how one verse adds meaning to what went before, and then changes its own meaning as the next follows. These changes, lightly governed by a variety of guidelines, should appear as simply the continuing flux of life.
In the words of Tadashi Kondo, a renku is a mandala. Like a mandala,
each renku should contain the moon of enlightenment and the blossoms of
this transient life, and everything in between.
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