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The work that makes us one

By Steven Ratiner / January 15, 1981

When I was much younger, and first approaching the vocation of poetry, I was awed and somewhat disturbed by the profound alonenessm it demanded. Had I the courage to spend a lifetime struggling to perfect an art and a vision with no one else's help, guidance, shared inspiration? Could one person trust his own mind so devoutly that it could steer a life and a life's creation in ultimate solitude? Teachers -- true teachers, who instigate the hunger to learn -- are both rare and brief companions. Critics too often compound the burden instead of shouldering it beside you. Other writers, I reasoned, would be bound by their own insularity. I wondered: how could anyone survive the challenge?

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It is only of late that I've come to believe that the real challenge of art is not the aloneness -- nothing so easy as that. The test is linking the solitary self to the vast world of selves via the delicate scaffolding of language. The poet must construct his private dwelling in order to nurture the home that has no boundaries.

One of the clues to this reconsideration came to me by way of the poets of medieval Japan and the idea of linked verse.m In art books I used to come across scroll paintings like "the Thirty-six Master Poets" pictured here, and I would wonder what they could be about. Musicians, of course, needed to band together to create a symphony, a chamber group, or even a duet. Architects, sculptors, muralists, and printmakers most often assembled a team to produce their larger efforts. But meetings of poets? Gatherings? Whole conventions? What could poets be coming to share; what work could these supreme soloists perform together?

Besides sharing the talk of the day, their stories and laughter and human commiseration, the poets would gather to create aggregate poetry. Linked versem (renga) -- a forerunner to the most popular Japanese form, the haikum -- was a string of short poems written in rotation by a small group of poets. Originally the settings consisted of a mere handful to poems, but the form soon developed into chains of more than 100 pieces. The "rules" for linked verse specified the length and number of lines, and called for each poem in the series to be joined to the preceding by "witty association or verbal play." As the form matured, he connection between stanzas became mroe subtle and the relationship to the whole creation more intuitive and profound. Each poet would add one more link that caught up some of the tone, idea, or vision of the chain and focused or broadened its boundaries. The culmination of this process was a kaleidoscopic expanse of human discovery formed, not by one poet's perspective, but by the conjunction of many minds.

Here, in the age of "Me, Myself, I," such a cooperative undertaking seemed painfully necessary. I began to experiment with this form with several poet friends and the result, though not always great art, spawned in each of us a curious brand of wonder. Accustomed to leading a poem with one's personal graps , we discovered the new sensation of having a shared work arise in our midst.