Poetic Links to Japan

NO one writes in Spenserian stanzas these days. Western poetry today tends to be free in its forms. While traditional meters are found, they usually are the simpler ones, and of the medieval forms, most of which were extremely complex, only the sonnet, one of the simplest, remains popular. However, the Japanese renga forms, despite their structural involvement, are growing in popularity in North America. Renga is Japanese linked verse. It is generally communally composed, typically at a party or in a contest, with successive writers adding to the growing poem. In the West, renga links are added over the phone or by mail.

Like most Japanese art forms, renga has a long history, different schools and types, and many refinements. The form began with an import - the Chinese tanka, a poem consisting of five lines, sequentially of 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 syllables in each. As early as the 7th century AD, Japanese aristocrats collected famous Chinese tanka and of course began writing their own.

In a tanka, the first three lines make a statement, to which the final two, the capping lines, give a new spin or add a dimension. And from this aspect developed the simplest form of renga, the tan renga, in which one writer would compose either three lines, the 5, 7, 5, and another writer would cap it with the 7, 7, or vice versa. As a natural evolution came longer poems, some much longer, containing even a thousand links or more. These were written by a group of poets over a long period of time.

In the structure of longer renga, each link is thought to compose a poem with the link before, and so as the composition progressed, each would be a part of two poems. Hence the renga is a poem of many poems. At first acquaintance, a renga seems to the Western mind to be a poem adrift, shifting quixotically as it progresses - until the way the linkage works is seen. Then the wit and originality of the linking becomes a source of delight as its possibilities are explored, because in a well-crafted renga the way each link relates to its neighbors should be visible, if at times slyly so. Often this relation affords a startling new thought about the link to which the poet is adding.

The great 17th-century haiku master, Matsuo Basho, was first a master of renga, and a form he developed, the Kasen renga, has since become quite dominant. This form contains 36 links, beginning with the ``hokku,'' a 5-7-5 syllable poem, and ending eventually with a 7-7 link. The first six stanzas are thought of as introductory, the next 24 as the main body of the renga, and the last six as a conclusion, in which the more flamboyant mood of the body is cooled and quieted. In the Kasen renga, links five, 14, and 29 should mention the moon, and numbers 17 and 34 should include cherry blossoms.

Famous rengas of Basho's circle are still widely studied. Some are available (and explained) in English, as for example in Makoto Ueda's book ``Matsuo Basho: The Master Haiku Poet'' (published by Kodansha International).

Eventually it was Basho who fully separated the 5-7-5 link from the renga and established it as a mature form in its own right - the haiku. And after World War II, as many North Americans became fascinated with haiku, it was natural that they should also develop an interest in renga, even though the form had fallen into neglect in Japan. New translations, such as Hiroaki Sato's ``One Hundred Frogs,'' helped English speakers to understand how the renga works.

Today haiku magazines lately sprung up in North America include occasional renga, and one newsprint quarterly, Lynx, is devoted wholly to the form. Western poets have been exploring traditional forms and creating new renga forms of their own. Renga parties are held, and a new nationwide contest has been created.

Like English-language haiku, renga links in English tend to be shorter than the usual syllable, or onji, count for the lines in Japanese. And as is the practice in Japan today, syllable count is regarded as less important than the spirit of the traditional renga, which many follow faithfully.

Renga afford a new poetic resource and an outlet for wit and insight different from traditional or new Western forms. As poems with partners, or communal poems, they are an artistic resource which combines perception, humor, and companionship. No one writes Spenserian stanzas today, but the complexities of renga come in small bites, and many are enjoying this new-old poetic flavor.

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