Monday, March 31, 2008

Classical Style

Good Friends:

A while back I read The Road to Komatsubara by Steven D. Carter. It is an analysis of Renga in the classical period using a solo Renga by the poet Sogi as the centerpiece. During the period this book covers the 100 Verse Form, known as a Hyakuin, was the norm.

One of the things that struck me was how closely the esthetic of Renga fits with the esthetic of the classical period of music in the west. I came away from my reading thinking that the closest analog for Sogi in the West is specifically the classical composer Franz Joseph Haydn, and the classical period of music in general.

For Sogi, and for the period in which he wrote in general, a Renga is a highly structured form of poetry. Subjects are located in the Renga at specific places and the Renga poet is expected to know these placements and abide by them, and there are many additional regulations as well.

Classical music has a similar structure. Themes are introduced at set places, they last for a given amount of time, or measures. In other words both the Renga poet of Sogi's time and the classical composer of Haydn's pour their creativity into a pre-established formal structures. Listeners of classical music knew what to expect, just as readers of Renga knew the rules governing Renga form.

The overall structure is also similar. The "Jo-Hya-Kyu" or "Introduction - Development - Close" of Renga resembles the structure of the Sonata Form in music, brought to perfection by Haydn. The Sonata Form starts with an Introduction where themes are presented, followed by a develoment section which, like the "Hya" of a Renga, can be relatively free, even experimental, concluding with a recapitulaton. A difference between the two is that the closing section of a Renga is not a recapitulation of the opening. It is more like the end of a journey. The overall feeling of the two forms, however, has many similarities.

There is another similarity between Renga and Classical Period Music; and that is the self-effacing nature of the two arts. By self-effacing I mean that Classical Music and Renga are primarily crafts rather than means for self-expression. It has often been noted that in the classical period it is sometimes difficult to know, upon first hearing, whether a specific piece is by Mozart or Haydn or some other period composer. This is because the formal structure was shared by all composers and its constraints were broadly accepted. Composers didn't think of their job as the creation of new forms for each piece; rather they worked within the formal constraints given to them. Similarly, Renga Poets work within the constraints of the Renga Form. In Renga there is a further self-effacing element; that is that usually Renga are written by more than one person and when this is the case the Renga is not a single person's expression, rather the poem emerges as an interaction among those participating.

This is one of the reasons why I like Renga. Writing Renga is a kind of craft, like a potter making a teacup. Every teacup has a roughly similar shape; but given that basic shape there is ample room for the potter to produce something unique. Similarly, every Renga has a basic strucuture, but given that structure there is ample room for each Renga, and for each Renga poet, to offer something unique. Just as the potter doesn't think of the basic shape of a teacup as a restriction, so also the Renga poet doesn't think of the rules governing renga as restrictive; rather they are an opportunity to shape words into significant form in the way a potter shapes clay, in the way a carpenter shapes wood, in the way a baker shapes flour for bread.

Best wishes,


Sunday, March 30, 2008



It's cold this morning,
Though the last few days were warm;
March is such a tease

The apple blossoms like it
When the summer heat's delayed

She does not accept
(One should not appear too eager)
His first advance

All the grandchildren gather
For his eighty-fifth birthday

In the nearby park
Under the shade of some trees
It is still too hot

They share a glass of ice tea
After tending the garden

The dishwasher hums
Overhead a plane passes
A neighbor's dog barks

While the October full moon
Watches as the dry leaves fall

He shuffles the deck,
Then deals the cards to his friends;
Monthly poker night

A stack of coats and mittens
Lies on the living room couch

Ready to be sent,
Along with other discards,
To the Goodwill Store

She retrieves one photograph,
"I'll keep this one after all."

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Renga Journey

Good Friends:

I am calling this blog "Renga Roads" because I think of Renga as a journey. Think of taking a canoe trip down a river. Each time one goes down the river one sees the same things, the same turns in the river, the same contours of the scenery, the same sights and roughly the same sounds; but each time those things have changed. The seasons, the weather, human and natural activity such as storms and sunshine, shift the scenery. Rain may make the river swifter than the last time one went down this river. And each person who takes this river run will go through the same course; yet because they are individuals and their perception is shaped by their history, memory, expectations, and biology each person will have a different interpretation of the trip.

A Renga resembles this kind of journey. Like a river run marked by certain landmarks, all Renga are marked by certain scenes. These Renga Scenes, or Renga Landmarks, are the verses for the Moon, Blossoming Fruit Trees, and Love. Renga forms have specific locations for these verses, just as on a River run there are going to be certain points where specific scenery appears. But each Moon verse is slightly different, and each verse on Love, and all the verses on flowering Trees, are somewhat different. The variety is inexhaustible. And so each time in our Renga journey when we come to the point in the journey where there is a Moon verse, we experience both the satisfaction of recognition and the surprise of a new perspective.

The other category of verses that all Renga contain are the seasonal verses. These often interact with at least two of the above mentioned verse scenes: the Moon and Blossoming Fruit Trees. For obvious reasons, the flowering tree is inherently a Spring seasonal verse. In traditional Japanese esthetics, a full moon is inherently an autumnal moon, unless specifically named other wise (such as "the summer full moon"). The seasonal verses in a Renga set the journey in motion; they are the current of the Renga River. The seasons are the medium upon which the reader of Renga journeys. 

Renga is my favorite of poetic forms. At first it seems complicated, and in some ways it is. But taking a canoe trip also seems complicated when one is unfamiliar with it. Even a hike in a forest seems complicated if one has not done it before. Once one becomes familiar with canoeing, then one knows what to bring and what to expect. The same applies to Renga. Once one has some familiarity with the landscape of Renga, the Moon, the Flowering Trees, the Love verses, and the flow of the seasons, one begins to have a sense of what to expect and one embarks on the journey with a sense of eager expectation.

Best wishes,