Thursday, February 2, 2012

Renga Ramblings 2: The First Step

Renga Ramblings 2

The First Step

When writing a solo renga the first step is to decide how long it should be, how many verses the renga should have. In the past this was not an issue. In Sogi’s day renga were almost always 100 verses long. Basho wrote 36 verse renga (as far as I know his renga are exclusively in this form; at least I haven’t heard of Basho engaging in any other lengths). The number of verses also is not usually an issue if you are composing communal renga; renga involving a group which is the usual way of composing renga. If you receive an invitation to join a renga group, the invitation almost always comes with the type of renga specified so that you know in advance how many verses the renga will be. If you are sending out invitations you will usually tell people you are looking for partners to compose a 12 verse, or 22 verse, or 36 verse form. But for solo renga the length is up to you and the length of the renga becomes your first decision.

These days there are numerous renga forms. The 12 verse forms are popular; there are at least three versions of 12 verse renga. Then there are 20 verse, 22 verse, 36 verse, and many others besides.

Partly I decide on the length based on how much time I want to spend on the renga. For example, it is possible for someone familiar with renga to compose a 12 verse renga in an hour or two. On the other hand, a 100 verse renga can take months. Sogi’s famous 100 verse renga, ‘Sogi Alone’, took four months to compose. When I decided to do a solo 100 verse renga, ‘100 Verses at Sebastopol’, it took me about four months as well. A 100 verse renga is a big commitment, but it is also highly rewarding. However, I don’t recommend it for those first starting out with renga.

For those new to renga and wanting to try their hand at solo renga, I recommend beginning with one of the 12 verse forms. The compactness of the form allows the poet to keep track of requirements like topical placement and repetition exclusions more easily than with longer forms. And like I said, once you are familiar with the overall renga form, a 12 verse version of renga can be done in a few hours.

Often I decide on the length by throwing dice or using an online random number generator. I know this will strike some as eccentric and it is. But using such an approach has given me an opportunity to compose renga of unfamiliar lengths; such as 13 or 19 verses. So if you feel adventurous, you can use such an approach as well. The big disadvantage of using this approach is that you won’t have templates to follow. I mean that if you are writing a 12 verse renga form you can go online and follow a template for a 12 verse form. In addition, you can read renga composed by others in this form which is a good way of learning how a particular form works. If you roll the dice and come up with 18 verses or 33 verses, this will mean being flexible and allowing yourself to adapt and incorporate renga structures from other more widely used forms. On the other hand, I have found using dice, or other random number mechanisms, offers an opportunity to create unique patterns of flow and connection. It’s up to you.

What has become apparent to me, after years of renga composition, is that renga can be any number of verses long. Practically speaking 12 verses seems to be the lower limit. (As a challenge to myself I once wrote an 8 verse renga, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s theoretically possible, but it is also crowded.) The 12 verse renga form is the practical lower limit because renga requires seven topics be distributed through the renga. And if one includes intervening verses between the required topical verses, 12 seems to be what is minimally necessary. (I’ll have more to say about these required topics in a future post.)

So, again, the first step in solo renga composition is to decide how many verses for this particular renga. The range is great: from 12 verses to 100. I suggest trying several different lengths. Start with a 12 verse form. Then try the 20 verse form. The 22 verse form is also excellent and it is surprising how just adding the two extra verses changes the flow of the renga from the 20 verse form. And there is the classic 36 verse form which Basho loved.

What I have observed is that after some familiarity with different verse lengths, people often feel attracted to a particular length-type. The 12 verse form has many virtues: conciseness, steady pace, and simplicity. I have a fondness for the 20 verse form: it allows for more development and its pace feels more leisurely to me. The 36 verse form also has the virtues of more time for development and more leisure.

So explore the various lengths. Eventually as a solo renga poet you will find the verse length which attracts you the most.


Brian said...


A question:

When not using one of the traditional renga schematics, how do you thematically order your verses?

Jim714 said...

Good Morning:

I will have more to say about this in the next Renga Ramblings. But briefly, there are three approaches I take. The first is to adapt the layout of topics from the nearest standard length form. For example, say I decided to compose a 24 verse renga. I would be inclined to adapt the layout from the 22 verse from (Triparshva), or perhaps the 20 verse form (Nijuin), or a mixture of both. I tend to adapt from the standard verse form below the number I am using rather than the one above.

The second approach is to take the Shisan (12 verse) approach and simply place the seasonal verses in seasonal order evenly distributed through the renga. This has the virtue of simplicity.

And finally, and this is just me, I will sometimes assign topics randomly; again by throwing dice. I enjoy doing this because it creates alignments that I would not have thought of myself. Sometime this approach creates awkward groupings and I feel free to adjust when this happens.

More later,