Renga Ramblings 3
The Seven Topics of Renga
The second step in composing a solo renga is to know where to place the required seven topics. This, in turn, means being familiar with these topics. The renga poet needs to have these seven topics internalized; that is to say the renga poet needs to study them, how other poets use these topics, images that are associated with these topics, etc.
The seven topics of renga are: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter (the four seasons), the Moon, Love, and Blossoms.
Every renga has these seven topics mentioned at least once (well, almost every renga; there are always exceptions, but stay with me here). When I say ‘mentioned’ I mean that at least one verse in a renga is devoted to each of these seven topics.
Why these seven? Part of the reason is historical. The early anthologies of Waka, now known as Tanka, were arranged by topic. All of the topics in renga are found in these anthologies. Each of the four seasons constitute chapters in these anthologies, as do Tanka on love. Moon verses feature prominently in these collections as well. And in the spring section there is extensive treatment of Waka focused on the blossoming of fruit trees; usually plum or cherry.
There is another reason and that has to do with ‘essence’. The four seasons (representing five required verses including the blossom verse), the unfolding of love, and the phases of the moon all have an underlying similarity of process. They all wax and wane and exhibit features found in all the other categories. There is, in other words, an underlying unity in these seemingly disparate topics.
The seven required topics collectively form a cosmology. The moon is a celestial appearance. The seasons are a manifestation of the earth. And love is, in many respects, the central human concern and preoccupation. Together, these seven topics embrace heaven, earth, and humanity. When these seven topics are included in a renga a full cosmology is displayed.
When I say that renga is a kind of cosmology I mean by that a poetic cosmology. Scientific cosmologies are analytical and in order to understand them you have to enter into abstractions. Philosophical cosmologies (say Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’) are also highly abstract and require knowledge of specialized vocabulary and how to follow inferential structures. Religious cosmologies are not as abstract as scientific or philosophical cosmologies and they are closer to a poetic cosmology. However, they tend to be embedded in a particular narrative and appeal to a specific set of believers (I say this as a believer myself, so that’s not a criticism).
A poetic cosmology is based on images rather than abstractions or narratives. Renga is a cosmology of images. The absence of a narrative structure in renga is one of its singular features. Such absence assists in entering into its cosmological nature. When I say renga is a poetic cosmology I mean that renga displays a cosmology rather than discussing a cosmology, or inferring a cosmology. Renga says ‘Look, the cosmos is like this’, and then gives us examples of the ‘like this’.
The seven topics of renga are the way that renga presents its cosmology and that is why they are so significant. To compose renga is to learn to see the world from the perspective of this understanding.
Different renga forms are distinguished by exactly where the specific topics are placed. For example, there are three 12-verse forms I know of and though the overall count of their verses is the same (12), the placement of the seven topics differs. Those beginning renga need to learn where the form they are interested in places these topics in order to construct a renga correctly. It is as necessary for the renga poet to know these placements as it is for the sonneteer to know the various rhyme schemes of the sonnet.
Fortunately, this information is readily available online. You can go to various sites devoted to renga (or renku, as it is often called), and find the form you are interested in. There you will find templates that detail where specific topics are placed for specific renga forms.
The variations in topic placement among different forms at first can be confusing. That’s why I think it is a good idea for the beginning solo renga poet to learn one of the 12-verse forms first. The 12-verse forms are a good way of learning how a form distributes the seven topics. Once you have got that settled, you can move on to other forms easily.
There is another way of distributing the topics and that is to use chance. Once again, the reader should note that this is eccentric and atypical. If you join in with a communal renga, this method will not be used. But if you are writing a solo renga it is an option. I have found it fruitful as the chance distribution of the topics creates placements that are challenging and sometimes illuminating as to the underlying essence of these topics.
If you are adventurous and want to use such an approach, I recommend using dice. Say you decide to write a 20 verse renga. Get a 20-sided die. Write down the seven topics on paper. The opening verse of every renga should reflect the season that one is in. Right now it is winter. So by ‘winter’ put ‘verse 1’. Now you have six topics left: spring, summer, fall, moon, love, and blossom. If you want to stay with most traditional layouts, the blossom verse will be the penultimate verse. So by ‘blossom’ put ‘verse 19’. Now you have five topics left: spring, summer, fall, moon, and love.
Take your 20-sided die and roll it. Say you come up with 16. Place by ‘spring’, ‘verse 16’. And continue on in this fashion.
Sometimes it is the case that you will get awkward juxtapositions or duplicates. If verse 16 is ‘spring’ and then when you roll for fall and get ‘16’ again, that won’t work. You can roll again. Or, I usually just move it two to five verses away; designating verse 11, for example, as the ‘fall’ verse.
Other duplicates, though, represent a challenge and should not necessarily be avoided. For example, if verse 16 is ‘spring’, and then when you roll the die for the ‘love’ verse you also get 16, I would keep that. When I reach verse 16 I will attempt a verse that is both a spring and a love verse. Or, again, I can move the love verse away, placing it elsewhere. Whichever you prefer.
Reading this I suspect it sounds complicated. But it isn’t any more complicated than, for example, laying out the repetitions and refrains for a villanelle or sestina. At the beginning I don’t recommend using dice as I described above. For beginners composing solo renga I recommend the 12-verse Shisan or Junicho. The topic placement is natural and comprehensible. It is an excellent place for the solo renga poet to start.
The first step for composing solo renga is to choose the length of the renga, the number of verses that the renga will contain. The second step is to distribute the seven topics (spring, summer, fall, winter, moon, love, and blossom) through the renga. For both aspects get to know the classic templates and proceeding will be easier. Once you have the length of the renga and the topic placement down you now have the scaffolding in place. Just like with a sestina or villanelle, which also require knowing the scaffolding of the form, this blueprint is there to mark your way. Think of it as a map you will you use as you work your way through the renga.