Renga Ramblings 4
The Pulse of the Poem
When I first began composing Renga I wrote in the free verse style that is widespread among western Renga poets. (You can see a few examples of this approach in ‘The Narrow Road to Renga’, published by Jane Reichhold and her Aha Press.) My belief is that this free verse approach to lineation has established itself in western Renga because almost all of the poets who are interested in Renga have their roots in free verse Haiku. And even when that is not the case, they will have absorbed free verse norms simply from learning about poetry today from college courses and poetry workshops. I’m suggesting that free verse approaches to lineation are, for many poets, normative.
The change for me came when I read Steven Carter’s “The Road to Kommatsubara”, which is an annotated translation of a Hyakuin Renga (100 Verses) by Sogi, along with a lengthy historical introduction and the translation of a manual of Renga construction. I noted that Carter stuck fairly closely to the 5-7-5 and 7-7 pattern of the Renga verses. Carter’s translation also contains a parallel transliteration. I began to recite the Japanese transliteration, just to get a feel for the sonic dimension of the Renga. Carter’s translation is interspersed with many notes, annotations, and esthetic asides. This means that the translation only has a few verses in a row before some annotations appear; so I was able to take small chunks of the Renga and recite the verses to get a feel for the sound.
I then turned to Earl Miner’s book “Japanese Linked Poetry” which contains a translation of my favorite Renga, ‘Sogi Alone’. Miner’s layout allows one to read the transliteration uninterrupted from beginning to end. When I did this I uncovered a dimension of Renga that I had not understood before. I call this the ‘Renga River’, or the ‘Renga Pulse’. There is a subtle ebb and flow as the lines change length. There is a steady pulse, but the pulse is like the flow of a river. Or, and this is the best analogy I’ve come up with, it has the feel of canoeing down a stream; there is the pull of the oars, followed by a few moments of coasting.
What suddenly hit me is that it is precisely this pulse which serves to hold the images of a Renga together. It is a dimension of beauty in Renga that emerges only when there is a regularity of line, a formal construction. This is part of the meaning of the formal parameters of Renga; of the 5-7-5 and 7-7 verse sequences. I wanted to reflect this dimension of Renga in my own Renga composition. For this reason I began to compose Renga in a formal fashion, mimicking the syllable count of the Japanese.
This underlying unity of flow is, I think, an important element of why Renga works. In a poetic form that is non-narrative, where the links between verses, how they relate to each other, can, at times, be obscure or even completely opaque, what holds these images together? I would like to suggest that it is the underlying pulse that gives Renga its sense of unity.
Elaborating on the river metaphor; the images of a Renga resemble the sights and sounds one encounters on a canoe trip. If I were to write up my canoe trip as a series of images, in many ways it would have a Renga feel to it. Except that what would be missing from my write up would be the flow of the canoe on the river itself. By having a regulated line, Renga offers the poet and reader access to the flow of the journey.
I began chanting my Renga in a very simple manner. I just wanted to see how that would work. And sure enough, the pulse emerged. In a sense one can view the verses of a Renga as verses of a song and it is the underlying meter that ties all the verses together.
The end result of this was to compose Renga as a type of formal verse in English, again mimicking the 5-7-5 and 7-7 syllable count of the Japanese. This seemed to work well for me. In fact, by now it has become second nature.
A few years after shifting to a formal verse structure for Renga I encountered some Renga poets who had gone through a similar evolution in their Renga writing. The specifics differed; they did not move to a more consistently formal usage by reading Carter and Miner, although they were familiar with these authors. Rather, they found over time that a regulated line gave the Renga a sense of unity and a stronger sense of flow. My friends didn’t adhere to 5-7-5 and 7-7 that I do. Instead they would attempt to consider the lineation of the link they were linking to and to mimic it in their own links, thereby giving the overall Renga a greater sense of uniformity.
I am very encouraged by the results of my own Renga composition and those of others. I believe that a longer line in Renga, longer than one finds in minimalist Haiku, contributes to the overall sense of an underlying current that holds the images together. And I have come to feel the wisdom of such a formal approach. Such an approach contributes significantly to the pleasure that a well written Renga has to offer.