Renga Ramblings 5
Renga and Rhyme
Japanese poetry does not use rhyme as an element of construction in its poetry. It isn’t the case the Japanese poetry does not use rhyme at all. In Jane Reichhold’s “Basho: The Complete Haiku” Reichhold has a closing section on ‘Haiku Techniques’. Two of the techniques, numbers 8 and 19, refer to uses of rhyme. In my study of Tanka I have observed that Tanka poets will, at times, cultivate a particular vowel sound producing both assonance and end rhyme. Reichhold also points to the use of ‘Frame Rhyme’, what I would call ‘Slant Rhyme’, to produce a humorous effect in haikai.
But this kind of rhyme isn’t part of the way rhyme is used in, for example, English or Chinese poetry. In English poetry rhyme is an element of construction. By this I mean that if you are going to write a Shakespearean Sonnet you need to follow a particular end-rhyme scheme because the rhyme scheme is a structural element of the form. The same is true of the Rubai Quatrain or the Englin Quatrain or Chinese Quatrain forms. In Japanese forms rhyme is sometimes used, but such usage is not definitive of a form like Tanka or Haikai. That is to say if there is no rhyme in a Tanka, which is to say the majority of Tanka, that is not considered a flaw. But if there were no rhymes in a Shakespearean Sonnet, or if they were placed incorrectly, that would be a strike against it.
In general English language poets who write in Japanese forms have found the absence of rhyme in these forms to be congenial. For one thing, it resonates with the modernist tendency to retreat from rhyme. I suspect that one of the attractions of Japanese forms for English language poets is the absence of rhyme in an ancient tradition of poetry.
But, since I am writing poetry in English, and since English poetry does use rhyme, I began to explore the possibility of incorporating rhyme into Renga. I wanted the rhyme usage in Renga to reflect the manner of Renga. By ‘manner of Renga’ I mean the link and shift patterning, or texture, which distinctively marks Renga. After a lot of experiments I came up with something which seems to work. The pattern of end-rhyme I’ve developed is as follows:
The last syllable of the last line of Verse X
And the last syllable of the first line of Verse X + 1
Here is an example:
Summer ends with the first chill
One more blanket on the bed
“I think that instead
Of purchasing brand new clothes,
This year we’ll make do.”
Dawn, with many shades of blue
Seen through many colored leaves
(From ‘Sunset Sky’)
The last syllable of the last line of the first verse is ‘bed’.
The last syllable of the first line of the second verse is ‘stead’.
The same pattern applies to ‘do’ and ‘blue’.
These rhymes link the consecutive verses sonically. One commenter on this blog noted that the effect of rhyming in this way was a kind of braiding of the images.
The shift occurs because no two consecutive rhymes are the same rhyme. In other words there is a shift from ‘bed/stead’ to ‘do/blue’.
In the two line verses the first line rhymes with the previous verse and the second line rhymes with the following verse; both lines, then, are involved with rhyming.
In the three line verses the second line does not rhyme and adds some sonic spice. My feeling is that if the second line of the three line verse was also involved in the rhyme scheme it would tend to become too sing-song. The second line of the three line verse adds a little variety and unpredictability to the sonic flow.
Another aspect of traditional Renga esthetic I’ve incorporated into rhyme usage is that the last line of the first verse, the hokku, does not rhyme with the first line of the second verse. This gives the opening verse its traditional stand-alone feel. Using the river metaphor I often rely on, the opening verse gives us the setting, but the journey really begins with Verse 2, and hence the introduction of rhyme begins with the last line of Verse 2 rhyming with the first line of Verse 3.
What is the effect of incorporating rhyme into Renga? The immediate effect is that when a poet follows a rhyme scheme it limits the available words the poet can use. I felt this immediately. This is both a plus and a minus. It is a minus because what happens if I come up with a really superb link, but the link does not lend itself to the rhyme scheme? That can feel frustrating. It is a plus because if I relax into the rhyme scheme commitment, it gives me more focus as I compose each new link. It is a way of whittling away at too many possibilities.
Lately I’ve experimented with the idea of using such a rhyme scheme in parts of a Renga. This happened because I was composing a Renga, and I came up with what I thought of as a really good link, but it didn’t rhyme. By this time I had written enough rhyming Renga to feel confident about my abilities and in this instance I decided to forgo the rhyme and see what happened. I discovered that I was able to return to the rhyme scheme a few verses later. What I noticed is that the non-rhyming sequence stood out in this 20-verse Renga of rhyming links.
The Renga poet can use this, I think, to highlight, for example, a moon verse sequence, or a fall verse sequence. Instead of a sequence that is distinguished by lack of rhyme, what if three to five verses followed this kind of rhyme scheme and they were all on the same topic? It would add a lyrical dimension to a moon sequence, particularly if the rest of the Renga did not follow this rhyme scheme. In other words, the rhyme scheme is not an either/or. It can be used in an entire Renga, but it can also be used as an effective means for creating unity in a topic field. And the reverse is also true: in a Renga that follows this rhyme scheme, the absence of rhyme for three to five verses will highlight those particular verses as significant.
I have come to regard this approach to rhyme in Renga as an optional tool. Sometimes I use it, and often I do not. It is a tool that the English language offers the Renga poet as part of our English language heritage.
In closing I suggest that if you are interested in this approach to rhyme in renga that you click on the ‘renga’ label listed at the right of this blog. I have posted some renga that use this rhyme scheme. The Renga ‘Flow of Grace’ is my personal favorite.