Syllabic Renga Day – 2013
Renga is my favorite form of poetry. It is a challenge; a complex form in some ways it resembles learning chess. In other ways Renga resembles putting together some complex recipe where certain ingredients are required in just the right measure; in addition the ingredients have to be added in a particular sequence. If done correctly, you have a splendid meal. If a Renga is done correctly, you have a splendid poem.
When I initially engaged with Renga I followed free verse lineation because that’s what everyone was doing. My sense is that this style of lineation is followed because almost all of the participants in English Language Renga (ELR) have become interested in Renga from their practice of free verse haiku. It is natural that they would apply to Renga their free verse approach to lineation.
The change for me came from reading translations of Renga into English which sought to mimic the syllabic shape of the Japanese. Two translators in particular were influential: Earl Miner and Stephen Carter. What I learned from these translators (in addition to specific procedures for Renga composition) was the value of following the traditional syllabic shape. It’s not that these translators were advocates for following the traditional syllabics in ELR; but in their translations they made a strong effort to mimic the syllabics of the Japanese in English and that functioned as a demonstration of the efficacy of such an approach.
I was greatly encouraged last year when I discovered Edith Shiffert’s early solo Hyakuin Renga; a classic 100 Verse Renga in the traditional eight parts. Shiffert’s Hyakuin Renga maintains the traditional syllabic shape of Japanese Renga. I had not been aware of Shiffert’s efforts in Renga, but finding this remarkable example has really confirmed for me my intuition about the importance of syllabics for the Renga form: even in ELR.
The unique feature of Renga is its overall non-narrative structure and how the rules that guide the Renga poet are designed to undermine the tendency to narrative. This is what gives Renga its unique esthetic place in the world of poetry. But, then, what holds a Renga together? What makes it feel like it is, overall, a poem?
My feeling is that a regular syllabic structure functions to hold all the images together. Without a regular syllabic structure the tendency for the images of a Renga to isolate themselves from each other becomes stronger. The 5-7-5 and 7-7 syllabic shape serves to function as a kind underlying framework upon which all the images hang. Or, to use one of my favorite metaphors for Renga, the syllabic shape resembles a current of a river that the reader is gliding upon as the images flow past. Again, without this current a Renga tends to have the feel of a series of isolated images rather than the unity of a journey. Without the underlying unifying current of the syllabic pulse a Renga tends to read like a sequence of poems; with the underlying current the Renga itself has the feel of being a single, unified, poem.
At any rate, that’s how I have come to think about it. So I have set aside this day to encourage the use of traditional syllabics in English Language Renga. If you already know one of the 12-verse forms, try composing one using the traditional syllabic contours. If you are a minimalist Haiku poet, this may at first feel awkward; but remember that Renga verses are not a series of Haiku. Only the first verse of a Renga should have a Haiku-like feeling. So allow yourself to add words to fill out the syllabic count. I know that will feel like ‘padding’. But what I am getting at is that adding words to fill out the count might be a good thing if by adding those words you create a stronger sense of rhythmic flow from one verse to another. Try it out and see for yourself. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.