Getting Started in Renga: Part 1
Dan, who is a regular here at Shaping Words, asked me how to get started in Renga. I’ve been thinking about that for a long time and Dan’s question has given me an opportunity to offer a suggestion.
I suggest starting out with the simplest type of Renga; a two-verse sequence sometimes referred to as a ‘tan-renga’. The tan-renga developed from the tanka form. Often tanka are written in two parts: the first part is in 5-7-5 and the closing part is 7-7. In tanka the two parts are written by a single poet. In tan-renga the two parts are written by two different people. This composing a 7-7 response to the 5-7-5 part is sometimes referred to as ‘capping’ the opening verse.
So here is my suggestion: use some of your favorite haiku and then compose a closing part. I recommend using a haiku poet who composes in 5-7-5, such as Richard Wright or Susan August or James Hackett. When you find a haiku that attracts you, add a 7-7 closing verse.
The purpose of this approach is to give you practice in linking. At the beginning don’t worry too much about renga categories or esthetics, just respond to the haiku with a two-line, 7-7, verse.
I have often engaged in this exercise. I find it fruitful which is why I still engage in it now and then. Here is an example where I used haiku #145 by Richard Wright:
A bright glowing moon
Pouring out its radiance
Upon tall tombstones
Five petals slowly falling
From the blooming cherry tree
My response turns the image into a Spring, seasonal, poem. Here is the response I wrote to #202:
A cock’s shrill crow
Is driving the spring dawn stars
From out of the sky
The stuff that dreams are made of
And the songs of hope and love
In my response I introduce the theme of love.
It is possible to have more than one response to a haiku and if you find several different responses emerging, I recommend jotting both, or all, of them down.
This kind of practice in responding to a haiku will develop one’s talents in linking. The idea is to create a unified image. There are various ways of doing this: you can add a detail, you can shift focus by placing the haiku into a larger context, you can respond to the emotional tone of the haiku, you can place the image in a seasonal or temporal context, you can also link through word-play such as puns or homonyms, etc. I would recommend avoiding strongly disjunctive images; that is to say sharp contrasts. The reason is this: in renga each pair of verses, any two consecutive verses, should form a unity; that is to say that the reader should be able to grasp them as a complete image in themselves. That is what we are striving for in linking.
After doing this for a while the next step is to cap a haiku with a verse that deliberately includes one of the seven required topics of renga. The seven required topics are the four seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter), the moon, love, and the ‘blossom’ verse. The blossom verse is almost always a spring verse, so it is seasonal as well; but it has its own special status in the renga form. ‘Blossom’ in the context of renga refers to blossoming trees, particularly blossoming fruit trees. By far the most popular blossom verse is centered on the cherry tree, followed by the plum. In the west people have also used apple and other fruit trees for this topic.
What I am suggesting is to take a haiku and then deliberately respond to the haiku with a 7-7 verse that is on one of the standard topics. For example, my response to Wright’s #202 introduced the theme of love, and would be considered a love verse. My response to #105 was a spring verse.
Doing this you will develop the facility to write a verse on a standard renga topic when that kind of verse is called for in a renga form. Renga forms have required topics at set places in their schemes; so in order to compose renga you need to develop the ability to compose on those themes when the need arises.
This kind of exercise is a lot of fun. I have found that capping a haiku with my own 7-7 response is a fruitful way of engaging with a haiku poet. One of the benefits of such practice is that you develop a deep feeling for the poet you are responding to; you become more intimately acquainted with how they write and communicate.
Another benefit from this kind of practice is that it carries you through dry periods. Most poets have periods when the creative impulses seem to dry up. Nothing appears and the mind just seems unable to engage with the poetic craft. When I have fallen into that kind of dryness, I will engage with a haiku poet in this manner of capping. I sometimes refer to them as ‘haiku dialogs’. Because I do not have to rely on my own inspiration to start the process, because I can lean on someone else’s poetry, it allows me to continue poetic composition even though original work might not be emerging. The result of this approach is that soon enough I slip out of the dry spell and back into a more consistent engagement with my own muse.
But back to renga: I think this is the simplest way to begin learning about renga. It will give you a feel for the flow between two verses. It also has the advantage of including another person, the haiku poet, in your creative process. Although I compose solo renga, solo renga are unusual. Most renga is written by a group of poets. Responding to another poet’s haiku is the first step in placing your renga verses into a communal context and this will make it easier for you to join other renga poets when the time comes.