Renku: The Poem We Build

Last weekend, I was part of another experiment in poetry: a renku gathering.

Renku is a more relaxed form of renga, the Japanese poetic form out of which haiku evolved. A collaborative form, it consists of alternating links of three and two lines written by different poets gathered in someone’s house, with the first link, the hokku, giving the sequence its title, and each link riffing off the images in the previous link without repeating any images from earlier in the poem.

The hokku was usually written by the most distinguished poet present, and so it was that when poets such as Bashō became well-known for their hokku, the haiku was born. Being Japanese, elaborate literary rules grew up around the subject matter of different links in the renga. Bashō was one of the poets who widened the scope of the renga, hence the name change to renku, but the form still retained many of the renga’s rules and conventions.

It’s a challenge to be completely traditional when working in a different language and a different hemisphere, particularly in the case of a country that lacks Japan’s distinctive seasons. Australia has an active if somewhat scattered community of poets working within the traditional Japanese forms of haiku, haibun, tanka, and renga/renku. (The terms renga and renku seem to be used interchangeably, I guess because the latter term only arose last century. Also, the differences seem to be more about subject matter and attitude than form.)

Some poets make the attempt to be as traditional as possible; others adapt the forms to suit their purposes. Both can produce interesting work, and even the traditionalists accept change — almost no one writes 5-7-5 haiku anymore, for instance, except for the occasional ignorant foreigner wandering across Japan. See Snake Weather (Part i, Part ii, Part iii, and Part iv) over at Graham Nunn’s Another Lost Shark for an example of a renku, written via e-mail, that follows traditional compositional rules such as seasonality while nonetheless retaining an unmistakeably Australian flavour.

Graham is also currently hosting a New Junicho. Created by Australian poet Ashley Capes, it’s an example of one of the new forms arising out of the poetic collision between ancient Japan and the contemporary West. Ashley’s thoughts on the creative tensions of adaptation in his essay introducing the New Junicho really resonated with me. A number of Brisbane poets I know have been writing renku, and I’ve had trouble finding a way into the form. There’s no consistent narrative or even mood, and many of the allusions and leaps between links seem best appreciated by the participants.

It’s interesting that Masaoka Shiki, the reformist nineteenth century poet and critic who named the haiku and argued for the form as literature, believed that “renga is not literature”. That may be, but it could also be telling that Shiki was a Western-minded poet, and, at least according to Wikipedia, the renga lost favour during the Meiji Period because “the renga’s appeal of working as a group to make a complete work was not compatible with the European style of poetry gaining popularity in Japan, where a single poet writes the entire poem”. So it seems the renku represents real cultural differences between Japan and the West.

It helped when I began to think of the renku as inherently improvisational — like jazz, or freestyle rap — and more about play than finished product. Which led me back to the idea of renku as a gathering of poets playing with images. Which eventually led to last weekend’s renku gathering.

In case anyone would like to host their own, here’s what we did.

Freestyle Renku, Brisbane style

We had two renku on the go — each a kasen, or 36 stanza renku — with 12 poets writing six links apiece over the whole evening. (Someone dropped out at the last minute, so their links got shared between us all.) We broke the renku into three rounds of 12 links, with a reading of the round after the first and second rounds, and a reading of both renku in their entirety after the third round.

Poets had five minutes to write their link. In theory, this meant both renku could’ve been completed in three hours, with a link coming your way every half hour or so, alternating between the two renku (both of which had the same order of poets, just offset). In practice, food, wine, tea, and good conversation stretched the night out to an enjoyable five hours.

To make things easier on us, we dispensed with many of the conventions of renku, such as seasonality and the subject matter of particular links. This freed us up to focus on the play of images without worrying about conventions that were unfamiliar to many of us.

Nonetheless, a lot remained of the renga: alternating three and two line links, a nod to seasonality in the autumn reference of both hokku, the kasen length, leaping forward from the previous link only, trying to avoid repetition of images, and connecting back to the hokku with the final link. Any five lines consisting of a three and a two line link (or a two and a three line link) should feel cohesive.

As for the results, judge for yourself:

Second Bottle (hokku by Graham Nunn)

Autumn Moon (hokku by Chris Lynch)

Graham’s highlighted a section from Second Bottle that was a favourite of several of us. There’s a unity of tone and arguably even subject matter that a renga purist might object to, but something else too, a trace of the alchemical calm of our evening together. We were fortunate to have last year’s Queensland Poet-in-Residence a.rawlings join us by Skype from Iceland for some of the night, and I wonder if that led the rest of us to converge on cold, white images. In any case, there was a wonderful atmosphere of collaboration and a heightened sense of presence which made the night a memorable one.

Could that same unified energy be sustained over all 36 stanzas? Should it be? Is a renku a record of an event, or is it something more? Is a “freestyle renku” an interesting development of the renku form, or a debased one? Which conventions are worth keeping? And what new conventions might arise if English renku were written as often as English haiku?

One last thought: I’m intrigued by references on the Wikipedia entry for renga to lién jù, the “less evolved” linked verses of Chin Dynasty China, which may have influenced the development of renga in Japan. I can’t find much about lién jù online, but the description of them as sequences with unity of subject and lightheartedness of tone suggests they’d be worth investigating. Could contemporary renku be renewed by returning to the deepest roots of renga?

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4 Responses to Renku: The Poem We Build

  1. gnunn says:

    I love the idea of going back to the Chin Dynasty and exploring the roots… ‘sequences with unity of subject and lightheartedness’ rings truw with much oif what we wrote in both renga.

    And thanks a million for hosting the party and the finished works Chris!

  2. Chris Lynch says:

    We’ll definitely have to do it again. One for winter, maybe. Thanks for helping make the night a success!

    Yes, keen to find out more about lién jù.

  3. ashleycapes says:

    Sorry I missed this post, Chris – but I really enjoyed the post and agree with Graham. Loved your verses in Graham’s last few renku too – AND your remix!

    • Chris Lynch says:

      Thanks, Ashley. The renku have been lots of fun. Need to do more.

      In the meantime, am travelling, which always raises the odds of actually writing AND posting haiku.

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