Whirling petals … renga, hokku, & haiku

July 17, 2016

Tombstone, chatterbox – both modes of speech come easily to me and I never know which role I will play, but ask me to write a poem and my mind ties itself into bunches of knots: 3 – 5 – 87 – more. And yet, and yet, I love poetry and I’m grateful for a few friends who aren’t afraid to lift a pen.

Andrew Schelling‘s “Whirling Petals, Windblown Leaves” (Tricycle, Winter 2007) calls one to look into renga. Schelling describes renga as a form of “linked poetry” that appeared in Japan eight centuries ago, i.e., the Japan of Dogen Zenji (1200-1253).

Schelling says:

Renga feels just right for our contemporary world. It meets our raw need to talk to each other in ways freed from the daily rounds of buying and selling, or the terrible depersonalized language that worms its way into the workplace. It lets us use folklore, image, metaphor, and brisk humor, which feel like home ground. The voice we were born with.

The quick give-and-take of renga might remind one of Twitter exchanges, but the comparison quickly falls apart. Renga composition was not aimed at the quick knock-out punch. Participants in a renga session were expected to adhere to a strict set of rules, and it was said that one should practice renga for 20 years in order to become a worthy collaborator.

Fun fact: Schelling credits renga composition with the appearance of haiku. Each participant in a renga session would offer a three-line verse, a hokku (opening verse), as a possible starting point for group writing. Because only one hokku would be chosen, the rest would be cast aside. Some of these ‘unused’ opening verses were eventually compiled as short poems in their own right, and these are what we call haiku today.

Schelling’s tribute to renga includes a description of an mountaintop renga session that he and 10 other poets held in the Rockies in April 2006. Verses 6 and 7 from Green Mountain Renga:

dripping with creek water
hunting snails

a white egret
impossible legs
like straw


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