A Beginner’s Solo Renku
by Karen Cesar
When I first introduced friends to Japanese-style short-form poetry, many of them were put off by it. It is markedly different from Western poetry. What holds true for haiku and tanka also holds true for renku. It can be intimidating. A caveat before we begin: the views expressed here are not necessarily those of the management. They are my own. As with all things related to this subject, opinions vary and are contentious.
What started out in Japan as a game for tired waka poets ultimately began to be taken more seriously. What I propose to do in this essay is to take a less serious approach to renku, a beginner’s approach. We are going to play a game together.
Linking techniques hold the renku together. Shift provides interest. The game for the writer is to get as much diversity as possible into the verses while maintaining a poetic flow. The game for the reader is to enter into the renku in a more proactive way than the Western reader is used to. Renku is more empathetic than sympathetic. It is poetry more of the imagination than of the analytical mind.
Like a dream, renku is something one experiences. Try to approach renku in much the same way as you accept the logic you encounter in a dream. There is an organisational structure to our dreams, but it is less important to the dreamer than experiencing the dream.
As a renku reader, you will be creating a renku of your own as you read what the renku writer has written. Some associations will have come from the writer; yet, the writer will not have thought of some of the associations you, as the reader, supply.
All renku share certain properties. The various kinds of renku are variations on a theme. Each has its special challenges and features.
The rules of the game
In this shisan (as in all shisan) there will be 12 verses, divided into four sections. There is an introduction, two middle sections and a closing section. Because this is a ‘new’ shisan, the seasons may appear in any order. Each season will appear in one and only one section. During the course of this renku there will be a spring blossom verse, an autumn moon verse and two ‘love’ verses. Each verse starting with verse three will both link to and shift away from its preceding verse. One of the most important elements of renku is that it is not read as a narrative from start to finish. Each verse is a vignette or scene in a world you will help to create.
Each pair of verses has a special relationship: “… In joining a new stanza to one written before, a poet uses the old stanza as the first part of the new. The effect is frequently to alter the meaning of the old. The essential fact to understand is the inviolate principle that no stanza has a continuing semantic connection, as a discrete poetic unit, with anything other than its predecessor and successor. We can choose to consider it in itself. We must consider each as a fresh view of the predecessor, which it completes. And we must consider it also as the basis of the next stanza, which alters it in making a new poetic unit. It has no such connection beyond.” 1
The solo shisan that I put together below was written as a practice piece and we will examine it as such (you can read it here as a complete renku). I too am a renku beginner. As I go through its 12 stanzas, I hope the reader will join me by imagining along both as writer and as reader.
We begin with a hokku, or starting verse, set in Tucson, Arizona where I live:
dogwood in bloom –
from our neighbor’s tree
This verse tells us the season. It and the next verse is more directive than the rest of the renku. Less is demanded of the reader. He simply imagines the scene.
‘Dogwood in bloom’ sets the season as spring. The next two lines unfortunately may cause confusion for the reader familiar with renku seasons. In Arizona, grapefruit ripen and are sold at fruit stands November-December. By themselves, grapefruit would indicate winter. With editing this bit of confusion – a verse containing clues to two seasons – would be eliminated.
thwack thwack thwack
the leaf blower’s loose belt
The second verse in a renku, the wakiku, is supposed to support the first verse. It should take place in the same season and location as the first verse. In addition it should independently indicate the season. This verse does not do that, but rather leans on the opening verse to indicate season and worse; the mention of a leaf blower misdirects the reader to autumn. Had the writer planned to publish this shisan, she would have gone back and fixed these problems. Hopefully, the reader will excuse the rocky start.
of the mesh melt,
molten glass patterns
This is the last verse in the first section and in a sense this is where the renku game between writer and reader begins. The third verse, or daisan, is the first verse to both link and shift.
This is where the writer begins to lay down clues for the reader. It is the writer’s responsibility to get as much information into these short lines as possible while leaving enough room for the reader to imagine what is left unsaid.
On first reading this verse the reader may think something like, “Oh my gawd, I knew this was going to get hard. I’m gonna need to Google this.” But remember, this is a game and a dream. The reader has no access to Google and must instead use the material at hand, his knowledge of the form and the clues the writer has supplied.
It may help the reader to remind him or herself that all renku is held together by links. Something in the preceding verse gave birth to this verse. Before we discuss how we got here let’s look around and see where we might be. It appears from the construction of the verse that the writer is describing some kind of technique or process for glass making. Yes, that’s it; we are in a glass shop. ‘Mesh melt’ describes the bits of coloured glass melted to form glass patterns. We are in a place of light, colour and creativity. The ‘link’ that got us here is the word ‘blower.’ The previous verse’s ‘leaf blower’ made the writer think of a glass blower. Now that we are oriented, the renku again shifts. The next section will have one season verse and two non-season verses.
* * *
on Kristallnacht, street thugs
prowl the cold Berlin night
This time, let’s see where our link is first. Kristallnacht means Night of Broken Glass. The molten glass of the previous verse gives rise to the broken glass of this verse. The reader now finds him or herself in 1930s Nazi Germany. This is the shift. Were I to imagine this scene, I would see it in black and white. How another reader might imagine it, I do not know.
get into the closet
we need to hide
Since we have had our season verse already and since there are only three verses per section in a shisan, we know that these next two verses will be non-season verses and that they will both link to and shift away from the preceding verse. In addition, no verse will have a close relationship with its ‘leap over’ verse. Our link in this verse is a narrative link. Someone is either speaking the verse or thinking the verse. Who the ‘we’ is in this verse is left open for the reader to fill in. The location is also left open.
a child who dresses-up
in ‘borrowed’ red lipstick
Now the ‘closet’ (our link) becomes something ‘the child’ is hiding in – either alone or with friends – the writer does not tell us. Or the closet may just be the place where the dress-up clothes were hung. The writer does not tell us the sex of the child. We do not know if hiding in the closet is part of a children’s fantasy game or if the child/children are hiding because the lipstick has been ‘borrowed’ or for some other reason. These are details the reader must fill in.
* * *
by funnel clouds
papa’s prize bull
‘Papa’s prize bull’ and ‘funnel clouds’, would put us in late summer in some parts of the US. ‘Prize bull’ suggests the county fairs that are held in late summer. Our link is between the ‘child’ in the previous verse and the ‘papa’ of this one.
reaching for eggs
such warm willing breasts
This verse links to the previous one by the farm setting of the previous verse and the ‘eggs’ of this one. One way of reading this verse is to imagine someone reaching under a hen to retrieve her eggs. Hens for some reason seem not to mind this too much. But wait, reading our next verse indicates that this one of the two ‘love’ verses. In which case, the reader is invited to think of any farmer’s daughter/ travelling salesman jokes he might have heard. Yes, definitely a sexual innuendo here…
in the buffet line
you silly old fool
This is the second ‘love’ verse. The location has changed to a buffet line. Is it a wedding? A funeral? Or another event? The reader is not told. From the word ‘old’ we know the relative age of one of the participants. The rest the reader fills in.
* * *
Now we come to the final section of the renku. Just as the first section was an introduction, the function of this section is to bring the renku to a close. In the preceding sections we have covered three of the four seasons, the blossom verse and the love verses. All that remains to cover is autumn and the moon verse. Autumn is the writer’s favourite season and for two of the three last verses, she chose to write poetic verses.
under a bow-stretched moon
Both ‘lingering heat’ and ‘bow stretched moon’ are classic Japanese season words (kigo). Some writers would see a problem with the use of two season words in one verse. I do not. One of my two mentors pointed out a problem to me in the link. ‘Lingering heat’ might be seen as a continuation of the sexual heat of the preceding two verses. If so, this would violate the rule of kannonbiraki (i.e., too close a relationship with the ‘leap over’ verse). As it is, the writer was linking to the temperature of the foods on the buffet table. This would be difficult to change. So, I would avoid changing it if possible.
the insects’ last song
stirs the smell of crushed
This is a second autumn verse. The season indicator is ‘the insects’ last song’. The link is between ‘song’ and ‘bow’.
with chartreuse and a wink
the clean-cut cabin steward
This last verse is non-seasonal. The link is between ‘bitter herbs’ and ‘chartreuse’, which is made with herbal extracts. The last verse of a renku should end on an upbeat note.
Just as we left the glassmakers of verse three, we now leave the unseen traveller. Renku, as a snippet of life continues on with or without us. In a sense, like our dreams, renku has no beginning and no end.
From one beginner to another, I hope you enjoyed reading this essay and renku romp as much as I enjoyed writing it and that you will be inspired to try writing one of your own. For the writer of other forms of Japanese poetry writing renku, alone or with partners, helps us develop our craft. We all have favourite words and phrases. We sometimes forget that we have more than one voice. We speak differently to our boss than to our spouse or children. So too, we have more than one poetic voice. In writing solo renku, we are forced to vary our construction. If we are good at one kind of verse or one verse position, we are forced to practice those areas where we are weak.
Most of all, writing renku is fun and relaxing. Solo renku is an opportunity to pick up a hairbrush in front of the bathroom mirror and belt out an Ethel Merman show tune.
1: Japanese Linked Poetry: An Account with Translations of Renga and Haikai Sequences, Earl Miner, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1979, ISBN 0691063729. The quote is from page five.
Editor’s note: This article was first published in Simply Haiku, Summer 2009, vol 7 no 2, and appears here with kind permission of the author.
Karen Cesar has been writing short-form Japanese style verse since 2006. She won a joint first prize for a solo Shisan Renku in the 2011 Journal of Renga & Renku Shisan Contest. She lives in Tucson Arizona with her husband, John and Italian greyhound, Shadow.