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Minase Sangin - An Introduction to Renga - Akiko Tsukamoto

 

Sketching the history

At the end of the Heian period there developed a habit among waka poets, after a waka making competition (utaawase), of enjoying linking verses mainly for fun and as a display of wit in the gathering occasion. After the serious and elegant literature of waka, linked verse making must have served as a relaxation and liberation through its humour and comic wit. Also the presence of many high level waka connoisseurs must have made the occasion even more enjoyable in the sense that there were shared tastes and knowledge, and thus the possibility to appreciate various implicit allusions and perhaps parodies.

During the Kamakura period the linked verse game came to be taken more seriously and conventions emerged out of nonstandard habits of linking verses as well as specific technique of linking verses. Emperor Gotoba (reigned 1184-98) particularly loved renga making and many waka poets in his day tried to master renga, too.

In the sixth imperial waka anthology, Kinyoshu, linked verse constituted one of recognised categories and was given an entry.

 

The birth of renga

Renga as a genre could be said to have been born at the end of the Kamakura period, when professional renga experts appeared. To a degree these 'rengashi' existed beyond the confines of court life and were less involved in the antagonisms and disputes that arose between the various authorities and factions associated with the 'official' art of waka. Within the field of renga itself the 'serious' (ushin) and 'elegant' (yugen) style began to gain ground over the form's comic or satirical roots.

Yoshimoto Nijo (1320-1388) the regent (kampalku) of the Northern dynasty in the Namboku period, assumed the role of the main patron of renga and it was during this lifetime that the rules of Renga were finally established. Tsykubashuu, the first anthology of renga edited by Yoshimoto, symbolically comes after the termination of successive imperial waka anthologies, and may therefore be regarded as supplanting the older tradition.

The high point of renga making was to come during the lifetime of Sogi, a low born renga master who lived in the Muromachi period. Sogi, along with Shinkei and Sotetsu, was the author of Shin-tsyukuba shu, and in this 15th century work we see the ideal of renga formed in terms of medieval metaphysical theory.

 

 

What was renga like?

The number of renga poets (renjyu) in a single session was usually between three and six, most often three occasionally two and exceptionally just one. It was considered desirable that these people should know each other personally and that their abilities should be more or less on the same level if they wanted to make a harmonious group. When a Renga group was formed its members tended to hold regular verse making sessions, each taking the role of host (to) in turn. The host in whose house a Renga making session (ko) is to take place, prepares his hall, cleans the room carefully, hangs scroll pictures of images of gods or pet-saints and arranges flowers in the alcove for this occasion. He would also prepare the banquet which would take place after the session. These small preparations were particularly significant because they, together with the weather and season, the various events in the world, memory, etc., affected the atmosphere and inspiration of the particular gathering which was one time and unrepeatable.

The group would be led by a master poet (sosho), either their regular leader, or a renga master invited specially for the occasion. He usually composes the opening verse (which is called hokku, precursor of the haiku) and chooses the best verse when more than one candidates is presented and sometimes corrects the offered verse and improves it. He encourages the party, calms it down and generally acts as director or conductor. There is another expert, the brush-keeper (shuhitsu) who does not make verses (except once perhaps, the last short verse) but whose main task is to keep a record and to remind the participants about the rules which are so complicated that they may not remember. A group of top class poets may not need a particular leader and beginners may not be able to afford to invite one, but the brush-keeper is indispensable since he takes care of all the technicalities and rules of renga, which are extremely complicated. He notices any violations of the established rules and 'sends back' offending verses, thus freeing the poets from detailed concern about technicalities.

 

Renga session at Minase

In January 1488 three famous poets--Sogi, Shohaku and Socho-- held a renga session at Minase, setting for the emperor Gotoba's beloved palace. The hokku was made by the master Sogi, as follows:

Hokku. Sogi

yukinagara (5)
yamamotokasumyu (7)
yubekana (5)

there is still snow
but the foot of the mountain is hazy
this evening

The hokku occupies a special position in the whole chan of linked verse composition, (one hundred verses in this case), being the only 'independent ' and self-contained poem, that is, the poet expresses his feelings or thoughts directly on this particular occasion. in other words this is the only verse among 100 other verses that resembles a poem in the western sense. The other ninety-nine verses are all a continuation of those immediately preceding verses and are conditioned by the 'pressure' thereof rather than by the individual poets' feeling or thoughts. The 'feeling' of each verse, is conditioned by the previous verse and by the detailed rules of Renga. Moreover even the hokku serves strictly to refer to, and express, the atmosphere of the particular time and place of the Renga session, rather than mere subjective feeling. Here the particular season and mood of the particular gathering is the main deciding elements.

In the above verse it is clear that it was the very early spring (January in Japanese old calendar, was the beginning of spring, corresponding roughly the middle of February in new calendar) as there was snow left at the top of the mountain but one could see haze lying at the foot of it, which is a common phenomenon in spring.

Although not explicitly mentioned, the location of the session in Minase is also gathered, (for those who are familiar with renga) since the second and the third lines allude to a well-known waka poem of the Emperor Gotoba, which he composed in his beloved Minase Palace as following.

miwataseba
yamamotokasumu
minasegawa
yube wa akito
nani omoi kemu

looking around
the foot of the mountain is
Minase River
how have I held
that the beauty of evening must be autumnal?

The last two lines of this waka poem refer to the traditional Japanese 'rule' that evenings are supposed to be most beautiful in autumn. This Waka says that the spring evening scene of Minase River and the mountain makes such a beautiful picture which make one doubt that autumn evening could be more beautiful. In fact this renga session at Minase was consecrated in the Minase memorial of Emperor Gotoba on the 250 the anniversary of his death and this opening verse is just suitable for the purpose of consoling the soul of the emperor who loved Renga making so much.

As mentioned above, the opening verse is self contained in meaning and the ending particle kana in the third line is an exclamatory particle producing the effect of ! or a full-stop which is allowed only in the hokku. As for the tones, a hokku and the beginning few verses are supposed to express the deep feeling of gracefulness of Yugen and the tone should be soaring kind, and never flat. As Renga Master Jopha said that the hokku is usually supposed to be in the style of Taketakashi, meaning classical beauty with the rich symbolic, soaring atmosphere. Thus a hokku in form and content can be treated as an independent poem and indeed it later developed into the famous short poetry genre of Haiku poetry of 5-7-5 as I said earlier. In renga, however, the emphasis of the occasion in hokku has special significance as it makes the poem into an integral part of a particular 'gathering'--the unique response to a single opportunity.

The next poet, Shohaku added the second verse, in two seven syllable pattern.

 

Wakiku. Shohaku

yuku mizu tooku (7)
ume niou sato (7)

on flows the water
to the countryside, full of plum blossoms

The second verse, wakiku, is 'added to' and follows the hokku, and is very different in its nature; it is added to the first one and has to complement and make a single, five line poem when they are put together, thus:

yukinagara (5)
yamamotokasumyu (7)
yubekana (5)
yuku mizu tooku (7)
ume niou sato (7)

there is still snow
but the foot of the mountain is hazy
this evening
on flows the water
to the countryside, full of plum blossoms

Any added verse (tsukeku) must be based on the preceding one, and must respond to it harmoniously, but at the same time the scene cannot 'stay' at the same spot where the first poem started, the wakiku must move forward to gain a new perspective and a new context, as it were. It is something similar to the experience of looking at Emaki scroll painting, the scene of the story develops and we move forward along with the development. For example, in above hokku, the object of sight, the white snow, the mountain and the haze at the foot of the mountain, the season, (early spring) and the time of the day (evening) are all explicitly stated and these cannot be changed in the wakiku without breaking up the flow, since two verses should make one harmonious world. But the place is not too definite in the hokku, it only says yamamoto kasumu, ( the foot of the mountain is hazy) so Shohaku the author of the wakiku, 'shifted' the vision from a distant view of a mountain to a 'close-up' following the flow of the river, which is only implicit in the hokku, through its indirect allusion to Gotoba's waka downstream until an inhabited countryside appears, with plum trees in full bloom.

We now see a scene of the river bank in front of us rather than the faraway view of the original verse. The word niou can suggest both the sight and the scent of flowers, that we can understand through the poem as 'we stand so near that not only can the white blossoms be seen but their scent can be enjoyed.'

Yukumizu (flowing water) has more than one associations with the Minase River; besides the natural association of water and river, there is another famous Waka about the Minase River.

minasegawa
ariteyukumizu
nakuwakoso
tsuiniwagamimo
taenuto omowame

Minase river sounds like a paradox, as Mi (water) na (not existent) se (waterbed) means no-water-bed, but if one thinks more deeply, it is not paradoxical as all the water passes away and nothing stays. I too, wish to nullify myself and pass away, thus flowing water suggesting water and life passing away.

This kind of technique of recalling a famous poem or poems when adding verse is known as 'adding by adaptation' and is suitable for a second verse (wakiku) which meant to be 'close' to the first one, that is, metaphorical distance between the two verses is small. Here a general atmosphere of graceful richness of fragrance and colour, the typical Heian beauty of a hazy evening with the colours and fragrance of the shiny 'whiteness' of snow and 'soft whiteness' of pretty plum flowers is shared by both verses. The closeness of these two verses is ensured also by the rule that the waki-ku must coordinate with the hokku's season, in this case with early spring. The wakiku should not shift the time of season. The wakiku is thus often compared to a host who receives the main guest, the hokku, and responds to him accordingly.

Formally wakiku often ends with a noun, which in the Japanese language, gives an impression of 'incompleteness' and suggests continuation and 'flow' in contrast to the hokku's full conclusive ending particle, kana, In Japanese language, a noun present the topic, on which what follows will be a comment, so if one stops with noun, for example, ume niou sato (country side full of plum blossoms) it sounds incomplete:

'as for a countryside full of plum blossoms...'

Daisannku. Socho

The third person now proposes a long verse of 5-7-5

kawakaze ni (5)
hitomura yanagi (7)
harumiete(5)

the river wind
a willow bush
displays spring colours

Now we can write a new five line poem like this

yuku mizu tooku (7)
ume niou sato (7)
kawakaze ni (5)
hitomura yanagi (7)
harumiete(5)

on flows the water
to the countryside, full of plum blossoms
in the river wind
a willow bush
displays spring colours

We observe that the third and the second verses make one Waka 5-7-5/ 7-7 pattern like this:

kawakaze ni (5)
hitomura yanagi (7)
harumiete (5)
yuku mizu tooku (7)
ume niou sato (7)

in the river wind
a willow bush
displays spring colours,
on flows the water
to the countryside, full of plum blossoms

The effect is of a partial 'reversal of trend'. The flow has been suspended somewhat and eddies back before resumes on its way. This effect makes renga not only 'temporal' but also 'floating-flowing' as opposed to being in a linear constant sequence. Adding verses is neither changing verses one by one, nor making 5-7-5 7-7 waka pattern by transporting the latter longer verse 5-7-5 in front of the preceding 7-7 verse, but it is a way of enjoying the partial reversal of order as such, with a special loose and swaying effect, so that the original flow is not rigidly stopped or reversed, but just floats gently for a while.

This third verse brings in a 'change' and should be 'far' from the second verse, and should never have anything to do with the first one, the hokku. Going back to the first verse would be a real reversal, and produce an effect of circular movement, which would violate the principle of flow essential to Renga.

In the above example in contrast with the 'static' quiet image of the first and the second verses the movement of the branches of a willow in the wind introduces a dynamic effect: the season has progressed into full spring and the green colour of the willow has become bright in contrast with the white snow and the haze. This is the pattern followed throughout a complete Renga composition: two successive verses make up a picture, a poem with thematic and emotional unity, while the third verse brings a change and 'shift' from the previous picture, making up a new picture with the immediately preceding verse.

The chain of verses

In addition to this fundamental 'principle of three,' there are other less precise principles concerning the relative character of each verse depending on the position in a sequence of the whole 100 verses and relationships between verses. So far all the relationship between the verses have been a 'local' character, each verse being influenced only by the preceding one. However, with the fourth verse a 'global' as well as 'local' relation enters. Thematically, the fourth verse is only influenced by the immediately preceding 'picture' that of 2 and 3 It makes up a new picture with the third verse [3 & 4} which shifts the sense from the picture made up by the second and the third verse {2&3} But in its 'mood' and 'tone' the fourth verse continues to be influenced by the flow of the whole composition.

Thus since the 'pressure' of the dignified atmosphere in the opening verse has not yet been fully 'resolved' the fourth verse assumes a rather light lifting effect.

 

Verse position #4. Sogi

fune sasu oto mo (7)
shiruki akegata (7)

the sound of rowing is
distinct in the silent dawn

When joined with the third verse we have the following picture [3&4]

kawakaze ni (5)
hitomura yanagi (7)
harumiete (5)
fune sasu oto mo (7)
shiruki akegata (7)

in the river wind
a willow bush
displays spring colours,
the sound of rowing is
distinct in the silent dawn

The introduction of an audible image, the sound of a squeaking oar and perhaps of quiet splash on water surface and a lonely human figure in the new verse [#4] effect a transition from a full visual scene into that of an image of a monochrome ink drawing. The bright green colour of the willow with soft young green leaves in the world of [2&3] is now only vaguely reflected in the water in the subdued light of dawn, where a shadowy human figure is moving with the distinct rhythmic sound of rowing. This verse [#4] does not remind us of anything in the past. The third verse [kawakaze ni...] which is common to both [2&3] world and [3&4] world is interpreted, so to speak, as conscious and visual in the former and as unconscious or 'hidden' in the latter.

 

Verse position #5. Shohaku

tsyuukiyanao (5)
kiriwataru yo ni (7)
nokoru ram (5)

is the moon still there
in the deep mist of the night
left in the sky?

And the new poem:

fune sasu oto mo (7)
shiruki akegata (7)
tsyuuki ya nao (5)
kiriwataru yo ni (7)
nokoru ram (5)

the sound of rowing is
distinct in the silent dawn
is the moon still there
in the deep mist of the night
left in the sky?

The phrase totomo shiruki (the sound is distinct) of verse #4 has now been reinterpreted; in the previous picture it implied silence broken by the sound of a rowing boat but in the new picture it is used to underline the effect of the autumn mist, which has spread during the night, making everything invisible. The mention of the moon (which actually cannot be seen in the misty picture) fulfils one of the demands of the rules of Renga, ( that the moon must be mentioned in certain intervals) and thus makes the picture again more impressive after the subdued previous one.

 

Verse position #6. Socho

shimo oku nohara (7)
akiwa kure ni keri (8)

to leave the autumn
the frost covered field

This connection is perhaps a little to 'reasoned':

is the moon still there
in the deep mist of the night
alone in the sky?
ооо.[probably the moon finds it hard]
to leave the autumn,
the frost covered field
ооо. [as it is too sad and beautiful]

Verse position #7. Sogi

shimo oku nohara (7)
akiwa kure ni keri (8)

nakumushi no (5)
kokoro motonaku (7)
kusa karete (5)

 

ооо.[probably the moon finds it hard]
to leave the autumn,
the frost covered field
ооо. [as it is too sad and beautiful]
in spite of the anxious insects
singing
in the dying grass

Verse position #8. Shohaku

nakumushi no (5)
kokoro motonaku (7)
kusa karete (5)

kakine o toeba (7)
arawanaru michi (7)

in spite of the anxious insects
singing
in the dying grass

visiting and acquaintance
the once-covered path is bare

ооо.ооо.ооо.ооо.ооо.ооо.ооо.So ends the first sheet.

 

Some rules of Renga: Folios

The formal renga poem consists of 100 verses, that is to say, fifty long ones (5-7-5) and fifty short ones (7-7) However, on informal occasions shorter Renga have been composed with 50 or 44, or just 25 verses.

In later linked verse (Haikai-no Renga), the kasen style, with 36 verses became especially popular and established itself as the standard form. The paper on which shuhitsu (scribe) writes down verse is called kaishi, (it is of exceptionally high quality and has a cloud of violet and blue drawn on it).

One hundred verse Renga uses four folios of such paper, each folded in the middle to make a Front and Back pages. The front page of the first folio and the back page of the last folio contain eight verses each. The other pages contain 14 verses each.

 

Some rules of Renga: Jo-ha-ky

The most important over-all principle of renga composition is that of jo-ha-kyu rhythm, which is a little like the classical sonata movements of andante-allegro-presto in music, in fact it was originally the principle on which Japanese music and Noh drama was based.

The introductory part jo (preface) which should be moderate in tone, dignified and graceful in its style, emphasises the beauty of Yugen while the middle part, ha (intensification), should be more varied, ingenious and eventful and the last part, kyu (rapid close), should be light and swift, not too elaborate.

In the jo part, specially conspicuous or exciting themes and images such as Love or Deities are voided.

As already mentioned the reference to moon and blossom are necessary. Each folio should contain at least one flower-verse and each page should contain one moon verse. In fact throughout Japanese literature spring flowers and autumn moon are treated with exceptional affection and reverence, serving to accentuate moments of climax and providing opportunities for exceptional displays of poetic skill, rather like the cadenza part in a concert. Moreover the delay of the appearance of the moon, for example serves to generate a certain expectation and tension whose eventual resolution provides another music like effect in Renga.

Some rules of Renga: Categories

The words (topics) used in renga verses are classified into the following eighteen categories;

  • season-words (spring, summer, autumn, winter)
  • natural phenomena--'falling' e.g. rain frost, snow and hail or 'rising' e.g. mist, smoke
  • living things (animals including birds, plants trees, etc.)
  • shining things e.g. stars, glowworms, etc.
  • human life
  • journey
  • love (between man and woman)
  • impermanence
  • Buddhism
  • deities
  • mountain
  • water
  • night
  • sights (historical or famous for a particular thing)
  • reminiscences (including words like old days, a wretched life, hermit, age, parenthood, etc.)
  • residences (gates, windows, baths, gardens, etc.)
  • time (of day)
  • insects

These categories may seem rather arbitrary at first, but the themes are closely related to how to arrange 'distant' and close verses in the flow of session.

There are far too many detailed rules in Renga making to enumerate here and those rules vary somewhat according to periods and schools, but the most important basic idea of Renga is that it avoids circularity, instead being based on the principle of continuous flow, moving forward and never stopping or returning.