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Spring 2009, vol 7 no 1


Essay : The Art of the Solo Renga

Renga is often defined as a collaborative form of poetry. For example, the Wikipedia article on renga leads off as follows, “Renga is a form of Japanese collaborative poetry.” From this perspective a distinguishing feature of renga is that they are written by two or more poets. There is much justification for this view. Almost all renga, both in the past and currently, are a group effort. I believe that all of Basho’s Haikai were collaborative.

On the other hand, on the fringes of renga one does find the solo renga, written by a single poet. Since only a tiny fraction of renga have been translated into English, I have no idea what percentage of renga are solos, non-collaborative. My guess is that it would be a very small percentage, probably less than five percent of the total.

In spite of the anomalous nature of solo renga we are fortunate to have in English excellent translations of two such examples by the great Master of Hyakuin (100 Verse) Renga, the poet Sogi. One is translated and annotated by Steven D. Carter in his The Road to Komatsubara: A Classical Reading of the Renga Hyakuin. The other is translated and annotated by Earl Miner in Japanese Lined Poetry. Both of these renga are excellent and demonstrate that solo renga, while rare, seem to have been considered legitimate undertakings by skilled renga poets.

I will confess to a great fondness for Sogi. He's my favorite renga poet and a favorite poet in general. When Miner published his Japanese Linked Poetry it was the translation of Sogi, particularly “A Hundred Stanzas Related to ‘Person’ by Sogi Alone’ (pages 235 – 271) that inspired me. It continues to do so. Because of this I have a tendency to think of renga in terms of a solo form like the sonnet or villanelle. Or, more accurately, I tend to think of the solo renga as the equal of the collaborative renga, rather than as an exception to the rule.

In spite of this tendency my own efforts in renga continued in the traditional collaborative style. There came a time, however, when I felt a strong sense of dissatisfaction with the way the topics of time and season were being handled in modern western renga. (This in itself is a complex subject, a topic for another day.) This sense of dissatisfaction led me to conduct a series of experiments to see if other approaches to time and season would work. I deliberately did not want partners because I was experimenting. For these experiments I found the modern 12-verse forms of renga, the Shisan and Junicho, to be efficacious. They are short enough to compose in a single sitting, yet long enough to contain the basic, and distinctive, elements that all renga have.

After many months of writing these solo renga I discovered that I enjoyed crafting a solo renga in itself; not just as the basis of some experiments but as a poem. I enjoyed writing Shisan and Junicho in the same way that I enjoy composing a sonnet.

I then began to think of renga as a solo form of poetry, like the sonnet or villanelle. I returned to the translations of Sogi’s solo works which confirmed my hunch that renga really does work as a solo poetic form. This is because the defining characteristics of renga are present, the universals of the form are present whether or not the renga is a solo or group effort, whether or not the renga is a 100 verse Hyakuin or a 12 verse Shisan. The essence of renga is present in all these variations.

I mean several things when I refer to renga universals. First, I mean the sense that renga is a kind of journey. Most mornings I like to take a walk. I go the same route every morning so I observe the same landscape with every walk. It's the same landscape, but each time there are differences. Sometimes these differences are seasonal. At other times they are human: e.g. someone builds an addition to their house or changes their garden. So there is sameness and variation.

Reading a renga resembles such a walk. Each renga touches on certain topics; the moon, blossoming trees, love, the seasons. These topics resemble landmarks on a walk. The placement of these topics is specified, yet each renga journey is different. Again, sameness and variation interpenetrating.

Another way of looking at this essence of renga is to think of a renga as a microcosmos. By “microcosmos” I mean that each renga encompasses heaven, earth, and humanity. Renga accomplishes this through the required inclusion of certain topics. The moon verse is a celestial, or heavenly, manifestation. The blossoming fruit tree verse is a manifestation of the earth. And the love verse displays humanity. Thus each renga is a complete representation of the cosmos in miniature; not a scientific presentation, but a poetic display.

More could be said about the essence of renga. But what I want to point out here is that neither of these facets of the essence of renga require that renga be a group effort. The essence of renga is equally present in collaborative and solo approaches. That’s why Sogi’s solo renga are so effective, because they embody the essence of renga so well. For this reason I have adopted the view that solo renga is as efficacious as collaborative renga.

The issue of solo or collaborative is an issue of method, not of essence. An analogy will help in clarifying the distinction. A teacup must have a shape that can hold liquid and be small enough to easily hold in one hand. One person makes teacups on a potter's wheel, another uses a mold, another a free standing approach, and a manufacturer uses an assembly line. All these different methods, or causes and conditions, give rise to teacups. Similarly, solo and collaborative approaches equally give rise to renga; both are causally capable of generating renga.

I have a practical reason for presenting the case for solo renga. Simply put, I would like to see renga become a standard part of western poetic culture; right alongside the sonnet, villanelle, sestina, etc. I believe this can be facilitated by presenting renga as a solo form, crafted by the individual poet. In other words, renga can be taught to poets in the same way that other poetic forms are taught. My sense is that if renga is presented as a solo form poets will find renga an attractive challenge in the way that poets find the sonnet an attractive challenge.

I think that a comparison between the short forms of renga, such as Shisan and Junicho, and the sonnet seems apt to me. They are about the same length (the sonnet somewhat shorter) and about the same level of complexity. They both have a strong sense of their own heritage. The sonnet requires knowledge of lineation, rhythm, meter, and various rhyme schemes. For renga a poet needs to know lineation, link and shift, and topics placement. Both the sonnet and renga view poetry as a craft wherein the poet shapes words into a pre-existing significant form.

My sense is that in the west entering the world of renga through short forms such as Shisan and Junicho, writing them as solo forms, and thoroughly learning them, will naturally lead to collaborative efforts and the willingness to enter into the longer forms such as the Kasen and Hyakuin. One of the difficulties with renga in the west is that we lack the cultural background out of which renga grew. Japanese poets who have this background, use it, and refer to it in their composition of renga. To replicate this sense of familiarity I think that western poets need to become familiar with the overall contours of renga in such a way that they become internalized, second nature, and that one way of accomplishing this is to compose solo renga. Just as a poet interested in the sonnet gains facility with that form through the composition of sonnets, so also a poet gains facility with renga through the composition of renga. This will create a basis for interaction with other renga poets, allowing for creative collaboration.

The transmission of an artistic form from one culture to another is both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to discover the essence of the form in the culture of origin and then see if that form can take root in a different cultural context. The opportunity is that the new culture will expand its sense of meaning, beauty, and possibility.

The English poetic tradition has been vastly enriched by such transmissions in the past. The sonnet from Italy and the villanelle from France are two significant examples. Right now renga seems to be in a tentative, testing mode as an English language form. I say this because renga seems to be confined to a few outlets that are interested in Japanese poetic forms. Renga has not yet broken out of that enclave into the poetic culture at large; at least I have not observed this. (In contrast, Tanka are now being written by poets such as Richard Wilbur and Mary Jo Salter, who are not identified as poets specializing in Japanese poetic forms.) In this respect renga in English today resembles the very early decades of sonnet writing. My hope is that by encouraging poets to compose solo renga the transmission of renga to the English language poetic world can be facilitated.

I am optimistic that just as the sonnet stepped from its culture of origin into the world at large, so also renga will emerge from its culture of origin into the world at large. The journey of renga has just begun.

Jim Wilson
Sebastopol, California


The Road to Komatsubara: A Classical Reading of the Renga Hyakuin, Steven D. Carter, Harvard University Press, 1987, ISBN 0674773853. The annotated translation of Sogi's solo Hyakuin is on pages 117 – 165.

Japanese Linked Poetry: An Account with Translations of Renga and Haikai Sequences, Earl Miner, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1979, ISBN 0691063729. The annotated translation of Sogi’s solo Hyakuin is on pages 227 – 271.


Related items in this issue of Simply Haiku: "Shadows and the Moon," a solo Junicho by Jim Wilson


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