Imagine you are a poet in 12th century Japan. The governor has invited you with over two hundred of your fellow/friend/fiend writers to a poetry contest the night when his wisteria flowers are at their finest. Since this date depends on the weather, for the next week you are wondering, is this the night financial security will come to me?
Because the governor is new on the job, and very rich, he is most eager to display his appreciation of the arts. Therefore the prizes offered are larger than usual. Parcels of land, more bolts of silk than a hermit could ever wear (but sell off in lean times) and the very coveted scrolls of elegant and rare paper are there for the winning.
Until the day of the contest there is nothing to do but fidget and practice. The verse form that you will be using is called the waka (or centuries later will be called a tanka). A very old form, it is based on the earliest question-answer uta, or songs of Japanese mythology. For many years in the past, and all the years of the future, waka/tanka holds the pattern of five lines, each line having 5-7-5-7-7 sound units. The first three lines of 5-7-5, form the statement (and bear a close semblance to twentieth century haiku), and the 7-7 lines become the cap or echo with a twist, always having a relationship that moves between the two parts.
In your small private library are handwritten manuscripts of the emperors' collections of the best waka dating as far back as the 7th century. Rereading each of them, you review once again the many rules about linking, use of season-identifying words, relationships of images, taboos and always, the welter of old masters' examples. Not knowing the theme of the contest, unless one of your cronies wrangles it out before, you must be quick-witted, yet not too brilliant; prepared, yet spontaneous. With each contact with your friends, anxiety and excitement are heightened.
Finally one soft spring morning you are awakened by the arrival of the governor's messenger, more finely clothed than you could ever be yourself. You know the day has come, that you must take even more pains to have your robes infused with incense, the tear mended and to fill the secret pocket in the wide sleeve with several of your best beginnings for a poem. Just having a few characters to get your nervous mind to settle could be the difference between the freedom to write the new works or to having to advertise for more merchant students of waka.
Arriving at dusk before the governor's grand palace, you swallow and vow not to let your pounding heart chase you home. Meeting an old friend you've missed seeing very much changes some of the fear to pleasure so you let yourself be swept in with the crowds.
You are handed a tiny cup of rice wine which you desperately need but take only the merest sip. More of that after the subject of the contest is announced.
The governor is a disappointment. He begins the contest with his well-prepared and memorized waka in praise of his own wisteria flowers. Such an obvious subject choice! Everyone had figured he'd be more original.
By drawing lots the poets are divided into teams while the grinding of ink and back teeth begins. Taking turns, each reads, as well as a constricted throat can, the waka that could change one's whole life.
After reading your own lines, you try to drown out the other voices by drinking more wine and eyeing the lovely (in the flicker of lantern light) serving ladies in attendance.
By the middle of the night, the judges retire to the hall to consult and decide. At this hour, differences between the poets have disappeared, along with the serious discussion of poetry.
Someone to your left nudges your elbow while handing you a curiously tied and folder paper. On it are several sets of 5-7-5 and 7-7 links with names signed beside them. The man nods and smiles, indicating that it is your turn to write on the paper.
So this is one of those new renga you had heard some poets in the capitol had started doing. Hmmm, the beginning is good; it certainly captures the mood of this evening. Did that come from his sleeve? Oh, this reply from Old Stick in the Mud is witty, and the Chancellor is in it! good link, for him. Ugh, Perfumed Sleeves has added a terrible link; so moralistic! how like him! How to find the right amount of seriousness and wit to reply to such a dumb stanza? You wander off down by the lake, fingering the papers up your sleeve as your mind searches for an idea….
by Jane Reichhold
Excerpted from Narrow Road to Renga: Twenty Pilgrims with Jane Reichhold
Published by AHA books, Gualala, CA, USA: 1989