Renga City (2)

(Part 1 of this article is on the StAnza blog here.)

2. Ha (Observing the rules and departing from them)

i. As a set of principles

Like any art form that has been practised for hundreds of years, renga is systematised to a high degree, and like any art form that has been taken over into another language and another culture, the question of how best to honour those centuries of procedure and protocol is similarly complex.

Finding a working position between observing The Rules and declaring There Shall Be No Rules! is, primarily, a socially-engaged, reactive gesture. One could of course pre-determine that the renga shall adhere closely to all the principles one has studied, or, contrariwise, declare that none of those principles need apply in our crazy new world. Taking a middle path reflects the differing positions that other people, rather than you, might come to the renga from, and, hopefully, allows as many of them as possible to feel able to participate. Those who have strong but not exclusionary positions can therefore share the conceptual space of the renga with those who either have no such convictions, or, even better, are approaching the form for the first time, and/or find its long and complex history baffling or even off-putting. Of course, this still means I come to renga with my own presumptions about how it could or should work, as indicated earlier.

Put simply, then, I didn’t say what a renga had to be beyond an exterior description of its architecture: it had to consist of twenty verses (nijūin), alternating three-line verse with two-liners (tanku with choku), and it would fall into three sections of 4,12, and 4 (jo-ha-kyū). Because we were completing one every month, I neither pushed for a season word (kigo), nor attempted to gallop through all the other seasons. Moons and blossoms could appear as and when or not, ditto love or any other traditionally-stipulated subject. And I let people do what they wanted about syllables. Having been involved in the translation of Chinese poetry, I’d acquired a healthy respect for the difference between a character and a word, let alone a syllable and an on (the unit being measured in Japanese), plus a considerable wariness about the amount of time people were prepared to spend debating this question as opposed to writing the damn poems.

The pragmatics of the Dundee renga are relatively straightforward. It falls into the category of bunnin, or renga conducted by post – in our case, by email. I built up a mailing list with the help of, among others, Erin Farley; my New Boots (and Whaleback City) co-editor, Andy Jackson; and Gail Low, founding editor of DURA (Dundee University Review of the Arts), drawing on writers in the Dundee area and ‘twal mile roond’ (the number twelve used here as elastically as the idea of a syllable count). About twenty to thirty seems to be ‘enough’ participants, given that not everyone is going to send something every day.

I’d send an initial haiku (the hokku) around midday of Day 1 of a given renga, everyone would send theirs back by around midday of Day 2, I’d pick one, then send out the ‘renga so far’ for everyone to add another on Day 3. And so on (except when pressure at work or fretful forgetfulness induced delays). 

People didn’t have to post something every day, and could just receive the daily email if they didn’t feel like taking part. People could suggest others to be added, and request to be removed (or reinstated). People, in short, were encouraged to do pretty much what they liked. Given the times, this seemed the least we could do for each other.

I’ve been writing single haiku for many years as an occasional, sometimes daily, practice with two aspects: one of simply looking, and the other of framing. That is, if something caught my eye (or ear), I’d turn to the 5-7-5 syllable count of the haiku as a restraint on my phrase-building, a way of keeping focus. After a while, I’d let the occasional extra syllable or two slip in here or there if the rhythm required it, or the diction kicked back. After working with Alec Finlay, I’d write the occasional solo renga or sequence of haiku, and in my last book, The Wreck of the Fathership, published one of each, ‘Broughty Ferry Beach: a renga’ and ‘The Swans At Broughty Ferry Beach’. These were both accumulations of verses over the course of a year (2013), so, when I embarked on the initial Dundee renga, I drew on the first of these for the hokku.

Because I’d dated my original drafts, I’d look out a verse for the equivalent month, then rewrite it, then send that to everyone on the mailing list. After a bit, I ran out, but, because we were still in Lockdown, I had to substitute North Shields/Tynemouth for Broughty Ferry, something I’d sort of been doing for years anyway. I’d check the weather with my mother in Monifieth and write from wherever that put me.

I tried to post every block of four on social media (Facebook and Twitter), since the first and last blocks corresponded to stages of the renga, and noted that breaking up the middle twelve verses into groups of four made me keenly aware of any sense of pause at those points. It was also obvious that a tweet would chop things up into tanka-like units of three-liners and two-liners. This meant I kept thinking about the principles of link or shift operating between the verses, something I’d been teaching for many years as a way of approaching poetic sequence and indeed the ordering of a manuscript.

Once we’d finished twenty, I’d send the completed renga round the list with each author identified, and then post all twenty online, but with the contributors simply listed at the end of the post. That way participants would know who’d written what, but readers were simply aware of who’d (successfully) taken part. This wasn’t particularly fair on someone who’d participated but, for whatever reason, hadn’t been picked, but we discussed all this via email as the months went by, and confirmed this was the preferred mode. If you weren’t picked one month you’d be picked the next (we hoped). 

I did try to pick something from everyone and not too many from anyone, but not if it meant I was passing over the ‘best’ verse, and I’d go back a few days if the ‘best’ verse didn’t happen to be in today’s batch – sometimes the last verse in particular (or even the last two verses) simply arrived too soon.

If, once I looked at the complete draft, I thought something might need rewritten, I’d write to the poet concerned and ask their opinion. After a bit I also silently dropped capitalisation at the beginning of lines – or countered lack of it elsewhere. In fact, most of the editing queries were usually about punctuation: in a language without much in the way of kireji, or ‘cutting words’, it turns out the fine distinctions between semi-colons, colons, and dashes loom large when looking at half a dozen not-quite-equivalent instances of same.

ii. As an experience

How did this work out for us? Well, after a couple of months I showed the renga to Linda France, who in addition to being a very fine poet and an old pal, is a very experienced renga leader and writer of haiku. She praised the poems, especially the mix of (maistly) Dundonian Scots and mair standard English, then said something rather interesting:

‘Strictly speaking according to the no doubt debatable rules of renga, themes should not repeat/juxtapose so there is always a sense of change – ‘shift’ is the term used.  Your birds seem to want to flock together.  The other gesture is ‘link’ so there is some sort of connection between verses – again debatable.’

(On a literal level this picked up something very particular to the Dundee renga – almost everyone keeps writing haiku about birds, and these verses would keep flocking together. Over the year we have just about completed a side-renga, if there’s such a thing, just about herons. This is an aspect of the ba, or setting, but it can make things difficult. To deploy a Dundonian pun, you have to keep your eye on the ba.)

The key underlying issue here is yukiyo, or flow. One of the reasons rules emerge about shifting the subject and avoiding loops and repetitions is to address on an exterior level this strange matter of how a renga, compiled out of many potential verses, does or does not flow. One of the issues that I keep experiencing is people attempt to ‘answer’ a previous verse in an almost narrative sense of ‘what happened next’. It’s hard to shake off the narrative compulsion in a culture where Story has such a dominance over our sense of events and indeed our selves.

This extends to the marking of public events, whether calendrical, or, as has happened over an especially tumultuous year, simply of collective significance. Renga are a way of reacting to the world, but not exactly a way of reacting to world (or national, or even local) news. People would write verses about something that mattered a great deal not just to them, but to all of us, and I would struggle to understand why these sometimes stood out so much from this mysterious flow. 

But then poetry isn’t about things that happen, it is a thing happening amid those other events. I ended up comparing it to snooker: if the cue ball is too straight on the ball a player wishes to pot, even a skilful player can’t engineer a way to the next ball: there has to be an angle, however slight.  Or the shot, although it might be successful in itself, ends the break. So too with the flow.

This went the other way too: people would get locked into the flow or into their own flow, and overlook a particular idea or phrase or image that had appeared several days earlier, or use a season word when this was for whatever reason self-evident. My sense of the rhythm or pace of the sections was not their sense of it. I often wonder, for instance, if I place too much emphasis on the pivotal nature of the middle verses, particularly the tenth.

In short, what was happening over the year was we were evolving our own sense of what a Dundee, as opposed to an ideal, renga, might be. Like a dialect, it was defining itself as part of that larger flow between months as well as the particular dynamics of how we got from verse to verse.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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1 Response to Renga City (2)

  1. Pingback: Renga City (2) — gairnet provides: press of blll | The Wombwell Rainbow

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