To the Poets at the November, 1992, HPNC Meeting,
I regret not being able to be with you for this discussion of forms of linked poetry. However, Michael Welch suggested I write out the comments I would have wanted to make in my preliminary statement on the subject.
According to what I have been able to read on the matter, some of the earliest so-called poetry in Japan was built on a question and answer system, similar to other cultures where knowledge is retained in riddles. Thus, their earliest uta [songs] carried over this pattern of relating parts or ideas in the same way a question is related to an answer. Already at this time (before 700 A.D.) the speech patterns of five and seven onji [sound syllables] were defined as being "poetic."
From this came the waka [or tanka; nowadays waka can refer to any genre of Japanese poetry and tanka specifically refers to the 5-7-5-7-7 five-line poem, but both terms are used interchangeably by the Japanese] which reached its highest development during 900 - 1100 A.D. Out of this success, and in reaction to the restrictions, as you know, the game of renga developed as a release from the stress of waka contests. Remembering this relationship of a question to an answer which was imbedded in the waka permits one to understand how it readily came that two persons would observe the "natural break at the pivot -- in the middle" of the waka so both could author half of it. It is often easy to start a tanka but then halfway through when it is time to "switch away" from the original intent, one's mind seems to be hanging over a cliff. At that point, a companion could pick up the meaning and give it a twist for a successful finish. It is still possible for two persons to write tan-renga (short renga) which looks just like a tanka except instead of one, two persons have written it.
Renga (which means ren = linked, ga = elegance) was the term used (usually with a modifier indicating the latest opinion of how much fun and or game-like it was: mushin, ushin, or haikai) from the 11th century.
To make it clear. What Basho wrote was called haikai no renga or renga. It was not until 50 years after his death that the word renku was coined. According to what I can find out on the subject, the only difference between renga and renku is in the scope of subject matter.
In previous times, the list of available topics for renga links was limited to the acceptable subjects for the waka or tanka. This list was very restrictive (a prudish cutting out of anything considered by etiquette of the royal court as being inelegant). As the various renga schools, including Basho's Shoh-fu, had worked to expand the scope of renga subjects, there came this point in the 1740s when it was decided to give the newer work the name of renku. In no other way than the wider subject choice did the new renku differ from renga.
When Basho began writing renga they were usually composed of either 50 links or 100 links or increments of those two numbers. It was Basho who devised the 36 link kasen renga as an honor to the 36 Immortal Poets of Japan. (They also have 36 Immortal Poetesses!).
AN ASIDE: In the same way it would be wrong for us to say Basho wrote renku is our way of saying Basho wrote haiku, the term Shiki created in this century. Makoto Ueda has recently proposed we return to calling Basho's poems hokku. As you know, the hokku refers only to the first link in a renga. However, many of Basho's poems as we know them are links taken out of the renga on which he wrote. In his time, the rest of the links after the hokku within the renga were called haikai. It is true that when Basho and his followers made collections of individual verses these could be called hokku because they were written and saved as possible beginning links. However, all the works we have translated of Basho's verses were not from these collections, but quite a number have been picked out and refurbished from his many renga and thus should be called haikai.
There is a small argument that since the subjects we use in our English linked poems are expanded from the previously accepted tanka list of the 16th century (it too has been broadened by these many years) that we can call our work renku.
There are two thoughts about this. When a foreign expression comes into another culture, it is used in translation if possible. Ren = linked , ku = verse translates handily into linked verse which is easily understood by all.
However, when a foreign term does not translate accurately, the foreign word is accepted and used as in haiku, sabi, wabi, and sushi. The translation of renga gives us "linked elegance" which does not properly define a type of poetry.
By retaining the use of the word renga I feel (a purely emotional rationalization) that I am honoring and continuing the growth of the ancient genre. I have grown fond of the term renga. I feel comfortable saying "linked verses" in English when speaking of the work of writers from Japan if that is what they wish to term their work. I also accept that anne mckay calls her work, "linked lines" (though of anyone I know, her work truly deserves the title of "linked elegance"), and I feel "linked prose" works as a term for the experiments Werner and I have made. To drop all references to Japanese genre, I would be happiest to see collaborative work called "linked poems."
Aside from definitions, some persons seem to be asking how to assimilate the input from Renku North America. There are two thoughts I wish you would keep in mind.
At the turn of this century, Shiki made the statement that collaborative writing was not art and therefore it was beneath his dignity to write essays on the subject. On this basis the Japanese virtually stopped doing renku. In 1932 Asatoro Miyamori in his book, An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern, writes that "writing renku has died out."
However, when Americans learned of and began to study Basho's work in renga, they began writing English versions of the form. These Americans were not only members of the Haiku Society of America, but also the poets in the 60s who were reading Japanese genre such as Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and others in that group in New York City as well as the Beats in San Francisco such as Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, joined by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. It was only when the Japanese began to see renga being revived by Americans did they then organize renku clubs in the middle 70s in Japan. When these new clubs formed, they had no intervening developments on which to build. Therefore, they could only reach back into their history for models, which they did.
The clash comes when these models are attempted to be fitted over and on top of the spirit and examples of the form which have been developed here. I do believe in and gladly work for a side-by-side arrangement whereby those who delight in the traditional disciplined forms be allowed and encouraged to do so. I can even envision groups forming under a name that expresses these values much as we now have the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society if that is what they need.
However, for those of us who are interested in finding a contemporary expression within the renga form, it is uncomfortable for us to be told that what we do is not "right" or "true" renga or renku when that is perhaps not our goal.
ANOTHER ASIDE - In the same way, that what we write and call "haiku" is not, according to the Japanese, "real" haiku. They carefully relegate our work under the term "foreign language haiku" and you notice in contests the two forms cannot compete because they are not, in Japanese thinking, comparable. Thus, we can never "really" write renga, nor renku, or haiku no matter how slavishly we work to imitate these Japanese genre.
The word "imitation" opens another pit. I think we need to be fully aware of how much we want to imitate Japanese culture, tastes, and philosophy. It is one thing to appreciate another culture's accomplishments, to recognize what we share and to base one's work on the combining of what is learned from them added to the result of our own literary history and background. I believe only when the old (with due respect) is combined with the new (with due regard) can one accomplish individual work even when writing together with two or more persons in a linked poem.
Blessings for your on-going search!