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Principles of Linked Verse

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  • Principles of Linked Verse

    Brief History

    The most enduring of Japanese forms (having been practiced for over 1500 years) the tanka is largely the basis of everything that would come after it in native Japanese poetry. In Japanese poetry, meter is established in groupings of sound symbols (mora) that correspond to a single character from the Japanese syllabaries. These groupings, which we often treat as “lines” in English, are usually 5 or 7 morae long. In the tanka, the groupings follow a pattern of 5, 7, 5, 7 and 7 morae for what is often described as a 5 “line” poem in 31 “syllables,” though mora are not truly “syllables,” and the poems are not separated visually into “lines” in the original. These counts are flexible and it is perhaps more realistic to view each grouping as a duration of time like a bar of music rather than a rigid count of syllables or metric feet as in English verse.
    Clouds rise, cross over
    to the way of Everworld;
    ever so little
    I opened the jewel box
    and how sad I am for that!

    Anonymous 6th century (trans. Edwin Cranston)

    Tanka were seen as having two distinct parts (5-7-5), and (7-7), called ku and often the form relied on putting some kind of natural image in first part and using that to contrast or elucidate some kind of emotional statement in the latter:
    In Katakai
    river the shallows are clear,
    the water flows
    never ceasingI shall come
    again and yet again to gaze.

    Ōtomo no Yakamochi, 8th century (trans. Edwin Cranston)

    Eventually, people realized that one could provide the opening while another “finished” the poem by responding with the ending. This playful game became immensely popular over time, even to the point of eclipsing the tanka in importance to Japanese poetics. The first renga (linked song), a tan-renga (short linked poem), is purported to be an exchange between a nun and the compiler of the Man'yo-shū poetry collection, Ōtomo no Yakamochi, while she served him sake:
    the river of Sao
    with its waters damned
    he planted the field

    its first harvest of young rice
    will be his alone to taste

    trans. Jane Reichhold

    Etymologically speaking, renga 連歌 is literally "collaborative/linked song" the ga=ka, as in tanka (短歌 short song). So the first renga was a man starting the first ku of a tanka (in tanka theory the two halves are called ku;上の句 upper ku and 下の句 lower ku) and a woman flirtatiously replying with the second ku. So a tanrenga, 短連歌 is a short (linked) song. It is viewed as a collaborative tanka.

    Eventually, people started adding tsukeku 付句 (following ku) to each of the maeku 前句 (previous ku), making a long chain of renku 連句 (couplets, linked ku) which creates the longer form of renga, 連歌 (linked song/tanka).

    When writing these poems in a social setting, renku (couplet/linked pair) would be read together, as a tanka, then the tsukeku of the last pair became the maeku of the next, and a new poet would compose a new tsukeku. The new linked pair was then read aloud again, as a couplet, and the process repeated. So renga orignally was a chain of linked tanka, in couplets, not a series of disjointed, single ku like a series of haiku!

    Link and Shift

    A pair of these linked verses is called “renku” in Japanese, which is also the term for a modern style of linked verse practiced Japan today. This word is sometimes translated as “couplet,” so we can see that the Japanese view the 5-7-5 and 7-7 units almost as two “lines,” which they call “ku.” The character 句, ku, has many meanings; clause, phrase, verse, passage, expression, sentence, paragraph, line, stanza etc. So while ku is often translated as “verses” in English, truly the original word “ku” is as good any that we might use, for these individual units of poetry are not quite “lines” and not quite “verses,” but are most definitely “ku.”

    Over time, the renga was expanded, with more ku being added in a pattern of alternating
    verses of 5-7-5 and 7-7 morae. Sequences grew to be 100, even 1,000 and 10,000 ku long. As such, rules were established to govern the use of language, method of linking, and the topics allowed.

    The most strict of the forms of linked-verse was ushin renga, which was composed in the high, serious style of courtly tanka, or “waka,” though when the courtiers played around and left these lofty ideas behind, perhaps after a night of sake, the result was called mushin renga. These mushin sequences were done in jest, solely for entertainment, and none were recorded or at least none have survived.

    When the court lost power and the samurai class began to dominate politics in the Muromachi Period, the playful mushin renga of the nobles was taken by the samurai and dubbed “haikai- renga,” (comic linked verse). Haikai, as it would be called, is the father of haiku, for “haiku” is a contraction of “haikai no ku,” or “a line/verse from haikai-renga.” People would go on to collect these long sequences and individual lines or couplets from them. It was in this period that people began to place value in comic linked-verse as a poetry worth saving.

    The earliest tan-renga, mushin renga and haikai-renga all viewed these composite poems as a chain renku, with each couplet sharing a ku with the following verse. In order to make sure that the appearance of consecutive individual poems was maintained and that there was no sustained narrative, themes and topics were not allowed to be developed beyond a single linkage. This principle led to an aesthetic referred to as “link and shift,” in that each new verse added to the sequence must both link to the previous stanza, and shift away from the verse that was two links back. Back-linking, or connecting to the verse before last was seen as undesirable and avoided through strict rules of composition.
    At the wide fields' end
    a village in the thickening mist
    is lost in the distance Shōhaku

    it is the wind on which there comes
    the sound of someone beating clothes Sōgi
    It is the wind on which there comes
    the sound of someone beating clothes Sōgi

    even the days are cold
    and I shiver in my thin sleeves
    as each night falls Sōchō
    Japanese Linked-Poetry, trans. Earl Miner

    Here, the first pair are connected only distantly—a rare thing in classical renga—through mood rather than image or diction. The second pair are linked more obviously through the idea of clothes. Notice there are no direct connections between the distant stanzas beyond the autumn season that sets all three. It should be noted that in renga, there were consecutive runs of seasonal verses, however, the progression of the season would be followed and the imagery would not repeat beyond a single connection. Season was allowed to continue beyond the immediate present, but only if developed properly, unfolding chronologically.
    the grafted trees reveal new growth
    in moonlight on a hazy night Bonchō

    covered with moss
    the stone basin stands to one side
    of flowering trees Bashō

    covered with moss
    the stone basin stands to one side
    of flowering cherry trees Bashō

    his mind has now been relieved
    of the anger felt this morning Kyorai
    Japanese Linked-verse, trans. Earl Miner

    In this later haikai sequence, we see that once rules were developed, poets came along to break them. Renga and haikai had a certain number of verses with the words tsuki (moon) or hana (flower) that occurred at certain regular intervals. “Moon” is usually a fall kigo (seasonal indicator) but in this case the season is spring, and the moon has come too late, so Bonchō makes it a spring moon, setting up the flower stanza that was also due to come. Bashō connects through plants/cultivation, bringing in the flower stanza. Such an elegant pair, the moon and flower stanzas together! This leaves Kyorai in a bind, he must change tone in order to shift away, but not so radically as to be jarring. His link is loose, through a contrast in tone and narrative development; the speaker was angry earlier, but has gained calm, perhaps through working amid the trees. This outburst of anger would have been out of line of renga aesthetics, though it is still very mild in terms of the subversion of renga aesthetics that haikai poets would be willing to go. At a high level, poets used the rules against each other to encourage creativity.

    ghost cave i brush aside the dharma of a lobster god

  • #2
    Unity in Variety

    An important principle of linked-verse is what Earl Miner calls “unity in variety.” We might describe this patchwork, hodgepodge, pastiche aesthetic as wabi-sabi, though those words had different, more profound implications in medieval Japanese aesthetics. Regardless, it was not desirable to have uniform links, with equal strength, all unifying stanzas of equal, top-notch quality. Rather, the strength, manner and quality of linkage, the complexity, artistry and craft of individual stanzas, the tone and mood etc. every aspect that could be measured was constantly shifting and varying by degrees.

    If two stanzas were quite austere and elegant, the next would be coarse or rustic, a simple stanza called for an elaborate answer, and so on. So in terms of developing a longer sequence and shaping the course, an urge toward heterogeneous, contrasting and varied approaches was ideal. That is not to say that a contrast or shift should be jarring; at best, this variance has an almost invisible effect. The goal is that nothing should jump out as being out of place, and yet no recurring patterns, motifs or story should develop either and the sequence should be in constant
    flux. Linked verse is a metamorphosis of continually shifting series of vignettes.
    carrying millet
    the horse collapsed with the load
    and birds cried of death Buson

    sandalwood flowers bloom and fall
    where the field ridge stretches far away Kitō
    sandalwood flowers bloom and fall
    where the field ridge stretches far away Kitō
    From Mount Asama

    the puffs of smoke strive upwards
    even to the rainbow Buson

    Later haikai would become increasingly loose with its connections pursuing the ideal of “fragrance” linking and the individual ku becamethe point of focus, rather than the renku, or couplet. Here the two couplets, while not sounding incongruous, also do not have such a close or obvious relation as in the ushin renga. However, even with tenuous connections, it should be noticed that Buson's two stanzas do not feel as appropriate paired with each other as with their true partners:

    Carrying millet
    to the horse collapsed with the load
    and birds cried of death Buson
    From Mount Asama
    no the puffs of smoke strive upwards
    even to the rainbow Buson

    Despite the looseness of the ties, there is still a movement away from the preceding linked pair, and attempting to “back link” by skipping the middle ku makes it quite obvious that the series has successfully left the mood and tone of the previous linked pair. However, the increasingly distant connections meant that the verse before last was not necessarily less connected, we can conceptually tie the rising smoke to the birds calling in the air as “rising things,” and this kind of amorphous and disconnected aesthetic coupled with increased focus on individual stanzas resulted in the eventual decay of the art of linked verse, giving rise to the stand alone haiku.

    Over time the degree and type of linking favored changed, though all the techniques would be continued and are still used in English-language linked verse today. Formal ushin-renga, haikai-renga and a modernized, simplified haikai called renku, are all still practiced in Japan today, though the community of writers dedicated to each form is very small and the volume of linked forms is vastly outnumbered by the standalone haiku.

    Exploration of English-language linked-verse started in earnest in the 1970's and has slowly gained a small following within the broader community of haiku enthusiasts.

    Types of linkage

    1. Kotobazuke (Word-linking)

    Here, there is some kind of pun, continuation of a famous line, repetition of words etc.
    as the primary connection between stanzas. In Japanese, this was often from engo (word association). This is as old as tanka, and was used extensively by the elite, so Bashō and his haikai circle considered it the lowest form of connection, the one to be used the least.
    ou no umi no........... Along the Sea of Ou
    shiohi no kata no*. at low tide the beach lies bare:*

    kataomi ni*.............. barely enduring
    omoi ya yukamu..... this one-sided love, shall I*
    michi no nagate o... go yearning my long way?

    Prince Kadobe, 8th century (trans. Edwin Cranston)

    This tanka, if looked at as two parts, uses kotobazuke to connect the top and bottom halves through a pun/word association (kata/kataomi), the translation mimics the style of punning with bare and barely.
    yume kayou.......Beneath the piling snow
    michi sae taenu. the bamboos of Fushimi village
    kuretake no....... crack loudly in the night—

    fushimi no sato no.. even the path to love in dreams collapses
    yuki no shitaore...... into waking from the sounding snow.

    Fujiwara no Ariie 12th century (trans. Earl Miner)

    Here, the word for “dream” creates an engo with the village's name. “Fushimi” could also be read as “lie down and see,” an apt description of dreaming.

    2. Kokorozuke (Heart/mind-linking)

    Here, there is a conceptual connection, rather than finishing lines of a famous poem, imagery might be borrowed from it and evolved. Images can be connected to by slightly changing them; a coin becomes a moon, a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, etc. There is some kind of image that morphs, direction that is carried or contrasted, or narrative that is developed. This is the meat and potatoes of linked-verse.
    between two worlds
    spring thunder.......... Angela Terry, Lake Forest Park, WA

    just under her ribs
    a tiny heel...................Julie Warther, Dover, OH

    from 'Stuck in Traffic'
    Frogpond 38.3 • 2015

    “Caught between two worlds,” is the theme of this rengay sequence, and shows how an abstract concept can connect a linked pair.

    3. Nioizuke (fragrance-linking)

    Here, the bonds of logic and direct reasoning are abandoned for an intuitive, tonal and ephemeral connection. The most difficult and highly prized of connections in contemporary Japanese renku, promoted by Basho late in his career, this linkage feels right, gives a sense of development, of connection and “rightness,” without any single concept jumping out. Basho's development of this new concept revolutionized haikai; with the looser associations, verse-pairs no longer seem like a coherent whole. This move toward independent stanzas that flow from one to the other naturally but without noticeable linking would eventually lead to more emphasis on the quality and independence of individual verses, and subsequently to the collapse of linked verse as the dominant art literature and the birth of the haiku as a standalone form.
    a web search
    for “runes” Paul MacNeil

    of a moonlit fox
    in the daguerrotype Hilary Tann

    the snowmobile
    speeds into a hairpin Paul MacNeil

    from 'Glacial Boulder'
    2017 HSA Bernard Lionel Einbod Renku Grand Prize

    Though the consecutive pairs of this short sequence do not have any plot connections, nor do they develop images or even share the same location, they still have a tonal connection, a mood that provides a certain satisfaction when reading them as a pair. The runes give a magical, ghostly tone to the mysterious photograph, while the stillness of the moonlit night gives a sense of danger and contrast to the snowmobile's reckless turn. Notice, this longer renku sequence still observes the required “moon stanza.”
    gently making room
    for another unread book

    our daydreams no longer
    what they used to be

    Clayton Beach, from 'Relic Radiation' Hedgerow #117

    These two don't have any direct relationship that jumps out, and yet when placed together, our minds start to build a sense of possibilities, enriching and expanding both ku; the unread book could become a metaphor for the abandoned dreams and sense of regret explored in the response. There is no direct narrative that builds, but nevertheless a melancholy sense of ambiance is sustained. Here there is a white space just as in the two halves of a haiku with strong disjunction. Again, a balance of strong and weak, word-linking, fragrance and conceptual linkages, all help contribute to “unity in variety.”
    ghost cave i brush aside the dharma of a lobster god


    • #3
      Short Linked Forms


      The yotsumono was devised by the English renku master John Carley. It is envisioned as having no seasonal or topical prescriptions or proscriptions, with only the principle of link and shift to keep the poem heterogeneous. There are four ku, corresponding to the opening and closing couplets of a longer sequence. While the name sounds Japanese, it is native to the English- language.
      ghost train

      lacy parasol
      she reclines in the shade
      of the day moon

      a hammerless bell's
      call to prayer

      mournful, mournful
      the distant freight train calls
      for John Henry

      a one-way ticket
      to Auschwitz

      Clayton Beach, Portland, OR
      Johnny Baranski, Vancouver, WA


      moon glimpses—
      death seems not so far
      out of reach

      dust blows around me
      an ancient sea bed

      the mogul
      is hitting
      rock bottom

      traceries of a mosque
      in the parhelion

      Hansha Teki, Wellington NZ
      Clayton Beach, Portland, OR Hedgerow #121


      Developed in the 90's by Garry Gay, the rengay was devised as an alternative for rule-heavy Japanese influenced renku sequences on one hand and the formless, completely no-holds barred experimental sequence of poets like Marlene Mountain on the other. The rengay has a sustained theme that connects each stanza, and secondary and tertiary themes can be added and developed — weaving a “braided” sequence rather than the link-and-shift chain of renku.

      This does not seem like proper linked verse to my eye, and I often add an underlying link-and- shift aesthetic to counterbalance the heavy threading of themes. First is an example of the orthodox rengay, then one with a sustained theme coupled with a more renku-like link-and-shift. The second is unorthodox and the link-and-shift would disqualify it from a rengay contest. However, I encourage experimentation and flexibility in these forms, for even Bashō was known for breaking nearly as many rules as he created.
      From Here to There

      mountain retreat—
      he tells me
      of his broken heart Terry Ann Carter

      the carpenter steps over
      the missing rung Philomene Kocher

      Rhine cruise—
      the cellist continues
      on his remaining strings Michael Dylan Welch

      all the way from Ireland
      the cracked dishes Terry Ann Carter

      on the fallen crabapple branch
      blocking the sidewalk Philomene Kocher

      the broken spines
      of all her travel books Michael Dylan Welch

      Frogpond 40:3

      Here, every verse has something broken, and every verse is about travel, hence the title. However, outside of the two themes there is no connection to individual ku, and the effect is much more like a series of related haiku—a haiku sequence—then linked pairs. The rengay was also designed to have a very light and humorous tone, demonstrated here.

      what the eaves
      spring showers

      the pitter-patter of
      mice in the attic

      the shades
      of his final summer
      oak leaves rustle

      extra innings—
      weaker and weaker
      the cricket's voice

      whispers in the sky
      which star sings so sadly?

      a train whistle
      fades in the distance
      misty moon

      Clayton Beach, Portland OR
      Johnny Baranski, Vancouver WA
      Presence #59

      This rengay has a seasonal progression as in renku (rengay usually have only one season), and while each stanza connects to the theme of soft sounds, there are secondary connections that link and shift, from eave-attic, the movement of scurrying mice and oak leaves, a fragrance connection (perhaps summer-baseball), more fragrance-linking with the tone of loneliness moving to sadness, then to star-moon for a connection through celestial objects. Notice, the secondary connections do not hurt the sequence in terms of making it confusing, and add a feeling of development rather than stasis. The mood also is more of a sabi character, in keeping with renku of the Shōfū (Bashō's school).

      Notice this rengay also follows a line patter of 3-2-3-3-2-3 so that both authors write a mix of verse types, a common feature to the two person rengay.
      ghost cave i brush aside the dharma of a lobster god


      • #4
        New knowledge stirs awake green new leaves on this gnarled grandmother-tree! Gracias. Carolitaluisa


        • Clayton Beach
          Clayton Beach commented
          Editing a comment
          Thanks, glad you enjoyed this. Linked verse is a whole lot of fun.