Whirling Petals, Windblown Leaves
Renga, the ancient Japanese tradition of linked-verse poetry

Andrew Shelling

“It was unthinkable that a poem should get no reply.”

This sentence from The Tale of Genji, Japan’s profoundly melancholy Buddhist novel written around the year 1000 by Murasaki Shikibu, marks the formalization of a particular approach to poetry. Poem responding to poem seems the basis of Murasaki’s worldview. Her book includes nearly eight hundred poems, most of them exchanged between lovers. For a person to meet with a poem, or any deep expression, and make no response, Murasaki believed, is to have no heart, no nervous system. It is to show oneself “uncooked,” a mere barbarian, with the shabbiest of table manners or bedroom etiquette. Once, in her book, a lover dashes off a reply on lavender paper and sends it by messenger, affixed to a pine sprig still frosted with morning snow.

Now let’s stretch the notion of poetry a little. Perhaps you’ve noticed that the meadowlark perched on a ponderosa’s high twig is practicing its own form. Spring peepers under the creek bank, the elk bugling in Rocky Mountain National Park, pigeons cooing under the eaves of Wells Fargo are making poems too. It is a very old impulse to open your heart to another creature’s delight or its sorrow and reply with a verse. Somewhere in this interaction between creatures is where poetry occurs.

Recently I wrote from India -

a pariah kite
breaks over the Neem tree
moon clatter bright chaos green pinions
to which Gail Sher replied with notable precision from California -
gills sharp, thrashing
o river catfish

For three or four years I have been practicing renga - “linked poetry” - a form of collaborative verse devised in Japan around eight hundred years ago. Renga gave particular, codified rules of verse-sequence to the practice that Lady Murasaki had seen as a natural impulse. Renga feels just right for our contemporary world. It meets our raw need to talk to each other in ways freed from the daily rounds of buying and selling, or the terrible depersonalized language that worms its way into the workplace. It lets us use folklore, image, metaphor, and brisk humor, which feel like home ground. The voice we were born with.

A year ago I took part in a session of renga, gnarled and unforgettable as an ancient twisted pine, with a group of young poets on Green Mountain, here along the front range of the Colorado Rockies. Since that day in March - I’ll return to it below - I have worked hard at the practice and studied the tradition with fervor. It’s sobering to read that the renga masters of old Japan thought it took twenty years of training to learn the rules. Only then could you compose poems with the effortless skill and confidence that made you a worthy partner. Renga rose to its period of highest accomplishment in Japan at the same time Zen Buddhism flourished, and most of its poets had some amount of Zen training. Perhaps several decades of Zen study have ripened our North American karma, and renga will quickly feel native to the home ground of Thoreau and Whitman. Maybe the elaborate rules devised in feudal Japan are shifting and have gotten less important than the simple human act of making poems together.

In the West, renga’s great Japanese practitioners are thought of as “haiku poets.” Thus to get a view of linked verse it may help to begin with haiku. Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), whose name is nearly synonymous with haiku, was a quintessential poet of linked verse. He never used the term haiku and probably never heard it. Please look closely at his following counsel. Without it, the practice of linked verse will make little sense.

Make the universe your companion, bearing in mind the true nature of things - mountains and rivers, trees and grasses, and humanity - and enjoy the falling blossoms and the scattering leaves.

That last phrase, “falling blossoms and the scattering leaves,” shows up in Japan for hundreds of years in limitless variations. You can take it as shorthand for impermanence (Japanese, mujo), the cornerstone of Buddhist insight. Nothing in the world is eternal, permanent, safe from dissolution or death. A leaf falls in October, and you turn up your collar. Blossoms and leaves whirl in the wind like small poems, wistfully recalling the transient existence of everything in the known world. To delight in their beauty is inseparable from feeling a touch of sadness. Centuries before Basho, the linked-verse poet Nijo Yoshimoto (1320-1388) had written -

As we consider it today, it has become tomorrow. As we consider it spring, it has become autumn. As we consider the flowers, they have faded to yellow leaves. Is it not all summed up in “whirling petals and falling leaves”?

No one has better depicted the spirit of renga. I like to notice how so much old poetry, including haiku and renga, is grounded in accurate details of natural history. These shifting phases of plants, wind, birds, animals are our teachers.

Years of study have led me to regard haiku more as a state of mind than a form of poetry. This is in keeping with haiku’s near-universal identification with Zen Buddhist ideals of perception: clear looking, inner thoughts quieted, contrivance held to a minimum. Haiku is too short for complicated ideas, fancy metaphors, intricate figures of speech. Three lines (in old Japan, seventeen syllables) leave small room for self-promotion, baroque ideas, philosophic reference. What a relief to leave big notions of poetry and the Norton Anthology’s two thousand pages behind! In the annals of Zen, the fourteenth-century Rinzai master Bassui wrote, “You should know that the voices of frogs and worms, the sound of wind and raindrops, all speak the wonderful language of the dharma.”

The first haiku I ever read - I was twelve years old and remember it vividly - appeared in the James Bond thriller You Only Live Twice. In fact, this was James Bond’s introduction to Japan and to haiku. He composed it in response to one by his Japanese host, Tiger Tanaka -

You only live twice:
once when you’re born
and once when you look death in the face.

Years later, with all the fine translations of haiku available, with living masters among us, I see that this is a very poor haiku indeed! Its words are too big, too abstract. Life, birth, death. It is the haiku of a professional hitman, a high-paid government worker hopelessly out of touch with “the voices of frogs and worms.” Contrast it with Basho -

A crow settles
on a withered branch -
autumn evening.

Do you need to be told that Basho wrote this poem on his deathbed? When you first heard it, did you turn up your collar with an involuntary shudder?

Peony petals
two or three dropping
on top of each other

- Buson

Poems like these were not left to settle long on their own. Somebody needs to respond. Buson’s verse was followed by one from his friend Kito, so the link goes like this -

Peony petals
two or three dropping
on top of each other
early summer waning moon
faint in the dawn

Earl Miner in Japanese Linked Poetry notes, “Here the silent fall of peony petals perhaps relates to the moon’s faint light as it fades.” My favorite word in Miner’s commentary, the key to it all, is perhaps. Here we enter the twilight of poetry: “perhaps it relates.” Your heart feels it or it doesn’t. This is the sphere of interdependence, the co-emergence of all things - which is the other cornerstone (along with impermanence) of Buddhist thought. Things arise together. Flowers, moon, dawn, killers, poets. What links them? “Perhaps”!

The tradition in Japan was for a group of poets to gather in a formal setting, at times in a tea ceremony hut. Three poets was a common number, though you can have fine festivals that convene ten or more, and two people are all it takes. Each participant shows up for the gathering with a possible opening verse - a three-line stanza called a hokku. It should catch some precise detail of his or her time and place, the season, the bioregion. It should feel fresh, alert to falling petals, whirling leaves. A master poet acting as judge selects the one that fits the occasion best. It is then used to open the sequence. The poets, following various rules of composition, spend the next several hours or even days composing a poem. They begin in their common season and location, revolve through the four seasons, not necessarily in order, traveling as far as the group’s imagination permits, and return together to end in spring, time of the year’s new growth. Possibly an archaic fertility ritual lingers here.

Spring thaw -
one small carp hides in the shadows

- Gail Sher

Writers of renga observe a number of cardinal rules. Three-line stanzas alternate with two-line stanzas. There are always verses on the theme of love; the word dream should not occur more often than every seventh link; the autumn moon must appear in a pre-ordained stanza; the name of a spring flower, in the next to last. The final verse, whether the sequence is twenty, thirty-six, or a hundred stanzas (common numbers), carries a whiff of the opening one.

The best connection between stanzas occurs in the realm of “perhaps.” A pariah kite and a catfish - one eats carrion, the other’s a bottom feeder. Basho spoke of “scent” (nioi) as the most profound principle that joins stanzas. There is also the important, untranslatable poetic term yugen: mystery, beauty, melancholy. “Crow on a withered branch; autumn twilight.” Crow, leaf, evening dusk, poet - all have arisen together, all are vanishing. If some unarticulated longing moves your heart, this is yugen.

I want to call attention to one detail: that each poet who arrived at the traditional Japanese gathering brought a three-line verse, hoping it would be chosen to open the sequence. Since only one poet’s hokku could be chosen - after the first, stanzas are written on the spot - everyone else had to put theirs away.

Poets ended up with satchels of orphan verse. These separate, unused poems came to be highly regarded. Many were quite good, and there was an important sense that they should be able not only to fit into a sequence, but also to stand on their own. Anthologies of these “stand-alone” poems got collected, and eventually hokku (opening verse) and the much-used term hai (innovative, sportive, playful) were compounded into a new word, haiku. It is possible that this term did not appear until the twentieth century. Basho, like most of the famous poets of his day, was a renga writer. Only about three hundred of his poems could be called haiku, in the modern sense that they stand alone.

During the rise of renga, Japan was in tumult. Poets frequently wore Buddhist robes, which let them wander the countryside unmolested. Some actually were monks; nearly all had undergone at least some Zen training. The best of them made a spartan income, traveling from town to town as teachers of renga. Their patrons were businessmen, but farmers, out-of-work samurai, thieves, schoolteachers, pharmacists, and professional poets all participated. Basho, writing the most when he traveled on long foot-excursions, saw himself as on perpetual pilgrimage to the sites and sources of poetry. In his travel journals, he shows how his poems nearly always appear linked to the poems of friends who accompany him, poets he visits, or to those who have gone before. “It was unthinkable,” Lady Murasaki had written, “that a poem should get no reply.” For Basho, the initial poem might come from a companion. Otherwise a cricket, a cicada, a fish. A monkey, a child. A Chinese poet whose verse he worshipped; a warrior slain years ago.

“The essence of renga,” wrote Sogi (1421�1502), “is to give heart to that which lacks heart.” (The Japanese word is kokoro: heart, mind, spirit.) “To give speech,” Sogi continues, “to that which cannot speak.” Renga, like haiku, is not just a poem but a state of consciousness. I’ll quote Basho again, from Robert Hass’s volume of translations The Essential Haiku:

There is a common element permeating Saigyo’s lyric poetry, Sogi’s linked verse (renga), Sesshu’s painting, and Rikyu’s tea ceremony. It is the poetic spirit (furabo), the spirit that leads one to follow nature and become a friend with things of the seasons. For a person who has the spirit, everything he sees becomes a flower, and everything he imagines turns into the moon.

In April 2006, with this counsel in mind, armed with notebooks, pens, teapot, Primus stove, thermoses, and warm coats, a group of eleven poets from Naropa University set up the West Ridge trail of Green Mountain, above Boulder, Colorado. Temperature was in the forties, sky low with impending snow, and a driving wind that would sweep into gusts up to fifty miles per hour. Leaving the trail, eyeing the tenebrous sky, we settled into a circle at about 8,000-foot elevation on a bed of kinnikinnik, or bearberry. Behind us, for shelter, a small ridge and a cluster of pines. The resulting poem - written with icy hands and abundant tea drinking - demonstrates in memorable fashion the spirit of renga, what Basho calls furabo.

Everyone had brought to the mountain a possible opening verse. Each poet read his or her verse, calling it out sharply, above the wind. From the eleven possible stanzas we selected a hokku by silent vote of hands. Democratic procedure seemed appropriate. The old Japanese notion of a single judge or master poet doesn’t sit right in the land of blue jay and red fox, mule deer, raven, and coyote, all of them frequent visitors to this high ridge.

We moved a buck-handled knife around the circle at each new stanza (“passed the buck”), so everyone served as judge, successively, for a single link. All but the judge for any given link wrote a stanza to add to the previous verse. After five minutes or so of writing, the judge for that link listened carefully to each person’s offering. If necessary, she asked to hear one or two again. Then, with the interests of the renga in mind, she selected one. What is the fragile, intuitive “scent” that links a verse to the one that has gone before? What shifts the poem away from the earlier verses, so it can revolve with the seasons?

I was charged with recording the poem as it emerged, making a fair copy in my notebook. A blast of wind came over the ridge late in our three-hour session, knocking the teapot off the Primus stove. The pot bounced down between some small pines, and lost its lid. Boiling water hit my notebook and obscured several words. Later, I realized this had saturated some of the verses more deeply with yugen, the fragile, melancholy mystery the old masters regard as the key to a good renga.

Here is a sequence of verses from our “Green Mountain Renga,” with a look at how the poem shifts. Each new stanza is meant to link to the previous one, but also to effect a shift from what’s gone before. All previous verses twist away like “swirling petals and falling leaves.” Verse six had entered the notebook:

dripping with creek water
hunting snails

After five minutes of writing, the judge chose a verse that filled out the picture. Now you can see what stands there in the creek:

dripping with creek water
hunting snails
a white egret
impossible legs
like straw

The schema we were following for this particular renga called now for a verse on love. The next poet accordingly changes the tone. From a tender haiku-like portrait of one of nature’s elegant waterfowl, a vivid human mood rises with the new verse.

a white egret
impossible legs
like straw -
she turns to look
he kisses her exposed neck

Such a delicate gesture, captured for a fragile instant. Someone points out the egret, as though to say, “See how undisturbed it is! We are alone. Nobody will see us here.” The young woman turns innocently to look, leaving her neck - lovely as the white egret’s - profoundly vulnerable.

But how long can such a mood last? Are we permitted to linger? Five minutes of writing, and the next verse brings a shift in time and emotion.

she turns to look
he kisses her exposed neck
she stiffens
unprepared -
the name of another

How many old poems have prepared us for what no one can prepare for? There must be thousands of such poems from Japan, India, Greece, Spain. The moment when one’s lover or spouse, in a fit of passion, whispers “the name of another.” How many began their quest for the dharma from a similar, singular moment of truth?

The next poet deepens the mood, giving it a pastoral twist with reference to a flower that echoes the literature of classical Greece:

she stiffens
the name of another -
the narcissus no longer sacred
under the ant’s footfall

An echo of Ezra Pound. The shock of betrayal has settled deeply, and the human heart grown cold. The entire world has turned pallid. How far we have traveled from the excitement of that first abrupt kiss, by a deserted creek bank, witnessed by only the silent egret. And yet, right here, the earth too is pursuing its yearly rounds. Summer suddenly gives way to autumn -

the narcissus no longer sacred
under the ant’s footfall
it passes
the paper bridge
into September

How precise the return to “materiality.” The tiny world of life is all around, and the poet notices a lone ant tracking across his notebook page. This coupling of stanzas makes me shiver. I see a trace of the Buddhist-inspired Noh drama of Japan. The paper bridge is a stark, stylized stage setting - it is “the bridge of dreams,” guiding us across to another “world.” Another season. Love has passed, gone with a breath. The world turns into itself, towards fall, and the “it” could be anything -

it passes
the paper bridge
into September
autumn of withered grass
autumn of ghost-like winds

On the mountain we leaned into a circle, lee side of the jumbled ridge, wind whipping the pines about. The pines of the American West look so vividly like Japanese ink paintings. They are ancient Buddhas, Dogen Zenji would say, crouched in concentrated postures. Or stepping forward to gesture madly. By contrast, we humans sat bundled against the now-roaring wind, vulnerable, resolute, working swiftly to finish the poem and get off the mountain. Everyone had to shout their new verse over the wind. You could feel links and shifts crackling about. Basho wrote: “In this mortal frame of mine, which is made of a hundred bones and nine orifices, there is something, and this something can be called, for lack of a better name, a windswept spirit, for it is much like thin drapery that is torn and swept away by the slightest stirring of the wind.”

Maybe it was the gnawing cold. Maybe the darkness brought by an oncoming storm out of the higher peaks, maybe the sharing of hats, mittens, scarves. A primal camaraderie came forth. The last of the tea had gone cold. The poem seemed to compose itself, independent of our will. Renga mind, let’s call it. Without a trace of self-centeredness, everyone wrote toward a single poem. “Big medicine in the lyrics,” someone said. Indeed! The first sharp pellets of snow began to drive through the pines as the poem ended. A medicine Buddha as well as a poetry Buddha sat on Green Mountain that day.

Andrew Schelling grew up in New England's Transcendentalist country. He moved west to Northern California in 1973. There he explored wilderness regions of the Coast Range and Sierra Nevadas and studied Sanskrit and Asian literature at U.C. Berkeley. An ecologist, naturalist, and explorer of wilderness areas, he has travelled extensively in North America, Europe, India, and the Himalayas. In 1990 he relocated to Colorado to join the faculty at Naropa University where he teaches poetry, Sanskrit, and wilderness writing. Poet, amateur naturalist, mountaineer, and translator of India's classical poetry, he lives in Boulder, along the front range of the Southern Rocky Mountains.

In 1992, Schelling received the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets for Dropping the Bow: Poems of Ancient India (1991). His volumes of translation also include For Love of the Dark One: Songs of Mirabai (1993, revised edition 1998) and The Cane Groves of Narmada River: Erotic Poems of Old India (City Light Books, 1998). His collections of essays and poems include Wild Form, Savage Grammar: Poetry, Ecology, Asia (2003), Tea Shack Interior: New & Selected Poetry (2001), The Road to Ocosingo (1998), Old Growth: Poems and Notebooks 1986-1994 (1995), The India Book: Essays & Translations from Indian Asia (1993), and Moon Is a Piece of Tea (1993). Schelling has also received two grants for translation from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry.