On a wild and snowy hilltop in Northumberland in December at Harnham Buddhist Monastery, eight people gather for a day of renga. They bring a shared commitment to Buddhist practice and their native languages and cultures – English, German, Italian and Thai – to write a poem together in English according to the principles of an ancient Japanese form.
Renga is a collective writing experience where the process is as important as the poem that has accrued at the end of it. There are many variations on the form but essentially a group of people will spend a day together to create twenty haiku-like verses of alternating three lines and two lines. There is a schema for each season, guiding the attention to when it is appropriate to offer verses set in a particular season, mentioning love, say, or the moon or flowers. A renga will always begin set in the season during which it is being composed and will always end on verses set in spring.
Every person writes their own verse and then shares it. It is the task of the Master poet to choose the verse that will become part of the renga and move it on. She will also bring the first verse, the hokku, to open the renga.
The dynamic of the renga is characterised by an awareness of ‘link and shift’. Each verse must have some connection with the preceding one but also depart from it, avoiding repeating a word or an idea. So the renga is carried forward, mirroring the flow of our lives, always changing, never still.
It is this authenticity and integrity that I most appreciate about renga – the way it refuses to fix things into easy categories, how it resists personal ownership and control. It has ideas of its own, governed by the setting, the weather, the collective mood and something I can only call chance. The only way to make it work is to let go, to open up and see what arises. You have no choice but to experience the fear, embarrassment, excitement, joy or any of the ten thousand feelings that might bubble up in the course of seven hours sitting, writing and sharing with others. If you try too hard to be ‘poetic’ or clever, too contrived, it shows. Self-consciousness is as much the enemy of renga as self-forgetfulness. When you find your feet, you discover an entirely natural grace, a whole-hearted presence.
If you’re lucky, at the end of the day you’ve made something beautiful together, a poem that is honest and colourful, both simple and complex, a creation that belongs to you all and to no-one. And you can’t help being changed by it. Some of your edges have been rubbed smooth. You feel a warm connection with your fellow rengaistas. Your senses feel sharper, you see the world more clearly and feel more alive.
It was the Scottish artist-poet Alec Finlay who recently translated the renga into a form that could work in a contemporary western setting. He designed and built a renga platform out of fine Douglas fir to ‘hold’ the practice, embodying its ritual aspect. Other permanent platforms have been built, as well as the physical platform being dispensed with completely as the practice comes of age and acquires its own momentum. I am extremely grateful to Alec for introducing me to the form and our ongoing collaborations. You can visit his website at www.renga-platform.co.uk.
I have been participating in and ‘mastering’ rengas since 2002 in art galleries, open spaces, schools and shared interiors and, although I’ve loved them all, I’m particularly happy to be leading rengas at Harnham Buddhist Monastery, one to mark every season. It brings two of my different worlds together in a powerful and harmonious way. Much of the appeal of renga for me is the way it admits and makes manifest the principles central to, though not the preserve of, Buddhist practice: discipline and concentration, clarity and confidence, community and kindness.
I first visited Harnham in 1983, on festival days, with two small children in tow. It’s only been since my children have grown up and become independent that I have been able to make more of a commitment to Buddhism as a way of living my life. The monastery serves as touchstone and sanctuary since I’ve chosen to take this path of the interior life. The resident monastic community inspire me with their own explicit dedication to renunciation as a way of coming to a more intimate understanding of the nature of things.
As a woman, I can never ‘belong’ to this community. As a writer, a renga will never ‘belong’ to me. I appreciate the rigour of bearing such uncertainties, contradictions and perceived exclusions. It helps me question my habits and prejudices and helps me understand who I am by giving me some insight into who I am not
Writing and reading renga provokes questions about the nature of identity and perception. It makes the world a bigger place, more spacious, ripe with possibilities. It allows it more thoroughly to be itself, nothing more, nothing less. In the same way Wittgenstein spoke of philosophy: it ‘leaves everything as it is’. There is a sense of increased expansive energy inside as well as out: more of yourself available to you; an openness you can trust revealing itself.
Working in this way is an antidote to ambition and the troublesome politics of the literary world. The shared experience of writing, listening, choosing and witnessing makes external, conscious and democratic what is usually a solitary process, autocratic and often unconscious.
At the beginning of 2006 I decided to set myself the challenge of writing three or two lines every day, throughout the year composing a 365 verse renga, as practice and ritual. My collaborators are the weather and the creatures and the whole world around me, the people I see, the things I do. Already the discipline is hard – I’m slow to settle into the new routine – but I am able to recognise in a very precise and particular way what my life is made of and what time does. And every day I have the satisfaction of knowing, whatever else I have done, I have made one thing that is true. One of today’s potential verses was ‘to walk is to give/life back to itself’. Which, I see now, is also what renga does.