Slip into a kimono. Make a pot of green tea. Set out the paper and pens. You and your child are ready to create renga like Japanese aristocrats of ancient times. Renga means “linked poem,” and it’s a great way to loosen up and have fun with language. In its simplest form, you write three lines and your child adds two more, linking his lines to yours.

A thousand years ago people wrote renga mostly about nature. Today you can write renga about anything from the first crocus flower pushing up through the snow to making a bowl of cereal for breakfast. Let’s say you write three lines about pouring raisin bran in a bowl:

            Bran flakes float lightly

                        from box into waiting bowl,

                        but raisins tumble.

Then your child can add details about the next stage in the life of a bowl of cereal:

            Wheat flakes get soggy in milk;

                        raisins stay chewy and sweet.

Younger children may be satisfied with the simple process of counting syllables and lines, but there are more sophisticated approaches for older children.

Gather Material

Anything you and your child notice about familiar objects and activities is fair game. Rob Cohen is an eighth grade teacher from Ringwood, New Jersey, who has used renga for years. He recommends work with “deep observation” as part of the renga process and provides a digital camera to help children observe their world closely and gather material. The goal is to give fast-paced, 21st century children ways to slow down and really look at what’s there. Go for a walk with a sketchpad and stop to draw the pattern of bark on a tree or bricks on a building.

Basic Renga

Write two lines about something you have observed:

            The raven’s dark wings

                        row the air like feathered oars,

The first line should be five syllables and the second line should be seven syllables. You can add the third line with five syllables or you can let your partner write it.

                        each tree a harbor.

Then your partner finishes the stanza by adding two more lines. Both of these lines should be seven syllables long.

            Beneath a tall cypress tree,

                        I drop anchor for a while.

The result can be solemn or silly. It’s amazing how much can be said in just five lines. You will enjoy your child’s insights and your child will enjoy getting to know more about how you see the world. You can hand the poem back and forth as long as you and your child keep coming up with an idea or image in response to the previous two lines.

Traditional Renga vs. Contemporary Renga

You don’t need to be strict about the syllable count. According to the website, “Contemporary practitioners of renga have eased the form’s traditional structural standards, allowing poets to adjust line-length, while still offering exciting and enlightening possibilities.” It is more important for the lines to capture an image and to connect strongly to one another than it is for them to be exactly five or seven syllables. Some poets write the entire renga solo, commenting on their own initial idea or image. Either way, each section must connect with the previous one in some way: Sustain an image, compare and contrast experience, and echo an alliterative sound or internal rhyme. A renga in progress can be passed around to a group of family members or friends and evolve over time. No one needs to be under pressure to come up with a brilliant image or idea on the spot, and no one has to stand around waiting to contribute.

The Poetic Turn

For children who are old enough to think somewhat abstractly, creating a “turn” between the opening and closing lines of renga is an interesting challenge. A turn is a change in focus, from situation to comment, from question to answer, or from problem to solution. How do you know your child is old enough to think like this? If he is 8 or 9, he is probably ready. Cohen says it this way: “If you ask a 7-year-old with a brother if he has a brother, he will say yes. If you ask that same 7-year-old if his brother has a brother, he will say no. A 9-year-old will answer both questions correctly. It is that cognitive difference which I think allows young learners to understand the notion of the turn.”

He says the turn in renga helps him teach the turn in other styles. “Renga really allows me to stress the nature of turns in poetry and poetic lines and thus permits me to build out to similar pivot points in writing expository prose down the road,” he says. To help his eighth graders grasp the concept of the “turn,” he passes out copies of one of the earliest Chinese books on writing, Lu Chi’s Wen Fu, which is available in renga form as well as prose. In Sam Hamill’s translation, Lu Chi offers some good advice:

            When cutting an axe handle with an axe,

                        surely the model is at hand.

The best way for your child to use language well is to use it often and play with words as freely as he would toss a ball into the air. Renga is a great way to achieve this joyful freedom with language.

Renga Celebration

When the renga is done, whether it is five lines or a hundred, celebrate by reading it aloud several times. Your child can read his own contributions for the first go-round. Then switch back and forth, each of you reading just one line at a time. This highlights image and language. If the renga is more than five lines, take turns reading a whole stanza. Writing renga with your child helps him look at the world carefully and gives him a fun way to share what he sees. In the words of the master, Lu Chi:

            Each writer finds a new entrance

                        into the mystery,

                        and it is difficult to explain.

            Nonetheless, I have put down my thinking

                        as clearly as I can.