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Renga: The Art of the 'Linked Poem'

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Updated on Mar 21, 2013

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.

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