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Renga: The Art of the 'Linked Poem' (page 2)

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Updated on Mar 21, 2013

Traditional Renga vs. Contemporary Renga

You don’t need to be strict about the syllable count. According to the Poets.org 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.

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