Saturday, June 9, 2012


I’ve always loved haiku, those delightful little poems that offer us a delicate moment in just a few words. Recently, though, I learned that haiku arose from a much older tradition, the dynamic, collaborative poetry known as renga. This is how it works.
Poets arrive at a gathering with a freshly written verse of three lines. One of these hokku is chosen as the poem’s opening stanza. Each poet then separately composes a possible second verse. One of these is selected. This process continues, poem flowing through some mysterious process of becoming as verse gives rise to verse. Finally, a completed poem emerges.
Andrew Shelling, in an article on renga in the magazine tricycle, describes this process as “poem responding to poem.” Each stand~alone verse links to the one that precedes it, yet also moves the poem into new and often surprising territory.
Just like life. A moment, beautifully rich and complete unto itself, softly or startlingly becomes the next. Each instant arises from and is inextricably linked to all that precedes it, yet adds its own nioi, a Japanese word meaning scent. And that scent carries us into the next moment.
Of course, in our busyness we often miss the fragrance entirely. And so we practice slowing down~~in meditation, in contemplative prayer, amid nature, and in the writing and reading of verse.
In haiku and renga, Shelling writes, stanzas are “too short for complicated ideas, fancy metaphors, intricate figures of speech…(and) leave small room for self~promotion…(or) philosophic reference.”

No, this is bare bones poetry, perfect for those who want to touch the bare bones essence of life, that indescribable something that streams beneath all human activity and contrivance. The Japanese term for this quality is yugen. In The Japanese Theatre, author Benito Ortolani describes yugen as, “a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe…and the sad beauty of human suffering.”
With its traditional emphasis on simplicity, impermanence, and the lessons embodied in the natural world, renga has long been associated with Buddhism. “Renga, like haiku,” Shelling writes, “is not just a poem but a state of consciousness." Quoting 17th century renga poet Matsuo Basho, Shelling tells us that for a person living in this awareness, “everything he sees becomes a flower, and everything he imagines turns into the moon.”
A finished renga is a necklace of individual haiku beads strung seemingly without effort. This is poetry as meditation, poetry as a doorway into the Eternal Now.
Our days are renga, too, sparkling strands of haiku moments. Let us string them with awareness, allowing each bead to awaken us more fully. And may we delight in being part of such a dazzling collaboration, for together, poem responding to poem, we create something precious and new.

Blessings on this haiku moment, the one right here as you read these words. May you welcome it and add your own sweet nioi before passing it on.

Wishing you flowers and moons,

Loanne Marie

Here’s a link to Shelling’s article Whirling Petals, Windblown Leaves in the winter 2007 issue of tricycle. It is worth reading, indeed!

And here’s a lovely little tutorial about the writing of tiny poems, How to Haiku.


Shelling’s article quotes Murasaki Shikibu, a writer of more than a thousand years ago, saying, “It was unthinkable that a poem should get no reply.” Shelling writes that to, “make no response, Murasaki believed, is to have no heart…to show oneself ‘uncooked’, a mere barbarian, with the shabbiest of table manners or bedroom etiquette.” Well, Murasaki certainly made her feelings clear on that one!

Traditionally, renga comes with some rather stringent rules. Though things have relaxed a bit with modernity and renga’s introduction to the west, custom continues to dictate some specifics. But as Shellling writes, “Maybe the elaborate rules devised in feudal Japan… have gotten less important than the simple human act of making poems together.”

So it is in this spirit that I offer you an opportunity to renga (yes, I’m makin’ that a verb!), right here on this blog. I’m not exactly sure how this will work, but I do know it could be great fun. If you’re interested in renga~ing, email me a note to By next weekend, when folks have had a chance to respond, we’ll start the process of figuring out together how to begin.

So, please, don’t be shy! As Shelling writes of his own renga experience, we can allow our renga “to compose itself, independent of our will” as we all write, “without a trace of self~centeredness…toward a single poem.” Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

Hope to hear from you~~yes, you!

* * * * * *

Oooh, it looks to be great fun! If you'd like to follow our renga in process~~or even contribute yourself!~~you can do so here.

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Leia Marie