THE PRACTICE OF WRITING RENGA
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,
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
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
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, initially at least, 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.
(first published in altera magazine, Bulgaria,