An Experiment

A very old pastime in Japan is the collaborative creation of poetry, called renshi (previously known, with different requirements, as renku and renga). Small groups of people get together and, passing around pieces of paper, compose one verse of poetry each, creating a longer poem through linked verses. Each person takes an element or two of the previous verse and either deepens or transforms that element in a new verse, and the person after him or her does the same. For example, in Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa), the poet writes of the impromptu full moon-viewing party at a priest’s hermitage:

Shortly before daybreak, however, the moon began to shine through the rifts made in the hanging clouds. I immediately wakened the priest, and other members of the household followed him out of bed. We sat for a long time in utter silence, watching the moonlight trying to penetrate the clouds and listening to the sound of the lingering rain. It was really regrettable that I had come such a long way only to look at the dark shadow of the moon, but I consoled myself by remembering the famous lady who had returned without composing a single poem from the long walk she had taken to hear a cuckoo. The following are the poems we composed on this occasion:

Regardless of the weather,
The moon shines the same;
It is the drifting clouds
That make it seem different
On different nights.           – written by the priest

Swift the moon
Across the sky,
Treetops below
Dripping with rain.

Having slept
In a temple,
I watched the moon
With a solemn look.           – written by Tosei [Basho’s earlier pen name]

Having slept
In the rain,
The bamboo corrected itself
To view the moon.             – written by Sora

How lonely it is
To look at the moon
Hearing in a temple
Eavesdrops pattering.      – written by Soha

Another, shorter example of this is in Junichiro Tanizaki’s novella “Captain Shigemoto’s Mother,” set in the Heian period, which I finished reading not too long ago. In it, the lovelorn amorist Heiju paints this short poem to his married lover on the inside of her son’s arm:

The promises we exchanged so long ago have led to misery–
What was your pledge, that this should be its only trace?

The woman responds, also written on her son’s arm:

With whom did I pledge my love in the waking world?
On a fleeting path of dreams I wander, doubting who I am.

I was reminded of this tradition when a very kind reader of my poetry left a comment in one of my recent posts that included a haiku, and I left a haiku in response. While each poem is lovely on its own, the two poems together create a subtle narrative that deepens the metaphors and meaning of each.

And so I came up with the idea to post a haiku and ask readers to respond in kind. Ideally, one reader will post a haiku in the comments section in dialogue with mine, and the next reader will post a haiku in response to that one, and so on. The level of experience, with haiku or poetry in general, doesn’t matter (just give us your best); the point is to see what happens with open collaboration: where it goes, how different voices augment a poem with their own, unique insight.

Having said that, here is my poem to start us off:

This morning the fog
Clung veil-like to our windows—
Gone now, the world wakes.

[untitled]

In the quiet dark,
His kisses are all that is—
Pinpricks of fire.

A Simple Poem

Never thought much of pine trees
Ere reading Basho’s haiku.

I pick up a cone
Among the late winter leaves —
A spider is home.

-28 Feb. 2011-