We “conversed” with haikus. His rushing waves; my mountain peaks. His response to tracks in the snow; my reflections on bird sightings. By the end, the renga seemed to have evolved organically of its own accord. Adding to it was tantamount to feeding a giant’s beanstalk, grown to reach the clouds and touch the sky.Antony Di Nardo
A True Haiku
twenty twenty-two one more year of somersaults and cursing Covid
That’s a haiku. You can spot one a mile away with its three-line composition and 5/7/5 pattern of syllables. Although to be accurate this one’s not a true haiku, for reasons which I’ll go into later. Nevertheless, it serves as model for demonstrating the artful compression of thought that is the haiku, the art of packing into words more than what they mean all on their own. Proof that the whole is greater than its parts when it comes to writing.
String several haikus together written by two or more poets and you’ve got a renga. Its strength rests on the proposition that if each poet writes a haiku (or senyru, more on that later) and adds one to the other, in a dialogue of sorts (or not), the result might be something marvellous and unique.
I had my first experience writing one this past December when James Pickersgill, Cobourg poet and poetry convener, invited me to try my hand at ringing in the new year with a renga.
When it comes to anything haiku, James is a master. He has a keen, refined understanding and appreciation of the history, essence and form of this ancient Japanese tradition. He’s led workshops on the subject. He’s written hundreds. Thanks to him, I can tell you that for a haiku to be authentic it should invoke an aspect of the natural world as its theme, and that the mention of a season is highly regarded. Otherwise, if it references human activity, like thinking or writing or shoveling snow, it’s a senryu, not a haiku.
There’s more. The haiku (or senryu) that begins a renga is known as a hokku. It is considered an honour to be assigned the role of writing the hokku and that honour, as it was, fell to me when I accepted his invitation to collaborate. I launched the renga with my hokku. James wrote the second part, I followed with a third, and thus our renga grew until, 76 parts later, we agreed the penultimate day of 2021 was an appropriate time to conclude our project.
Season of Choice
The themes and subjects varied. Sometimes one would piggyback on another; at other times, the new haiku might take our “dialogue” in a new direction. Because we wrote before and after the winter solstice, allusions to lunar phenomena figured prominently in our renga. Winter was our season of choice. We wrote both haikus, westernized as James reminded me, and senryus. We either picked up on each other’s ideas and images or we responded to events and observations in our daily lives. The renga grew – longer, taller, like a tower, Babel, a game of Jenga, although we had enough confidence in our abilities that this tower never need collapse.
Full disclosure: after 50 years of writing poetry, I finally gave the haiku the time and consideration it deserves. As a teacher of English, it only ever appeared for me in the classroom, never quite making it to my own creative desk. In the countless poems I’ve had in journals and magazines and the books I’ve published, never was one a haiku. However, the close attention and admiration James brings to this form spurred me to reconsider it as suitable for my own sensibilities as a poet. So, when the opportunity presented itself for me to write a haiku on a daily basis (sometimes two or more) for an indeterminate period of time, I embraced it.
The result was impressive: James and I went back and forth for sixteen days, with the solstice smack in the middle of our renga project. A thread of shared experience ran through it, stitched together by our own poetic voices, sensibilities, penchants and phrasings. We wrote from different perspectives, two different locations, two different environments that obviously influenced our choice of words—James writing from the heart of Cobourg and his daily walks along the lakeshore; I wrote from my country home in the mountains of Sutton, Quebec.
We “conversed” with haikus. His rushing waves; my mountain peaks. His response to tracks in the snow; my reflections on bird sightings. By the end, the renga seemed to have evolved organically of its own accord. Adding to it was tantamount to feeding a giant’s beanstalk, grown to reach the clouds and touch the sky. Or so I thought.
Liberties of Expression
As a poetry experience it was unique. I was compelled to think and write in “tight quarters.” The 5/7/5 form is rigid, strict, limiting, not something I’m accustomed to. I’ve written sonnets, terza rimas, pantoums and other classical forms with their own demanding rules, a few with some success. Yet somehow, the haiku, despite its constraints and seventeen syllables, offered liberties of expression and latitudes with syntax that I’ve seldom experienced. Perhaps that was the result of the enforced brevity the form imposes; perhaps it was the recognition that every syllable must count and serve a purpose.
And yes, I spent many an hour counting syllables on my fingers, re-arranging syntax and re-phrasing an image or idea to make it fit. That was an important part of the exercise for me, and for a writer who tends to stretch the truth in random broken lines, working on the renga imposed a discipline that flexed the muscles of both my writing skills and my imagination.
Would I do it again? With pleasure! And if James Pickersgill happens to offer you the opportunity to write a renga with him, don’t hesitate. You’ll find out for yourself how much you know and don’t know about the art and craft of writing.
[You can read our renga, “Sixteen Days Around the Winter Solstice,” at
Antony Di Nardo is the author of five books of poetry, with a sixth, Forget-Sadness-Grass, to be released this April by Ronsdale Press. His manuscript, Through Yonder Window Breaks, won a Don Gutteridge Poetry Award and will be published later this year by Wet Ink Press. His work appears widely in journals and anthologies and has been translated into several languages. A resident of Cobourg, he was born in Montreal.