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The Linked Verse Growing From Linked Lives

THOUGH I've known David for years and our paths have crossed at numerous poetry events, it is only recently that we've really become friends. Ours is one of those rare connections where so much of one person's experience is mirrored in the other's, where even the unspoken thoughts register in the other who is listening. ("Unspoken!" My wife laughs at the very idea. Admittedly, words are one commodity neither David nor I find in short supply.)

Conversation erupts with the slightest provocation and carries us seamlessly from one subject to the next, often revealing thoughts and feelings that surprise us even as we speak. Just a five-minute phone call, my wife contends, really means an hour and a half. And, she says smiling ruefully, she has the phone bills to prove it.

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Since David and I live on opposite ends of the state of Massachussetts, our occasional visits usually involve late-night marathon talk-sprees. When my wife is wisely turning in for the night, we declare earnestly that this time we'll cut it short - 1 a.m., no later. I can tell by her expression she isn't buying it. And somehow, at 3:30 in the morning, we find ourselves just returning from a walk to a nearby park where you can see Boston's skyline on the horizon. We are both hoarse and exhausted, reluctan tly ready to allow sleep to close down the conversation.

To fill in for the long absences between visits - or, more accurately, to reinforce the presence of other each in our daily comings and goings - we began a form of correspondence peculiar to poets: the renga. Renga, or "linked verse," is a centuries-old style of Japanese poetry designed to create a single constantly transforming poem that is born from many diverse voices. At one time, a local aristocrat might summon his courtiers for an evening of renga. Or the visit of a highly respected master might be come the occasion for a gathering of poets - to socialize and write together.

Originally the form had an element of friendly competitiveness about it. But the real masters always knew when to out-dazzle the preceding verse or when to offer only a subtle addition, preparing the ground for the next poet's lines and helping the spirit of the whole poem to grow. What is unique and most exciting about the form is its sense of unlimited possibility. The poem develops like a giant wheel turning with its own momentum; on each revolution, you only have one verse, one opportunity to steer t he larger composition. By the time your turn comes around again, the poem has traveled to places and moods no one contributor could have predicted.

THE proprietary control most writers exert over their work is subdued in this experiment, and the "larger mind" of the poem assumes preeminence. Like one canoe with several paddlers (to mix my metaphors), the rhythm of your individual efforts becomes attuned to those of your partners, and the balanced energy steers the boat smoothly on.

The renga was developed as an extension of an even older verse form called the tanka, a five-line poem composed in two sections. Generally the first three lines created a scene or situation that the last couplet elaborated upon. The artful conclusion didn't just add detail to the opening verse, it used some element of its language or imagery as a jumping-off point for a second surprising vision that stood in contrast to the first. Because of the abundance of homonyms in the Japanese language, puns and pl ays-on-words were common ways to link one verse with another.

An early tale describes the root experience of the renga. Tamemasa, the governor of Kawachi, sat with the noted poet Shigeyuki, watching fresh snow falling on the mountain. When the poet came up with an opening verse of a tanka, the governor attempted to create an appropriate ending. After several failed attempts, one of his bodyguards tried to offer a two-line conclusion. Tamemasa rebuffed the samurai but, when he could come up with no satisfactory verse himself, he was persuaded to listen to the guard' s suggestion. Tamemasa was surprised by the soldier's lines, but Shigeyuki was so delighted by the verse, he danced around the chamber and then rewarded the guard with his own silk jacket - and the two-person tanka was born. It is not hard to imagine how the renga would eventually evolve from this, for if two could collaborate on a single poem, why not three? Or six? Or a dozen?

The renga would begin with a hakku or "starting verse," a compact, imagistic stanza that set the tone and initial season for the poem. Traditionally, the eldest or most respected poet of the group would provide the hakku, but he could offer up the honor to any member of the circle. Because of this possibility, every poet attending a renga party came prepared with a three-line opening verse just in case he was called upon. Since these gem-like verses seemed too good to waste, poets began to publish some o f their unused hakku on their own, and a new style of poetry was created: the haiku, one of the world's most popular forms of poetry.

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Once the hakku opened the poem, the second poet would have to write a couplet to make the tanka complete. But when the paper was passed along, the next poet would read the previous two-line verse as if it were the opening of a tanka, and he'd cap it with his own three-line conclusion. The fourth poet would receive the poem and link his poem to the one before. Though you had to be sensitive to the overall scope and mood developing in the larger poem, the rule of renga determined that any two successive li nks had to be able to stand on their own as a complete poem. Verse after verse, the chain would grow, crossing through landscapes, seasons, and memories.

DAVID and I simplified the extensive strictures of the Japanese form to suit contemporary language and sensibility. Basically, we asked that each verse rely on spare, imagistic lines and the power of implication, springing intuitively from the preceding contribution. At the outset, we each wrote one hakku and thus began two separate renga. This was intended to compensate for the slowness of the mails and the demands of daily life. Whenever possible, one poem would rest on David's desk in the west while t he other simmered on mine in the east. There was a certain pleasure each week in just stopping to wonder about the corresponding poem.

As in any conversation, some exchanges meshed more gracefully than others, while some sent the dialogue careening off in a new direction. But each poem, as it extended its reach, provided us with the "surprise of recognition" that is a central force in poetry - discovering the familiar in an unimagined terrain so that the mind responds with a silent "of course!"

Today, amid the bills and advertising circulars, I find an envelope addressed in a familiar hand. I sit down to see what's become of our poem and, at once, the idea of distance is both expanded and reduced. Depending on traffic, it can take me a good three hours to drive from my house to David's. But when our renga arrives in the morning mail, I find that the wind that climbs the pine hill behind David's house is stirring the apple boughs behind mine.

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