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Winter 2009, vol 7 no 4


English Grammar: Variety in Renku

Variety is vital to renku. You may be muttering to yourself, "Okay, I know that already—how do I put it into practice?" The answer is, avoid repetition.

Verse Construction
Vary verse construction, so that the same type is not repeated twice in a row, and does not appear in clumps on the same page; there should not be an abundance of verses with the same structure throughout the renku.

Parts of Speech
Among the parts of speech that should be used only once in a renku are distinctive nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

Present Participles
There should be no more than six or seven verses containing present participles within verbal phrases. Example with the present participle "hacking":

the machete's glint
hacking a narrow path
for the film crew

It's a good idea to use gerunds (verbal nouns such as singing, painting, etc.) sparingly, and avoid placing them near verses that contain present participles or gerunds.

A verse may be a complete sentence with a subject and transitive verb; or the sentence may use a form of the verb "be," or may use a verb with passive voice; or it may use an intransitive verb, where there is action but no direct object. A sentence may use one verb or two, or the verse may not be a sentence at all, having no verb, and is simply an image, a subject with modifiers.

Beginnings of verses should vary, as should endings. There are many different ways to begin a renku verse, with articles, nouns, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, verbal phrases, prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses… The idea is to avoid clumps of verses that begin and/or end the same way. The same noun or verb ending (such as "-tion" or "-ing") should not be repeated for at least five consecutive stanzas.

Kinds of phrases should vary, as should their placement within sentences and non-sentences.

So, you've begun your first renku (a kasen no less), your partner's brilliant hokku is waiting to be capped by your wakiku, and already you're wondering how in the world you can sustain variety of verse construction for the next thirty-five stanzas. A valid concern indeed, but let me reassure you—it can be done, if you will think of English grammar as your best friend.

Fortunately for those of us who write renku in English, English grammar by its very nature is our ally in the constant quest for variety.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines grammar, in part, as
(A) The study of how words and their component parts combine to form sentences, and
(B) The system of rules implicit in a language, viewed as a mechanism for generating all sentences possible in that language.

You may see already, just from the definition, how grammar will serve you: "...a mechanism for generating all sentences possible in that language."

Therein lies Variety with a capital V, all that our language holds, because you will be using whole sentences and parts of sentences in your renku, and in their creation, drawing from a huge reservoir of parts of speech. It's quite wonderful how these sentences, fragments, phrases, and all their parts can be shuffled and reshuffled to sustain variety. The trick is to be constantly shuffling them in your mind as you write each verse. Will you use a complete sentence, and should it be simple, compound or complex—or will sentence fragments do the job? Should the verse consist only of descriptive phrases? Is it too soon to use another participial phrase at the beginning? How about a verse with a pivotal second line, or a prepositional beginning? How can you construct this verse so that it doesn't begin with yet another "the" or "a" or "an"?

Sometimes it helps to have at hand examples of different verse structures.

Simple Sentences
With a subject and transitive verb in active voice (the subject does the action and has a direct object):

a machete
slashes tall bamboo
in the rain forest

thick kudzu
has blocked out the sun

With an intransitive verb; there is action but no direct object or complement:

A bald eagle
flies in wide circles
above the runway

the boy runs
with the wind

With a verb in passive voice (the subject receives the action):

the sun
has been blocked out
by thick kudzu

all the bamboo
is destroyed by man

Setting plus simple sentence using a form of the verb "be":

first dawn—
the barbwire fence
is soft with fog

Simple sentence introduced by infinitive phrase:

to smell the rain
she opens a widow

Switching the order of lines:

she opens a window
to smell the rain

Complex Sentences
A subordinate clause (introduced by "when") begins the verse:

when I mention my old flame
he gives me that look

Switching the order of lines:

he gives me that look
when I mention my old flame

Sentence Fragments

Elliptical construction with understood subject and verb (I am):

alone in the dark
with your scent to guide me

Subject (first line) modified by participial phrase (second line):

gleam of ripe blackberries
dulled by road dust

Prepositional phrase as setting, followed by subject:

on the first day of sex ed.
all the downcast eyes

Prepositional phrase as setting, followed by a verbal phrase:

after school
racing home
ahead of the rain

Perhaps I can demonstrate how we get to know the possible faces of a renku verse. Let's begin with a spring hokku and wakiku for a kasen renku, already written and accepted by both partners (I will be player A):

mountain pasture—(1)
a shepherd lingers
with the day

woven among fence vines (2)
the first twigs of a bird nest

So far, we have used the classic cut verse in the hokku: the setting and a hard cut, followed by subject and action—in this case a complete sentence; and in the wakiku, we've used a verbal phrase in the first line followed by an inverted subject in the second line.

From now on, we must find ways of rearranging the grammatical furniture of sentences, and even throwing some of the furniture out, to avoid the hard-cut structure while maintaining variety. We will no doubt repeat the structure of the second verse somewhere down the line, but not right away. So, what is left for verse #3, and what would work best here? Let's play with structure a little and find out.

mountain pasture—(1)
a shepherd lingers
with the day

woven among fence vines (2)
first twigs of a bird nest

For verse #3, I want to link to things woven together, moving together. These are the first warm days of spring. Outside my window the neighbor's children are blowing soap bubbles, and I have found my link. I could write this:

open window
colored soap bubbles blend
with loud giggles

but that uses the same structure as the hokku, and is a cut verse. Perhaps I could begin with a prepositional phrase and forget the verb:

through the window
soap bubbles
and loud giggles

But no, that is too similar in structure to #2, with an inverted subject. Back to the drawing board:

soap bubbles
drift into the house
with children's laughter

Now I have an uncut verse without a setting or deliberate juxtaposition; but it is only one removed from the hokku, which also contains a complete sentence. Hmm. Maybe I could revise the second line to a participial phrase:

soap bubbles (3)
drifting into the house
with children's laughter

I hope my partner will like that version.

So, I have now used the first present participle (drifting) in this renku. Another present participle should not be used for at least five more stanzas. My partner, having accepted my #3, drafts this link:

beneath layers of dirt
a flea-market table

But there's that inverted subject again, a bit too soon my partner thinks, so she revises:

the layers of dirt
on a flea-market table

Now we have simply a noun modified by prepositional phrases; no verb, no sentence. We also have our first verse that begins with the definite article "the."

mountain pasture—(1)
a shepherd lingers
with the day

woven among fence vines (2)
first twigs of a bird nest

soap bubbles (3)
drifting into the house
with children's laughter

the layers of dirt (4)
on a flea-market table

My turn again—maybe it's time for another complete sentence. And so it goes… draw, discard, shuffle, shuffle…


by Ferris Gilli

Originally posted to WHC haikuforum on April 10, 2000.
Used with permission from Ms. Gilli.


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