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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.

After having put down Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches for a while, I’ve returned to it to (finally!) finish it up. About 20 pages toward the end, I read this:

“As I sat reflecting thus upon a rock, I saw in front of me a cherry tree hardly three feet tall just beginning to blossom — far behind the season of course, but victorious against the heavy weight of snow which it had resisted for more than half a year. I immediately thought of the famous Chinese poem about ‘the plum tree fragrant in the blazing heat of summer’ and of an equally pathetic poem by the Priest Gyoson, and felt even more attached to the cherry tree in front of me.”

And I thought of how much of an impact human craft has on a person’s perception of the world, specifically the impact of literature on the individual and the objects s/he encounters. It’s the same idea here as Adam in Genesis naming the plants and animals of the world: they mean little to us until we give them meaning. Basho appreciates the beauty and hardiness of the cherry tree on its own, but remembering poetry written about other trees makes it significant, endears it to him. I think of features of the landscape that have meaning for me — the mourning dove, the toad, the darkness, the birch and willow — and realize that behind those images are stories, poems, songs.

While I’ve long thought that there is no inherent meaning in anything, and that we all layer meaning like a lacquer over our lives, desperate to preserve, I rarely feel how deep it goes. We’ve all been conditioned to love some things more than others, fear things more than others, disregard things more than others, and it’s largely literature — old and new — that quietly dictates which shall be loved, hated or ignored. And so nature is a mirror, reflecting our thoughts, fears and desires back to us. We respond by thrusting more of ourselves onto the object and, believing it’s a dialogue with nature, split our monologues in two.

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-