Pat Nolan


Linked Verse

"Purple Petals" is linked verse based on the model of haikai no renga, the linked verse form popularized by Basho. Haikai no renga (also known as renku) might be characterized as middle-class renga (linked verse) as opposed to the classically composed renga that was written by courtiers and aristocrats. Haikai allowed words and expressions that were not considered suitable in the rarified atmosphere of the Emperor's court or the Shogun's domain. Humor, certain kinds of vulgarity, and non-elevated diction are permissible in haikai linking. Otherwise, the rules of composition (and there are many) are pretty much the same. Linked verse can have as many as a hundred stanzas (some have gone to a thousand), but "Purple Petals" is a thirty-six stanza haikai, known as a "kasen", favored by Basho and his associates.

The rules for composing linked verse are quite complex, foreign, maybe even simplistic for anyone schooled in Western prosody. Two stanzas in a row may link but not three so that there is always a change of vector or inclination as the links progress. The poets link with the previous stanza either by allusion, pun, tenor, or suggested relation, and the link can either be "close" or "distant". The judicious use of these factors, among many others, determines the warp and woof of the final tapestry. There are also three designated moon stanzas and two flower stanzas in a kasen that appear in predetermined stanzas.

There are so many rules and nuances to these rules that it would be nearly impossible, especially for Westerners like the authors of "Purple Petals", to follow them all and still remain natural and fresh. The three-line stanzas are supposed to contain 17 syllables, and the two-line stanzas are supposed have 14 syllables. However, since the masters of the form didn't always follow this count, the authors of "Purple Petals" didn't feel particularly bound by this stricture. There are also two broad classifications as far as subject matter is concerned: seasonal and miscellaneous. The idea is to start with a seasonal bent (spring and autumn being the preferred seasons) and then larding in the miscellaneous verse throughout the body of the poem, and then ending once again on a seasonal footing.

The authors of "Purple Petals" followed the rules when it was convenient or when they remembered. They tried to synthesize the form to fit their own particular "modern" esthetic to allow for the maximum spontaneity and creativity while still working within the basic structure of haikai no renga. The opening stanza is known as the "hokku". It is a place of honor and is usually reserved for the renku master. In this instance, the authors gave that honor to Jack Kerouac's haiku. As well, the traditional setting for renku composition is on straw mats gathered around the hibachi and knocking back warm rice wine, and it usually is accomplished over the course of a few hours with the renku master correcting links or even deeming some inappropriate. In the case of "Purple Petals", the composition was accomplished through the mail and over a period of several months, and if there was any correction, it was usually self-correction.

The bottom line on haikai no renga is the relationship between stanzas, and the fact that each link should be considered a separate poem so that what you end up with is a sequence of poems rather than a chain of stanzas. For those interested in an in-depth and thorough explication of linked verse, Earl Miner's Japanese Linked Verse and his excellent The Monkey's Straw Raincoat (Princeton U. Press) are highly recommended.

                             Pat Nolan 12.3.00