Next Line, Please

From Tanka to Renga

Print

By David Lehman

July 25, 2017


 

We remained in 17th-century Japan this week, composing tankas. Given a haiku cobbled together from poems by Lee McAden Robinson, Paul Michelsen, and Jeff Johnson—

Work? No. Why? July. [Lee McAden Robinson]
Oceans imitate shell sounds [Paul Michelsen]
All summer I watch [Jeff Johnson]

—our task was to add a two-line tail. Only one rule: the two lines need to have 14 syllables divided evenly. The example I gave consisted of these two seven-syllable lines that served as middle lines in haiku written the week before:

A sedge of cranes overhead. [Patricia Smith]
Let it always be July. [Michael C. Rush]

The entries were so strong that I would sooner pick five or six winners than just one. But games are games, whether chess, or Monopoly, or poetry as a pastime and a craft, and a shared prize will not do as much for the winner as a blue ribbon or gold medal. After I conferred with the faceless judges observing from the sidelines in my brain, the decision was made to award top honors to Angela Sundstrom for a tanka that introduces a second character, “you,” and the vantage point of a fish on the shore, “near the sea’s abyss.” Note the ambiguity of “silvered” (meaning coated with silver but with a hint of “slivered,” meaning cut into slices):

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds.
All summer I watch

you through the eyes of a fish
silvered near the sea’s abyss

Where Angela’s final line conducts us to metaphysical mysteries, runner-up Millicent Caliban concludes by lifting observation to epiphany. Note the elegant alliteration:

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds.
All summer I watch

the waves endlessly enact
ritual resurrections.

Paul Michelsen provided a helpful gloss: “My favorite encyclopedia has this to say about shells: ‘Symbols of refuge and protection against danger because of their hard covering, and frequently used as protective amulets; in Christian art symbols of immortality as signs of the discarded body from which the soul has moved on.’ Your lines shine a light on the repetitive action of the waves creating the sound of the shells they are imitating, sounds that the still waters of the ocean heard and decided to interpret through waves.”

I can’t omit Jeff Johnson, whose two-line tail takes an observation similar to Millicent’s and renders it very differently, with the waves “beached” like whales breathing their last. Note, in the last line, the almost oxymoronic fusion of terms:

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds.
All summer I watch

The waves beaching themselves in
Consummate redundancy.

Michael C. Rush’s profound simplicity and final leap moved me:

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds.
All summer I watch

and wait. I wait and watch.
And finally it comes: the fall.

Stephanie Cohen addresses the ocean and hears the beat-beat-beat of the tom-tom when evening shows fall:

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds
All summer I watch

You turn over like the tide—
In. Out. In. Out. In and out.   

Christine Rhein has a wonderful last line:

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds
All summer I watch

frantic little jackhammers—
seabirds, me, digging through sand

Elizabeth Solsburg’s oysters, and whether “hoping” was the best participle, excited comment:

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds.
All summer I watch

oysters bubble in the sand,
hoping for the hiding tide

Kudos to Paul Michelsen for his industry, his taste, and his use of the cento form, which displays that taste. The range of his reading is wide –Wendell Berry, Joseph Ceravolo, Cervantes, Claudia Keelan, Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Violi, and more than a few NLP regulars—and exemplary. My favorite of his submissions this week recalls Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning”:

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds.
All summer I watch

the water waving at me
Aloha: hello, goodbye


For next week, let’s build on what we have. Choose any tanka in this post—plus these two whose last lines I cobbled together from worthy entries:

Work? No. Why? July. [Lee McAden Robinson]
Oceans imitate shell sounds [Paul Michelsen]
All summer I watch [Jeff Johnson]

A sedge of cranes overhead. [Patricia Smith]
Let it always be July. [Michael C. Rush]

Work? No. Why? July. [Lee McAden Robinson]
Oceans imitate shell sounds [Paul Michelsen]
All summer I watch [Jeff Johnson]

Clouds as big and wet as whales, [Charise Hoge]
Clouds to set the angel free. [Berwyn Moore]

Now let us emulate the 17th-century poets of Japan who customarily collaborated on renga—a poem consisting of alternating stanzas, haiku followed by two seven-syllable lines, extended indefinitely. Your job is to write a new haiku. Besides the mandatory 5-7-5 syllabic structure, keep one other requirement in mind. Ideally the haiku you write should follow logically from the previous stanza but can—and perhaps should—veer into a new direction.

 Deadline: Saturday, July 29, midnight any time zone. Thank you, everyone, for your spirit-lifting work of mind, heart, and imagination.


David Lehman is a poet and the general editor of The Best American Poetry series. He teaches at The New School in New York City.

More Posts from Next Line, Please:


Comments powered by Disqus