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Renga

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  • Japanese: 連歌 (renga)

Renga (lit. "linked poetry") is a major form of Japanese poetry, taking the form of multiple short lines of poems composed one after another in a linking or continuing fashion by a series of participants, within a set of rules or guidelines.

Renga got its start in the Kamakura period, and by the end of that period, in the 1330s, it was a well-acknowledged popular elite activity. Minamoto no Yoshiie is said to have engaged in a renga exchange with Abe Sadatô as early as the 11th century, but this is probably a later elaboration. Renga is mentioned specifically in the Kemmu legal code of 1336, which notes that poetry competitions were sometimes being held with high stakes gambling involved. Originally a form enjoyed simply as party entertainment, e.g. at elite banquets, by the mid- or late Muromachi period renga had begun to become a more refined, defined art form. Though it continued to be enjoyed in a party setting in the Tokugawa period, by this time it had come to be seen as a highly refined, elegant cultural pursuit.

By 1320, renga was also being practiced in massive gatherings, in which a huge number of people came together to compose poetry in sequence. In that year, the earliest such gathering of which historical records are today extant took place in Kamakura, and has come to be known as the Kamakura Cherry Blossom Ten Thousand Verses in a Day festival. Similar events are known to have been sponsored by the Ashikaga shoguns in 1391 and 1433, and became fairly regularly associated with Kyoto's Kitano Tenmangû shrine. These official events contributed to the formalization and codification of renga as an art form.

Many prominent historical figures are known to have actively participated in renga circles, with some being particularly famous for their skill or dedication to it. These include the Noh actor/playwright Konparu Zenpô, Sengoku daimyô Oda Ujiharu, Imagawa Ujitoyo, Imagawa Ryôshun, Kanpaku Nijô Yoshimoto, and Satomura Jôha, considered the last great renga master.

The Edo period novelist Ihara Saikaku is particularly famous as a renga poet, having composed within a 24-hour period one day in 1684 23,500 verses of renga.[1]

Scholar Eiko Ikegami identifies renga as one of the key arts which contributed to the formation of something equivalent to the "public sphere" in Tokugawa Japan, creating spaces outside of the formal hierarchies, where people of various statuses and segments of society put side their outside identities and became poets, interacting with one another in a more or less egalitarian manner. The social interactions and exchange of gossip and information which took place within such spaces constituted, Ikegami argues, an important space of public discourse outside of that regulated or monitored by the shogunate, setting the foundation for a more fully modern "public sphere" to emerge easily and quickly in the Meiji period.

References

  • Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility, Cambridge University Press (2005), 113-114.
  1. Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Japanese Civilization, Second Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 83.
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