Birds on a Wire

First published in the Journal of Renga & Renku #1, December 2010, pages 120–122.

Birds on a Wire: A Renga ’Round Town by J. Patrick Lewis and Paul B. Janeczko, with illustrations by Gary Lippincott. Honesdale, Pennsylvania: Wordsong, 2008. Hardback, 9¼ by 12¼ inches, ISBN 978-1-59078-383-2. $17.95. Buy on Amazon.

Misinformation about haiku is problematic enough for adult books, yet haiku books for children typically suffer from an even higher percentage of misinformation. But this beautifully illustrated book for children is one that gets it right—or close enough. It’s a book of renga, or linked verse (the modern term renku is not used), by two well-known authors of children’s books, both of whom have demonstrated support and appreciation for haiku in several of their other books, including their previous collaboration, Wing Nuts: Screwy Haiku (Little, Brown, 2006), Lewis’s Black Swan White Crow (Atheneum, 1995), and Janeczko’s How to Write Haiku and Other Short Poems (Scholastic, 2004) and his urban haiku anthology, Stone Bench in an Empty Park (Scholastic, 2000).

Here’s a sampling—the book’s first two verses:

in the blizzard

of apple blossoms,

a road edged in white

old spotted hound

stops to sniff

Hurray—no 5-7-5 superficialities here! The blizzard is metaphorical, but we immediately know that the season is spring, and the two-part structure exhibits an understanding that hokku, or the starting verse, must contain a “cut.” The second verse uses a narrative development to link to the first verse, but because the narrative is not overtly continued in the third verse, the narrative here may be viewed as an acceptable method of linking—at least so far. The second verse also shifts away effectively, changing our perception of the blossoms from sight to smell. The hound’s spots also echo the shape and profusion of the apple blossoms. The indentation and italicization of the second verse also emphasizes the shifting away or separateness of the second verse (all subsequent verse pairs are treated in a similar manner). The poems unfold from this point, two to a page (like tan-renga), to paint a wide-ranging portrait of small-town America, hence the book’s subtitle. Birds on a Wire effectively paints all of life, at least the life of a typical small town, and thus celebrates the ordinary, everyday images of our lives.

One of three creative liberties this book takes, however, is the total number of verses—52. There’s no standard kasen (36-verse) or other established renga pattern here, nor any accepted seasonal progression with moon and flower verses in prescribed positions. No doubt the length was adopted to fill 32 pages, a standard page count for children’s picture books. In their useful introduction, the authors ask the question—how long is a renga? They respond by saying that it’s up to you, and encourage readers to try writing their own renga. It would surely be too much information for grade-schoolers if the authors had described specific renga forms and all the detailed restrictions. They say, “We don’t want to bore you with all the rules,” but add that, “even though a renga doesn’t actually tell a story, it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

A second creative license is the manner of composition. Instead of the usual pattern for two authors to alternate individual verses, they alternate pairs of verses. There’s no indication of who wrote which pairs of verses, but the authors do acknowledged in the introduction that “Birds on a Wire is untraditional,” explaining that “We each wrote five lines and broke them into three-line and two-line stanzas.” So their method is deliberate and conscious, and I see little weakness in the verses themselves from this choice, but I also see no reason why they couldn’t have alternated individual verses in the typical fashion.

The entire renga uses both seasonal and nonseasonal verses, but dwells in a single season, as if one were walking around a town and describing what one sees on a particular spring day. The season of spring contributes a tone of hopeful and joyful discovery to the book, but departs from traditional renga by failing to explore multiple seasons. This is a third creative license taken in the book, but the gain from this choice is that it ties the entire renga more closely to a particular setting on a particular day, which may make the book more accessible for its intended audience. The setting is effectively presented in the watercolour illustrations, which link from page to page by the judicious repetition of selected parts of images, from a different distance or perspective, on subsequent pages.

Here’s another pair of verses:

glazed with rain

a red wheelbarrow headstands

by the hardware store

the old doctor recalls

childhood barnyard

The reference to the red wheelbarrow is one of a few literary or cultural references that pepper this renga, and of course the “old doctor” reference is how the second verse acknowledges William Carlos Williams, the doctor-poet of the famous wheelbarrow poem, and thus links to the preceding verse. In a way, such linkage would be more pleasing were it from a second poet making a discovery rather than a single poet responding to his own verse and its known subject, but the “inside joke” nature of this link does add a layer of reward for the informed reader (such as a parent), even if most children wouldn’t get it.

An “inside joke” that children are a little more likely to get occurs in the following pair of verses:

behind their teacher

a line of first-graders

each clutching a new book

crossing at the WALK sign

make way for readers

The last line, of course, is a reference to Make Way for Ducklings, the famous Robert McCloskey picture book that won the 1942 Caldecott Medal for its illustrations. Anyone from Boston will know the Nancy Schön statue in Boston Public Garden that commemorates not only this book but the story that first begat it. Later verses also refer to “a moveable feast” and “money can’t buy you love,” so parents, if not children, will enjoy the book’s layers of meaning.

Perhaps the strongest departure from renga tradition is that most pairs of verses use a narrative linkage (despite the introduction’s admonition that renga doesn’t tell a story). Such a linkage occurs not only in the first pair of verses, but in many after that as well. While a more traditional renga or renku would frown on such an excessive use of this type of linkage, it does lend itself to an exploration of the town. This exploration is both spatial and temporal. Not only does the reader explore the shops and parks, the baseball diamond and fairground, and other parts of town, he or she also progresses from morning to night. This choice brings the book to a logical conclusion as night falls and stars appear in the final verse, which is useful to encourage sleep when parents read the book to children at bedtime. However, this sort of development is a concession to children’s book necessities, and does lend cohesiveness to the text as a picture book, but it is a departure from the traditions of Japanese-style linked verse. Narrative verse pairings appear repeatedly throughout the book, but just as thematic renku experiments have been conducted before (I think of “On the Road to Basra” by ten contributors, including the late William J. Higginson), perhaps this renga might be viewed as a successful exploration of both spatial and temporal development in a single collaborative poem.

Speaking of William J. Higginson, I would have loved to have heard Bill’s thoughts on this book, since renku was so dear to his heart. Reading this book brought Bill to mind for me, as it probably will for other haiku poets who knew of Bill’s penchant for renku. I wondered, too, if there was a renku for children that Bill might have published himself someday if he were still with us. Bill and his wife Penny Harter, it should be noted, have both been quoted in other books discussing or anthologizing haiku and related Japanese poetry by this book’s authors, so Bill no doubt had some influence on this book, whether overtly or not.

Yet it would have been good if Bill or others in the haiku community had had a stronger influence, not only in terms of renga or renku, but also in terms of haiku. Several verses suffer from “tontoism (such as “basketball taps / its message on playground,” “hands clutch knob of her cane,” and “she stares in dress-shop window”). The book’s introduction mentions that the word “renga” is both singular and plural, yet oddly, the word “rengas” appears in the last paragraph. The introduction also describes renga as being like “railroad cars in a line,” where “each verse links in some way with the one preceding it, but not with the others,” yet oddly, one verse about a pot of gold comes two verses after the description of a rainbow, thus producing a throwback link that renga or renku usually avoids. I suspect Bill would have been okay with the narrative development, for the sake of making a strong picture book, but might have yearned, as I do, for just a little more refinement. Nevertheless, the strengths of Birds on a Wire put it miles ahead of most haiku-related books for children. It’s good, for example, that the introduction explains that haiku evolved from renga, which many children—not to mention teachers and librarians—might not know. Indeed, the renga’s strong images, mostly objective, have much to recommend them, as does the occasional humour and satire (“with hair sprayed and fixed, they leave/ proud to show off the natural look”). For these reasons, I recommend Birds on a Wire for all haiku poets with an interest in renga or renku, even if they don’t have children to share it with.