Whirling Petals, Windblown Leaves

Andrew Schelling immerses himself in Renga, the ancient Japanese tradition of linked-verse poetry.

Andrew Schelling

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“It was unthinkable that a poem should get no reply.” This sentence from The Tale of Genji, Japan’s profoundly melancholy Buddhist novel written around the year 1000 by Murasaki Shikibu, marks the formalization of a particular approach to poetry. Poem responding to poem seems the basis of Murasaki’s worldview. Her book includes nearly eight hundred poems, most of them exchanged between lovers. For a person to meet with a poem, or any deep expression, and make no response, Murasaki believed, is to have no heart, no nervous system. It is to show oneself “uncooked,” a mere barbarian, with the shabbiest of table manners or bedroom etiquette. Once, in her book, a lover dashes off a reply on lavender paper and sends it by messenger, affixed to a pine sprig still frosted with morning snow.

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