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Jacob Polley
renga report




It’s a clear, bright morning when I arrive in Kirkandrews-upon-Eden, a small settlement north-west of Carlisle. I find the renga platform set up beside the village hall, looking down across the river and the baled fields. Alec Finlay, Beth Rowson and Morven Gregor are tootling around, picking brambles and chatting – Morven telling how she’d walked close enough to spit on the monument to King Edward I, ‘The Hammer of the Scots’, planted on Burgh marsh where he died of fever in 1307.

I was born in Bowness-on-Solway and grew up in Burgh-by Sands, just up the road. This is part of the reason I’ve been invited to take part in the renga. But I’ve never done one before and I’m a little nervous. I’m not sure before we start that I will be able to contribute appropriate verses. I have performance anxiety. I’m the ‘host’ for today and Alec, as ‘master’, will ask for my opinion at certain points; I worry that I won’t have an opinion and that my reputation as a ‘local’- and a ‘poet’ – will soon ring hollowly out from the open-sided, wooden platform.

The group soon gathers and we begin by deciding which season we’re working in, as this decides in what order the verses of the renga are put together. Autumn, it’s decided. I’m pleased, because a week ago I felt a draught blowing in from the end of the year, a very recognisable chill as the summer gave way. So I’m beginning to feel more at ease: we all agree where we are. And a sense of this agedness, along with the
ripe immediacy of brambles, begins our poem.

A renga, it turns out, is a strange mixture of the personal and the communal, of the here-and-now and the recollected. As the day goes on, and the blinds are let down to block the sun, we all offer verse after verse, and by continual reading-out decide which verses or lines should be added to the poem, which gradually becomes a record of the day itself and an infusion, prepared as each member of the group allows their own particular perceptions and tone to be considered. It’s the renga master’s job to take responsibility for the shape of the poem, which is really a responsibility to the scene and seasonal shifts that occur between each obliquely-linked verse; and to how much potential a presented verse has as a jumping-off point for the next: the renga, like any poem, is propelled onwards, as it’s being composed, by how much what has just been said reveals what has yet to be said.

Perhaps, in pontificating about the process, I’m hiding more that I’m revealing to you. The six hours are utterly simple: a twenty verse renga is composed, verse by verse, by a mixture of consensus and Alec Finlay’s firm guidance. For the whole day I feel a strange peacefulness. There are moments when I imagine I can spend the rest of my life around the platform, watching, recording and recalling the seasons and experiences I’ve already had. For me the renga on this particular day, and maybe any particular day, is full of voracious melancholy: there is so much to look at and to smell, and so much that has been touched and tasted that we long to touch and taste again. I can’t take my eyes off the river, the Eden I know - at any moment – a trout will break through, then fall seamlessly into again.

Jacob Polley