Renku (連句, "linked verses" ), the Japanese form of popular collaborative linked verse poetry formerly known as haikai no renga (俳諧の連歌), is an offshoot of the older Japanese poetic tradition of ushin renga, or orthodox collaborative linked verse. At renga gatherings participating poets would take turns providing alternating verses of 17 syllables and 14 syllables. Initially haikai no renga distinguished itself through vulgarity and coarseness of wit, before growing into a legitimate artistic tradition, and eventually giving birth to the haiku form of Japanese poetry.
Traditional renga was a group activity in which each participant displayed his wit by spontaneously composing a verse in response to the verse that came before; the more interesting the relationship between the two verses the more impressive the poet’s ability. The links between verses could range from vulgar to artistic, but as renga was taken up by skilled poets and developed into a set form, the vulgarity of its early days came to be ignored.
Haikai no renga, in response to the stale set forms that preceded it, embraced this vulgar attitude and was typified by contempt for traditional poetic and cultural ideas, and by the rough, uncultured language that it used. The haikai spirit, as it came to be called, embraced the natural humor that came from the combination of disparate elements. To that end haikai poets would often combine elements of traditional poems with new ones they created. A well-known example of this early attitude is a verse, possibly by Yamazaki Sōkan (1464-1552), from his Inutsukubashū (犬筑波集, "Mongrel Renga Collection").
He was given the following prompt:
to which he responded:
This poem clearly derives its humor from shock value. Taking an ostensibly traditional and poetic prompt and injecting vulgar humor while maintaining the connection of the damp hems and the spring mists was exactly the sort of thing that early haikai poets were known for.
A comparable, though less evolved, tradition of 'linked verse' (lién jù, written with the same characters as 'renku') evolved in Chin-dynasty China, and it has been argued that this Chinese form influenced Japanese renga during its formative period.
During the last decades, the practice of renku has spread beyond Japan. With the growth of the internet and of electronic communications, international renku collaborations have grown in popularity, chiefly in English. However, renku have also been published in French, Croatian, German, Afrikaans, Romanian, Russian and Esperanto. Sometimes, renku are composed simultaneously in two or more languages..
Formats used in renku
Here follows a list of the formats most commonly used in writing renku
Haikai no renga, usually now called renku by the Japanese, is a style of linked poem that reached its height in the work of Bashô (surname Matsuo, 1644-1694) and his disciples. The tradition began almost a thousand years ago (some would say longer ago than that), and is very much alive today in Japanese, English, and other languages. Additional features will be added to this site every so often, so check back with us from time to time. Here are links to our current pages:
In Memoriam Shinkû Fukuda
NEW: Net Kasen Renku: Summer Haze. By William J. Higginson, Paul Terrance Conneally, and Peggy Willis Lyles. Composed over five months in 2000, this experimental 2-D renku demonstrates a new possibility in renku construction. Take a look and see what you think. (You'll probably want to look at this one with your browser set to full-screen.)
The Click of Mahjong Tiles: A Kasen Renku. By Carole MacRury, Gerald England, Norman Darlington, Hortensia Anderson, Eryu/Fûseki Susan Shand, John E. Carley, John W. Sexton, and William J. Higginson (leader). Composed online during February through May 2005 by members of the Haiku Talk e-list, "The Click of Mahjong Tiles" involved poets across the British Isles and North America. At the top of the page is a link to an annotated version, which gives background and includes comments identifying the seasonal and other topical aspects of each verse as well as the types of linking from one stanza to the next—a first for an online renku, so far as we know.
Typhoon Over: A Half-Kasen Renku. By Penny Harter, Tarô Miyashita (leader), Masa Yamada, Teina Asaka, and Mikiko Koga. This is one of a number of international renku completed at the World Haikai Fusion 2004 renkukai, held during the Master Bashô Festival, 10-12 October 2004, in Iga Ueno, Bashô's home town. At the top of the page there are links to the Japanese version and to an English annotated version. In this case, "international renku" means renku involving participants from two or more countries and writing in more than one language.
The Road to Basra: A Kasen Renku. This poem, the first full renku to appear on this site, involves ten participants from three countries in a thematic 36-stanza renku on the American and British war against Iraq conducted in the spring of 2003. (We had hoped for a more peaceful solution.) At the bottom of the page there is a link to a fully annotated version.
Resources for Renku Writers
The 500 Essential Season Words by Kenkichi Yamamoto, translated by Kris Young Kondo and William J. Higginson. A revised version of the season word guide used by Japanese and North American renku poets writing together during Renku North America in 1992. Includes English, romanized Japanese, and seasonal information.
The Traditional Seasons of Japanese Poetry by William J. Higginson is a table of the seasons as observed in haiku and linked poetry.
Link and Shift: A Practical Guide to Renku Composition by Tadashi Shôkan Kondô and William J. Higginson. The most thorough discussion of linking stanzas and creating variety by shifting stanza content in renku to appear in English. Includes translations of topics lists used by Japanese renku groups (see table of contents in the article).
Shorter Renku by William J. Higginson and Tadashi Kondô. This essay presents the basics of two shorter types of renku, the twenty-stanza nijûin and the twelve-stanza jûnicho.
Background and Teaching
A Personal Introduction to Renku: William J. Higginson's introduction to renku in Japan, and his suggestions for understanding the overall flow of a renku.
"Renga" and "Renku" by William J. Higginson discusses the meanings of these two words in Japanese and English.
What Is "Linked Poetry"? by William J. Higginson gives a brief overview of three types of Japanese-style "linked poetry" that have become popular worldwide: renga, renku, and renshi.
A Renku Bibliography with comments by William J. Higginson.
Authors' Biographies: Biographical notes on the authors of works included on this web site.
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