School of Renga 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson One
History of Renga

            The beginnings of poetry are mostly lost in the misty breath of oral history. Poetry then and now was “saying things” – pronouncing with human breath the magic names of things and even beings designed by the minds and hearts of ancestors. These incantations or songs to gods were later organized to become a part of religion.
            It was only a small step, but a huge change, to move from petitioning the favors of the gods through the declarations of love to expressions of love for a person with the desire of petitioning other kinds of favors. When politicians saw the power and control the common people gave to the singers of religion, they began to use poets to laud and record in an oral tradition, their own battles and good deeds. Probably one could say this was the beginning of campaign advertising.
            Poetry is a social function. We usually learn our poetry from someone else. Thus, the earliest Japanese poetry was in imitation of the Chinese forms. But since poetry cannot be duplicated exactly, each culture changes the form to some degree to make it its very own. In Japanese, the quatrains of Chinese settled into a five-part poem first named uta (OU-TAH - song), then waka (WAH-KAH - poetry) and finally tanka (TAH-N-KAH -short poem or elegance).
            Because Chinese poetry was built on parallelism there were two parts of the tanka. They were given the names of kami no ku (KAH-ME NO COO) and shimo-no ku (SHE-MO NO COO). The kami no ku – the upper verse consisted of the first three units, what we now think of as lines and the lower verse pivoted or twisted away with additional meaning in the last two-line section.
            The popularity of this form reigned supreme from the earliest recorded Japanese poetry for almost six hundred years and is yet today an important genre in modern Japanese poetry. When the tanka was replaced with the renga, these two parts of the tanka were simply shifted from one author to two. When two persons wrote a tanka it was called a tan renga (short linked elegance). It was again a small, but vital step for tan renga to be linked by more stanzas or authors to become a renga.
            Renga, which started as a game after contests, became so much fun and enlivened the poetry scene so much that the genre was slowly tamed and renamed. The fun and games version of renga that was called mushin (MOO-SHIN) renga was relegated to a party entertainment. The more serious form of the genre was called ushin (OU-SHIN) renga and was soon given complex rules and the impressive regulations of an official state poetry. There were about three centuries in Japan when the serious poetic renga was far more popular than waka/tanka. In this bloom of attention and an increasing addition of rules the differences between to two kind of the form began to widened as the ability for innovation and change was strangled.
            In rebellion again the strictness of the serious form of renga, poets revived the mushin or comical form. Part of the interest in this older form was political. The system of emperors had been disempowered and now military factions held the ruling positions. Because the poetical renga was closely associated with and fostered by the emperor, the shoguns, or military men, wanted to have their own kind of renga without the history of scenes at court.
            The military persons lacked the training in literature routinely given to the members of the emperor’s court so in order to write renga, even in the easier form, they had to have schools and these schools had to have teachers.   Because the government was a military occupation, each of the provinces had to have members of this class, called samurai, stationed in all the outposts. As part of their meetings together, and aside from the business of ruling, was the pleasure and the feeling of culture by writing renga together. The farther from the capital – then in Kamakura, the less educated was the outpost commander and so more pressing was the need for a teacher. Thus, came into being a system of renga masters who traveled from place to place teaching and instructing while leading parties where poetry was written.
            Though it must have been a thrill to be the honored guest of an often wealthy government official or merchant, travel in 17th century Japan was by foot on horseback through wild regions still controlled by bandits. For such teachers it took considerable social skills, not to mention the possibility of political intrigue, to step lively and look good. It was the custom that the renga master was given the honor of writing the first link to the renga.
            It was the uniqueness of this first link, then called a hokku, that made the next step in Japanese poetry. This verse, as no other in the renga, could be thought up without having to take into account a previous stanza. This meant that the wise renga master could, in his idle moments, write a variety of hokku, tuck them up his sleeve and pick the best one for the situation of starting the next renga when the need arose.
            Enter Bashô. In spite of what you may have read, Bashô was not a haiku master nor writer. He was a renga master. He was one of those men traveling around to teach others by guiding them through the riffles and pitfalls of renga writing. As his renga school followed him wherever he was, his students were not gathered in one place. Thus it became necessary to get them all on the same page by making a book of collected hokku that he approved of as being worthy of starting someone’s renga. This book was called, in a typically humble manner, A Bag of Charcoal.
           This makes makes renga the mother of haiku and very much of the skills and knowledge about haiku come from lessons learned from renga. If you are already a haiku writer you have a good basis for learning about renga. Now you can explore the fine art of writing collaboratively with others.There is a good reason for the earlier popularity of renga in Japan. With the help of email and the Internet, doing renga today is even easier.

Everything you have learned so far about haiku and tanka you will need and can put to use for renga. These two genres have taught you how to dance and now you are ready to glide across the paper in the arms of a stranger. Since there is no sound of music to guide the two of you, the genre offers you a form to follow to keep you in step, and to exercise all your skills, and to make it fun to watch you with admiration for your expertise.

Next lesson.



Wang Xizhi

In the ninth year of the reign Yung-ho [A.D. 353], at the beginning of late spring, we met at the orchid Pavilion in Shan-yin of Kweich'i for the Water Festival, to wash away the evil spirits.
Here are gathered all the illustrious persons and assembled both the old and the young. Here are lofty mountains and majestic peaks, trees with thick foliage and tall bamboos. Here are also clear streams and gurgling rapids, catching one's eye from the right and left. We group ourselves in order, sitting by the waterside, and drink in succession from a cup floating down the curving stream; and although there is no music from string and wood-wind instruments, yet with alternate sinking and drinking, we are well  disposed to thoroughly enjoy a quiet intimate conversation. Today the sky is clear, the air is fresh and the kind breeze is mild. Truly enjoyable it is to watch the immense universe above and the myriad things below, traveling over the entire landscape with our eyes and allowing our sentiment to roam about at will, thus exhausting the pleasures of the eye and ear.
Now when people gather together to surmise life itself, some sit and talk and unburden their thoughts in the intimacy of a room, and some, overcome by a sentiment, soar forth into a world beyond bodily realities. Although we select our pleasures according to our inclination  - some noisy and rowdy, and others quiet and sedate - yet when we have found that which pleases us, we are all happy and contented, to the extent of forgetting that we are growing old. And then, when satiety follows satisfaction, and with the change of circumstances, change also our whims and desire, there arises a feeling of poignant regret. In the twinkling of an eye, the objects of our former pleasures have become things of the past, still compelling in us moods of regretful memory. Furthermore, although our lives may be long or short, eventually we all end in nothingness, "Great indeed are life and death," said the ancients. Ah! what sadness!
I often study the joys and regrets of the ancient people, and as I lean over their writings and see that they were moved exactly as ourselves, I am often overcome by a feeling of sadness and compassion and would like to make those things clear to myself. Well I know it is a lie to say that life and death are the same thing, and that longevity and early death make no difference. Alas! as we of the present look upon those of the past, so will posterity look upon our present selves. There, I have put down a sketch of these contemporaries and their sayings at this feast, and although time and circumstances may change, the way we will evoke our moods of happiness and regret will remain the same. What will future readers feel when they cast their eyes upon this writing!

Translator's notes: Incidentally, the manuscript of this essay, or rather its early rubbings, are today the most highly valued examples of Chinese calligraphy, because the writer and author, Wang Xizhi, is the acknowledged Prince of Calligraphy. For three times he failed to improve upon his original handwriting, and so today the script is preserved to us in rubbings, with all the deletions and additions as they stood in the first draft.

Note taken from a report of Christie's Auction House in New York in December, 1992.
"Ellsworth again defeated all competition  to purchase lot 3, a Song rubbing kaishu [standard script] calligraphy by the great 4th century master Wang Xizhi, for US$99,000. Since calligraphy is a classical and conservative art form, it is not surprising that many works relate to either Wang Xizhi or to the most important event in calligraphic history, "The Orchid Pavilion Gathering."

Since 900 B.C. the Chinese had preserved poetry and examples of calligraphy by etching them in stone. Over the years rubbings were made from these stones which constituted a kind of "publishing." Now most of these stones have been lost but examples of the rubbing remain. The above translation by Lin Yutang in Gems from Chinese Literature, in Hong Kong in 1901,  was taken from a rubbing. Thanks to Jim Stanley for the loan of this treasure.



Page and Materials Copyright © Jane Reichhold 2011.

Please give credit when borrowing.


The above picture of Basho at a renga party was painted by Buson and added to the text of Basho's book Oku no Hosomichi - Narrow Road to the Far North. It was scanned from a facsimile scroll of the original work purchased at the Museum of Art in Tokyo, Japan.