School of Renga 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Three
Basho as Renga Master

Until Bashô’s time, most renga had either 100, 1,000 or 10,000 links. Considering the time and effort it took Bashô to get to the government outpost for a renga party, and thinking of how uncomfortable he might have been living amongst strangers for an extended period of time, it is no wonder he devised a renga form using only thirty-six links called the kasen (KAY-SEN(d) – poetic sages) – supposedly to honor the 36 immortal poets of Japan. 
            Because the English introduction of renga came from the work of Bashô, we first learned only to write in the thirty-six-link form. Because Basho made little booklets out of the papers the renga were recorded on – basically two double-sided sheets of paper folded in half and tied together at the crease to make four pages, he devised that the shape of the poem should have six links on the first right-hand page, twelve links on each of the facing pages two and three, and six links on the last page. Sensitive even to the interruption of the turning of the page, it became traditional that the last person to write a link on the page (links numbered 6, 18, 30) also wrote the first link on the next page so that there was a continuation of voice over the change of sheets. This was a marvelous invention because if only two persons were writing a renga, this allowed them to switch places. The writer of the three-line stanza, after the turn of a page, was now writing the two-liners. By changing back and forth no one was leading and no one was following. Only a couple English writers ignore this switch and keep their respective places throughout the poem.
            The other formal feature of the kasen form was the rule that a verse using the moon had to appear on the first three pages and twice within the poem should be a flower verse. The position of these required links came to have the moon verses at links’ number 5, 14, 29 and flowers, or more specifically cherry blossoms, should be the subject in 17 and 35.
            Because Bashô wrote these renga at parties, the tone of the stanzas, actually followed the rhythm of a social gathering. The first link, or hokku, should refer to the season in which the renga was started. If possible, it should compliment the host and or give a hint of why this group had gathered. Proper renga to this day, even when done between two people, are started with a veiled compliment to the partner.
            The response in the second link (wakiku – WAH-KEY-COO) should be as polite and gentle and stay within the same season while acting as an elaboration. This verse must end with a noun.
            The third link (daisan – DIE-SAN), makes the first gentle sidestep into a new subject. By ending this link with a verb, usually in English it is a gerund (using an ‘ing’) the action, though shifted, continues to move on into the rest of the renga.
            The whole first page, all six links should be very slow – meaning the action moves gently from one scene to another, from one idea to another. This is in perfect imitation of the event of going to a stranger’s home for dinner. Before sitting down to the meal, you make polite conversation as you attempt to get to know one another.
            On the second page, at link #7 the conversation begins to warm up after the first glass of wine. Subjects not allowed on the first page – love, death, religion, and violence are possible on the twenty-four verses of these facing pages.      
            The last page, or links #31 – 36 have a tempo much like the feeling of the end of an evening when the guests are putting on their coats, gathering up belongings, and making farewells. Often the connections are looser, in the same way at this time of the evening we stop responding to each other as we make plans to meet again, remind someone to call, or say something we almost forgot. The renga should always end on a positive hopeful note and have some connection to the very first link.
            How does one make these highly touted connections between links? Kyûsei, a co-editor of the Tsukuba Shû - twenty volumes of renga and renga lessons, listed fifteen methods. This work, published in 1375, had one volume dedicated to hokku verses alone. The printed history of what later became haiku can be traced to this event.


For you to study these maneuvers to the left iis a renga Werner Reichhold and I wrote with Bashô. By collecting and translating links written by Bashô in several of his renga we were able to make him the third partner in this poem written on a hot day in the summer of 1990.

  1. A very close connection, and good to use on the first page is as in the first two stanzas. Bashô is grumbling that he is lonely because  all his old pals are gone – a rather typical lament of someone partially drunk. The answer in this situation is to drink a little more as is the logical advice in the next link.
  2. Contrasting directions. If one verse has its subject a descending object, as in falling rain, the response can build on an image of rising. In this renga the device is used at “relief comes / first light / on a cedar tip” where the light rises up to touch the tip of the tree. Then the answering link – “to an incense stick / he  also bows” has the subject bending down.
  3. Contrasting conditions. The dryness of “it’s so hot – it’s so hot/ same voice at every gate” is set against the moistness of “wet lips / summer-shine / opens”. Other contrasting conditions are: chaotic – calm; noisy – quiet; exciting – peaceful; night – day; hot – cold, etc.
  4. Contrasting sizes. In the ninth link, the “summer constellations” are contrasted, and yet related to the “sun” in the next link.
  5. Associations by cliché. The shamanic drumming of #10 manifests in the power spirit of #11 which is just outside the bounds of most reality.
  6. Associations in literature or allusions to famous texts. Basho uses this device in link #22 where he makes a small joke between reaping flax, by tying the bundles together, and creating an anthology.
  7. Associations in space. The snake in the grass in #13 becomes a lamp on the floor in #14.
  8. Associations with usage. The incense stick in #30  and the invocation in #31 are both parts of a religious service
  9. Associations with fame, history or custom. When Werner asks in link #16, “Where can we meet?” Bashô responds with the most romantic place for the Japanese lovers to meet – under cherry blossoms, while at the same time getting in the flower verse.
  10. Fragrance was a term Bashô used to name the mere hint of the overtones in one link could be responded to in the next one. The control of changing emotions within a renga is an important part of its total construction. One does not want all verses to be happy, nor to be depressingly sad or upsetting and a great many of them should be like the moments of a day – mostly beige-neutral, but each one is necessary for the next one. The “expanded  body freedom / designed for partnership” is explained by link #21 “cats in love”.
  11. Wordplay. It is acceptable and admired to make puns on the words in your partner’s link. Here the “puddle” of #5 is seen as “shy eyes” in #6.
  12. Wordplay based on the names of places. This device is often used near the end of the renga to jazz up the language and pull the poem out of too much nature-nature. Here it occurs at #19. In reference to Bashô’s “ his hat is a sack” is the “new jersey.”

            Go back and read the renga once more noticing how often the third line of a link, when read with the two lines of the following link form what looks very much like a haiku. It is this kind of closeness that keeps the renga from falling apart and a good thing to check when you’ve finished your renga.
            The list of things not to do in a renga can seem endless and some appear extremely arbitrary. Yet, a student of renga needs to know them.

  1. First and foremost, always refer to or link only to the preceding verse and not to any of the previous verses. Once a subject has been used, move on to something else or another aspect of it.
  2. The first link, or hokku, must be written in the present tense, have an indication of the season and make some reference either to the reason for doing the renga or homage to the other partner in a polite and kindly way. Just any old haiku from your notebook will not be good enough, no matter how good you think it is. The hokku has to be very special and to fulfill its obligations in this place of honor.
  3. If there is a string of several either close or distant associations, change the pace by doing the opposite.
  4. Do not repeat nouns or verbs on a page. Check for this and rewrite them using synonyms.
  5. Don’t use too many references to the same sort of things. You’d be surprised how many people get into ruts mentioning water over and over with rivers, ponds, streams, and lakes, dew and even saliva. Other persons are stuck on plants with too many trees, grasses and flowers.
  6. Do not have too many nature links in a row. Mix them up with links about humans, even spots of intellectual thinking or philosophy used judicially can be interesting.
  7. Save your moon and flower verses for the links where they belong. If you wish to bring the moon in early have it not be a full moon but a crescent or new moon. If you are a master you can occasionally slip up and it is considered diversity. If you are a beginner it is considered a fault.
  8. All moon verses are considered to be a subject of autumn. If you wish to have your moon in another season you must label it “winter moon” or “spring moon”. The mention of the moon assumes it is full because this is the state in which it is deemed most picturesque.
  9. Do not stay within one verb tense. You know haiku should be written in the present tense, but tanka and renga allow you to explore both the past and the future. Watch for this in the renga. If several verses are written in the present tense, make a change with your link.
  10. Do not stay within just one voice. Occasionally speak directly by using the “you” form of address. Also, you can use quotations from others to change from the simple observation mode as in haiku. Even the messages from signs or other sources are welcomed as variation.
  11. If you are not following one of the forms with the season and other subjects indicated, remember that spring and autumn links should come in runs of three to five links and the winter and summer groups should consist of two to three links.
  12. Some typical Japanese rules are that insects should only be mentioned once in 100 verses, dreams only once in a renga and you should never use the word “woman”.

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Matsuo Basho

Jane Reichhold

Werner Reichhold
it’s so rotten
no other dogs enjoy
old jokes with me  

pass the wine
raise our spirits

always a link
up his sleeves
the brush wets

leather socks get dirty
walking a muddy path

somebody’s missing
quick put the moon in
a puddle

shy eyes
far-out composing

spinning down
when does it get
to the bottom?

so the villagers
laugh at me

sleeping outdoors
with friends
summer constellations

a hand drumming
pulsates with the sun

a woodthrush manifests
“as power-spirit I come”
and cries and cries and cries

breath wind in mists
a trail through the maze

meadow walk
eventually hiding
a snake

greeting the traveler
a lamp on the floor

curving her breast
the early moon
very hot

impatient call:
“Where can we meet?”

sandals in petals
yet he’s so poor
his hat’s a sack

squint-eyed bag lady
famous in New Jersey

picture postcard
the come hither look
of the naked beauty

expanded body freedom
designed for partnership

cats in love
satisfied at dawn
he explains

“I’m collecting songs
for the Flax-Reaping Anthology.”

the hand ties with a string

college sonnets saved
in a hope chest

more than dreams
the real butterfly
touches one

stem after it
leaves erect

without friends
he moves
to help himself

among that kind
the tall pilgrim stands out

relief comes
 first light
on a cedar tip

 to an incense stick
he also bows

worship service
 begins as invocation
crickets chanting

it’s so hot it’s so hot
 the same voice at every gate

wet lips

snow-clogged mountain pass
so steep everyone sweats
 the hiker hears
a wave of color

sunset on a spring lake
pleasure brings home a poem




Page and Materials Copyright © Jane Reichhold 2001.

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 facsimle scroll of the original work purchased at the Museum of Art in Tokyo, Japan.