School of Renga
What Basho wrote was called haikai no renga or renga. It was not until 50 years after his death that the word renku was coined. According to what I can find out on the subject, the only difference between renga and renku is in the scope of subject matter. In previous times, the list of available topics for renga links was limited to the acceptable subjects for the waka or tanka. This list was very restrictive (a prudish cutting out of anything considered by etiquette of the royal court as being inelegant). As the various renga schools, including Basho's Shoh-fu, had worked to expand the scope of renga subjects, there came this point in the 1740s when it was decided to give the newer work the name of renku. In no other way than the wider subject choice did the new renku differ from renga. When Basho began writing renga they were usually composed of either 50 links or 100 links or increments of those two numbers. It was Basho who devised the 36 link kasen renga as an honor to the 36 Immortal Poets of Japan. (They also have 36 Immortal Poetesses!).
In the same way it would be wrong for us to say Basho wrote renku is our way of saying Basho wrote haiku, the term Shiki created in this century. Makoto Ueda has recently proposed we return to calling Basho's poems hokku.
It is true that when Basho and his followers made collections of individual verses these could be called hokku because they were written and saved as possible beginning links.
There is a small argument that since the subjects we use in our English linked poems are expanded from the previously accepted tanka list of the 16th century (it too has been broadened by these many years) that we can call our work renku. There are two thoughts about this. When a foreign expression comes into another culture, it is used in translation if possible. Ren= linked, ku = verse translates handily into linked verse which is easily understood by all. However, when a foreign term does not translate accurately, the foreign word is accepted and used as in haiku, sabi, wabi, and sushi. The translation of renga gives us "linked elegance" which does not properly define a type of poetry.
At the turn of this century, Shiki made the statement that collaborative writing was not art and therefore it was beneath his dignity to write essays on the subject. On this basis the Japanese virtually stopped doing renku. In 1932 Asatoro Miyamori in this book, An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern, writes that "writing renku has died out."
However, when Americans learned of and began to study Basho's work in renga, they began writing English versions of the form. These Americans were not only members of the Haiku Society of America, but also the poets in the 60s who were reading Japanese genre such as Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and others in that group in New York City as well as the Beats in San Francisco such as Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, joined by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg. It was only when the Japanese began to see renga being revived by Americans did they then organize renku clubs in the middle 70s in Japan.
When these new clubs formed, they had no intervening developments on which to build. Therefore, they could only reach back into their history for models, which they did. The clash comes when these models are attempted to be fitted over and on top of the spirit and examples of the form which have been developed here. I do believe and gladly work for a side-by-side arrangement whereby those who delight in the traditional disciplined forms be allowed and encouraged to do so. I can even envision groups forming under a name that expresses these values much as we now have the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society if that is what they need.
Hopefully at this point you have found a partner and you agree on whether to call your new work a collabortive poem, a renga or a renku.
Here are a few guidelines helpful to observe while doing renga with a partner.
This leads me to comment on the hokku. There are times when I've felt persons have not spent enough time considering the first link. Many of the prize-winning haiku would not be a proper hokku and many poems I would judge as a good hokku would not be startling enough to win a contest. Well, you say, what makes a good hokku? Most of those old-fashioned rules for a "real" haiku in addition to one that set the stage or makes a comment about this group or partnership. Often, the hokku was seen as a concealed statement about the host or other members of the group. Thus to begin with "the loose hinge / rusty and squeaky/ annoys the neighbors" is asking for trouble! unless the group is agreed to do a funny or sarcastic renga. You know there was a linked poetry form done in Europe in the s called " " in which people made fun of each other. The remarks became so scandalous and slanderous, so many lawsuits were started over these works that they were prohibited by law!So as we turn our eyes back to the Japanese examples we find they usually started their renga with a mention of the weather or the season, and if they could, also of the place. Also the beginning should be serious, full of various interpretations or possibilities, or a question or theme for discussion. I feel the hokku should be faultless in form -- this means that none of those 2-liners be written in three lines or ending in a verb. Even if one has a crib book up one's sleeve, it is not easy to find a hokku worthy of a group's time and attention. The old masters said that if the hokku was weak, the whole work was spoiled. That's a strong statement, but one that deserves some testing as you read through the various renga offered anywhere on the Internet.
EXPLAINING THE MOONS AND FLOWERS
The Japanese understood the necessity of having a firm structure or frame on which the wild losenss would not tear the poem completely apart. At some point, fairly early, they deided to put a mention of either the moon or flowers on each page.
In order to understand 'page' think of the renga being written on one sheet of paper folded in half. Now the one sheet has two sides which gives us four pages. Try it if this is not clear to you. The kasen renga was distributed over these four pages thusly:
Page One - linkss 1 - 6
Page Two - links 7 - 18
Page Three - links 19 - 30
Page Four - links 31 - 36
From this you can see the pleasant symitry this method affords. The first and last pages, because they have fewer links have only one of the prescribed links. The first page has a moon verse (usually in link #5)and the last page has a flower verse in link # 35. The middle pages have a moon link at # 14 and on page three the moon appears at #29. There are only two flower verses - at links #17 and as pointed out, in link #35. It is no wonder beginners are glad to borrow the form.
When the writers advance to the stage of using different forms for the various seasons, you can see that there are some shifts in the placement of moon and flower verses. Here is maybe the place to say that all flower verses mean "cherry blossoms" and not any old flower, as is used in so many early renga.
Also it is considered an 'error' or 'bad form' to use either flowers or moons in any but the designated links. Occasionally, if a more experienced writer is working with someone new to renga and that person misses the moon verse, one can with the next stanza make a link about a 'late' moon to cover up the miss-step.
EXPLAINING THE JO - HA - KYO
Though you may be acquainted with the the Japanese musical concept of “jo-ha- kyô” it may be new to you to see how it relates to a renga.Iit seems the message has been falling on deaf ears. Most contemporary renga writers are so busy and delighted with bouncing ideas off of each other in a one-upmanship manner that they do not seem to be interested at all in the tempo or progression of the links. For persons for whom the renga has gotten too “easy” or too much the same, it seems that studying this concept and attempting to use it in their renga might add another dimension to their ever flatter work.
The good company, fine food and glasses of wine begin to raise the decibels. The conversation leaps from subject to subject (or aspect to objection), a small debate may ensue, even a few feathers can be ruffled.Because this section has 24 links (as this part of the evening is the longest) there is plenty of room to show-off, shout, laugh, giggle, snicker, snore, find someone with similar interests (love verses in links #27, 28, 29) or wish it was time to go home. Just as in "dinner conversation" one can remember journeys made, interesting persons encountered, sights, impressions, books read; one need not "stay in the moment" but are allowed to let past meet past.
The back page - the last six links - can have as tone and
pacing the disjointed, almost hasty dialogues which take
place when one guest says, "Well, I'd better be
going." Suddenly one must thank the host, make peace
with the person who felt you had insulted him, remind someone
to send you the book they promised, remember where you put
your umbrella, realize this gathering was a very special
event and, now that you are parting, you wish the best for
each with a degree of optimism (a spring / flower link) and
one last reference to the reason for the gathering
("don't count the years! for the birthday celebrant)
which ties the last link back around to the hokku.When one thinks about building a renga with these general
floor plans in mind, it is not only easier to write the poem,
the construction within the authors' consciousness becomes
stable enough to contain the wildest leaps, links and kinks
without coming apart at the seams into senselessness or
.While writing a mail partner renga, do take the time to reread the renga and to ask yourself, "What does this poem need?" Lightness? Seriousness? World views? Intimate details? Another mood? Act in the same way you would to make a social evening balanced and interesting.Understanding this scheme can make your appreciation of other persons' renga more pleasurable and gives you insights into the deeper meanings of the links. People just learning to read renga often complain that the form is too vague; so nebulous they cannot get into the work or stay interested in it.True, renga do not have plots as Western literature often has but the subtle (!) use of the above ideas can give your renga the direction that is sometimes lacking. This concept also explains some of the more obscure renga writing rules such as: 1. On pages one and four, avoid controversial subjects, love, sex, war, religious and intimate affairs (as good manners would dictate at a the beginning and end of a dinner party). But in between, any subject you would discuss in the company of others can be invited in. 2. There should be a mixture of nature and human affairs links (the dinner conversation should be varied; not all grandkids or lawn care). In moving through the seasons, more links (3 -5) are given to spring and autumn and less (2 -4) to winter and summer (talk most about the pleasant things).
Traditional spring Kasen renga
[title - often taken from the first verse.]
[Between: authors' names]
[SP=spring; SU=summer; A=autumn; W=winter; N=non-seasonal or relating to persons.
1.  SP
2.  SP
3.  SP
4.  N
5.  MOON/A
6.  A : must also write the next link
7.  A
8.  N/LOVE
9.  N/LOVE
10.  N/LOVE
11.  N
13.  MOON/SU
14.  SU
15.  SU
16.  N
17.  FLOWER/SP
18.  also write #19
19.  SP
20.  N
21.  N
22.  N
23.  W
24.  W
25.  N/LOVE
26.  N/LOVE
27.  N/LOVE
28.  N
29.  MOON/A
30.  A also write #31
31.  A
32.  N
33.  N
34.  N
35.  FLOWER/SP
36.  SP should relate to #1 in some way and close the work
Kasen Renga Form
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.