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William J. Higginson

Introduction Getting Started Next Putting It All Together
Goals Haiku as Hokku Link and Shift How Much Like Bashô?
Linked Poems--A Brief Introduction Notes Note on "Link" Works Cited
Notice Regarding Copying and Copyright
Index of Japanese Terms


As a result of cooperation between Recursos de Santa Fe, a nonprofit arts agency that sponsors programs in contemporary literature, and the Title I Reading Program of the Santa Fe (New Mexico) Public Schools, in the spring of 1996 I was invited to help students write linked poems in a style based on the work of the great Japanese poet Matsuo Bashô (1644-94).1 The project involved small classes of fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders, but I have done similar work with large groups of secondary and college students and adults, which I divide into teams of four-to-six writers, in both traditional classrooms and a variety of community settings.

In planning meetings before my classroom visits, teachers Sarah Allen at Piñon Elementary School and Geraldine Coriz at Larragoite Elementary School agreed that linked poems would be a good means of achieving the project's goals:

1. Stimulate students to write creatively.
2. Develop students' reading skills by having them read and respond to one another's writing.
3. Produce an attractive final product entirely created by the students.
They were also pleased that the source for the type of writing the students would practice was a recognized genre of non-Western literature, since much of the focus in courses at these grade levels was on societies other than the Anglo-American, Hispanic, and Native American cultures prominent in the region.

In each of six Title I classes, I met once a week for four weeks with the same group of four, five, or six students in one-hour sessions. Each group composed a linked poem of eighteen or more stanzas. Further sessions with an artist-teacher of European calligraphy and a book-arts artist resulted in the creation of hand-made portfolios of six broadsides (8-1/2 x 14"), each featuring one of the linked poems.

Linked Poems--A Brief Introduction

For several decades, teachers worldwide have introduced students to haiku. Bashô is considered the greatest haiku poet of all time, and his poems have become models for succeeding generations. However, many may not know that in his own day people knew Bashô mainly as a poet of haikai no renga, or humorous linked poetry. From the fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries, Japan's most prominent poets composed linked poetry, usually working in small groups as they took turns to create long poems made up of short, individually composed stanzas.

By Bashô's time, people from almost every walk of life composed linked poetry in a popular style called haikai. Much in haikai no renga resembled today's popular songs, but Bashô reached back to the great Chinese poets of the T'ang Dynasty—Tu Fu, Li Po, and Po Chü-i—and to classical Japanese poets for his inspiration. He incorporated the common experiences of his day into poems that echoed the great literature of the past. Above all, Bashô and his disciples saw how deeply things and events were all interconnected and made poems based on these connections.

Today in Japan linked poetry has become popular again, and poets look back to Bashô for inspiration. To honor the differences between Bashô's linked poems and those of earlier times, they call Bashô's long poems and their own works renku, which literally means "linked verse". For example, here are the first five stanzas of "Summer Moon", a famous renku by Bashô and two of his best poet-companions, Bonchô and Kyorai.2 Notice how the first two stanzas seem closely connected, but each of the third and later stanzas moves in a new direction. [Note: Poets do not generally number the stanzas of poems of this type, but I number them here for ease of reference. Unnumbered poems are individual haiku, not stanzas of a renku. Also, the numbers here show the positions of the stanzas within the larger contexts of complete 36-stanza poems.]

Around the town
the smells of things . . .
summer moon
   "It's hot, it's hot"—
   the voices from gate to gate
the second weeding
not yet done, and ears
out on the rice
   knocking the ashes off
   one piece of sardine
in these parts
silver's an unknown sight
how inconvenient!

Bashô's stanza links to the first by filling in some details of the summer evening scene that Bonchô started, namely, adding a picture of houses in the town and what people are saying as they lounge in their front yards after a hot day. Kyorai links his verse to Bashô's by continuing the conversation, but shifts it from the city to a farmer's field in the countryside. Bonchô links his verse by showing us the farmer or one of his workers, shifting from conversation to lunch—which evidently includes a sardine that fell into the fire. Bashô continues the lunch scene, but he moves it into a rural store and comments on the inability of the clerk to make change from a large-denomination coin. Today we might find the same inconvenience in a shop that did not accept "plastic" (charge cards). Note that the ashes on the sardine have now become an irritation with the service in the store—which increases when someone tries to pay the bill.

Two of the main techniques of linked poetry are taking a scene or action in one verse and expanding it or adding more detail in the next (as in verses 1-2 and 3-4 above) and shifting part or all of the action or setting in the prior verse into a completely new situation (as in verses 2-3 and 4-5). A third technique, especially prized by Bashô, involves linking through an emotional tone, though the two stanzas may speak of quite different and otherwise unrelated things—creating a dramatic shift despite the similar feelings involved. Here is an example from the poem called "Plum Blossoms and Young Greens":

given their freedom
the pet quail—even the tracks
have disappeared
   rice shoots lengthen
   in a soft breeze
a convert
starts by going over
Suzuka Pass

Sodan's verse and Chinseki's link through expanding the scene and an allusion to an older poem that speaks of the cries of quail in a breeze. But the rural domesticity suggested by pet quail and rice paddies is gone from the scene as a young monk trudges along the trail through a high mountain pass. Instead, Bashô's verse matches the delicacy of young rice shoots in a soft breeze with the hesitancy of the youth, in both his newness as a monk, and the desolate place we see him in.

Here is another example of this kind of emotional linking, in this case with an expansion of the scene as well—showing how two methods of linking may be involved in one pair of stanzas. The third stanza demonstrates a typical shift from a broad setting to a close-up with action. This sequence is from the poem "Winter Rain":

in azure sky
the waning moon's
   in the autumn lake
   Mt. Hira's first frost
a brushwood door . . .
buckwheat stolen, the hermit
chants poems

Note the similar feelings evoked by a pale moon fading in the sky at daybreak and the thin frost on a mountain reflected in a lake. I've translated these verses to show how Bashô underscores the visual and tonal parallelism by following the same grammatical pattern used by Kyorai. Fumikuni's "brushwood door" links by suggesting the modest hut of a hermit who lives on the mountain. The stolen buckwheat and chanted poems shift from the delicate panoramas of the earlier verses to dramatic action.

These kinds of linking and shifting lie at the heart of linked poetry. [For a more thorough discussion of linking and shifting in Japanese renku, see "Link and Shift: A Practical Guide to Renku Composition" on this web site.]

Getting Started: Haiku as Hokku

Historically, the haiku derives from the hokku ("starting verses") of linked poems. So I devote the first class session to writing haiku. The best way to do this, I have found, is to simply read a number of excellent haiku by American and Canadian poets. Since they are contemporary and from our culture, they usually do not require explanations, as do many Japanese examples. The best source for such poems is The Haiku Anthology, edited by Cor van den Heuvel.3 My own Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku contains complete lesson plans for introducing haiku to elementary and secondary students.4

I follow the reading with a class discussion about the poems, emphasizing the kinds of things they talk about (content), they way they are written (form), and our responses to them (feelings). In this first session, I encourage students to write a number of haiku, based on things that they can see and hear right now in the room or outside, on things they remember (from as recently as recess or as long ago as when they were little), and on things that sound real but are actually made up. Each student writes at least one of each type, and then another one or two of the kinds they like best: poems of here and now, memory, or fantasy. I move around the room, helping each student shape his or her poems into the classic short-longer-short, three-line rhythm of haiku.

When each student has written at least three or four haiku, I ask them to pick their favorites and read them to the class. In some classes, they want to see everything their classmates wrote, so I encourage them to pass their papers around for everyone to read.

Here are some of the haiku written by the students in those first sessions, from grades four, five, and six, respectively:

on the floor
Christine Wade
The ball was spinning
around the rim
for a long, long time.
Roberta Lovato
A sparrow is chirping
as cars drive up and down
Agua Fria.
Maya Otero

As these examples demonstrate, haiku do not always have complete sentences, but they exemplify the rule "Show, don't tell." Both haiku and linked poems depend largely on vivid images that may appeal to any of the senses, although sight and sound predominate.

Next: Link and Shift

At the start of the second session, I ask each student to copy out a favorite haiku that he or she wrote in the first session at the top of a fresh sheet of paper. Then we talk about the way many things are connected, even if we don't see the connection right away. One by one, I ask the students to read their haiku aloud and we all think of things that connect with it. One thinks of a cat lying on a couch next to the homework, another chases the basketball as it falls; a third sees people skating on the ice rink next to Agua Fria Street.

Now I ask the students each to pass their papers one student to the right. We continue talking about the different ways we can connect one verse to another. For example, kids getting out of school in one stanza might suggest a trip to some far away place in the next—"vacation" doesn't have to be mentioned. Or one poet talking about someone who is double-jointed might suggest a bent tree to the next. One image can continue to expand in another. A second verse might fill in the scene where the action of the first verse takes place, and, in turn, become the setting for a very different action in the third. A word in one stanza—such as "dark"—might suggest a related word in the next—like "black".

When I feel that they have the idea, it's time for them to read their classmate's haiku and respond to it with a two-line stanza that somehow links with that haiku. Warmed up by the discussion of connections, this doesn't take long.

After checking to see that each student has successfully linked a stanza to the beginning haiku, I ask them to pass their papers again to the next person on their right. I explain that the kind of poems we're writing alternate three- and two-line stanzas, so the next should be three lines, like the first. But, and here's the catch, nothing else in the third stanza should remind us of the first stanza, even though it must connect with the second stanza.

A major objective in writing linked poems in the Bashô style is to include as many aspects of life as possible. To get this variety into the poem the poets must avoid staying in the same place or telling a continuous story. Once some person, place, or action has been mentioned in a linked poem it should not appear again beyond the very next verse. A well-made linked poem is like a scroll painting, moving from one landscape to another, from season to season, and from distant views to close-ups (or vice-versa) as it unrolls.

I give the class examples like those from Bashô and his friends, showing how each stanza links with the one before it, but also shifts away from connecting with the one before that. We try a few stanzas verbally, using a some of the work we've already written and adding possible third stanzas.

When it seems most of them have the idea of both linking and shifting, I tell them to go ahead and write some possible third stanzas on pieces of scrap paper. In a few minutes I start visiting the students, one at a time, helping them to decide which of their trial verses is the best at both linking and shifting; I also help them figure out the best places to break their stanzas into three lines. For some, we combine ideas from two of their trial verses. Sometimes one of their stanzas is the obvious choice. Here are three sequences of three stanzas, again, from fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, respectively. Note the elements in the third stanzas that carry each sequence in a new, unexpected direction:

The moon
so bright it guides me
through the night.
Nicholas Trujillo
   Walking in the forest
   I hear the water running.
Shannon Martinez
A pretty rock
in the blue stream—
I put it on another.
Gina Chavez

 Gina transforms the night into day, and moves from passive response to action.

Carlsbad Caverns
is fun
to visit.
Iliana Perez
   I wish I knew
   how to drive.
Jimmie Rylee
Riding a bike, fast
on the afternoon street
tilted air.
Julieta Olivas

Although technically the verse beginning "Carlsbad Caverns" is not very imagistic and does not qualify as a haiku, since my objective here is to let the students have fun and clearly this was a fun thing for Iliana to write, I did not push too hard for a rewrite at this stage. Rather, I waited to see what the next student would do with Iliana's verse. Obviously, Jimmie's response also does not present a strong visual image. But the reader can sense the increasing tension of desire in these verses; they are very well matched and quite powerful in their effect. And without them the amazing poetry of Julieta's verse would never have happened. Sometimes the workshop leader must withhold judgement, let "observing the rules" go, and give the students enough room to welcome the great accident of inspiration when it comes.

At a night club
eating hamburgers
and drinking coke.
Jason Borrego
   The dog stole something
   from the dumpster.
Nicole Salazar
Sneaking around
to find something—
it is scary.
Maya Otero

Here the major change appears in the emotions involved, moving from the pleasures of food and socializing to the almost comic image of the dog foraging, and then the sense of "sneaking" and fear. Once the image train is rolling, an occasional direct statement of emotional reaction may be accepted, so long as the following stanza makes use of it by returning a new image to justify the emotion, and the session does not spiral into a sequence of named feelings.

When all have added their third stanzas to the first two, it's time to pass their papers again. I remind them of the rhythm of three lines and two lines, and tell them again to link their verses with the preceding stanzas, but to be careful to avoid connecting with either of the stanzas before that. Again, they do preliminary work on scrap paper.


Creating a long poem of eighteen stanzas (one of several standard lengths in renku) on each of these pass-around sheets would take several sessions if we continued this way, so we do pass-around linking for only one more session. In the three sessions we manage to go all around the table at least once in each class, creating as many poem-sections of six stanzas each as there are students.

In the fourth session, we read our work aloud, and then we examine the first and last stanzas of each section, looking for connections that might link them. We also look for striking verses in the first position, that might serve as excellent starting-verses for the final long poem. In each class we find three sections that connect well into one long poem and that do not repeat images or events between one section and another. We make a few minor adjustments to the verses connecting the sections, where needed, to make them fit together well. Since each student participated in each section at least once, this means that each has at least three stanzas in the final eighteen-stanza piece put together in this process. The remaining sections are not included in the final long poem, but we put them up on the bulletin board so we can all enjoy them, too.

In one class, three students fluent in both English and Spanish volunteer to translate the eighteen-stanza poem into Spanish. This done, they read the Spanish version aloud, to the great enjoyment of all. (Japanese and American poets have written renku together, in their own languages, with immediate translations provided stanza-by-stanza by bilingual members of their groups. I have used the same process with high school students, some of whom did not speak English, some of whom were bilingual.)

How Much Like Bashô?

There are some rules of traditional linked poetry in Japan that we did not try to observe. For example, traditionally a poem starts with an image from the current season and there are rules for including images from the seasons in other stanzas. Linking and shifting are often governed by additional rules. And some special topics normally appear in specified stanzas. But we did observe the three main aspects of linked poetry in the Bashô style: collaboration, linking stanzas in a variety of ways, and shifting from one topic to another.5

Finishing Touches

When my work was done, professional artists worked with the students and the materials to produce the portfolios of broadsides mentioned earlier. Students made their own portfolio covers and each received a full set of the six broadsides, which were color-copied onto fancy paper provided by a local printer. One set of the broadsides was framed and exhibited for a month at a public library, beginning with an opening reception where the artists and students described their experiences with the project to parents and friends. Portfolios were also given to the artists, teachers, agencies, and donors involved.

Here is one of the final renku. Notice how some of the segments noted earlier fit into the larger poem.

A Big Frog

A big frog
on the porch
of my house.
Iliana Perez
   It gets cold
   when it rains.
Julieta Olivas
An old woman is walking
on the street looking
at the schoolyard.
Hilda Perez
   Bell rings
   kids get out.
Marcos Garcia
Carlsbad Caverns
is fun
to visit.
   I wish I knew
   how to drive.
Jimmy Rylee
Riding a bike, fast
on the afternoon street
tilted air.
   Those boys are fighting
   in the cold breeze.
melting to water
by the heater.
   I spilt coke
   on my baby brother's feet.
Feels like glue
different colors—
mix it.
   There goes Jim Carrey
   and his career.
A baby bird
was falling out
of a tree nest.
   Can't fly an airplane—
   never learned.
My grandma
is getting
   A rabbit alive
   and hopping.
The ball
is bouncing up and down
the sidewalk.
   A trampoline is very still
   through a glass window.
By Mrs. Sara Allen's Fifth Grade Title I class, Piñon Elementary School, Santa Fe, New Mexico.


1. The project was funded by grants from the City of Santa Fe Arts Commission and the Albertsons Foundation, with additional support from local businesses and the three artists involved.

2. Translation from Higginson, The Haiku Seasons, pp. 51-53.

3. Any of its three editions, published by Doubleday (1974), Simon & Schuster (1986), and Norton (1999), will do.

4. McGraw-Hill (1985) or Kodansha International (1989), available at bookstores or from Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

5. My book The Haiku Seasons: Poetry of the Natural World (Kodansha International, 1996) has a chapter with greater detail and several examples of the seasons and linking in Japanese linked poetry.

*Note on the word "link" in English: It is not uncommon to see the word "link" used to mean a stanza in renku composition in English. However, in this article, as on the rest of this web site, "link" refers exclusively to the connection or relationship between stanzas, and corresponds to the meaning of the Japanese term tsukeai.

Works Cited

Higginson, William J., with Penny Harter. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985/Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1989.

Higginson, William J., The Haiku Seasons: Poetry of the Natural World. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1996.

Kondô, Tadashi Shôkan, and William J. Higginson, "Link and Shift: A Practical Guide to Renku Composition", at http://renku.home.att.net/Link_Shift.html, posted 5 January 2001.

van den Heuvel, Cor, editor, The Haiku Anthology. 1st edition, Garden City: Doubleday/Anchor, 1974; 2nd edition, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986; 3rd edition, New York, W.W. Norton, 1999.

Index of Japanese Terms Used in This Article

Each of the following words links to its primary appearance in this text, where more information about its meaning in renku contexts may be found. (Note: A much more thorough list of renku terminology--well beyond the needs of the elementary classroom--may be found at the end of the article "Link and Shift: A Practical Guide to Renku Composition" on this web site.)
haikai (humorous, common poetic style)
haikai no renga (linked poetry in the common style)
hokku (starting verse)
"Renga and Renku" (article)
renku (linked verse)
tsukeai (link)

Notice Regarding Copying:

Any teacher or poet planning a classroom workshop with students in a recognized school may make one personal paper copy of this complete article for study. However, multiple copies may not be distributed to colleagues or the general public, e-mailed, or posted to public lists, bulletin boards, or web pages. (Please e-mail or post this web site's URL instead: http://renku.home.att.net/.) Those wishing to otherwise reprint, copy, or quote from this article are asked to obtain permission from William J. Higginson, c/o From Here Press, P. O. Box 1402, Summit, NJ 07902 USA, fax 1-908-273-7170, or e-mail wordfield-at-att-dot-net, replacing "-at-" with "@" and "-dot-" with a period.

This article originally appeared under the title “Bashô-Style Linked Poems” in Christopher Edgar and Ron Padgett, editors, Classics in the Classroom: Using Great Literature to Teach Writing (New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1999), and has been edited for the WWW by the author.

Copyright © 1996, 1999, 2002 William J. Higginson; all rights reserved, except as specified above.

Page first posted 11 October 2002, updated 20 April 2005.