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William J. Higginson

[Note: This article first appeared in Lynx, a magazine of linked poems and tanka edited by Jane Reichhold (VIII:2, 1993; today Lynx is an electronic magazine). The information contained herein has not changed significantly since then; I have made some minor editorial changes. Since the majority of the discussion refers to the usage of the words renga and renku in Japanese, these are italicized throughout, except where the article refers to English, not Japanese, usage.]

I suggest that first-time visitors interested in the differences between these words read through the entire article. Those who wish to revisit only certain sections may use the following links.


The use of the word renga in Japanese has varied considerably over time. But it seems always to refer to poems of linked stanzas of alternating lengths roughly 17 and 14 on or "sounds", more or less equivalent to three and two short verse lines in English. Usually such poems are written by two or more people, though masters and students have written solo renga for models or practice. At different times the lengths of typical renga have varied from two stanzas to a thousand or more.

In the heyday of aristocratic, classical renga there were two main types: "serious renga" (ushin renga--literally, "renga with heart"), which followed the courtly traditions of elevated diction and tone (no Chinese loan-words, no vulgar images); and literally "heartless renga" (mushin renga), which allowed virtually all subject matter and words that would never appear in a courtly tanka, for example.

As ushin renga was thought to have literary value and religious connections, some examples such as the famous "Three Poets at Minase" were preserved. The mushin renga was a pastime often enjoyed after a more serious day of tanka competition, and few if any examples of whole mushin renga survive.

As those whose livelihood derived from enterprise rather than privilege took up poetry, they dropped a dependence on allusions to ancient literature and incorporated more vivid materials from their own experience. What had been mushin renga, the vulgar plaything of aristocrats, evolved into haikai no renga, the literary pastime of merchants. This playful or comic linked poetry soon became very vulgar indeed. But after only a few generations Bashô came along, served an apprenticeship in the dominant poetic school of his day, and broke away to create a refined, but still humorous and playful, style of his own. Within his lifetime his approach was called Shôfû haikai no renga, or "Bashô-style haikai no renga".

Eventually, people recognized the great departure of Bashô-style poetry from the earlier haikai. Shiki adopted haiku to refer to what had been called hokku, now viewed as an independent poem rather than as the starting verse of a renga. Other poets and scholars adopted the term renku to refer specifically to renga composed in the style and manner of the Bashô school.

Both classical, courtly renga and Bashô-style renku have continued, side-by-side, albeit somewhat underground, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (For more information on the survival of classical renga into the twentieth century, see Earl Miner's Japanese Linked Poetry, pp. 49 ff.) To the relatively few Japanese familiar with this history, the word renga today refers to that classical, continuing tradition.

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There are two main differences between the classical, or courtly renga and the more popular, modern-style renku in Japan. Aside from the fact that renga are usually longer (typically one hundred stanzas) and renku shorter (typically thirty-six stanzas, with many half that length and even shorter), their differences illustrate two common dichotomies in the arts, particularly in Japan.

The first is a difference between all the older renga (including the pinnacle of the court-style renga in the work of the fifteenth century master Sôgi and the almost flip haikai no renga of the Danrin school that immediately preceded Bashô) and the renga of Bashô and his followers, which the Japanese now call "renku".

In almost all of the earlier renga the linking methods depend mainly on the words. Links are made through common word associations (pairs like "boy/girl" or "mountains/seashore" in English), through phrases from classical literature, through puns, and so on. Although so-called "heart-linking" (kokoro-zuke) does exist, it is only one of a dozen or so named techniques. Heart-linking in the older renga is about the only type not bound to relationships between specific words in the two stanzas so linked, and is not frequently used. It was a precursor to the deeper style of linking Bashô favored.

Bashô emphasized what he called "scent-linking" (nioi-zuke). The five or more different kinds of scent-linking have one feature in common. They depend on adjacent stanzas sharing emotional or psychological values rather than on specific words in the stanzas. Scent-linked stanzas connect through moods, through emotions, through classical images (instead of references to specific passages in the classics), and, at the deepest levels, through what we might today call Jungian archetypes.

This more profound style of linking which still allows much humor makes Bashô-style renku more subtle than either the formal court renga or the plebeian haikai no renga that came before. While Bashô was known as a master of haikai in his own day, today we call Bashô-style renga "renku"--mainly because of his new, deeper style of linking.

Generally, therefore, Japanese classical-style renga are more formal and stylized, more dependent on knowledge of classical literature, while renku are less formal, more intuitive, more earthy, more dependent on a knowledge of the affairs of the world.

To me the rules of Japanese renga and renku seem of roughly equal complexity, and very similar. Classical renga is more difficult, simply because one must intimately know a great deal of literature to play the game. The concern for rules varies from one group of poets to another, and the differences between the two types of linked poetry revolve more around subject matter, style, diction, and tone than around rules.

Which brings us to the other main difference between the two. In Japan, classical-style renga depends on esoteric knowledge, and is the province of those with an aristocratic frame of mind. Those whose taste is more democratic--some would say plebeian--find more entertainment in renku, which incorporates current events, history, and everyday scenes of middle-class life, more often than allusions to the life of the Japanese court as depicted in ancient literature.

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It is always difficult to translate culturally significant terms from one cultural setting to another. Still today, for example, the word haiku to almost all Japanese means a poetry of the seasons, while for most North Americans engaged in "haiku" the poems hinge on "moments" that one attempts to capture in words. Both views have a good deal to recommend them, but communication between Japanese and others about haiku sometimes gets tied up in knots over this semantic difference.

Meanwhile, poets writing in English who have experimented with "renga" and "renku" without benefit of Japanese involvement have very different experiences of these terms, and of the poetries they denote, from poets who have worked with renga or renku in Japanese-controlled settings. I do not know of any attempt to write a "renga" in the classical Japanese style in a language other than Japanese, though I am sure someone must have tried it. Yet much of the linked poetry on Japanese models attempted in North America and Europe has been called "renga". These range from the collaborative sonnet sequences of Octavio Paz and others in Paris and the linked stanzas of Larry Stark and a couple of friends in Boston, both of which were written in 1969, to the poems appearing in current issues of Lynx, on some of the various web sites devoted to "renga", and elsewhere.

To the extent that "renga" is the more generic term, it may make sense to keep on using renga in English to refer to a broad range of linked poems loosely based on Japanese models. But the usually more restricted meaning of the word in Japanese suggests quite the opposite, if we wish to expand contact between the two cultures.

Perhaps a much better solution would be to use simply "linked poem" or "linked verse" for our collaborative poems loosely based on Japanese models, as Jane Reichhold and others have suggested. While "linked poem" and "linked verse" are, respectively, the literal character-for-character translations of renga and renku in Japanese, such literal translations have mainly etymological interest. They need not prevent us from adopting these terms in English and using them in ways that make sense to us. "Linked poetry" has already been used in English-language scholarly writing to mean the whole range of renga and renku in Japanese, and might easily be used by us to include our somewhat broader-still range.

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Some may question why we should be so concerned about how we use these words, which are, after all, our business, and who cares too much about their original usage in Japanese?

Today renku is growing in Japan. Renku clubs meet in or near most major cities there. A national convention takes place every year, and other national events occur throughout the year. The publication of books and journals grows monthly, and a national renku quarterly is gaining prominence.

It took the Japanese haiku community approximately twenty-five years from the founding of American Haiku magazine to begin to accept the existence of haiku outside of Japan and the Japanese language. By contrast, the Japanese renku community, within the first decade of its rise to public view in Japan, has deliberately reached out to interested people in North America.

In 1992 some American cities received a goodwill tour by a group of Japanese renku poets. And while the Japanese may consider their renku more democratic and relaxed than renga, some of our poets who participated in writing with the Japanese on the Renku North America tour found the multiplicity and diversity of restrictions daunting, if not infuriating. To some North Americans, now, "renku" seems to mean rules and even authoritarianism, whereas our "renga" has been very loose and free, with poets improvising their games as they went along.

Perhaps using terms like "linked poetry", "linked poem", and "linked verse", instead of "renga", would encourage the continuing relaxed experimentation that many writing in English find so enjoyable. Meanwhile, for those who wish to pursue the modes of Bashô more closely, and to enjoy the possibility of communion and collaboration with a growing number of like-minded living Japanese poets, there is "renku", which I hope will be adopted and adapted into English. Participating in renku, like participating in any experience based in a foreign culture, requires a willing attitude of discovery, in which one spends less time rejecting the unknown and more trying to acquire understanding.

In many ways, our Japanese colleagues are in a situation similar to ours. Their renku has been underground for so long that many there come to it through haiku, just as we usually do. They do not live in Bashô's day, when one came to writing hokku through the writing of renga of one kind or another. For them, as for us, linked poetry provides a new and challenging way of writing, and of sharing. For them, the natural way has been to restore the popular, more democratic Bashô-style renku, and try to learn--and reinvigorate--its possibilities. For us the natural way has been to experiment broadly with some of the basic principles of Japanese linked poetry, while knowing relatively little of the fine points of any particular style.

In both situations, poets have been expanding their horizons, and learning new ways of making poems, together. As must happen when poets begin to interact across cultural boundaries, some confusion arises. But with that confusion comes also, in time, understanding and mutual respect and enjoyment.

Note: My thanks to Professor Tadashi "Shôkan" Kondo, of Seikei University and a past president of the Association for International Renku, both in Tokyo, for valuable suggestions which have contributed to my thinking on this topic.


Page created 7 May 2000; last updated 30 June 2000.

Copyright © 1993, 2000 William J. Higginson. All rights reserved.

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