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What is "Linked Poetry"?

(A Brief Summary)

William J. Higginson

You may have heard of "linked poetry" or "linked verse" or the Japanese words renga, renku, or renshi. All three of these words refer to kinds of poetry originating in Japan and now spreading worldwide.

Usually linked poetry is written by two or more poets working together to create one poetical work. All types involve one or more methods of connecting one part to another, or "linking". They also have in common the ideal of including as much of the range of experience as possible. To do this, poets avoid any narrative plot or repetition of images, ideas, or themes; avoiding such things is called "shifting". Most of the rules of linked poetry have to do with linking and shifting.

There are three main types of linked poetry:

1. Renga began almost a thousand years ago when aristocratic Japanese court poets invented it as a game. Renga has strict formal rules and requires a vast knowledge of ancient Japanese and Chinese literature, since allusions to this literature form the primary basis of linking. Common most lengths of renga are 50, 100, or 1000 stanzas. (In English these stanzas are equivalent to three or two short lines each.) Renga is not widely practiced today, because doing it well requires 20-30 years of study of the literature on which it is based before one can begin to play the game. But the practice of renga has been passed down; I know of one master in Kyoto who is teaching renga to a new generation of poets.

Note: Sometimes the word "renga" has been used in English in a generic sense to refer to a wide variety of linked poetry; "linked poetry" might be better for such general use instead.

2. Renku began in the rising middle class in Japan, about 300-400 years ago. It is also called haikai no renga, and was the main type of poetry practiced by the famous poet Bashô (today known outside of Japan mainly as a "haiku poet"). Renku is a popular version of the aristocratic renga; in renku linking is based mainly on an intuitive sense of what connects. This kind of linking occurs internally in many haiku, and is the basis for the Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein's theory of montage. Typical lengths of renku used to be 100, 50, or 36 stanzas; today other lengths such as 20 or 12 stanzas are becoming popular. In English, "renku" stanzas usually alternate three and two lines.

Each length (36, 20, or 12 stanzas, for example) has special rules governing when certain topics should appear and so on. About half the stanzas in a renku will mention something that has a seasonal connection, called a season word, such as "night game [referring to baseball]" = summer, or "snow" = winter. Each completed renku must have all four seasons represented. Some formats follow strict guidelines; others are quite loose.

3. Renshi was invented by a prominent Japanese poet, Makoto Ôoka (pronounced "Oh-oh-kah"), in the 1970s and '80s. In 1981, he and the American poet Thomas Fitzsimmons (now living in Santa Fe) collaborated on the first international renshi. The method of renshi differs from the older linked poetry mainly in that the poets write whole short poems in modern free verse as part of a poem sequence, rather than shorter stanzas of a single long poem. Most of the rules of the older linked poetry have been abandoned in renshi, and linking is accomplished simply by taking a word or phrase from the last line of the previous poem as the title for the next. (Renshi literally means "linked poems", but the same phrase in English usually refers to all three types mentioned here.)

In all linked poetry based on Japanese styles of linked poems, a major goal is to shift, to move from one topic to another quickly and easily, like the best party conversation, never dwelling on the same subject or mood for more than one or two stanzas. Linked verse poets take pains to avoid repeating material that has already appeared earlier in the poem or sequence. (Before you make a contribution to such a work, you have to read all that has gone on before so you don't accidentally repeat any of it.) A single completed linked poem or sequence is said to have the quality of a mandala; it includes all of life and death within its circle.

So, the basic ideas in all this kind of poetry are to work collaboratively with other poets, and to link your contribution to that immediately before, but to shift away from repetition of anything that has already appeared in the work. Most of the many rules of renga and renku composition have to do with linking and shifting.

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For more information on the use of the words, go to the article "Renga" and "Renku".

To comment on this site, suggest additions, or share your experience of writing renku, you are welcome to contact Bill Higginson at: renku-at-att-dot-net, replacing "-at-" with "@" and "-dot-" with a period.

Page first posted 30 June 2000, last updated 23 October 2002.

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