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A Practical Guide to Renku Composition

Tadashi Shôkan Kondô and William J. Higginson
Edited for the WWW by William J. Higginson

Introduction Link Shift Conclusion
Formal Structure Types of Linking Progression Note on "Link"
Link & Shift Scent Linking Examples Diversity: Topics & Materials Works Cited
Notice Regarding Copying and Copyright
Index of Japanese Terms


The authors look forward to the evolution of world renku, of which traditional Japanese renku is properly understood as one species. This brief guide provides information on the gist of traditional Japanese renku composition, summarized under two key concepts, link* and shift. Before understanding these key ideas, we must know some basics of the overall structure of a traditional Japanese renku.

The Formal Structure of Renku

There are several lengths and forms of renku, including the hyakuin (100 stanzas), kasen (36 stanzas), nijûin (20 stanzas), hankasen ("half-kasen" of 18 stanzas), shishi (16 stanzas),jûsanbutsu (13 stanzas), and jûnicho and shisan (each 12 verses). The kasen of thirty-six stanzas is the most common length, and will be discussed here. The forms of the others involve modifications of the kasen form, but the same principles of link and shift apply to all. (See the articles "Shorter Renku" and "Longer Renku".)

A kasen is set out on writing sheets (kaishi) in two folios, each containing eighteen stanzas or verses. The front of the first folio has six verses, the back twelve; the front of the second folio has twelve verses, and the back six. Certain verses have special names or subject matter. For example, there are three positions devoted to the moon, and two for blossoms--traditionally cherry blossoms. The overall structure of a kasen renku consists of three parts, the preface (or prologue; jo), development (ha), and conclusion (or fast close; kyû). In Japanese, these are called jo-ha-kyû, or the jo-ha-kyû rhythm. The following table illustrates the arrangement.
(Japanese terms in parentheses)
1st Folio Front 
(sho-ori no omote)
1 Starting Verse (hokku)
2 Side Verse (wakiku)
3 The Third (daisan)
5 /moon verse position/2
1st Folio Back 
(sho-ori no ura)
1 (7)  
2 (8)  
3 (9) /2-3 consecutive
4 (10) love verses
5 (11) go about here/4
6 (12)  
7 (13)  
8 (14) /moon verse position/2
9 (15)  
10 (16)  
11 (17) /blossom verse position/3
12 (18)  
Last Folio Front 
(nagori no omote)
1 (19)  
2 (20)  
3 (21) /2-3 consecutive
4 (22) love verses
5 (23) go about here/4
6 (24)  
7 (25)  
8 (26)  
9 (27)  
10 (28)  
11 (29) /moon verse position/2
12 (30)  
Last Folio Back 
(nagori no ura)
1 (31)  
2 (32)  
3 (33)  
4 (34)  
5 (35) /blossom verse position/3
6 (36) Final Verse (ageku)


Notes to the Table

1Verse numbers do not appear on the writing sheets. They are sometimes used in print, however. Traditional numbering is by verse number within each named sheet and side. Commentators often simply number the stanzas 1 through 36. 

2In Japanese, tsuki no za ("the moon's seat"); this verse, or one near it, will mention the moon. The locations are somewhat flexible; the moon in the development often appears a verse or two sooner. 

3Hana no za ("blossoms' seat"); this verse (or one near it, in the case of the second side) will contain the word "blossom" (hana), meaning cherry blossom. 

4Traditionally, the subject "love" (koi) appears in two or three consecutive verses before or near the middle of each side in the development section of a kasen.

The special contents and tone of the named verses, overall jo-ha-kyû rhythm, and seasonal progression of a renku are discussed in "Guidelines for Renku Composition--The Kasen" (work in progress, to appear on this web site).

Link and Shift--Connection and Diversity

A renku session resembles the process of unfolding a mandala in the sense that it represents a cosmic state of diversity and unity. Diversity is the nature of evolution, and unity comes from cosmic love. The nature of the human mind is analogous to that of the universe.

Composing a renku is also like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle of the universe. It requires a cosmic gestalt to pick up one piece and find its position in the puzzle. No two pieces are the same; one must keep going ahead to find new ones. There are two primary means to finding and matching the pieces of the cosmic puzzle while writing a renku, "link" (tsukeai) and "shift" (tenji). "Link" refers to the connections or relations between adjacent stanzas; "shift" has to do with the diversity of topics and materials and the progression of the renku. The rest of this article presents these traditional ideas, based on the work of Matsuo Bashô (1644-1694) and his followers.

Link--Principles of Relation

A group of poets working together makes a renku by linking one stanza to another in succession. The relationship between two adjacent stanzas is a link. Various methods have been developed to create this relationship. Different poets and commentators have described the linking relationships in several ways, suggesting principles of relationship helpful when composing renku. While there were a number of ways to describe linking before Bashô, he made a major contribution that allowed the haikai no renga to advance to new heights. Today we call haikai no renga made with Bashô's principles in mind renku. (For a comprehensive discussion of these terms, see the article "Renga and Renku".)

Types of Linking

Bashô explained the development of linking methods by dividing them into three categories: object linking (mono-zuke), meaning linking (imi-zuke), and scent linking (nioi-zuke).

Object linking involves a physical association between objects, space, or time in succeeding stanzas. For example, an umbrella in one stanza might call forth rubbers in the next; an action in one stanza might continue into a new time or space in the next, and so on. There may seem to be a narrative connection, but it is dependent upon objects or images that are directly related. Here is a modern English example of object linking, with "alley" linked to "back door":

    the cook opens the back door 
    to look at the snow

Robert Reed
cat tracks 
the alley
Kris Kondo

Meaning linking refers to the many ways that words may be related in adjacent stanzas. These can range from specific allusions and quotations to commonly associated words, such as "red hot" and "momma", to actual puns. For example, the word blue, meaning the color, in one stanza might suggest naming a blues singer in the next.

Scent linking is Bashô's new contribution to the ages-long dialogue among poets about linking. While earlier poets had briefly described "heart linking" (kokoro-zuke) as linking through an association of meaning and emotion rather than an association based on specific words or categories of experience, this was only one of several linking methods, many of which were more important in earlier linked poetry, both classical renga and haikai no renga. Most other varieties of linking before Bashô could be included under his object linking and meaning linking. Bashô changed and deepened the concept of linking when he spoke of scent linking, which he and his disciples divided into several categories.

Scent linking in general means a connection between verses by agreement in mood or emotion rather than by association of ideas. Shikô (1665-1731), one of Bashô's disciples, discussed "Eight Manners" of linking (hattai). In each of them, the reader, or the following poet in a renku session, must move into the context of the preceding verse in order to understand or create the following verse. Another disciple, Dohô (1657-1730), used the terms "reading in" (mikomi) and "conjecture" (omoinashi) to describe this process. The idea is to interpret the realm of experience implied in the preceding stanza. Then a reader or poet can use one of the "eight manners" to understand or create the next stanza and the link between them.

The Eight Manners are "person" (sono hito), "place" (sono ba), "season" (jisetsu), "time of day" (jibun), "climate" (tensô), "timeliness" (jigi), "compassion" or "empathy" (kansô), and "nostalgic image" (omokage). In each case, one enters into the world implied by the preceding stanza and brings out some essential characteristic of that supposed world in the following stanza. So, for example, one might find the setting suggested in one verse appropriate to a character introduced in the next, or vice-versa. One might see a possible seasonal aspect in a normally seasonless stanza, and so definitely move to that season in the next. And so on. Timeliness refers to current fashions; compassion to an appropriately empathic, or even religious response. (Nostalgic image is discussed in more detail below.)

There are a number of words for methods of scent linking used by Bashô and his disciples, including "scent" (nioi), "echo" (hibiki), "transfer" (utsuri), "run-on" (hashiri), "rank" (kurai), "nostalgic image" (omokage), and "setting" (keiki). A few examples of linked pairs of stanzas will help to illustrate them, and to develop the concept of scent linking in general.

Examples of Scent Linking


     tips refreshed 
     a pine in evening shower

a Zen monk 
is stark naked 

* * *

     rice shoots lengthen 
     in a soft breeze

a convert 
starts by going over 
Suzuka Pass

"Though nothing in any stanza overtly refers to the other in each pair, one feels a unity, a magnetism between the stanzas. Of the latter example a group of Japanese scholars says: 'The frailty of young paddies swayed by the slightest breeze . . . is matched . . . with the mood of uncertainty of a young priest, who, having only lately entered a religious order . . . is now crossing a desert mountain range'" (quote from Ichikawa 114, passage and translations from Higginson and Harter 195-196).


     an orphaned crow 
     in sleep-perplexing moon

the thief- 
challenging lances' sound 
deepens night

* * *

in azure sky 
the waning moon's 
     in the autumn lake 
     Mt. Hira's first frost


"A stronger, but still indirect, connection between stanzas is called 'echo' (hibiki). [In the first example] the disturbed order of things in the orphaned crow's sleeplessness resounds in the clatter of lances as a thief . . . runs for his life . . . . [In the second] the moon seems almost not there, fading in the light before sunrise. The frost appears like a vapor reflected in the still lake, and awaits the vaporizing rays of the sun. Tranquility and expectancy mix in each stanza" (Higginson and Harter 196-197).


water chestnut leaves 
coiling and turning 
a teal cries
     a prayer-drum calls out 
     in mountain shadow, frost


* * *

in snow-sandals 
walking Kamakura 
spring hills
     yesterday distant 
     Yoshiwara sky


"[Bashô's disciple Rogan says of the first example] 'coming upon the water chestnut's leaves at the water's edge and the cry of the teal . . . is reflected in hearing the prayer drum of the mountain shadow.' [The second] demonstrates a less obvious connection, as well as the shift of locale characteristic of 'reflection'" (Higginson and Harter 197).

The modern scholar Nose Tomoshi suggests run-on (hashiri) as a sub-category of reflection or transfer. While some examples of transfer have a soft overtone, others have a more intense tone.


     enemies attacking-- 
     the roar of the wind in the pines

I put on 
the soft helmet

Here the battle of the first stanza has ended, and a warlord puts on clothes lighter than full battle dress as he calmly considers his next move. This seems almost a direct continuation of a narrative.


cutting vegetables 
to put on rice 
     a day with no work for the horse 
     love blooms indoors


"The base verse presents an image of a young girl preparing a meal . . . . Having vegetables on top of rice indicates that she belongs to the working class where physical laborers take simple meals. In the succeeding verse a horse carriage worker is introduced . . . a crude person who will woo away any young girl he sees" (Kondo 24).


after a while 
living in grass hut 
then took it down
     happy to be alive-- 
     a new anthology is ordered


Nostalgic image is a kind of allusion, but rather than alluding to a specific classical poem or text, the link is based on recognizing a possible reference to an historical person or a character from literature of the past. Here Kyorai saw that Bashô's verse might suggest the life of the famous waka poet Saigyô (1118-1190). His first attempt read "the secrets of poetry/ are regretfully unknown to me"--a reference to the famous reply Saigyô made to a question put to him by the Shogun Minamoto Yoritomo. Bashô felt the reference was too direct, and suggested that Kyorai use nostalgic image instead. So, instead of directly quoting Saigyô, the verse imagines his feelings and a reason for them.

Nostalgic image can also involve a character fictionalized on the spot by the renku poet. Bashô said that the excellence of the following linking stanza gave it a semblance of truth.

a convert 
starts by going over 
Suzuka Pass
    "Master of the Imperial Treasury?"-- 
    whose voice calls out?


Here Otokuni gave life to the almost distant portrait presented by Bashô, by assuming that the convert had been the Master of the Imperial Treasury before he renounced the world, then putting the idea in the mouth of a supposed former acquaintance met on the road.

Linking by setting involves either further developing a setting suggested in the preceding stanza, or providing a setting for the action of the preceding.

Making a link from one stanza to the next is at the heart of renku composition. But for a renku to avoid monotony and stagnation, it must also exhibit progression and diversity.

Shift--Principles of Progression And Diversity

Principles of progression and diversity, or "shift" (tenji), permeate a whole renku. The dominant imperative is to move on to new material.

Progression--Moving Ahead

The basic idea of progression is not to have a similar category of experience or topic appear in alternating verses, avoiding a throwback or "regression" in any three consecutive stanzas. In a sequence of three stanzas, working from the third, we have the last or "linking verse" (tsukeku), the middle or "preceding verse" (maeku), and the first or "leap-over verse" (uchikoshi). The composer of the linking verse must avoid "regression" (also called uchikoshi). That is, the author of any given linking verse may use material related by topic or theme to that in the preceding verse, but may not refer to any material from the leap-over verse ahead of it.

Place and Person. Hokushi (1665-1718), one of Bashô's disciples, introduced the principle of "place and person" (ba-ninjô) to help renku poets avoid regression. All renku verses can be classified as involving "person" (ninjô) or a "place" (ba). Place encompasses everything from geography to the site of a specific activity--virtually any stanza that does not show a person or group of people. A caterpillar on a leaf, a basket of fruit in the market, a bird in the sky, and so on. Whether its locale is mentioned or not, any object may be construed as implying its setting, thus qualifying the verse as a place verse if it lacks humans.

Person has four categories: "self" (ji), "other" (ta), "self-and-other" (ji-ta-han), and "public" (ashirai). A verse in or implying the first person is self; third person is other; a verse with first and second person is self-and-other. Ashirai, here translated as "public" and sometimes translated as "mixed" or "dodging", refers to verses that speak of human activity (as of a group), but which do not show clearly defined individual protagonists.

The indoor or outdoor scenes or settings in renku must also change with a reasonable frequency, and should not repeat in the linking and leap-over verses. This principle also applies to the nature of things, moods, psychological states, and so on.

Diversity--The Variety of Topics and Materials

Topics and materials are like two sides of a coin, and sometimes there are only vague distinctions between them. Materials include such things as "heavenly bodies" (tenshô), "falling things" (furi mono; includes rain, dew, frost, snow, hail, and the like), "rising things" (sobiki mono; includes haze, mist, clouds, smoke, and so on), "humans" (jinrin), "animals" (shôrui), "plants" (shokubutsu), "time" (jibun), "gods" (jingi), "Buddhism" (shakkyô), "night-time" (yabun), "mountains" (sanrui), "waterside" (suihen), and "dwellings" (kyosho). Topics include "reminiscence" (jukkai), "love" (koi), "travel" (tabi), the "four seasons" (shiki), "moon" (tsuki), and "blossoms" (hana).

These correspond to the constituents of the mandalic universe. In a typical renku session, the master or leader will have a checklist of topics and materials, to insure that all are included in each kasen. (For a Western list combining features of both lists below, see "Guidelines for Renku Composition-The Kasen", soon to appear on this web site.) Here are translations of the checklists used by the masters of two modern renku clubs:
Jigensha Renku Club, Tokyo 
Miyoshi Rykan, Master
grasses & wildflowers 
alcoholic beverages 
foreign word
science & tools 
domestic affairs 
foreign country 
human affairs 
current event

Ki No Kai Renku Club, Kanagawa 
Kusama Tokihiko, Master
heavenly body 
falling thing (rain, dew, 
   frost, snow, hail, etc.) 
rising thing (haze, mist, 
   cloud, smoke, etc.)
mountain & field 
grasses & 
sickness & calamity 
alcoholic beverage
study & learning 
place name 
personal name
current event 
historical event 
scheduled event

In classical renga there were long lists of topics and materials, specific words even, which had to be separated by at least so many verses before they could repeat, or could only appear so many times in a given renga. But as these lists were handed down from the renga tradition with one hundred verses or more per poem, they would require a strict reinterpretation for the kasen form to avoid excessive repetition. In a kasen most groups allow only one appearance of any of these topics or materials, but they try to include all of these in a single kasen, or at least to make sure that each of the groups is represented.

Conclusion--Balance Is the Key

In making renku it is crucial to have a sense of balance between link and shift. Shift is the bones that supports the structure of a renku, while link is the flesh and blood that gives it the quality of life. If too much emphasis is put on shift, we risk losing the life and fun in renku sessions. If shift is ignored, the results will be monotonous.

Certainly it is more fun to find ways to link stanzas than to worry about violations of ever-expanding compendiums of rules. Seeing the imperative to shifting as an encouragement to variety helps to avoid a negative, rule-bound approach. Using a checklist of topics and materials then becomes a handy tool for encouraging that variety, while removing the necessity of
memorizing a myriad of detailed rules.

Bashô said that he would rather be a link master than a shift monger. Although both are essential for renku, he may have meant that link is paramount over shift. But a renku that fails to shift also fails to include the variety of subject matter and tone so essential to the spirit of renku. The best renku demonstrate a rich variety in both.

*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.

Ichikawa, Sanki, et al. Haikai and Haiku. Tokyo: Nihon Gakujitsu Shinkôkai, 1958.

Kondo, Tadashi. "Getting Started with Renku", Edge 2:2 (summer 1989), 24ff.

Index of Japanese Terms

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.
ageku (last stanza) 
ashirai (public) 
ba-ninjô (place and person) 
ba (place) 
daisan (third verse) 
furi mono (falling things) 
ha (development) 
hana (blossoms) 
hana no za (blossoms' seat) 
hankasen (18 stanza) 
hashiri ([linking by] run-on) 
hattai (eight manners of linking) 
hibiki ([linking by] echo) 
hokku (starting verse) 
hyakuin (100 stanza) 
imi-zuke (meaning linking) 
ji (self) 
ji-ta-han (self-and-other) 
jibun (time) 
jibun (time of day [in hattei]) 
jigi (timeliness [in hattei]) 
jingi (gods) 
jinrin (humans) 
jisetsu (season [in hattei]) 
jo (preface)
jo-ha-kyû (renku rhythm) 
jukkai (reminiscence) 
jûnicho (12 stanza) 
jûsanbutsu (13 stanza) 
kaishi (writing sheet) 
kansô (empathy [in hattei]) 
kasen (36 stanza) 
keiki ([linking by] setting) 
koi (love) 
kokoro-zuke (heart linking) 
kurai ([linking by] rank) 
kyosho (dwellings) 
kyû (conclusion) 
maeku (preceding verse) 
mikomi (reading in) 
mono-zuke (object linking) 
nagori no omote (front of final kaishi) 
nagori no ura (back of final kaishi) 
nijûin (20 stanza) 
ninjô (person/people) 
nioi-zuke (scent linking) 
nioi ([linking by] scent) 
omoinashi (conjecture) 
omokage ([linking by] nostalgic image) 
omokage (nostalgic image [in hattei]) 
 "Renga and Renku" (article)
sanrui (mountains) 
shakkyô (Buddhism) 
shiki (four seasons) 
shisan (12 stanza) 
shishi (16 stanza) 
sho-ori no omote (front of first kaishi) 
sho-ori no ura (back of opening kaishi) 
shokubutsu (plants) 
shôrui (animals), 
sobiki mono (rising things) 
sono ba (place [in hattei]) 
sono hito (person [in hattei]) 
suihen (waterside) 
ta (other) 
tabi (travel) 
tenji (shift) 
tenshô (heavenly bodies) 
tensô (climate [in hattei]) 
tsukeai (link) 
tsukeku (linking verse) 
tsuki (moon) 
tsuki no za (the moon's seat) 
uchikoshi (regression, or leap-over verse) 
utsuri ([linking by] transfer) 
wakiku (second verse) 
yabun (night-time)

Notice Regarding Copying:

Anyone may make personal paper copies of this complete article for use by participants in writing a particular renku. Such copies may be reproduced on paper for co-participants, but may not be distributed to 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 renku-at-att-dot-net, replacing "-at-" with "@" and "-dot-" with a period.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Journal of the Faculty of Economics, 24:2 (Tokyo, Seikei University, February 1994), 116-125, and in a Romanian translation by Mihaela Codrescu in Albatros: Revista Societii de de Haiku din Constantsa, România, combined issue whole numbers V and VI (Constantsa, România, Spring 1996-Winter 1997), pp. 124-136.

Copyright © 1985, 1989, 1992, 1994, 1997, 2001 Tadashi Kondô and William J. Higginson; all rights reserved, except as specified above.

Page first posted 5 January 2001 and last updated 29 October 2003.