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William J. Higginson and Tadashi Kondô
Table of Contents

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Twenty-Stanza Seasonal Topic Arrangement Counting Stanzas (per season, etc.) Twelve-Tone (Jûnichô) Renku Is There a Shortest?
Twenty-Stanza (Nijûin) Renku Topics and Materials Topical Guidelines Guidelines for the Jûnichô Renku The Half-Kasen (hankasen) Renku


For those who may wish to experience renku with all the excitement of its collaboration and diversity, but with less time spent on a particular poem, we offer the following shorter alternatives to the thirty-six stanza kasen. While visiting Iga-Ueno and Tokyo in October 1994, we had opportunity to experience writing in these formats with groups of skilled renku poets, and can highly recommend them for their genuine renku qualities. At the same time, a more in-depth article on writing renku in general, "Link and Shift", will prepare readers for better understanding this piece. Those interested in longer renku should read "Link and Shift" and the more recent article "Longer Renku".

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Short: Twenty-Stanza Renku

The nijûin, a twenty-stanza format for renku, is the shortest format with a classical feeling in its overall structure and rhythm. With a clear "face", two shortened middle pages, and a back page mirroring the front page, it provides for two moon verses, one blossom verse, and two groups of love verses, closely paralleling the structure of a thirty-six stanza kasen. And though twenty stanzas is little more than half the length of a kasen, the format provides enough room for the great diversity of a true haikai no renga.

At an October 1994 celebration of the 300th anniversary of Bashô's death at the Bashô Museum in Fukagawa, Tokyo, eight groups of Japanese renku poets each simultaneously completed nijuin (to anglicize the term) in under two hours, the sort of time readily available during an afternoon or evening without overwhelming otherwise busy lives.

Meiga Higashi, who is generally acknowledged as the top living renku master in Japan, invented the nijuin as a shorter renku format that still provides the formal characteristics and challenges found in the longer thirty-six stanza format, while giving poets the opportunity to complete a renku with less than a full day's investment in time.

For some years in Japan it has been common practice to make a chart showing the positions of seasonal, nonseasonal, and special verses in a renku, with variations for renku begun in each season. These charts simply demonstrate the results of applying basic rules to conditions that vary according to the season of composition. Such rules include "Spring and autumn must run for at least three but not more than five stanzas; summer and winter may have as few as one, but no more than three" and the traditional positions of the moon, blossom, and love verses. The charts are not rigid structures that must be adhered to, but flexible guidelines to be adjusted for special circumstances and opportunities that no fixed structure can take into account. At the same time, they provide a capsule overview of what the seasonal aspect of renku is all about, and help poets to keep track of where they are in the midst of a renku session.

To further assist in composition, Meiga-sensei created a pocket-sized card with such a chart for the nijuin, plus a number of suggestions to further aid in composition and enjoyment. He has encouraged us to share this helpful information with American renku poets. Though the characteristics of the English language make it difficult to condense a translation of the Japanese card into pocket size, the following table can be formatted to fit a sheet of letter-sized paper, and may be copied for personal use. (Please see the "Notice Regarding Copying" at the end of this web page.)

One side of the card consists of the basic rules, which are in a kind of rhythmical chant that we have expanded for the sake of readers unfamiliar with the Japanese tradition of such shorthand expressions. The other side has the seasonal chart and a list of sample topics that encourages the diversity so necessary to renku. We have added some notes to the chart for the benefit of those unfamiliar with this type of guide.

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Twenty-Stanza (Nijûin) Seasonal Topic Arrangement

by Meiga Higashi, Master of Nekomino Renkukai

translated by William J. Higginson and Tadashi Kondô

(see notes below)

Verse Position
Starting at New Year*
Starting in SPRING
Starting in SUMMER
Starting in AUTUMN
Starting in WINTER
hokku NY SP (Bl)** SU AU (Mn)** WI
wakiku NY SP SU AU WI
daisan ns SP ns AU ns
5 AU (Mn) WI/SU (Mn) AU (Mn) ns AU (Mn)
6 AU (Lv) WI/SU (Lv) AU (Lv) ns (Lv) AU (Lv)
7 AU(Lv) ns (Lv) AU (Lv) ns (Lv) AU (Lv)
8 ns ns ns ns ns
9 SU ns ns SU/WI ns
11 ns SU/WI WI/ns ns SU/ns
12 ns SU/WI WI (Mn) ns SU (Mn)
13 ns (Lv) ns (Lv) ns ns (Lv) ns
14 ns (Lv) AU (Lv) ns WI/SU (Lv) ns (Lv)
15 WI (Mn) AU (Mn) ns (Lv) WI/SU (Mn) ns (Lv)
ns (Lv)
17 ns ns ns ns ns
18 SP ns SP SP SP
19 SP (Bl) SP (Bl)*** SP (Bl) SP (Bl) SP (Bl)
ageku SP SP SP SP SP

Notes to the Seasonal Topic Arrangement

*The "New Year" in haikai extends from 1-15 January.

**In a renku starting in Spring or Autumn, the blossom or moon, respectively, generally appears in one of the first three stanzas.

***If "blossom" occurs among the first three stanzas, no blossom here.

Abbreviations: NY=New Year, SP=Spring, SU=Summer, AU=Autumn, WI=Winter, (Bl)=Blossom position, (Mn)=Moon position, (Lv)=Love position; ns=non-seasonal. Note that a set of verses marked WI/SU may be either, but that a following set marked SU/WI should then be in the season opposite the first set, and vice-versa. To better understand the seasonal references in renku, see the chart "The Seasons of Haikai".

The four sections correspond to the four "sides" or pages on which a renku would be written out formally. In this format, the overall structure is roughly: Preface (jo), first four stanzas; development (ha), middle twelve stanzas; fast close (kyû), last four stanzas.

To better understand the use of this format table, please read the accompanying text.

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Sample Topics and Materials

Gods   Buddha   Reminiscence   Ghosts   Illness   Dreams   Mountains   Waters   Beverages   Food   Children   Birds   Beasts   Insects   Fish   People   Geography   Foreign   Time   Travel   (& more)

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Suggestions for Counting Stanzas

Spring and Autumn: from three to five consecutive verses; don't give up after two.

Summer and Winter: from one to three consecutive verses; often two.

The same season must not reappear for at least five verses; summer and winter must be separated by at least two.

Love may not reappear for at least three verses, but may continue from two to five verses.

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Song of Topical Guidelines

Topics such as clothing or seasons, bamboo, field, boat, road, dream, tears, moon, pine, and pillow must be separated by at least five stanzas;

Identical diction, religion, love, transience, night, or times of day should be separated by three or more;

Heavenly phenomena, rising and falling things, human nature, famous places, and the names of countries by at least two;

Fish and birds, beasts and fish, trees and grasses, grasses and bamboo, also by at least two.

Heavenly phenomena include moon, sun, stars; rising things are mist, clouds, fog, and smoke;

Falling things include rain, dew, frost, snow showers, sleet, hail, and snow, you should know.

(End of translation.)

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Shorter: Twelve-Tone Renku

For renku poets who may have only an hour or so to devote to producing a finished work, the renku master Shunjin Okamoto made the following suggestions in 1989, refining earlier attempts to create a renku in twelve stanzas. Our text is based on the explanation given by his widow, Seijo Okamoto, at the International Renku Session held in conjunction with the Bashô 350th Birthday Celebration at Iga-Ueno, Bashô's hometown, in October 1994. Seijo-sensei is the leader of the Haikai Sesshin, and president of the Haikai Kangikudo Renku Foundation.

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Practical Guidelines for the Jûnichô Renku Form

by Seijo Okamoto, Master of the Haikai Sesshin

translated by William J. Higginson and Tadashi Kondô

1. A renku must have literary value and a sense of stylishness. This is what Bashô called "timeless and fashionable" (fueki ryûkô).

2. A twelve-tone renku consists of twelve stanzas. There is no front or back. One blossom stanza, which may be any flower in any season--it need not be cherry blossoms. One moon stanza, which may be any sort of moon in any season. About two love stanzas, in any position. About half the verses will be seasonal (a pair each for spring and autumn, one each summer and winter), and half non-seasonal, in a flexible order. About half with human focus, the rest on places, animals, plants, and the like.

3. Progression and diversity are the essence of renku. Accordingly, a wide variety of things in nature and the world of humans should appear.

(End of translation.)

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Obviously, this is a much less structured form, and renku groups in Japan can generally complete a twelve-tone renku in well under an hour. The traditional elements of the seasons, balance between nature and human concerns, and extreme diversity are maintained, to the extent possible in so short a format. However, the maximum number of consecutive seasonal stanzas is compressed to two, and there is not room to observe the full jo-ha-kyû. Generally, the hokku, wakiku, and daisan--the first three verses--are similar to those in a longer format renku, involving the complimentary aspects of the first two and the break-away movement of the third. The hokku, of course, still reflects the season of composition.

Shunjin-sensei has responded to the greater restriction of length in the twelve-tone format by reducing the usual restrictions on moon and blossom stanzas, and eliminating the usual content restrictions for the opening six stanzas, thus making possible a greater diversity of subject matter in less space, and creating a format which many outside of Japan may find more comfortable to work with. (Note: Some alternative twelve-stanza formats have been used in Japanese and other languages.)

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Is There a Shortest?

In Bashô's day it was not unheard of to complete only the first side of a writing sheet, the "face" of six or eight verses. He mentions leaving such an omote on the post of the cottage he vacates at the beginning of Narrow Roads of the Interior (Oku no hosomichi). The "six or eight" depends on whether one considers the base format to be a kasen in thirty-six stanzas with six on the first side, or one of the longer formats in which the first side has eight stanzas.

In the years from the beginnings of haikai no renga to the start of the Meiji Restoration (1867), people experimented with many different formats for renku. I have seen a list of about twenty in Japanese. Among them, sequences as short as the first three stanzas were used in some contexts, while others involved six-stanza units modeled on the first side of a kasen, but without the usual restrictions as to subject matter on the face. (Illness and death, love, religion, outlandish or exciting images normally do not appear on the face of a linked poem.)

As we understand linked poetry today, the "short linked poem" (tanrenga), that in fact is a tanka composed in two parts, is just about the shortest linked poem possible, though variants of senryu once involved supplying twelve sounds to fit with a previous challenge verse of five sounds.

While a six- or eight-stanza poem can certainly exhibit quite a bit of diversity, we have to question whether twelve stanzas is not the practical lower limit for a poem designed to include a full range of human experience and worldly phenomena. In fact, it will take an outstanding group of poets to successfully create such a sense of diversity without strain in only twelve stanzas, so the twelve-tone format seems in some ways more challenging than longer formats.

We would like to recommend that those interested in writing renku along the lines of the poetry that so engaged Bashô and his followers give the twenty-stanza renku and the twelve-tone renku a try. These formats should be brief enough to allow completion in a reasonable length of time, but substantial enough to give participants a true experience of renku.

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A Note on the "Half-Kasen"

For many years, both in Japan and among North American poets interested in renku, the half-kasen (hankasen) of eighteen stanzas has been a shorter alternative to the full kasen of thirty-six stanzas. However, the half-kasen does not lend itself to fulfilling the jo-ha-kyû rhythm--since it usually results from cutting a planned kasen session short. The twenty-stanza format noted here has been proposed as a better solution. Indeed, the twenty-stanza renku is a recognized complete poem, whereas the half-kasen today is often viewed as simply an incomplete kasen. The key point is intentionally creating a poem with the jo-ha-kyû rhythm, rather than just cutting it off after so many stanzas.

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Notice Regarding Copying:

Anyone may make personal copies of this complete article for use by participants in writing a particular renku. Such copies may be reproduced on paper for, or e-mailed to, co-participants, but may not be distributed to the general public or posted to public lists, bulletin boards, or web pages. (Please post this page's URL instead: 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, or send an e-mail to wordfield-at-2hweb-dot-net, replacing "-at-" with "@" and "-dot-" with a period.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Frogpond (journal of the Haiku Society of America), Dec 1994; copyright © 1994, 2000 William J. Higginson and Tadashi Kondô. All rights reserved except as specified above.

Page posted 31 May 2000, last updated 24 December 2007. Claudia Brefeld's German translation of this article may be found on her web site.