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Poetry Guide: Renga

Renga (連歌) is a form of Japanese collaborative poetry. A Renga consists of at least three ku (句 translates to stanzas in English), often many more. The opening stanza of the Renga chain (the hokku), later became the basis for the modern Haiku style of poetry.

As the Renga was a popular poetry form, there are many sayings coming from Renga. The Japanese phrase "Ageku no hate" (挙句の果て) means "at last", as Ageku is the last stanza of Renga.

The most favored form of Renga is Kasen, a chain consisting of 36 verses. Kasen means Great Waka Composers. As a rule, Kasen must refer to flowers (usually cherry blossoms) twice and once to the moon. These references are termed Hana-no-za (the seat of flowers) and Tsuki-no-za (the seat of the moon).

The earliest recorded Renga appeared in the late of Heian period. It was in fact a Waka composed by two poets. This style is called Tan-renga (short Renga). Other styles are called Cho-renga (long renga).

Two of the most famous masters of Renga were the Buddhist Priest Sogi (1421 - 1502) and Matsuo Basho (1644 - 1694).

(In Western literature the term "renga" has been applied to alternating accretive poetry, not necessarily in the classical Japanese form. Examples include Octavio Paz and Charles Tomlinson's sonnet-renga "Airborne", 1979, and Canadians P. K. Page and Philip Stratford, whose collaboration between 1997 and 1999 became the sonnet collection "And Once More Saw The Stars", 2001.)


The earliest Renga recorded is in Manyoshu where Otomo no Yakamochi and a Buddhist nun (Ama 尼) made and exchanged 5-7-5 syllable count and 7-7 syllable count. Around the time when Shin-kokin-wakashu was published, Renga style of poet is finally established as a distinct poetical style. This original style of Renga, Hyakuinrenga (百韻連歌) used only Utakotoba in making each 100 5-7-5 and 7-7 syllable and finished with 9-9 syllable count. At this time, poets considered the use of Utakotoba as the essence of creating a perfect world of Waka and considered the use of any other words to be a deviation.

Many rules or Shikimoku (式目) were formalized in Kamakura period and Muromachi Period to prevent two different people from making similar syllables and to lay down general rules of Renga. Renga was a popular form of poetry even in the confusion of Azuchi-Momoyama Period. Yet by the end of this era, the Shikimoku had become too complicated and systematic that it clogged the active imagination that had been a part of Renga's appeal. During the medieval and Edo periods Renga was a part of necessary cultural knowledge in the high society.

In the Edo period, as more and more ordinary citizens became familiar with Renga, Shikimoku were greatly simplified. The number of syllable was reduced to 36, and commonly spoken words as well as slangs and Kango lit. Chinese words were allowed to be used. With the inclusion of these words, Renga was able to express humor and wit. This style of Renga is called Haikai no Renga or simply Haikai (俳諧の連歌) and Matsuo Basho is known as the greatest Haikai poet.

The first verse of the Renga chain, the Hokku, is the forebear of the modern Haiku. Haiku was modernized in the Meiji period by the great Japanese poet and critic Masaoka Shiki. Haiku means "verbally comical phrase;" it was an echo of haikai-renga (comical renga).

For almost 700 years, Renga was a popular poetry but its popularity was greatly diminished in Meiji period. Masaoka Shiki claimed that "(Renga is) not fit as a modern Literature" ("文学に非ず"). The Renga's appeal of working in group to making a work was not compatible with the European style of poetry where a single poet write the entire verses.

Recently, with the use of internet becoming popular, Renga is becoming popular again. People from anywhere at anytime can contribute a work without taking the expense of gathering. Events of Renga where poets can contribute with their mobile phones had been held.

How to Make a Renga

As a Renga is a collaborative poetry, it is important that enough people gather to make a Ichiza. Three to four is the minimum number of Renjyu and upward of fourteen to fifteen may be possible under a experienced Soushou. If Renjyu had enough experiences, one can make a Renga without Soushou. In a Internet Renga, Soushou would select a verse from those posted or sent.

The essence of Renga is in "Henka (変化) or change". Basho described that as Atarashimi (新しみ), lit. newness, and "To refrain from stepping back". The fun is in the change, new, different, and interesting verses of others.

A Renga starts with a 5-7-5 Hokku by Kyaku. It will be followed by a 7-7 Waki and then by 5-7-5 Daisan. Next will be 7-7, and this pattern is repeated until desired length is achieved. The Ageku is the final verse. Shikimoku should be notified in the advance to avoid confusion or even a breakdown of a Renga. It is recommended to use Hizaokuri for a small Ichiza so that everyone get a equal share. In a large Ichiza, Dashigachi rule is recommended so a better verse would be selected.

Terms of Renga

These words are presented as a Sikimoku and variations of rule may exist.

Hokku (発句) : The first stanza of renga with 5-7-5 syllable count. Making of this stanza should be done by a special guest when present, and is considered a part of greeting in the Renga gathering. Must include Kigo (season word) as well as Kireji (cutting word - a break in the words, usually, but not always, at the end of a line).

Waki (脇) : The second stanza of renga with 7-7 syllable count. The one who helped to organize the gathering is honored with making it. Rules of Touki and Taigendome must be followed.

Daisan (第三) : The third stanza of renga with 5-7-5 syllable count. It must end with -te (て) to freely let the next poet make the stanza.

Hiraku (平句) : Refers to all verses other than Hokku, Waki, Daisan and Ageku.

Ageku (挙句) : The last stanza of renga. A care should be taken to wrap up the renga.

Kuage (句上) : A note made after Ageku to count how many each poet read.

Kougyou (興行) : To hold a renga. May also be called Chougyou (張行).

Wakiokori (脇起り) : To start with a Hokku of a famous poet like Basho and to have a poet make a new Waki.

Tsukeai (付合) : May also be called Tsukekata (付け方) or Tsukeaji (付け味). To mix and match a unlikely combination of words to drive an imagination or an image. One of Renga's interesting feature.

Maeku (前句) : The verse where Tsukeai is done.

Uchikoshi (打越) : The verse before Maeku.

Shikimoku (式目) : A set of rules to make sure changes occur and to avoid a Renga from falling apart.

Renku (連句) : Modern renga in the style of Matsuo Basho.

Kukazu (句数) : When the theme of verse is of popular topic of "Love, Spring, or Fall", continue at least two verses but not more than five verses with the same theme. One may drop the theme with one verse on any other topic.

Sarikirai (去嫌) : A rule to prevent a loop of a image or a similar verse.

Rinne (輪廻) : The name for a loop where the same theme, image, or word is repeated. Taken from Buddhism.

Kannonbiraki (観音開き) : A type of loop where Uchikoshi and Tsukeku has identical image and theme.

Haramiku (孕み句) : To prepare a stanza beforehand. Should be avoided as a stanza should be made on the spot.

Asaru (求食) : To make two stanza in a row. Happens frequently when Dashigachi rule is used. Should be avoided to let others join.

Dashigachi (出勝ち) : A rule to use the stanza of the first poet to make it.

Hizaokuri (膝送り) : A rule where each poet takes a turn to make a stanza.

Renjyu (連衆) : People who gathered for a Renga.

Ichiza (一座) : When Renjyu is seated and a Renga has begun, the status they are in, is Ichiza.

Soushou (宗匠) : May be called Sabaki (捌き). The coordinator of Ichiza, he or she is responsible for the completion of a Renga. Has the authority of dismissing a improper verse. The most experienced of Renjyu should be Soushou to keep a Renga interesting.

Kyaku (客) : The main guest of Ichiza and responsible for making the Hokku.

Teishu (亭主) : The patron of a Renga gathering, he provide the place.

Shuhitsu (執筆) : A person who write down verses of Renga and responsible for the proceeding of Renga.

Bunnin (文音) : To use letters, telegraph, telephone or even fax machines to making a Renga. Using the internet is considered a form of Bunnin.

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