Renga is often defined as a collaborative form
of poetry. For example, the Wikipedia article on renga leads off
as follows, “Renga is a form of Japanese collaborative poetry.”
From this perspective a distinguishing feature of renga is that
they are written by two or more poets. There is much justification
for this view. Almost all renga, both in the past and currently,
are a group effort. I believe that all of Basho’s Haikai
On the other hand, on the fringes of renga one
does find the solo renga, written by a single poet. Since only
a tiny fraction of renga have been translated into English, I
have no idea what percentage of renga are solos, non-collaborative.
My guess is that it would be a very small percentage, probably
less than five percent of the total.
In spite of the anomalous nature of solo renga
we are fortunate to have in English excellent translations of
two such examples by the great Master of Hyakuin (100 Verse) Renga,
the poet Sogi. One is translated and annotated by Steven D. Carter
in his The Road to Komatsubara: A Classical Reading of the
Renga Hyakuin. The other is translated and annotated by Earl
Miner in Japanese Lined Poetry. Both of these renga are
excellent and demonstrate that solo renga, while rare, seem to
have been considered legitimate undertakings by skilled renga
I will confess to a great fondness for Sogi.
He's my favorite renga poet and a favorite poet in general. When
Miner published his Japanese Linked Poetry it was the
translation of Sogi, particularly “A Hundred Stanzas Related
to ‘Person’ by Sogi Alone’ (pages 235 –
271) that inspired me. It continues to do so. Because of this
I have a tendency to think of renga in terms of a solo form like
the sonnet or villanelle. Or, more accurately, I tend to think
of the solo renga as the equal of the collaborative renga, rather
than as an exception to the rule.
In spite of this tendency my own efforts in renga
continued in the traditional collaborative style. There came a
time, however, when I felt a strong sense of dissatisfaction with
the way the topics of time and season were being handled in modern
western renga. (This in itself is a complex subject, a topic for
another day.) This sense of dissatisfaction led me to conduct
a series of experiments to see if other approaches to time and
season would work. I deliberately did not want partners because
I was experimenting. For these experiments I found the modern
12-verse forms of renga, the Shisan and Junicho, to be efficacious.
They are short enough to compose in a single sitting, yet long
enough to contain the basic, and distinctive, elements that all
After many months of writing these solo renga
I discovered that I enjoyed crafting a solo renga in itself; not
just as the basis of some experiments but as a poem. I enjoyed
writing Shisan and Junicho in the same way that I enjoy composing
I then began to think of renga as a solo form
of poetry, like the sonnet or villanelle. I returned to the translations
of Sogi’s solo works which confirmed my hunch that renga
really does work as a solo poetic form. This is because the defining
characteristics of renga are present, the universals of the form
are present whether or not the renga is a solo or group effort,
whether or not the renga is a 100 verse Hyakuin or a 12 verse
Shisan. The essence of renga is present in all these variations.
I mean several things when I refer to renga universals.
First, I mean the sense that renga is a kind of journey. Most
mornings I like to take a walk. I go the same route every morning
so I observe the same landscape with every walk. It's the same
landscape, but each time there are differences. Sometimes these
differences are seasonal. At other times they are human: e.g.
someone builds an addition to their house or changes their garden.
So there is sameness and variation.
Reading a renga resembles such a walk. Each renga
touches on certain topics; the moon, blossoming trees, love, the
seasons. These topics resemble landmarks on a walk. The placement
of these topics is specified, yet each renga journey is different.
Again, sameness and variation interpenetrating.
Another way of looking at this essence of renga
is to think of a renga as a microcosmos. By “microcosmos”
I mean that each renga encompasses heaven, earth, and humanity.
Renga accomplishes this through the required inclusion of certain
topics. The moon verse is a celestial, or heavenly, manifestation.
The blossoming fruit tree verse is a manifestation of the earth.
And the love verse displays humanity. Thus each renga is a complete
representation of the cosmos in miniature; not a scientific presentation,
but a poetic display.
More could be said about the essence of renga.
But what I want to point out here is that neither of these facets
of the essence of renga require that renga be a group effort.
The essence of renga is equally present in collaborative and solo
approaches. That’s why Sogi’s solo renga are so effective,
because they embody the essence of renga so well. For this reason
I have adopted the view that solo renga is as efficacious as collaborative
The issue of solo or collaborative is an issue
of method, not of essence. An analogy will help in clarifying
the distinction. A teacup must have a shape that can hold liquid
and be small enough to easily hold in one hand. One person makes
teacups on a potter's wheel, another uses a mold, another a free
standing approach, and a manufacturer uses an assembly line. All
these different methods, or causes and conditions, give rise to
teacups. Similarly, solo and collaborative approaches equally
give rise to renga; both are causally capable of generating renga.
I have a practical reason for presenting the
case for solo renga. Simply put, I would like to see renga become
a standard part of western poetic culture; right alongside the
sonnet, villanelle, sestina, etc. I believe this can be facilitated
by presenting renga as a solo form, crafted by the individual
poet. In other words, renga can be taught to poets in the same
way that other poetic forms are taught. My sense is that if renga
is presented as a solo form poets will find renga an attractive
challenge in the way that poets find the sonnet an attractive
I think that a comparison between the short forms
of renga, such as Shisan and Junicho, and the sonnet seems apt
to me. They are about the same length (the sonnet somewhat shorter)
and about the same level of complexity. They both have a strong
sense of their own heritage. The sonnet requires knowledge of
lineation, rhythm, meter, and various rhyme schemes. For renga
a poet needs to know lineation, link and shift, and topics placement.
Both the sonnet and renga view poetry as a craft wherein the poet
shapes words into a pre-existing significant form.
My sense is that in the west entering the world
of renga through short forms such as Shisan and Junicho, writing
them as solo forms, and thoroughly learning them, will naturally
lead to collaborative efforts and the willingness to enter into
the longer forms such as the Kasen and Hyakuin. One of the difficulties
with renga in the west is that we lack the cultural background
out of which renga grew. Japanese poets who have this background,
use it, and refer to it in their composition of renga. To replicate
this sense of familiarity I think that western poets need to become
familiar with the overall contours of renga in such a way that
they become internalized, second nature, and that one way of accomplishing
this is to compose solo renga. Just as a poet interested in the
sonnet gains facility with that form through the composition of
sonnets, so also a poet gains facility with renga through the
composition of renga. This will create a basis for interaction
with other renga poets, allowing for creative collaboration.
The transmission of an artistic form from one
culture to another is both a challenge and an opportunity. The
challenge is to discover the essence of the form in the culture
of origin and then see if that form can take root in a different
cultural context. The opportunity is that the new culture will
expand its sense of meaning, beauty, and possibility.
The English poetic tradition has been vastly
enriched by such transmissions in the past. The sonnet from Italy
and the villanelle from France are two significant examples. Right
now renga seems to be in a tentative, testing mode as an English
language form. I say this because renga seems to be confined to
a few outlets that are interested in Japanese poetic forms. Renga
has not yet broken out of that enclave into the poetic culture
at large; at least I have not observed this. (In contrast, Tanka
are now being written by poets such as Richard Wilbur and Mary
Jo Salter, who are not identified as poets specializing in Japanese
poetic forms.) In this respect renga in English today resembles
the very early decades of sonnet writing. My hope is that by encouraging
poets to compose solo renga the transmission of renga to the English
language poetic world can be facilitated.
I am optimistic that just as the sonnet stepped
from its culture of origin into the world at large, so also renga
will emerge from its culture of origin into the world at large.
The journey of renga has just begun.
The Road to Komatsubara: A Classical Reading
of the Renga Hyakuin, Steven D. Carter, Harvard University
Press, 1987, ISBN 0674773853. The annotated translation of Sogi's
solo Hyakuin is on pages 117 – 165.
Japanese Linked Poetry: An Account with Translations
of Renga and Haikai Sequences, Earl Miner, Princeton University
Press, Princeton, N.J., 1979, ISBN 0691063729. The annotated translation
of Sogi’s solo Hyakuin is on pages 227 – 271.