When I first introduced friends to Japanese style
short form poetry, many of them were put off by it. It is markedly
different from Western poetry. What holds true for haiku and tanka
also holds true for renku. It can be intimidating.
A caveat before we begin: the views expressed
here are not necessarily those of the management. They are my own. As
with all things related to this subject, opinions vary and are
What started out in Japan as a game for tired
waka poets ultimately began to be taken more seriously. What I propose
to do in this essay is to take a less serious approach to renku, a
beginner’s approach. We are going to play a game together.
Linkage techniques hold the renku together. Shift
provides interest. The game for the writer is to get as much diversity
as possible into the verses while maintaining a poetic flow.
The game for the reader is to enter into the
renku in a more proactive way than the Western reader is used to.
Renku is more empathetic than sympathetic. It is poetry more of the
imagination than of the analytical mind.
Like a dream, renku is something one experiences.
Try to approach renku in much the same way as you accept the logic you
encounter in a dream. There is an organizational structure to our
dreams, but it is less important to the dreamer than experiencing the
As a renku reader, you will be creating a renku
of your own as you read what the renku writer has written. Some
associations will have come from the writer; yet, the writer will not
have thought of some of the associations you, as the reader, supply.
All renku share certain properties. The various
kinds of renku are variations on a theme. Each has its special
challenges and features.
The rules of the game:
In this shisan (as in all shisan) there will be
twelve verses, divided into four sections. There is an introduction,
two middle sections and a closing section. Because this is a ‘new’
shisan, the seasons may appear in any order. Each season will appear
in one and only one section. During the course of this renku there will
be a spring blossom verse, an autumn moon verse and two ‘love’ verses.
Each verse starting with verse three will both link to and shift away
from its preceding verse. One of the most important elements of
renku is that it is not read as a narrative from start to finish. Each
verse is a vignette or scene in a world you will help to create.
Each pair of verses has a special relationship:
“… In joining a new stanza to one written before,
a poet uses the old stanza as the first part of the new. The effect
is frequently to alter the meaning of the old. The essential fact to
understand is the inviolate principle that no stanza has a continuing
semantic connection, as a discrete poetic unit, with anything other
than its predecessor and successor. We can choose to consider it in
itself. We must consider each as a fresh view of the predecessor,
which it completes. And we must consider it also as the basis of the
next stanza, which alters it in making a new poetic unit. It has no
such connection beyond.” (Miner, Japanese Linked Poetry,
The solo shisan that you have (hopefully) just
read was written as a practice piece and we will examine it as such. I
too am a renku beginner. As I go through its 12 stanzas, I hope the
reader will join me by imagining along both as writer and as reader.
We begin with a hokku, or starting verse, set in
Tucson, Arizona where I live:
dogwood in bloom –
from our neighbor's tree
This verse tells us the season. It and the next
verse is more directive than the rest of the renku. Less is demanded
of the reader. He simply imagines the scene.
‘Dogwood in bloom’ sets the season as spring. The
next two lines unfortunately may cause confusion for the reader
familiar with renku seasons. In Arizona, grapefruit ripen and are sold
at fruit stands Nov-December. By themselves, grapefruit would
indicate winter. With editing this bit of confusion – a verse
containing clues to two seasons -- would be eliminated.
thwack thwack thwack
the leaf blower's loose belt
The second verse in a renku, the wakiku, is
supposed to support the first verse. It should take place in the same
season and location as the first verse. In addition it should
independently indicate the season. This verse does not do that,
but rather leans on the opening verse to indicate season and
worse; the mention of a leaf blower misdirects the reader to
autumn. Had the writer planned to publish this shisan, she would have
gone back and fixed these problems. Hopefully, the reader will excuse
the rocky start.
of the mesh melt,
molten glass patterns
This is the last
verse in the first section and in a sense this is where the renku game
between writer and reader begins. The third verse, or daisan, is the
first verse to both link and shift.
This is where
the writer begins to lay down clues for the reader. It is the writer’s
responsibility to get as much information into these short lines as
possible while leaving enough room for the reader to imagine what is
On first reading
this verse the reader may think something like, “Oh my gawd, I
knew this was going to get hard. I’m gonna need to Google this.” But
remember, this is a game and a dream. The reader has no access to
Google and must instead use the material at hand, his knowledge of the
form and the clues the writer has supplied.
It may help the
reader to remind himself that all renku is held together by
Something in the
preceding verse gave birth to this verse.
discuss how we got here let’s look around and see where we might be.
It appears from the construction of the verse that the writer is
describing some kind of technique or process for glass making. Yes,
that’s it; we are in a glass shop. ‘Mesh melt’ describes the bits of
colored glass melted to form glass patterns. We are in a place of
light, color and creativity. The ‘link’ that got us here is the word
‘blower.’ The previous verse’s ‘leaf blower’ made the writer think of
a glass blower. Now that we are oriented, the renku again shifts. The
next section will have one season verse and two non-season verses.
cold Berlin night
This time, let's see where our link is first.
Kristallnacht means Night of Broken Glass. The molten glass of the
previous verse gives rise to the broken glass of this verse. The
reader now finds himself in 1930’s Nazi Germany. This is the shift.
Were I to imagine this scene, I would see it in black and white. How
another reader might imagine it, I do not know.
Since we have
had our season verse already and since there are only three verses per
section in a shisan, we know that these next two verses will be
non-season verses and that they will both link to and shift away from
the preceding verse. In addition, no verse will have a close
relationship with its ‘leap over’ verse. Our link in this verse is a
narrative link. Someone is either speaking the verse or thinking the
verse. Who the ‘we’ is in this verse is left open for the reader to
fill in. The location is also left open.
'borrowed' red lipstick
Now the ‘closet’
(our link) becomes something ‘the child’ is hiding in – either alone
or with friends – the writer does not tell us. Or the closet may just
be the place where the dress-up clothes were hung. The writer does not
tell us the sex of the child. We do not know if hiding in the closet
is part of a children’s fantasy game or if the child/children are
hiding because the lipstick has been ‘borrowed’ or for some other
reason. These are details the reader must fill in.
‘Papa’s prize bull and funnel clouds,’ would put
us in late summer in some parts of the US. ‘Prize bull’ suggests the
county fairs that are held in late summer. Our link is between the
‘child’ in the previous verse and the ‘papa’ of this one.
This verse links
to the previous one by the farm setting of the previous verse and the
‘eggs’ of this one. One way of reading this verse is to imagine
someone reaching under a hen to retrieve her eggs. Hens for some
reason seem not to mind this too much. But wait, reading our next
verse indicates that this one of the two ‘love’ verses. In which case,
the reader is invited to think of any farmer’s daughter/ traveling
salesman jokes he might have heard. Yes, definitely a sexual innuendo
This is the
second ‘love’ verse. The location has changed to a buffet line. Is it
a wedding? A funeral? Or another event? The reader is not told. From
the word ‘old’ we know the relative age of one of the participants.
The rest the reader fills in.
Now we come to
the final section of the renku. Just as the first section was an
introduction, the function of this section is to bring the renku to a
close. In the preceding sections we have covered three of the four
seasons, the blossom verse and the love verses. All that remains to
cover is autumn and the moon verse. Autumn is the writer’s favorite
season and for two of the three last verses, she chose to write poetic
Both ‘lingering heat’ and ‘bow stretched moon’
are classic Japanese season words (kigo). Some writers would see a
problem with the use of two season words in one verse. I do not. One
of my two mentors pointed out a problem to me in the link. ‘ Lingering
heat’ might be seen as a continuation of the sexual heat of the
preceding two verses. If so, this would violate the rule of
kannonbiraki (i.e., too close a relationship with the ‘leap over’
verse). As it is, the writer was linking to the temperature of the
foods on the buffet table. This would be difficult to change. So, I
would avoid changing it if possible.
insects' last song
smell of crushed
This is a second
autumn verse. The season indicator is ‘the insects’ last song.’ The
link is between ‘song’ and ‘bow.’
chartreuse and a wink
clean-cut cabin steward
This last verse is non-seasonal. The link is
between ‘bitter herbs’ and ‘chartreuse,’ which is made with herbal
extracts. The last verse of a renku should end on an upbeat note.
Just as we left the glassmakers of verse three,
we now leave the unseen traveler. Renku, as a snippet of life
continues on with or without us. In a sense, like our dreams, renku
has no beginning and no end.
From one beginner to another, I hope you enjoyed
reading this essay and renku romp as much as I enjoyed writing it and
that you will be inspired to try writing one of your own.
For the writer of other forms of Japanese poetry
writing renku, alone or with partners, helps us develop our craft. We
all have favorite words and phrases. We sometimes forget that we have
more than one voice. We speak differently to our boss than to our
spouse or children. So too, we have more than one poetic voice. In
writing solo renku, we are forced to vary our construction. If we are
good at one kind of verse or one verse position, we are forced to
practice those areas where we are weak.
Most of all, writing renku is fun and relaxing.
Solo renku is an opportunity to pick up a hairbrush in front of the
bathroom mirror and belt out an Ethel Merman show tune.
Japanese Linked Poetry: An Account with
Translations of Renga and Haikai Sequences, Earl Miner, Princeton
University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1979, ISBN 0691063729. The quote is
from page five.