School of Renga 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Two
How Renga were Done in Japan

            Renga is called a collaborative poetry because, generally, two or more persons contribute work to the poem. Occasionally renga are written by groups at what is often called a renga party – which has echoes of the times of Basho. For these events one person is designated as renga master. He or she is in charge of calling out the season or subject for the next link and decides whether an offered link is good enough to be included in the poem. Another person is appointed as scribe and writes down the accepted links along with the author’s name. The master starts out by asking the most honored guest of the gathering to submit the hokku. Everyone waits in a respectful silence while this person composes his or her verse. When it is ready it is spoken aloud to the whole group. This verse is so important for making sure that the renga gets a proper and good beginning that I have seen masters have to tell the honored guest to “please try again”. One party I attended the poor honored guest spent a half hour trying to come up with the opening stanza. It is no wonder that the wise come to renga parties with some spare verses tucked away in a handy place.
            As soon as the hokku, and thus the title of the renga, is established, anyone in the group can offer the next link by speaking the verse aloud. The master listens and will then accept or reject the offering. If nothing being offered is pleasing the master, he or she may work with an author on a flawed link to make it adequate. Sometimes others in the group may make suggestions which the author or the master will accept. Though this may seem a bit painful, especially for shy persons, it is a very productive way of teaching the rules of renga to a group.
            Outside of Japan, because persons interested in renga were so rarely in one place together, it became popular for the renga to be sent back and forth through the mail. This slow and laborious method was used by over 95% of the renga written before the advent of e-mail on computers. Not only does e-mail allow almost instant replies, it is possible for the partners to record their comments, thoughts and ideas as they wrote the work along side the renga.
            The computer has also brought together groups to write renga by e-mails, chat rooms and now ‘on the fly’ with programs such as Ann Cantalow’s Poetry Invention that allows real-time linking.
             There is, in Japanese history and today’s literature,  the solo renga – written by one person. No matter how well done, the solo renga always lacks the tension in the play of emotions which manifests when there are partners. Another form is the book renga in which haiku or links from another renga are picked out and used for the new responses being written. This method is slightly more advanced because the writer must make the sense of the links fit both the previous and the following link.

            Renga is a very unusual genre – very foreign to our way of perceiving literature. We Westerners seem to be bound to wanting and using the narrative as a basic literary structure. Perhaps this is why it is not easy for many poets to appreciate renga, although more modern literature is coming to use the unique contributions of renga.
            Renga do not tell a story nor are the links bound by a theme (usually) or any one set method of choosing subject matter. Renga do not lead the reader to any conclusion or provide answers.  In many ways a renga is like overhearing conversation at a dinner party. Each link contributes to the whole poem by relating only to the material given in the directly preceding link. The subject matter of earlier links is carefully avoided so that the reader can never settle down into a comfortable knowing of what is coming ahead.
            The actual worth of a renga is not in the individual links, but in whatever happens in the silent space between the links. Renga is, if anything, the art of transition – how to leap from here to there. Thus, the greatest value or benefit from reading a renga comes from the reader’s mind as he or she makes a completely personal journey from link to link. Because each link is written as response to the previous one, and there are many ways of making these subtle connections, the trained reader of renga observes how the partners solve the problems set up by the rules of the form.

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The Start of Renga

At about the turn of the first millennium (1000 C.E.) these two parts of the tanka were first written by two people called tan renga (TAHN REIN-GAH).
The first tan renga as is listed in the Man-yoshu (ca 1183) is this exchange between a nun serving wine to ōtomo no Yakamochi (one of the compilers of the Man-yoshu). She said:

saogawa no
mizu o sekiagete
ueshi ta o

the river of Sao
with its waters damned
he planted the field

Then Yakamochi, rose to this challenge and replied:

karu wasaii wa
hitori narubeshi

its first harvest of rice
will be his alone to taste


Introduction to Renga
by Jane Reichhold

Imagine you are a poet in 12th century Japan. The governor has invited you, with over two hundred of your fellow/friend/fiend writers, to a poetry contest the night when his wisteria flowers are at their finest. Since this date depends on the weather, for the next week you are wondering, is this the night financial security will come to me?

Because the governor is new on the job, and very rich, he is most eager to display his appreciation of the arts. Therefore the prizes offered are larger than usual. Parcels of land, more bolts of silk than a hermit could ever wear (but sell off in lean times) and the very coveted scrolls of elegant and rare paper are there for the winning.

Until the day of the contest there is nothing to do but fidget and practice. The verse form that you will be using is called the waka (or centuries later will be called a tanka). A very old form, it is based on the earliest question-answer uta, or songs of Japanese mythology. For many years in the past, and all the years of the future, waka/tanka in Japanese holds the pattern of five lines, each line having 5-7-5-7-7 sound units. The first three lines of 5-7-5, form the statement (and bear a close semblance to twentieth century haiku), and the 7-7 lines become the cap or echo with a twist, always having a relationship that moves between the two parts.

In your small private library are handwritten manuscripts of the emperors' collections of the best waka dating as far back as the 7th century. Rereading each of them, you review once again the many rules about linking, use of season-identifying words, relationships of images, taboos and always, the welter of old masters’ examples. Not knowing the theme of the contest, unless one of your cronies wrangles it out before, you must be quick-witted, yet not too brilliant; prepared, yet spontaneous. With each contact with your friends, anxiety and excitement are heightened.

Finally one soft spring morning you are awakened by the arrival of the governor’s messenger, more finely clothed than you could ever be yourself. You know the day has come, that you must take even more pains to have your robes infused with incense, the tear mended and to fill the secret pocket in the wide sleeve with several of your best beginnings for a poem. Just having a few characters to get your nervous mind to settle could be the difference between the freedom to write the new works or to having to advertise for more merchant students of waka.

Arriving at dusk before the governor’s grand palace, you swallow and vow not to let your pounding heart chase you home. Meeting an old friend you’ve missed seeing very much changes some of the fear to pleasure so you let yourself be swept in with the crowds.

You are handed a tiny cup of rice wine which you  need desperately but take only the merest sip. More of that after the subject of the contest is announced.

The governor is a disappointment. He begins the contest with his well-prepared and memorized waka in praise of his own wisteria flowers. Such an obvious subject choice! Everyone had figured he’d be more original.

By drawing lots the poets are divided into teams while the grinding of ink and back teeth begins. Taking turns, each reads, as well as a constricted throat can, the waka that could change one’s whole life.

After reading your own lines, you try to drown out the other voices by drinking more wine and eyeing the lovely (in the flicker of lantern light) serving ladies in attendance.

By the middle of the night, the judges retire to the hall to consult and decide. At this hour, differences between the poets have disappeared, along with the serious discussion of poetry.

Someone to your left nudges your elbow while handing you a curiously tied and folded paper. On it are several sets of 5-7-5 and 7-7 links with names signed beside them. The man nods and smiles, indicating that it is your turn to write on the paper.

So this is one of those new renga you had heard some poets in the capitol had started doing. Hmmm, the beginning is good; it certainly captures the mood of this evening. Did that come from his sleeve? Oh, this reply from Old Stick in the Mud is witty, and the Chancellor is in it! good link, for him. Ugh, Perfumed Sleeves has added a terrible link; so moralistic! how like him! How to find the right amount of seriousness and wit to reply to such a dumb stanza? You wander off down by the lake, fingering the papers up your sleeve as your mind searches for an idea…


Excerpted from Narrow Road to Renga: Twenty Pilgrims with Jane Reichhold
Published by AHA books, Gualala, CA, USA: 1989
ISBN: 0-944676-19-7






Page and Materials Copyright © Jane Reichhold 2011.

Please give credit when borrowing.


The above picture of Basho at a renga party was painted by Buson and added to the text of Basho's book Oku no Hosomichi - Narrow Road to the Far North. It was scanned from a facsimile scroll of the original work purchased at the Museum of Art in Tokyo, Japan.