School of Renga 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Seven
Linkage Techniques

The adage has often been quoted from the Japanese that “it takes a minimum of twenty years to learn to write renga” and yet we writing in English have proved that if you discard enough of the rules, you can be writing renga with almost no instruction in the shortest possible time. There is something fun and refreshing from this approach that allows our penchant for stream of conscious writing a form while letting us exercise our sociability and enormous desire to invent and innovate.

Though it is possible to just work with a stream of consciousness writing, where each writer inspires the other, there is a wider selection of methods and techniques which have been explored and discovered, first in Japan, and now in North America.

What is so great about the many Japanese rules is that as a writer progresses, there is always something new to learn, another technique to try out or idea to experience. It is beginning to seem that twenty years is no time at all and one needs a long life to try out everything.

Yet, if we take some lessons from the Japanese renga we can learn that their symbiotic works change direction constantly with shifts and leaps in subject matter, time, place, speaker, and philosophy. Renga do not follow the Western idea of narrative nor are they bound by chronology as we are used to in our literature. This is exactly what we admire in this genre because this frees us from centuries of 'linear thinking'. As we understand quantum physics we see how non-linear our world really is and now we find an old genre of poetry that reflects this most modern science.

 It has often been said that the magnificence of renga lies not in its verses but in the spaces between the links. The skill with which the writers leap from link to link is where a renga should be judged because this is where the poetry lies. The stanzas or verses are merely signposts the authors give the reader so s/he can follow the path of the author’s thinking. When both reader and writer understand the various methods of linking, the reading of a renga is much richer and more rewarding.

Renga works with associations that have cataloged methods of making the linkage in the same way haiku do. The linkages between the parts of a haiku have been borrowed from the greater experiments of the many more years of the existence of renga. So to think of doing renga, one has to shift gears to use these same values between links instead of lines.

To keep this short and simple, because there is a lot to learn about doing a renga, let us look at three attributes of linkage in a haiku:
There is linkage through association. This means that things are combined due to their state of being, their appearance, their uses, or situations. For us this would mean pine trees go with Christmas, candles go with birthday cakes, and birthdays go with aging.

Then we can talk about contrasts; for example things that are falling / things rising, coming / going, wetness / dryness, large / small. This connection is so common in renga that it is often used in the beginning of the poem when the poets are getting comfortable with each other and to help even the newest reader feel as if s/he is already taking an active part in the renga by recognizing and understanding contrasts.

When we begin to look at comparisons we can find the oriental equivalent of simile and metaphor. This means that when you think of one thing, it can, in the hands of poet, call to mind another subject. The most common one for the Japanese is dew/tears. They look alike, they seem to arise from nowhere, both can make a garment wet, both are uncontrollable yet they come from very different sources. Part of the search for haiku subjects is to recognize the comparison between two separate things. In renga, the mention of one classical comparison ‘calls’ for the use of its answering image in the next link.

Renga, with its wider range of possible subjects within a poem, uses other types of linkage such as ‘fragrance’ - the atmosphere or tone of the poem, emotional conditions. Fragrance can appear with contrast or association. One of the most famous, and least used in English, devices is word-punning and humor.
In addition to these techniques, renga are built on a framework of seasonal references with the ‘buttons’ of moon verses and flower verses. By having a strong foundation, the writers actually have more freedom to be as wild as they wish, because they know the reader should be able to follow them with the farthest leaps. It is one thing to leap off into the void of the active mind; it is another accomplishment to be able to direct that leap to a certain and known goal. Added to this, is the idea that existing 'rules' can be varied!

Form should reflect content; and not the other way around. That's an old story, often repeated, sometimes forgotten. But here in rengay, instead of leaping from subject to subject, we only see facets of a theme. The links of a rengay relate like the ribs of an umbrella solely to the handle or common theme.

Partners follow a given form, somehow imitative, and stay with the theme based on conventional thinking. In the long run, to simply fill up a pre-set form does in no way express the true intentions of contemporary poets working with renga. (Please check for examples in for the issues of LYNX, and from there Participation Renga.)

Writers of only very short verses may have difficulties getting involved with bigger poetry forms. Please keep in mind, Basho was a renga writer. He knew real poetry needs a bigger form, and the not yet punished scandal disrupting of his renga for mainly commercially based reasons should not keep you away from looking right through his true concept.

The trained, the experienced western writer interested in symbiotic work doesn't stay for too long where others already worked the Asian fields. We are acquainted with the search for innovations. We feel this is the way poetry survives. And so to meet the contemporary trend of other artistic disciplines, we look at the composers of music and artists into installations. Here, a new attempt to get involved with unexplored spaces is on the program. There we're going to meet conflict and catharsis. Different layers of language, groups of stanzas, parts of prose or mixed genres like haiku, tanka, sijo, sedoka and free verse are supposed to move into each other's domain, enlarge the borderless territories. The contemporary collaboration, exploiting in different ways life in its most difficult forms becomes a kind of instrumentation of the not yet known. The longer linked composition aims at a transitional act: the end product can become a piece of art, highly complicated in itself, far away from standard thinking, a stimulus for the well educated.

   This said may make it clearer why my critique on the use of only six verses in a rengay occurs as reasonable. The dynamics between the partners collaborating don't have enough time to develop. At least eighteen stanzas or better more of them make it possible to move at different tempi for different parts or movements. Today, a sure sign of an amateur poet is one who takes a theme and simply varies it. In contrast, professional poets, start out with a certain setting, recognized and spiritually seen as white-hot in our times, and leap from one example to another arriving at something totally unexpected and not to be achieved by only a single person. Is someone coming up missing 'nature'? May we ask in return: what on earth and in hell is not nature, would you please name it?
   There are exceptionally strong energies for inventing and changing form and content of a symbiotic work within yourself. Please learn how it brings you closer to be published with mainstream poetry. Anyway, the Internet is the forum of the future for partners to meet and work together and there where publishing space is not a problem at all.


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A Story about Linking
taken from
Matsuo Basho by Makoto Ueda
ISBN 0-87011-553-7

[Note: Though M. Ueda's book was published in 1980, he uses the now-wrong term of renku to refer to Basho's work and uses capital letters and punctuation for the renga links.]

"A Winter Shower" was written early in the winter of 1684. Basho was then staying in Nagayo, and some local poets, who knew his reputation in Edo, composed several renku under his guidance. In the case of "A Winter Shower", five amateur poets joined Bashoo in the making. They were a rice dealer, Tsuboi Tokoku; a lumber merchant Katoo Juugo, a textile retailer, Okada Yasui, a physician, Yamamoto Kakei, and a man named Koike Shoohei of whom little is known. They were all relatively young and still obscure.
Basho, then about forty, was clearly the leader, and his taste and
inclinations pervaded the poem.

Apparently they took turns starting off their joint renku, and in the case of "A Winter Shower" it was Tokoku's turn. He composed this verse in the prescribed 5-7-5 syllable pattern:

A cloud,
trying to enwrap
The moonbeams, momentarily fails --
A winter shower.

The first verse of a renku, called the hokku ("opening verse") is
self-contained in meaning, and that is part of the reason why it evolved into an independent poem, the haiku. We can take this verse as an independent hokku (that is, a haiku) and appreciate it all by itself. It is about a winter shower at night: a large, black, swiftly drifting cloud is
overhead, and though it looks thick it evidently has a few rifts, for the
shower often stops and pale moonbeams fall through them.

To this Juugo added the second verse in two seven-syllable lines:

Someone walks on icy patches,
Making lightning in the water.

The second verse, called wakku, cannot be independent; it has to complement
the first verse and make a single five-line poem when they are put
together. Juugo's verse certainly does so:

A cloud, trying to enwrap
The moonbeams, momentarily fails --
A winter shower.

Someone walking on icy patches,
Making lightning in the water.

Juugo has now placed a man on the scene. The shower has been made into puddles covered with thin ice on the road, and as a passerby steps on them the ice
breaks and the water splashes out, looking like small flashes of lightning in the reflected moonlight. To Tokoku's verse, Juugo's lines have added a
focal point and a sense of movement.

Now it was Yasui's turn. He composed the following verse:

The New Year's hunter,
On his back a quiver
Adorned with ferns.

We add this to Juugo's verse and get a new poem:

Someone walking on icy patches,
Making lightning in the water.

The New Year's hunter,
On his back a quiver
Adorned with ferns.

Juugo's couplet now assumes a somewhat different meaning. The season is not winter but early spring the hour is not night but early morning, and "someone" is not an ordinary passerby but a man going hunting in the New Year's season. Combined, the two verses present a
picture of a neatly dressed hunter hurrying to the woods in the chilly morning air. Though it is springtime on the calendar there are still some ice patches on the road, and as he steps on them the water splashes in the early morning sun. The sparkling water is in beautiful contrast to the green ferns, a New Year decoration that adorns the hunter's quiver.

All verses of a renku, except the first and the last, must work in two ways
like this one of Juugo's. Each must be a perfect complement to both the
preceding and the succeeding verse, in both cases creating an autonomous five-line poem. From the individual poet's point of view, each verse has a double meaning, one conscious, and the other unconscious. One of the factors that make renku writing exciting lies in the development of this unconscious meaning. A poet composes a verse, and a few minutes later, he
finds to his amusement that one of his teammates interprets it in a way he had not thought of. We shall see how this is done in the rest of "A Winter

The next poet to contribute a verse was Basho himself. As required, he made up a couplet and added it to Yasui's triplet:

The New Year's Hunter,
on his back a quiver
Adorned with ferns.

The northern gate is open And the beginning of springtime.

"The northern gate" is the service entrance of a palace -- the main gate usually in the south. According to Basho's interpretation, "the New Year's hunter" is not a real hunter hurrying to the woods, but a nobleman in a hunter's costume performing a rite of spring in the New Year's season. The
harsh, masculine atmosphere has become more elegant and courtly. In passing
we might note that in Japanese "open" and "begin" are one word, a choice reminiscent of the word play Basho employed in his early haiku.

The elegant mood is continued with a shocking twist in the next verse by Kakei:

The northern gate is open
and the beginning of springtime.

Over a fan
That brushes away the horse dung,
A hazy breeze.

The hunting theme has disappeared. Now that winter is over, a nobleman is
going out for a stroll, attended by several pages. As they step through the service gate, they encounter some horse dung, upon which one of the pages
takes out his fan and sweeps the dry, light dung out of the way. Even using such crude material the verse is hardly vulgar; it present a lovely spring scene with a graceful courtier and his pages in front of a palace.

The setting moves from the palace grounds to the countryside when Shoohei adds his verse to Kakei's;

Over a fan
That brushes away the horse dung,
A hazy breeze.

The tea master loves
Dandelion flowers on the roadside.

Here a tea master on his country stroll, finding that horse dung has buried some dandelions, takes pity and removes it with his fan. We might emember
that in the Japanese tea ceremony plain commonplace beauty like that of a
dandelion is especially admired. Shoohei's addition shifts the mood from courtly grace to rusticity.

The next verse, contributed by Juugo, focuses on the tea master's life:

The tea master loves
Dandelion flowers on the roadside.

At home the young maiden Reads an ancient romance
In a lovely pose.

This is a quiet, peaceful life indeed. While the father goes out to admire the wild dandelions, the daughter stays home and read an old romance. Being
a tea master's daughter, she must be lovely, graceful, and well versed in classical Japanese literature.

The scene becomes more dramatic with Tokoku's couplet:

At home the young maiden
Reads an ancient romance
In a lovely pose.

Two decorated lanterns
Competing to reveal the depth of love.

The girl is in dilemma, just like the heroine of the romance she is
reading. She is being wooed by two young men, each of whom has sent her a beautiful lantern. The lanterns are by her side and unconsciously disturb
her as she reads.

The theme of rivalry is expanded by Basho, who composed the next verse:

Two decorated lanterns
Competing to reveal the depths of love.

Dewdrops and bush clover
Wresting with each other
In a perfect match.

In the garden outside, bush clover is in bloom.

Over the numerous small pink blossoms blooming on long slender stems, shining dewdrops are
sprinkled. The dew tries to weigh down the flower and the flexible stems attempt to resist its weight: this is a perfect match. The rivalry between
shining dewdrops and pink bush clover can be compared to the rivalry in love represented by two decorated lanterns.



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 facsimle scroll of the original work purchased at the Museum of Art in Tokyo, Japan.