Japanese Poetry Patterns

Renga Definition

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Renga: An Introduction and a Definition

As Jane Reichhold wrote in her Narrow Road to Renga, renga, "started out as a game for tired tanka writers." While judges met to choose winners in the tanka competitions, poets would amuse themselves by passing around folded papers on which were written several sets of 5-7-5 and 7-7 links with the names of the authors signed beside them. A poet would read the last link, respond to it with one of his own, then pass the paper on. Sequences written in this verse-capping manner came to be known as renga. Eventually the rules for renga became even more complex than those for tanka—so that a judge (called a renga-master) often was appointed to enforce them.

On the surface, a renga looks simple. A 3-line introductory verse (called a hokku) establishes the situation and usually indicates both season and setting. The 2-line cap states a new thought or perception, but it is connected in some way to the previous 3-line link (not, however, to others preceding it). Links might be related through obvious cause/effect or comparison/contrast, or they might be less obvious, even surprising or puzzling. A renga continues to alternate 3-line/2-line verses throughout, never following a verse with one of the same length unless the participants have so agreed.

A single renga can go on for hundreds, even thousands, of links. One containing 10,000 links has been reported, but about 100 seems a practical limit today, and that is seldom reached. Matsuo Basho, a 17th century tanka/haiku master and arguably the greatest poet Japan has produced, introduced a renga of 36 links, called a Kasen renga, that is perhaps the most popular with Western writers.

Renga do not tell stories in the usual sense. They connect thoughts and images suggesting an overall picture, theme, idea or emotion. A great part of the fun of renga is the surprise, the imaginative leaps and tangents explored along the way.

Renga do, however, employ a set pattern. Traditionally, the title of a Kasen renga derives from the opening link, the hokku. The first 6 verses serve as an introduction, the middle section offers variations on themes and other surprises, and the final 6 form a more closely linked set of images for the conclusion.

Classical renga have more guidelines than we can reasonably go into here, but we should mention that traditionally, the moon is mentioned in links 5, 14, and 29 of a Kasen renga, and flowers in links 17 and 34. Other guidelines involve the use of words depicting a season, the avoidance of certain subjects, and limitations on the use of particular words. The word insect, according to one rule, should be used only once per hundred verses.

Though each link must establish a relationship with the link preceding it, it should not refer to links previous to that one. Thus, there is seldom much repetition of images or subject matter beyond the required moon and flower references. Those images, however, serve to add cohesion to the whole.

Each link in a renga (except the first and last) should really be read twice: once with the link preceding it and once with the link following it. Each link is thus part of two small poems and may provide different meanings or perceptions in each.

Renga is, first and foremost, a social activity, as are many forms in Japanese literature and art, and as such is most often written by two or more collaborators. There is, however, a solo renga, entirely the work of one individual. Such renga tend to be linked more logically, more sequentially, and so sometimes more closely resemble a story. Since that isn't usually the purpose of renga, it's best to have at least one partner to encourage variety.

Before beginning, collaborators traditionally set rules for that particular renga. They might stipulate themes, subject matter, kinds of links, length of the completed renga, etc. Some renga consist entirely of 2-line links; some allow links of only 1 line, but those are less frequent.

Western writers (for better or worse) allow themselves more freedom than the classics provide, though even traditional renga varied from the norm at times. Western renga is still developing, so the differences could widen.

1994, 2006 Larry Gross; based on material from his book How to Write and Publish Poetry.

Created 060211
Updated 080927

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