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hokku - renga or renku - Haikai-no-renga

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Explore the Craft of Writing Poetry

Japanese Poetry


Renga, Renku, or Haikai-no-renga is the linked poem discipline developed by Basho. It is a cooperative poem of many stanzas. Poets, (2 or more) gather to create a spontaneous poem of alternating 17 syllable (5-7-5), 14 syllable (7-7) stanzas. A popular form of Renga is written in 36 stanzas known as kasen renku. The custom dates back to 13th century Japan.


The poets in rotation take turns writing the stanzas. The poem begins with the hokku (5-7-5) recording when and where the gathering occurs, see below. The next stanza (7-7) is usually written by the host, in response to the subtle compliment suggested in the hokku. From there the stanzas are written in turn by the various members of the assembly in an alternating (5-7-5), (7-7) pattern. The poem is ended in a tanka (short poem) which combines 2 renga stanzas into 1. (5-7-5-7-7)


The renga or renku is not meant as a narrative, it doesn't tell a sequential story. It is meant to move around, the stanzas should "link and shift" Bruce Ross, How to Haiku. The stanzas link in some subtle way to the previous stanza only, not the whole poem. The link can be through a word, a mood an idea set in the previous stanza. It "develops texture by shifting among several traditional topics without narrative progress" William Higgins, The Haiku Handbook.


The Renga or Renku is:

  • syllabic. Alternating stanzas, usually of 5-7-5 and 7-7 syllables. (onji or sound symbol for which there is no exact translation in English, the closest we can come is syllable)
  • a cooperative poem, written by 2 or more poets.
  • spontaneous.
  • composed with stanzas or verses that "link and shift", it does not tell a sequential story. Can have over a 100 verses (hyakuin renku), but the most popular form is to end at 36 known as kasen renku. (nijuin =20 verses, hankasen = 18 verses, shishi = 16 verses, jusanbutsu = 13 verses & junicho or shisan = 12 verses
  • structured with a beginning, middle and end. Hokku (starting verse), followed by linked verses, and ends with a Tanka (small poem).
  • connected to the seasons. Although the hokku indicates the season in which the gathering occurs, somewhere within the renga, there should be verses referring to each of the seasons to create a complete circle.


    The following isn't a full renga but the stanzas are written by different poets and it gives you an idea of the pattern of stanzas and "link and shift".


    shade of giant tree

    lacy shadows cool poets

    summer parasol

    --- jkt (hokku by guest poet)


    walk of friendship warms the feet

    the head cooled by task at hand

    ---jvg (host's response, wakiku or side verse)


    those who walked before

    never turned to look for us

    but left their footprints

    ---fj (daisan, the third)


    walk with a poet awhile

    cool sand between tanned toes



    a walk in the woods

    putrescent trees on the ground

    life for small creatures

    --- mm


    the smallest life is my life

    I sit in stillness and write.

    --- jvg


    perhaps a poet,

    summer, spring, winter, or fall,

    will abide with me.

    --- cl


    time ever moves without pause

    a circle, new life to old



    winter snow is back

    beginning new coverup

    to spring's confusion



    crystal covers burrowed home

    I snuggle under down quilt



    Small gray rabbit melts

    prone into soft snow furrow

    I'm really not here

    --- bh


    the pocket of a soldier

    carries my letter from home

    --- jkt


    in God's Name we war

    hate can grow in any season

    we feel no sorrow

    --- rab


    sorrow holds regret

    for loss of what went before

    loss of what did not

    spring to winter, back to spring

    circle of life, love and hate

    --- jvg (tanka)

  • Hokku, (opening verse) is the introduction to the Renga or Renku, a communal poem. Poets gather to write a Renga, a kind of poem writing party. Usually as a compliment to the host, one of the guest poets writes the hokku. The purpose of the hokku is to record the logistics of the gathering, when (season, month and/or time of day) and where (natural setting) the renga or renku gathering occurred as a compliment to the host. This custom dates back to 13th century Japan.


    The hokku is the precursor of the stand alone, haiku that came into popularity a bit later. It is this hokku rule of time and place that was carried over into the later haiku which established naming a season with images of the environment as elements of the traditional haiku.


    The hokku is:

    • syllabic, 17 syllables or less. (onji or sound symbol for which there is no exact translation in English, the closest we can come is syllable)
    • commonly written in 3 lines of 5-7-5 syllables.
    • names the season, month, and/or time of day as well as the location where the Renga gathering occurs. All of the above can be named through symbols of the season etc.
    • usually written by a guest poet.


      If I were the guest poet writing a hokku in this time and place, (summer in Northern California) I could write a hokku something like,


      shade of giant tree

      lacy shadows cool poets

      summer parasol


  • Nijuin is a 20 stanza renga introduced by 20th century renga master Meiga Higashi. The form not only has the limited # of stanzas, it is the shortest of the rengas, but it also divides the poem into 3 sections. The first 4 stanzas begin in Spring, the next 12 travel through the seasons including love and moon verses and the last 4 stanzas end back in Spring.

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