Renga – Montage on Paper

Simply put, ‘renga’ is a cinematic poetry.

It’s also a Japanese form of collaborative, linked verse, which intercuts between “panoramic view[s] of nature and human sceneries”[i] and thus has much in common with film. Both forms are authored by a group of contributors and both forms have a ‘director,’ (or leader) – in renga, this person is known as the sabaki. The sabaki’s responsibilities are many, from verse selection and alteration, to guiding participants through the structure.

As a poetic form, ‘renga’ is at least 800 years old. It is still practised around the world, though today it is more commonly referred to as ‘renku.’ Whichever term is used, thanks to the internet, renga is spreading into other languages and cultures.

In order to understand renku, some familiarity with haiku is useful – not in the least because the lead verse of the renga, the hokku, is the precursor to what we now call a haiku. Traditionally haiku is a minimalist, imagistic poem reflecting the natural world. Use of kigo (season-words), ‘cutting words’ instead of punctuation, and a strict syllable count totalling seventeen, are important features of the poem.

So what does a renga look like? If you’ve never seen one, think of renga as an interconnected chain of haiku. Connections in renku are vital, because what happens between verses, is where the action lies. It’s the leaps of understanding a writer (and a reader) must make from verse to verse that makes renga so subtle and so addictive to write.

Further, a renga must ‘always be looking forward.’ It should also be a unified work. For this to happen, writers have several principles to guide composition, chief of which is ‘Link and Shift.’ I’ll try demonstrate the principles theoretically before providing a concrete example.

Firstly, when read, verse one will have a close relationship or ‘link,’ with verse two. Verse two and three will also be linked, but verse three should not refer back verse one – and so the pattern continues, with verse four having no relation to verse two and so on throughout the renga. Secondly, it is necessary that from verse to verse, some sort of ‘shift’ of focus occurs. In this manner, a renku always moves forward thematically, while maintaining internal connections.

Here’s an example, the opening of a twelve-verse renku, the Junicho form:

summer visitors
the children show off
marble-sized pumpkins

careless laughter
filling blue watering cans

at the picasso exhibit
a shadow
crosses the wall[ii]

Between verse one and two, ‘children’ can link to ‘careless laughter.’ Further, both verses imply a garden as their location, bringing in a second level of linkage. Kigo allows for a third level of linking, that of season, as both verses bring summer to mind.

Next comes the link between verse two and three, represented by the ‘blue’ of the watering can and the more subtle, implied reference to Picasso’s famous ‘Blue Period’ in the third verse.

So even as links unify the poem, each verse still shifts from the other. Firstly, from the outdoor world of nature and the garden with its ‘vegetables’ then its ‘watering can,’ we move indoors, shifting focus, to the human world of paintings and shadow. There is also a shift in mood, as a potentially ominous element is introduced. Finally, between verses one and three, there are no links, and across the whole poem so far, no words or images are repeated. In this way, the renku strives to never ‘look over its shoulder.’

It’s a challenging but immensely satisfying art form. If you’re interested in renku, amazing resources abound on the internet. The Renku Home, started by the late William J Higginson, the Renku Reckoner, maintained by John Carley and Jane Reichhold’s site, are all brimming with useful information. All sites have examples, theory and The Reckoner includes exercises. Issa’s Snail too, might be worth a look, an online space open to newcomers.

So find a group, join up and try your hand at renga! A wide range of forms exist, from the popular Kasen at 36 verses (great for a larger group of writers) to the Junicho at 12 verses and even John Carley’s 4 verse form, the Yotsumono (for two poets.) And read a few renku – once you can see the leaps a writer took between verses, you’ll find it easier to make your own when you participate in one.

Best of all, jump right in! Start writing – a good sabaki will always help you.



[ii] From the Junicho ‘Summer Visitors

Melissa Allen  (v1) Max Stites ( v2) Ashley Capes (v3)
Ashley Capes (sabaki)

(first published in WQ, Queensland Writers Centre)