New Haiku in AHG & a Memoriam for John Carley

I suspect I’ve written posts about Haibun Today and A Hundred Gourds each March over the last couple of years – but here we are again with new issues!

Haibun Today‘s latest has heaps of great pieces, one of my favs is by Lynn Wohlwend – check it out here.

A Hundred Gourds includes one of my haiku right here – which I couldn’t find at first because I’m hopeless I think! Luckily editor Lorin Ford reminded me of the index 🙂

HEAPS of great stuff there, where I also wanted to draw your attention to the Memoriam for John Carley, a generous, witty man and someone I, along with many others, considered a mentor in the renku world. He is missed though thankfully his work will not be forgotten.

Thank you, John.

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)

An Introduction to Haiku – Compositional Techniques 2

Sense Switching

“Sense switching” is a great technique for surprising and delighting the reader. A haiku poet might use it to engage the reader by introducing something unexpected in the poem or to connect two seemingly unrelated events or images. You can do this through careful placement of information across the phrase and fragment. Here, sense switching is illustrated by what’s perhaps the most famous haiku of all, Bashō’s “Old Pond” haiku:

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

—trans by Jane Reichhold

The poem starts off by focusing on an image—on the visual—but by the end, the sense has been switched from sight to sound.

Again, we see the use of phrase and fragment, where the visual aspect appears in the fragment and sound element appears in the phrase. What’s especially impressive about this haiku is the way the movement of the frog leads to the transition from sight to sound, neatly tying the elements of the poem together and avoiding the “list-like” haiku.

Here’s one of my own verses, featuring the same switch:

through the shutters
a single fly
carries the chug of boats

This poem, while far less graceful, uses different subjects but the same senses. The reader should go from watching the fly pass through the shutters to listening to the chug of boats enter the room.

Narrowing the Focus

“Narrowing the focus” is a similar technique, a change occurs over the phrase and fragment. A haiku begins with a broad description of a scene in the first line, then takes a progressively closer view of something over the following lines (generally the phrase portion of the verse).

This can be seen in the haiku by Graham Nunn, featured earlier in these posts:

distant thunder
each stroke of the oar
stirs the clouds

Line one establishes a broad view before we shift closer with line two, to the moving oar, before the poem finishes with a micro view of the oar tip, as it stirs clouds which have been reflected in the water. “Narrowing the focus” can be achieved if you think of your poem like a camera—begin with an establishing shot, then move to the subject for a close up, and finally an extreme close up where the most telling detail of your poem is revealed.

This technique is favoured by haiku writers seeking to establish an intimacy between subject and viewer, and can be useful in drawing attention to something seemingly insignificant—but which becomes poetic through either its position in the wider world or the lens through which the poet views it. In Nunn’s poem the ripple of the water is both a disruption of the image of the clouds, and a precursor to the approaching storm, a kind of calm that’s depicted as always fleeting.


The last technique I’ll explore is Shiki’s theory of shasei. In shasei, the poet attempts to “sketch from life” by writing directly and simply, without a focus on other techniques. Instead, this approach attempts to represent an experience “in the moment”, or an image or a scene “just as it appears”. These types of haiku strive for simplicity and reject artifice (which is especially unappealing in a traditional haiku). Here’s one from Shiki himself:

spring day
a long line of footprints
on the sandy beach

—trans by Yuzuru Miura

It begins very simply by establishing the scene, written as a fact and showing something the writer has observed. This haiku could be reduced to very basic units; spring, day, footprints and sand. When the modifier “long” appears, a sense of time is introduced and we might ask ourselves, “who walked here before me?”

Actually, asking “who walked here before me?” is a useful way to describe the key to shasei—the directly observed experience. To write in this style, the poet personally experiences some sight or moment, then composes it “live”. The poet goes out and sees the footprints in the sand. This is part of the reason why the ginko or “haiku-walk” is popular: The poet actually goes outside, often into picturesque landscapes, and simply walks, unhurriedly, until they see a striking image.

If writing a haiku in the shasei tradition, remember to state what you observe in the simplest of terms.

Amalfi Coast – the ‘chug of boats’

Composing Your Own

Try these techniques and approaches in your own haiku and see if they make a difference. While there are many other techniques out there, and trying them out is important, it’s just as useful to keep your observation skills sharp and to be direct in your expression.

Haiku has a long history and its evolution has sometimes occurred simultaneously in multiple countries. What used to be scripture and what’s current practice can always be bounced off of each other—just as what works in one literary tradition or era won’t always have the same effect here and now.

  • And so instead of counting syllables, count a single breath: Does your poem feel like a mouthful? If so, maybe there are too many words.
  • Remember the phrase and fragment approach, which incorporates the important “cut”—but remember, not all cuts need to be sharp!
  • Remember also that the phrase and fragment is the hinge upon which the haiku’s prosody hangs, and it can further serve as a compositional framework.
  • Instead of searching for the perfect classical kigo, find a referent that suits your culture, your experience of the season.
  • And finally, instead of cramming multiple ideas, images or techniques into one verse, go for something that isn’t overburdened, and something that takes the reader somewhere unexpected.

Thank you

First and foremost to Graham Nunn, for allowing me to quote from his work, for teaching me so much about haiku, and for inspiring my thoughts on the techniques. I’d also like to thank Alex Cabal for helping to get the article up to shape, and for publishing it first, and to John Carley, renku master, for his valuable feedback too!

New Renku up at the Snail

Issa’s Snail, a space I put together for renku/renga (a form of collaborative verse) after participating in the Cordite ‘Haikunaut Island Renga‘ just finished it’s latest Triparshva renku, you can find it here, along with Junicho & the current, ongoing Kasen, led by Graham Nunn.

John Carley, a highly knowledgeable man, has greatly assisted me & the other writers at the Snail, it’s brilliant to have him and we’re looking forward to the next renku.

In our current Triparshva you will find verses by

Barbara A Taylor
Colin Stewart Jones
Genevieve Osborne
John Carley
Sandra Simpson
William Sorlien

and by many others elsewhere on the site!