Follow This! Renku Games

MAY 2001

WHC Haikuforum: Renku

Reader Participation With Renku Verses
Paul MacNeil

Let us play an updated way of a very old Japanese poetry game, “tan-renga” or “tanrenga” (short renga).

This form of joint composition of a poem (not a dialogue but a communal effort) dates from at least the Eighth Century.   Through the years tan-renga became a diversion from writing the five-line “waka” (from which modern tanka descended) in the 5-7-5-7-7 format of sounds or beats of sound in Japanese.  A poet would write the first part, 5-7-5, and leave it to someone else to complete (the 7-7).  This became something of a fad.  In later times, when reproduction by printing became widespread and affordable, local “experts” would stage contests.  One “master” would start the verse, collect fees from entrants,  judge the winner and pay part of the fees to that person, and publicize the winning verse.  The announcement of the next contest might conveniently (for the entrepreneur) be on the same sheet of paper.

It is theorized that this practice led to continuation to the next longer part (5-7-5 again), it’s “linkage” to another shorter one…and so forth.  This might be likened to when Jazz music flowed up and down the Mississippi River in the USA and became: The Birth of The Blues.   Or in this analogy: The Birth of Renga.  Yes, in the centuries before Basho’s era (the 17th) the Royal Court took to longer renga and elevated it to an art.   It developed many rules.  Masters handed them down, often secretly, along the male lineage.  Renga was written to 100 and even 1,000 stanzas.  50 was a short one.  In the century before Basho when literacy and interest in poetry spread apace, a different type of renga split off from the Court Style.  It used the idiom of the more common populace.  This writing,  less rarefied and less based in Chinese literature, became “haikai no renga” —  now known in Japan as “renku.”  The term “renga” is a reference today to the style of the courtiers and poets before the 16th and 17th Centuries.  Basho did not invent haikai no renga, but he certainly popularized and advanced its literary reputation.  His usual practice was to write to 36 verses, a kasen renku.

Rather than just providing you, the Readers, with one verse as a lead-in, I have decided to show two to give more context.  Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to give the third.

World Haiku Review Reader Participation Renku


For this premier, quarterly issue, here is the first renku pair for FOLLOW THIS!

Open Water,  a  winter kasen renku

written via Internet from February — May, 2000
by Cindy Zackowitz, Ferris Gilli, A. C. Missias, Paul MacNeil

a prickly blanket under us
as the fireworks begin

14. acm                            (a summer verse)

many spears
in the flanks of beasts
on the cave wall                 (no season)

15. pwm


Two lines, no season, indoors is preferable, humans possible, but not in first person, and not a plural human reference. Do not reuse any of the major words or topics from either of these stanzas.

These stanzas come from the middle section of this renku, the “ha” part, which in the West we identify as pages two and three, stanzas 7-30.  It is pretty wide open for you regarding topics… made much easier in this game by you not seeing and being bound by the earlier 13 verses.  A method of linking may be pretty inventive if you wish, and you may leap wildly to another subject in your shifting.

In the next Issue, I’ll reveal the actual #16 written by Cindy Zackowitz and print a lot of your suggested versions.  Send them to me, Paul MacNeil, at:

by the deadline: June 30, 2001
Please refer in the subject header and body of text to: 
! Game #1


A second, separate game for you… a little more difficult?

Echoes of Sparrows, a winter kasen renku
written via Internet from  February — June 1999
by A. C. Missias, Paul MacNeil, Ferris Gilli

winter sun
echoes of sparrows fill
the stone courtyard                        1 (acm)  winter-hokku

from spruce to spruce
branch-loads of snow                    2 (pm)  winter- wakiku


3 lines, winter optional or no-season, some humanity likely, inside setting preferred.

This #3 verse, the “daisan” should push off, be a different time and place from the first two and especially from the penultimate stanza, #1 the hokku.  The “wakiku,” (second verse) while still shifting, is intended to be quite close to the hokku in time and place.

As this is the “jo” or opening verses, page one, there should be no: religion (or magical fiction), past remembrance (or old age or sickness), love,  proper names, or alcohol.  In other words for this first page (1-6) nothing too exciting, controversial, shocking, or unpleasant.  That may all come anytime from #7 onward.

Please use none of the keywords from either of the previous two verses, and do try to vary the sentence structure.  This #3 could begin with an adjective as the hokku did, but best not.  It should not begin with a preposition as the #2, “wakiku,” did.

A last thing  —  with rare exception, the #3 stanza or any of those 35 following the hokku should not be a haiku, a cut verse or at least not one with a strong separation (no kireji, caesura, or punctuation– usually.  As “variety” in all things is to be prized in renku, there are exceptions. Some limited use of the interrogative, question mark (?) or of explanation mark (!) could be allowed.) As Fukuda-sensei said: “The rules are guidelines …”

Remember to Link, Shift, and Smile.  It may be elegant and might produce an artwork, but it is after all a game.

Each verse in the first page (first side of the first sheet of paper in the Japanese model) is far more stylized than most of the other (30) verses of a kasen renku.  The first three or so have the most tradition.  Some call this “Tradition” the rules.  The rules will set you free.

When meeting to write in person, the group’s most honored member or guest is offered the hokku. The host is usually the second player. The next most experienced renku person would go third.  Of course, players may take turns even if a master is present, especially if they write together regularly.  The composing of the renku’s true haiku, the hokku, is a great honor.  The Poem (as a whole it is a poem, only the hokku may stand alone) usually takes its name from the hokku.   In this case with Echoes of Sparrows, acm, Ferris and I were taking turns in a series of renku; it was a democracy among us.

In the next Issue of the World Haiku Review, I shall show the actual daisan composed by Ferris and a goodly number of what you, the Readers,  e-mail to me, Paul MacNeil at:

by the deadline: June 30, 2001

Please refer in the subject header and body of text to: 
Renku — FOLLOW THIS! Game # 2


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