The Alchemy of Live Renku

Vol 2-1, March 2002

Written for the WHChaikuforum Renku Seminar:
“Traditional Renku in English”
via the Internet, led by Paul MacNeil

Christopher Herold

Washington, US
In Japan, historically, renku have almost always been composed face to face, up close and personal. In the West, where renku practice is still relatively new, composition is most often accomplished by way of the postal service or by e-mail. These long distance versions can be enjoyable and rewarding, but by far the most exhilarating and beneficial way to compose renku is to do it together, live. I can’t imagine it ever being otherwise.

Process is everything; live renku parties have the immediacy of response and teamwork that is lacking in the postal methods of composition. The closest approximation to live renku can be had by meeting in a chat room on the world-wide-web for the purpose. The response time is relatively fast, but there’s no physical proximity. The up-side is that people can participate from different countries, even different hemispheres, in the framework of the present moment. The down-side (other than not being able to party together) is that there is little in the way of current common experience upon which to base a poem. Snow may be falling in one location; the thermometer may be tipping 100º in another. One person may be connected from a cabin in the back woods of Maine, another from a posh condo on the French Riviera. The emphasis therefore, in these long distance renku, is on imaginative game playing and/or intellectual calisthenics. The full benefits of the process are unattainable.

Live renku are special. Sessions can be serious events, but far more often (at least in the West) they are festive occasions, complete with food and drink, discussion and conversation, laughter, and yes, tears. Most importantly, everyone is in the same geographical location, surrounded by the same meteorological, socio-political climate. Whatever distractions arise, arise for all in attendance. Poems unfold over the course of a few hours, perhaps an afternoon and evening. The flow is not impeded by lapses of days, weeks, or months during which life’s daily challenges intervene, demanding our attention — all while we wait for a single link to arrive in a letter or by e-mail. And even for those who may agree to meet and compose linked verse in a chat room, one poet will type faster than another, somebody’s computer will crash, and someone else may get routinely bumped off-line at inopportune moments. Time zone difficulties may limit the length of a meeting. And who wants to be stuck in a chair facing a computer monitor, fingertips hovering above a keyboard? No possibility of body language, no strolling about a friend’s home (hors d’oeuvres and wine in hand) admiring paintings, books or the view. No fascinating conversation with the group while poet C strives to focus on composing a moon verse. In short, no substitute for live performance.

The cocktail-party-style of live renku is not the only possibility however. There is also the type of meeting that includes everyone in the writing — the candidates submitting for every stanza. This type of session is much quieter, much more intense. But the immediacy, and the communal effort to cooperate in creating a work of art is equally manifest. And when a particular verse choice is being made by the group (or the presiding master), the same excitement and anticipation is present. At those times of discussion and decision, so very much can be learned-about renku, each other, the world, and about ourselves.

Happily, live renku is on the rise, particularly during the past eight or nine years. I myself have had the great good fortune to participate often in meetings of the Marin Renku Group, quite possibly the first renku club outside of Japan, and most probably the longest running renku group of any writing in English today. The group began in 1988 and continues to write regularly today. I’ve also participated in many live renku sessions of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society. Renku is only one facet of The Yuki Teikei Society, and the meetings are not regular, as are those of the Marin Group. Yuki Teikei renku are usually organized for special occasions as they arise.

The biggest difference between these groups is that each member of the Marin Group composes renku takes turns, then deciding, democratically, if a stanza is acceptable, or if the poet must try again. There’s a strong feeling of close-knit friendship, and the atmosphere is decidedly party-like. On the other hand, the Yuki Teikei poets are free to make an attempt at every stanza, and it is up to the haiku master to choose from those while the candidate’s offered. The mood is most often formal and generally tends to be more serious. In the beginning, almost all of the poets in both groups were new to renku.

When the Yuki Teikei group first held renku sessions, Kiyoko Tokutomi was the master, but as years passed other poets acquired enough knowledge of the craft to assume responsibility. What joy! Several poets would meet at an appointed place for the purpose of composing a communal poem, a renku. The possibilities are unlimited-on the palette, the universe! Each poet mixes the colors of mood, dips an imaginary brush and adds a stroke of inspiration to the group canvas. There are rules and restrictions, plenty of them, but the ultimate rule is balanced expansion. It’s what makes everything possible. All things become involved: politics, religion, music, grammar, conservatism and rebellion; mountains, beasts, flowers, and weather . . . all within the dynamics of the renku family on hand. The renku master (if one is designated) has a function similar to the conductor of an orchestra. The task: to expand the renku as much as possible within a given number of stanzas. This must be done in a balanced and interesting way, taking as much into consideration as can be without bogging down the process. Not just placing seasonal, or non-seasonal, or love sequences properly, or moon and blossom stanzas; not just minimizing repetition, or insuring that links are clear enough and shifts sufficiently dramatic; not just seeing that grammar is suitably varied.

The biggest job is that of harmonizing people. There is a spectrum of personalities present. John is a pissant, Martha a wee bit insecure; Larry is imaginative, Dave pragmatic, and Lisa can’t get the tongue out of her cheek (no reference to particular poets intended). Levels of experience must be considered. Roy’s a newcomer, Sarah has been writing renku for years and has even judged the Einbond Renku contest (again, the poets’ names are fictitious). The crux of this work is to learn to cooperate as a group, getting everyone involved to the degree that each feels comfortable. It takes a discerning renku master (or experienced group) to accomplish this — and to still create a classy poem to boot. Too much attention to the personalities present, and the renku (as an entity) will likely suffer. The renku form itself, as handed down over many years, is the very thing that provides us with these special opportunities to learn how to work together. Sacrifice it, for whatever reason, and the work ceases to be renku. It falls flat. But sacrifice the poets for a poem, and renku becomes a tyrant. Balance is the key.

The tai chi of renku: moving ahead while seeing to it that everyone and everything is balanced, including the pertinence of the poem to the poets involved as juxtaposed to the accessibility of the poem to others who aren’t. Anything can come into play, but too much cleverness, too much intellect, being too specific or too vague, too poetic . . . too much anything, will unbalance the process of expansion and decrease the possibility of being drawn into the wonder of the renku universe. What I hope to have conveyed, with all of this, is that renku is a very special gift, one that is much needed in a world so full of misunderstanding and strife.

By writing renku together we learn (through linking) to demonstrate our acceptance and understanding of what other people have to say and (by shifting) to express our own unique views in our own inimitable ways. Renku has the effect of guiding us humans toward accepting each other’s differences and moving forward, together, in a positive and harmonious manner. This is true for all methods of renku writing, whether by mail, on the web, or in person. The postal varieties can put us in touch with people around the globe, something that live renku can do only with the presence of visiting poets. The in person variety has the unparalleled power of the present moment and place, of lifefulness, and interplay on all levels.

Renku is a most venerable and beneficial form of expression. While entertaining us, it provides a means to grow both individually and communally, as well as nurturing a healthy evolution of the human spirit. If you are interested in renku, or are writing by mail only, I highly recommend (if at all possible) finding or establishing a local group of poets who can get together regularly to practice. In my opinion it is by far the best way to realize and to appreciate what renku has to offer.
This essay was originally posted on Wednesday July 19, 2000, in the 9th instalment of the first WHC Renku Seminar, led by Paul MacNeil.

Biography of Christopher Herold

Christopher Herold wrote his first haiku in 1968 during a training session at a Soto Zen Buddhist Monastery. He didn’t know his poem was a haiku until the head monk read it and said “Nice haiku!” Since then his works, which include tanka, haibun, renku, senryu, and essays have been published in numerous journals, magazines and anthologies, often winning awards. Mr. Herold serves as a poetry judge from time to time. He co-judged the 1997 and the 1998 Lionel Einbond Renku Contests for the Haiku Society of America.

In 1999 two kasen renku written by Mr. Herold, along with is wife, Carol O’Dell, were awarded a tandem Grand Prize in the Einbond contest. Also that year he was appointed to be renku guide for the East-West ’99 Renku, the second-ever live, on-line renku party. In 2000 he won second place (with John Stevenson) and an honorable mention (again with Carol O’Dell) in the Einbond competition.

This past year, another kasen (with Mark Brooks) also won the Einbond grand prize. Mr. Herold was a long time member of the Marin Renku Group, most probably the first group of renku poets outside of Japan to meet on a regular basis to write linked verse in person. Herold is a past president of the Haiku Poets of Northern California, and co-edited their quarterly journal, Woodnotes. He has been a guest editor for Two Autumns Press and the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society’s magazine, The Geppo. Mr. Herold has taught haiku in schools and is often invited to present workshops for adults. His books include In Other Words, Coincidence (both out of print), and Voices of Stone (going into its fifth printing). A Path in the Garden, Mr. Herold’s first collection of haiku since 1987, released by Katsura Press, is still available through the author. Just recently this book was awarded second place in the Haiku Society of America’s Merit Book Awards.

Another collection, In the Margins of the Sea, was released by Snapshot Press in Great Britain at about the same time as A Path in the Garden. It too is available from the author. Mr. Herold now lives in Port Townsend, Washington with his family. Currently he edits the internationally acclaimed monthly journal of haiku, The Heron’s Nest (published both in hard copy and via the Internet at:

For more information about Christopher Herold’s book, A Path in the Garden, please click on the following link:


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