Renku Training for Today’s Haiku poet

summer 2005

WHF2005 in Romania
Raffael de Gruttola, US

One of my interests in writing this essay was generated by the fact that the Japanese poetic forms historically evolve one from the other. Another reason is that many haiku poets in the West are unfamiliar with the renku form and style as well as the techniques for linking and shifting as an antecedent to writing good haiku.

In the 7th Century, the Waka, now called Tanka, originated consisting of 5-7-5-7-7 moji, or Japanese sounds, which are not identical with the manner in which we weigh sounds as syllables in English. The tanka usually had 31 moji. The top half, 5-7-5 would be composed by one poet followed by the bottom half, that is the 7-7, by the other poet, and so we would have a single renga or ‘Tan-Renga’ as it is called today.

We can attribute the first renga anthology to Nijo Yoshimoto (1320-1388) who compiled the Tsukuba Anthology (Tsukubashu) in 1356. He was the first to start developing the renga rules. But it was Shinkei (1406-1475) who developed the aesthetics of the form by combining Waka, Renga, and Buddhism. Later Shinkei’s disciples, Sogi (1421-1502) and Kenzai (1452-1510) compiled the New Tsukuba Anthology (Shinsen Tsukubashu) in 1495.

It was Basho (1644-1694), however, in the 17th Century, who combined traditional aesthetics and the culture of the common people to popularize renga throughout the country. He depicted everyday culture in everyday language. Haikai-no-Renga, or haikai, for short, became the popular poetry of the day and was practiced by many. And though it was Basho who took the first verse of the haikai, called the hokku, to another level, the practice of writing haikai had already permeated the culture of the times. Prior to this practice, poets were writing haiku as independent verses; however, the culture of collaborative writing among poets had thoroughly embraced the people as a popular pastime. In fact, it became too popular and vulgar, so much so that Basho left Edo, modern day Tokyo, to wander and meet with other poet friends to maintain a certain integrity to the quality of the haikai. The renga was a perfect form to practice and learn different techniques for the craft of writing.

It might be noted that after the Middle Ages in the West, the development of language its usage was always the practice of the poets and songwriters like Basho, and not so much the academicians. Later, with the rules of grammar and language development, more of this activity was deferred to scholars at the university level. It’s at the universities that two disciplines of study were created: one is concerned with the history of language development and the other with the art of literary criticism.

It’s important to note this difference, because the development of the renku art is predicated on the history of language-usage. In the West, the separation of these two different disciplines, that is, the history of language as compared to the art of literary criticism, creates different understandings and interpretations of language-usage, as well as the literary art itself. The West moves more toward the achievement of the individual artist and his or her imagination and not to communal activity of poets. The renku art form does not become important in the West until the later part of the 20th Century.

As Tadashi Kondo emphasizes, “When the Edo period was over and the Meiji period began in 1868, Japan was flooded with Western cultures. The individualistic literary theory, which was introduced from the West, smothered the spirit of renku. Renku sank in the waves of the cultural revolution.” However, as time passed, there was a movement in Japan to revive renku as literature. In 1985 the Japanese Renku Association was established by a small number of poets and scholars to undertake this task. Today, the Association has more than 1500 members. When R.H. Blyth’s books on haiku and his History of Haiku were published in the West (1949), and History in 1963, haiku became the poetic form and poem that attracted Western writers independent of any understanding of renku.

What is renku then? Some define it as a chain of images with rules as to how these images relate to each other. There are as many rules which have become standard in the practice of writing renku as there are schools of thought. Each new generation of writers adds to these rules and creates new rules as they devise new methods to interpret the old rules. There are standards, however, that have been maintained for centuries. One group of poets defines the rules by the number of links and the time it takes to complete a certain number of links.

In Basho’s day, the thirty-six link form called Kasen was most popular; however, today modern renku tends to become even shorter. We have the twenty-link or stanza form called Nijuin and the Twelve-Tone Junicho and Shisan verse forms. In one of my groups in Boston we’ve developed a twenty-four link form that we call Bluenotes which combines two twelve-tone forms into an expanded blues form relating thematically to the American music concept of the blues.

The Japanese have spent centuries analyzing and describing techniques on how linking takes place. Basho, and one of his disciples, Shiko wrote how certain linking and shifting relationships and techniques were to be used. Tadashi Kondo has written an excellent paper on the linking patterns of the Japanese poets. Basho’s contribution to this phenomenon is well known if not practiced.

The dogged nature of individualism in the West, however, confounds the spirit of renku, which is a communal experience. Again as Tadashi Kondo expresses, “Renku requires both a micro and macro view of the universe which he calls a mandalic view. This means that the collaborating spirit is indispensable in renku.”

In the West, the concept of renku is often defined as a non-narrative exposition, which proceeds, unimpeded toward an ultimate abstraction imbedded in a stream of consciousness. Many writers of renku have explored this approach and technique with expertise and wonder. The search for the unknown is expressed in all phases of Western culture and literature. The Western writer of renku works with the Japanese rules of the art-form, but does not comprehend fully the search for meaning based on the cultural connections and the communal feeling of the experience. They will write renku over the world-wide net, in letters or even postcards, without sharing the dialogue that is so important in finding precise meanings for each word or phrase discussed.

The history of word and phrase-usage eludes us because we are working from a different starting premise. That is, we are looking for a current meaning or interpretation, and not the change in usage that the word or phrase has undergone over a period of time. The individual quality of the perception becomes the deciding factor in the analysis of meaning. Let me use an example. In a recent renku I did in Japan, my hokku was to commemorate the 360th Birthday Celebration of Matsuo Basho— with Japanese poets—one of whom was the sabaki whose saijiki is used extensively throughout Japan today. As the guest poet at this celebration, I was asked to write the hokku for my group. My opening hokku was:
miles from home
on a withered branch
a crow has settled

I had also suggested:

miles from home
on a withered branch
a tattered crow
I wanted to make reference to Basho’s famous haiku:

on a bare branch
a raven has perched—
autumn dusk
The discussion with the sabaki centered on the use of the words ‘tattered’ and ‘withered,’ which he said did not have the same meaning as I had hoped; by using these words, another meaning was generated apart from my intent. Instead of commemorating Basho, they created distraction. He consulted his saijiki, then explained to me the use of the two words in question and what their meanings meant in today’s usage. The issue here was that words carry a history of usage, and therefore, we must respect the changes in meaning from one period of time in history to another. After some discussion I changed by hokku to:

miles from home
a withered crow
under basho leaves
We know that, at the time Basho wrote his famous haiku, he was at odds with the current literary establishment in Edo and the superficiality of the language being used by the poets. I was trying to recreate Basho’s feeling at the time by the use of two words I had thought would bring to light the unusual circumstances of that period of time—that is, the year 1680 in Japan. Basho’s poem, as William Higginson indicates, was the basis for Basho’s school of renku poetry.

Kengo Hokibuchi, the sabaki, followed my hokku with

swishing a paint brush
to the day moon
which brings us to the present time and day of the birthday celebration this past October. ‘Moon’ takes us to the traditional autumn season, which it was; the swish of the paintbrush, for me, indicates a passage of time relating to my hokku and intent. I make reference to this event because it clarified, for me, the importance of the renku experience in the development of the haiku poet. The links that take place as poets work together give weight to depth of the experience, due not only to this placement in time, but also because of the importance of the history of language usage. This etymological concern is so important in how meaning and usage evolves.

I want to return to the early renku poet/monk, Shinkei because, for many, he is considered “the father of renku.” As mentioned, he developed the aesthetics of the form by combining waka, renga, and Buddhism in the 15th Century. In Shinkei’s time, the training of a young poet included the study of renga through established poets. The teaching-poets would instruct the young poet as to the nature of his links. Only occasionally would they talk about the aesthetics of the judgment. The primary concern was to clarify the meaning, and how the link related to the season, the place of composition and the specific occasion. As always, the season was important to the context of the meaning. The young poet would also learn the importance of past interpretations of the particular hokku according to the three stages of poetic practice, namely: the beginning, middle, and end (jo-ha-kuy). For example in this Spring hokku by Shinkei:

all the world
hazy with springtime
there are no flowers
Shinkei’s intent was that the spring landscape should not be less important than the flowers, and that the mind would not have to concern itself with flowers, even though the poet may long for them. The atmosphere of the moment is that the entire world is hushed in silence, and the haze rises above everything—so there is really no interest in flowers. In fact, the present landscape covered with haze is also important to enjoy. The hidden message here is reflective of the Zen koan that baffles logic in the way that it confounds reality and illusion by showing the relativity of such distinctions one against the other. The young poet becomes aware of the abstract quality of the perception, and in so doing, realizes the importance of the difference between what is seen in contrast to what is not seen.

Another important feature is the use of place names to define the surroundings at which the particular renku writing or event is taking place. As much as this seems to be a casual reminder of a time and place event, it is more significant, because the choosing of the particular Inn, Temple site, or mountain location by the host poet becomes a condition for the inspiration to write meaningful links. It creates an atmosphere of acceptance from those involved, and often has a religious meaning as well. It makes everyone equal in the creation of the renku. It also sets the stage for a dynamic interchange among reflective thinkers. For many of the writers of this period, the hokku was a means of categorizing a series of happenings around a particular occurrence. For example, you would have hokku on “falling flowers,” on “silence,” on “raindrops,” and other seasonal signs. With this kind of classification, the different poets’ perceptions of the same event—at different times in the same season—became the standard to judge language-usage. This is the beginning stage to place in time the specifics of nature’s changes and the need to document them.

The next step was to create the kind of catalogue of season word lists and an index to which other poets could refer: the saijiki. The importance of this distinction is that, when poets would come together to write renga, they would refer to the saijiki to insure that they were providing new insight into their perceptions. Perceptions that might have had a similar or different meaning would be analyzed for their appropriateness. The idea was not to repeat the experience of other poets, but to create a new awareness. In this way, the poets created new uses of their language that eventually could come into common everyday use. An added value to this practice was that the individual poet’s style of thought would make him unique, and in time, a new school of thought would result. Those poets who were more original in their perceptions of nature and their world would garner the support of disciples to promote their teachings. We are familiar with only a few important names in the long line of haiku poets. However, there are many more who, over the centuries, have contributed to the development of renku and later the emergence of haiku.

In the West, the issue of the inclusion of nature and the place name for the hokku is generally accepted and practiced but not with the same intent as the Japanese counterparts. With the issue of linking and shifting as tools of the renku technique, most poets I know have never considered carefully the nuances of the basic types of linking even though they understand how important this practice is to the development of the form. They will link more often from a conceptual base of understanding, which can be effective sometimes, or randomly accept a season or category change without considering the hidden meanings in the previous link or hokku. Rather then relating the hokku and their link as a tan-renga, which would give some added depth to the link, they will go in a different direction based on a simple analysis of a word phrase or category change. If there is a sabaki (renku leader) involved, the progression becomes even more abstract depending on the experience of the leader or how many poets are competing for a link. Careful discussion and analysis is brief and since many of the participants are not aware of each other’s style of writing, the end result is usually banal or without any uplifting quality.

Familiarity with the process is advantageous; however, with the internet, the practice of writing renku has become so impersonal that it is difficult to know all the references that are added to links. There are very few standards for International Renku over the net other than the past rules of the game. Too often the mixture of participants is based on individual preferences of the sabaki or a known name in the haiku world. It should go without saying that haiku poets in the West should learn to practice renku before they even start writing haiku. This would give them a firm foundation in the development of their own style of writing haiku and help them explore their craft. There’s an expression in English of “putting the cart before the horse,” which exemplifies this attitude of exploration of a new genre without understanding the roots and branches of its predecessor.

An easy experiment to do in order to test the individual styles of poets is to gather a few haiku poems without listing the names of the originators, then ask the group of poets to name the writers. Invariably, the persons involved in this type of quiz have difficulty identifying correctly at times members of their own group or even other well known poets. Finally, enough cannot be said about the importance of the cultural connection in the development of the renku. The Japanese people for centuries have nurtured a respect and sensitivity toward nature that is indigenous with older civilizations. There is almost a pantheistic relationship in this respect and devotion apart from the identification of this attitude toward their established religious beliefs. The renku and haiku exhibit this orientation even though the earlier renga was associated with court life and the leisurely habits of the upper classes.

It is because of Basho’s influence that the common people began to participate more openly in the cultural practices of the upper classes. We must remember that even Basho was raised by a wealthy merchant and therefore was given benefits of a training that a commoner would not have been exposed to. We must also remember that Basho was a renku poet and that many of his haiku that we read today are really hokku, the opening verse of his renku. I want to list just a few of the types of links that suggest the cultural link that make the renku unique.
mad verse, in leaf-withering wind
I have become so much like
Chikusai the wanderer


who’s that? the sasanqua
spatter on the hat


Chikusai is a heroic figure of a comedy. cf. Don Quixote; ‘mad verse’ refers to a humorous, funny verse; cf a mad-hatter ; the sasanqua is a winter flower from the camellia family/
the New Year’s hunter
on his back a quiver
adorned with ferns

the northern gate is open
and the beginning of springtime



The New Year’s hunter is not a hunter at all, but a nobleman in a hunter’s costume performing a rite of Spring in the New Year’s season. The Northern gate is the service entrance of a palace.

I want to end my talk with a few links from our renku group in the MetroWest Area of Massachusetts where Paul David Mena, Brett Peruzzi and I live and meet on a monthly basis. The group was formed back in 1999 and we have been writing renku during our monthly meetings for the past seven years. About two years ago we decided to create our own form of the renku called bluenotes. We all have a musical background and have played musical instruments and are familiar with the “blues” feeling in American music. For those of you interested in the bluenotes form you can go to Simply Haiku and read an article I wrote last October about the form and how it was developed. Our cultural orientation is toward this American music style that is well documented and understood throughout the world.
summer breeze
those country blues
movin’ through the door

de Gruttola
sign on the barbed wire fence
Beware of Dog



The country blues draw upon the old folk music tradition in the United States that dates back to the last half of the 19th Century.

The Beware of Dog sign and the barbed wire fence relate back to the oppression of the sharecroppers and indentured slaves after the Civil War
thinking of retirement
dandelion seeds
in the air


near death
Howling Wolf laments his diet


dandelion seeds refer to the wish that is beyond comprehension at this time; ‘Howling Wolf’ is the name of a blues songwriter and singer whose voice reminded one of a howling; wolf. one thinks of retiring as the last episode in a hard life.

Raffael de Gruttola
Natick, MA. USA January 2005


Donegan, Patricia, “Poetry for Peace: The United Nations of Renku,” Kyoto Journal #52, Winter, 2003. An Interview with Tadashi Kondo.

Fakuda, Shinku, “Intoduction to World-linking Renku—A Study of Expression in Renku, International Renku Symposium”, 2000.

“Global Renku Symposium: Renku Horizon in the 21st Century,” Oct. 7th 2000.

Higginson, William J., The Haiku Seasons: Poetry of the Natural World, Kodansha America Inc., New York, 1996.

Kondo, Tadashi, “Roots and Branches of Renku,” Haiku Canada, Ottawa, 2004.

“Getting Started with Renku,” Edge Magazine,

Miner, Earl, Japanese Linked Poetry, Princeton University Press, 1979.

Ramirez-Christensen, Esperanza, Heart’s Flower, The Life and Poetry of Shinkei, Stanford University Press, California, 1994.

Ueda, Makoto, Basho And His Interpreters, Stanford University Press, Stanford, Ca.,1992.


This entry was posted in Haiku, Renku, Vol 5-1 August 2005 and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Renku Training for Today’s Haiku poet

  1. Pingback: The Ultimate Gift | Rohini Gupta's Blog

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