What’s in a Name – Defining Renku

WHR March 2002

WHCrenku Seminar 2000 – A Mosaic in Words

When the World Haiku Club activated its first mailing list, Haikuforum, in December 1999, it quickly became a bustling centre for learning about haiku and related forms of poetry. Within two months, a lively interest in the renku form led to the first onlist WHC renku seminar led by member, Paul MacNeil. Nine essay-lessons were interspersed with discussion, workshop-style participation and the exercise of building two traditional renku. Those members who did not actively take part in writing watched and learned from the sidelines, often participating in discussion. Paul’s second essay-lesson, which follows below, includes an example of a 12 stanza “autumn shisan” renku, “The Fox Circles,” previously written by himself with friend and WHC member, Ferris Gilli, who now leads the popular Hibiscus School of Western Haiku on the WHCschools mailing list. For the 8th lesson, Mrs. Gilli was invited to give a guest lecture, “English Grammar: Variety in Renku”, and for the 9th and final lesson, members were treated to a guest lecture, “The Alchemy of Live Renku”, by Christopher Herold, Editor of The Heron’s Nest. Wouldn’t you know that in the scheme of things, these three symbiotic spirits would join forces toward new directions when Christopher invited his good friends, Paul and Ferris to co-edit his haiku journal. The rest, as they say, is history.

In this issue, as we are making a special focus on the collaborative poetry called renku, we invite you to enjoy with us, this bit of exciting history of WHC through Paul’s renku lessons and the guest essays of Ferris and Christopher, reprinted here and at the World Haiku Club’s official site. We are pleased to present his first and second lessons in the series, “Defining Renku” which includes a renku by Paul MacNeil and Ferris Gilli, “The Fox Circles”. We will be presenting the series of lesson-essays including the renku composed during the seminar in upcoming issues of World Haiku Review. Enjoy!

WHC Renku Seminar
Haikuforum Seminar on “Traditional” Renku in English

Session 1 & 2:  What’s in a Name / Defining Renku

Paul MacNeil
Florida, US

1. What’s in a name?

I am using the term renku and not renga. Many English-language writers prefer one or the other, some understand them as interchangeable. A translator of ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry, Sam Hamill of the USA, quotes Confucius in the Ta Hsueh:

All wisdom is rooted in learning to call things by the right name …

I am very thankful that Susumu has asked me not to be too technical. I can sidestep a long explanation of the two words. I have had respected teachers favoring each. Basically renga is used today to describe Japanese linked verse from before the time of Basho (d. 1694). Sogi (d. 1502) was acknowledged as the renga Master of his time. Renga was represented in the great Court collections in the 12th and 13th Centuries. A shorter form, pairs of linked verse, exists from the 9th Century. Renga used the medieval court language, and much of the subject matter alluded to Chinese literature and classical waka of Japan. It was assumed that both players and readers had a high level of sophisticated scholarship. As Basho changed the importance of single verses, hokku (now called haiku), he also transformed linked verse. He called this different style “haikai no renga”. He did not invent this “new” way, but certainly popularized it’s use. It used a less rarefied language, more commonly understood, with more easily accessible subjects from the real world. The term “renku” was not known to Basho (he referred to haikai no renga), but is used for this today in Japan and by many in the West.

  • Renku is linked verse.
  • Renku is an art form.
  • Renku is a game.
  • Renku has rules.
  • Renku is not anarchic linking.
  • Renku has a flow, a pace, an overall effect.
  • Renku has no narrative.
  • Renku is a communal enterprise (some solo is done).
  • Renku is verse by individuals.
  • Renku is not serial haiku.
  • Renku begins with a haiku.
  • Renku makes good friends and companions.
  • Renku is fun.
  • Renku is habit forming.
  • Renku honors tradition.
    I love to write and even to read renku. I love most to write in person with a group of friends. I hope to proselytize for renku; I hope for some small success in that persuasion.

2. Defining Renku

Definitions rarely capture a subject concisely without further extension of what a subject is and is not. Claiming no exception, I offer that renku is a sequence of linked verses without narrative. Not containable by one sentence, I continue: these verses are paired dialogues of writers (a hybrid of solo-renku is also done); renku is both collaboration and improvisation. Renku is written as a communal or group effort following a tradition quite unknown in the West. A haiku begins a renku. Unlike haiku which may be viewed as a writer’s response to experience of the natural world and man’s place in it, inner renku stanzas spring from reaction to another’s verse, the hokku (beginning verse) or another inner verse. Further, such a stanza is governed, motivated if you will, by an intellectual and emotional swirl of possibilities for what would best benefit the work as a whole. After the hokku (and even that may be specialized in some way to renku), the individual whose turn it is, either by rotation or by assignment from a master, will write an individual expression but subjugate it to the communal work.

Like haiku, which are in themselves not in the Western tradition (except recently), renku can best be learned and then appreciated by writing them, and by reading them. Again, just as for haiku, skill in reading is a part of the Art of renku. There are good and bad renku, both original-to-English and, through the vagaries of translation, from Japanese as well. Renku may be for most an acquired taste. Perhaps the best readers of renku are those who have been writers themselves. Renku is composed in Japan today and also throughout the West — piggybacking on the spread of haiku. Its antecedents have a much longer history than haiku by centuries. There is distinct tradition. Some call it “rules”. Rules vary with the teacher, with the master. And they will vary with the language and the point of history recent or ancient. A teacher of mine, Christopher Herold from the State of Washington, USA, has said: “There are ‘purists’ who will adhere rigidly to the ‘rules.’ And there are freedom fighters who’ll break them whenever it’s convenient, and even when it’s not, just on principle.”

I’m afraid I have not yet defined renku. Lots of words, though. Renku has a lot to do with the seasons, although only about half of the stanzas will have a kigo. The “rules” indicate nearly an equal number of non-seasonal verses. Perhaps this is not much of a shock to those familiar with “modern” haiku in the West, but was a distinct freedom for those whose very definition of haiku was kigo inclusion. Basho, Master to us all, is quoted, my paraphrase, that a renku (haikai no renga) to be a renku must have all four seasons and love. Renku pays special attention to the symbolism of the moon, flower blossoms, and other types of change. Renku has a lot to do with love, and humanity. It is nearly half senryu.

In renku, partners engage in a conversation, a spontaneous one, beginning anew as each additional verse makes a pair. If the number of writers in the renku session is greater than two, a different writer-pair is formed as each subsequent verse is added.

Christopher Herold, a modern master in English, has written to me:

[renku] … is the externalization of the haiku mind. It is a safe place where people can tell the truth, fantasize, vent anger (in a verse), get silly, passionate. … a marvelous way to learn how to cooperate with one another on a communal project. [in renku] … we become more attuned to the cycle of the seasons, to the subtleties of one another’s mannerisms and ways of expressing ourselves.

Again from Master Basho is this common quotation/paraphrase. He admonished his students to break the rules, but first to know the rules. Hereafter, I’ll try to get to more definition of the parts and to describe some of the “rules”. Later on, a group will write renku in front of you so that you can watch us as we help one another comply with and break rules.

I refer again to the URL’s I showed in the first edition of “Paul Talking” about renku. I do suggest for those who haven’t to explore there.

Now, I append a finished renku for you to read. In the next session I shall explain some of it. Before that analysis or annotation read the renku and try to follow the seasons, love, perhaps appreciate the linking, the variety of the piece. Next time I’ll show the form and rotation that underlies the work. Renku come in many lengths, this one is 12 stanzas and is called shisan. The most prevalent length is 36 (kasen), popularized and practiced by Basho and his students; there is current writing in 18 and 20 verses too. In the past days of renga, works were usually of 50 or 100 stanzas. You don’t want to know about THOSE rules!

The following is shown with the permission of my partner in the renku, Ferris Gilli, for the educational purposes of the Haiku Forum. Any outside quotation should be done only with approval of the authors. As always, I (and Ferris) will appreciate your questions, help and comment.

– Paul (MacNeil)

The Fox Circles
an autumn shisan renku

by Ferris Gilli and Paul MacNeil
via internet, December 1 — 16, 1999
rev. Jan/’00
yellow leaves–
the fox circles
a sunlit field

……………..- fg

she tightens sterile lids
on jelly jars

……………..- pwm

flurry by flurry
the hollow stump
fills with snow

……………..- fg

from each mesa
the rhythm of Hopi chants

……………..- fg

muscles ripple
the leopard spots
of a barmaid’s dress

……………..- pwm

nothing between us now
but the sheen of marbled silk

……………..- fg

sharp rocks
stick out of the trough
of a wave

……………..- pwm

blackberry blooms
thicker than the thorns

……………..- fg

spring mist rises
above the porch rail
with the moon

……………..- pwm

incense follows a priest
down the aisle

……………..- pwm

the machete’s glint
hacking a narrow path
for the film crew

……………..- fg

different drones
of Saturday lawnmowers

……………..- pwm

Tue Feb 4, 2000
Originally posted to WHChaikuforum as the second essay-lesson in the Haikuforum Seminar on “Traditional Renku in English”.

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