Renku: A Snippet of Snails

by John Carley

Editor’s preface

This essay has been compiled from comments made by John Carley during the composition of several linked-verse poems at the Issa’s Snail website. The comments have been made in his capacity as sabaki (leader). Necessarily picaresque and uneven in tone, the essay hopefully retains John’s original intent – to educate and inform. All the exchanges relating to the creation of all the poems mentioned, including all the drafts of all the verses, both those used and rejected, are publicly viewable at the Issa’s Snail site and may give novices a clue as to what expect in a renku. “I remember being struck, when first encountering The Snail, by the bravery, honesty and integrity of the participants in simply allowing all the nitty gritty to stand open to scrutiny. I remain impressed. It is, to my knowledge, pretty much unique,” John says.

Introduction 1

In considering the implications of the potential spread of renku into languages other than Japanese, the great 20th century renku theorist Meiga Higashi put it thus:

The linking verse is deduced from the preceding verse but it has no other logical connection with the leap-over verse. A work is composed by repeatedly linking a succession of such a verse ad libitum. This ingenious process of poetry composition was developed indigenously by our ancestors and has been found in no culture other than Japanese. In the final analysis, any [poetry] that embodies this characteristic dynamic should be recognised as renku regardless of its mode and other principles of composition.

Master Higashi’s statement is startling – he proposes that we may disregard a thousand years of literary tradition so long as we maintain the primary, and unique, compositional principle. But is this an instance of radical liberalism, or, at bottom, a counsel of despair?

There are many respectable writers, theorists and critics in Japan who do not believe that the haikai arts can be properly practiced in any language other than Japanese. Some of these people are doubtless guilty of a degree of cultural chauvinism. A few, as in any society, will be prey to xenophobia. But they have a good point. There are two aspects of Japanese-language haikai which present very real obstacles to the successful practice of the literature in other cultures.

The first is the question of form and its attendant prosody. One set of issues relates to the difference in structure between stand-alone and series-dependent verses (the respective Japanese words are ‘tateku’ and ‘hiraku’) with all the attendant confusions in English-language haiku theory surrounding notions of ‘cuts’ and ‘cutting words’ (‘kire’ and ‘kireji’). When is a pause okay in a renku verse? How about a punctuation mark? And can we use pauses and parataxis anywhere other than in the hokku?

Then there is the question of fixed vs free-form. While vers libre has become the default position in English-language haikai, above all in English-language haiku, it must be remembered that the vast majority of Japanese haikai is ‘teikei’ – ‘set form’. In renku the regular and proportional cadences that the set-form approach provides are so important to the Japanese language poet that many, when writing in English, would sooner adopt the highly dubious 5-7-5 syllable approach, or my own contentious 15-syllable ‘zip’ stanza, than accept the ragged and randomised metrics of the vers libre sequence.

Lastly, the scorched earth approach to poetic diction typical of devotees of ‘haiku’ in English is particularly unhelpful when applied to renku as, not only does it bear no relation whatsoever to the parent literature, it strips out an entire layer of relational technique when considering methods of linkage.

The second aspect is the accretive and encoded nature of Japanese literary reference. A ‘kigo’ is so much more than a ‘season word’; it is a key which unlocks a semantic store cupboard in which ‘kigo’ shades into ‘kidai’ (seasonal topic) and, ultimately, into ‘hon’i’ (poetic essence).

Likewise, thanks in part to the flexible orthography of the Japanese language, a single word can have multiple readings – each with multiple associations and echoes; while a seemingly commonplace action or setting may be intended, and read, as a reference to a literary classic or a popular folk tale.

Specific to renku is the question of categories of such topics and their respective primacy. Without this knowledge how can we know which subjects are automatically considered to link to one another, and which, in order to avoid overcrowding and sameness, must be separated by a suitable number of verses? What, precisely, is the relationship of ‘young rice plant’ to ‘pine tree’?

One solution is to reach for the manual. Seasonal lexicons, ‘saijiki’, are well known while for centuries there have been books of linked verse rules, ‘shikimoku’, which run into thousands of pages, and do everything other than agree with one another.

Alternatively, we can try to understand the fundamentals which underpin the surface-level conventions, and use this broader understanding to inform our creative practice.

Ironically, it may be that such a synthesis is more available to those who are not exposed from the outset to the sheer weight of historic practice and literary convention. When one is of a given culture it is not always easy to decide which values and attributes are culturally specific, and which are universal. Perhaps there are certain advantages to being on the outside, looking in.

One thing at least is certain: if we are unable to identify the core drivers of renku, and how they might find expression in a variety of languages and cultures, renku will indeed prove unsuited to the wider world. The alternative – to pretend that we are all honorary Japanese living in 18th century Edo – is too distasteful to contemplate.

Link and Shift 2

Anecdotally many people have encountered the expression ‘link and shift’ in relation to renku and assume, not unreasonably, that it describes the relationship between each fresh verse and the verse to which it is linked. The commonly held proposition, therefore, goes something like this: every time a verse is added it must have something in common with the previous verse (thus ‘link’) but bring something new so as to take the poem as a whole forward (therefore ‘shift’). Such formulations are unfortunate as they are close enough to the truth to be very misleading.

In fact, the definition of ‘link’ given above is perfectly satisfactory, and the word itself is a good translation of the equivalent term in Japanese, ‘tsukeai’. It is also clearly the case that each time a verse is added in a renku sequence it must bring something new to the poem. Put another way, it is poor technique to propose a verse which is an uninflected or direct extension of the previous verse. But this obligation to introduce fresh elements is not what is meant by the word ‘shift’ as it is intended in renku theory. In this narrow sense the word ‘shift’ is an equivalent to the Japanese word ‘tenji’. And ‘tenji’ is what makes renku Renku.

Whereas ‘link’ describes the relationship between each added verse and the previous verse, ‘shift’ governs the relationship between an added verse and its last-but-one or ‘leap-over’ verse. Essentially, each added verse must have almost nothing whatsoever to do with the last but one verse. In some circumstances it may share the same season, but other than that it must mark a truly comprehensive shift away.

Metrics 3

I make the distinction between ‘rhythm’ (the totality of the pacing effects of the language) and ‘metre’ (a more simple quality). I construe ‘metre’ as being the coarse quantity that our language is measured in or doled out at. The question I try to bully around in my own head is whether the metrical structures present are proportional and repetitive and if that is important to the way the reader experiences the text.

It is certainly true that in the source text shown below – Basho and Co’s original – the moraic metre of alternating 5-7-5 – 7-7 is a significant presence. This passage of translation – mine – uses an accentual metre. It is the last four verses of the kasen The Hawker’s Goose between Basho, Yaba, Ko’oku and Rigyuu (in that order).

Rhetorical question: do the metrics of this passage (of English translation) affect the ‘compaction’ or otherwise of how it reads? And do such considerations have any bearing on how we might approach our own original renku writing? Put another way – is free verse adequate to the writing of renku?

scattered individuals
make their way
back to the rice wharf

coming to Meguro
the company blathers on

in every place
high season for the
third month’s blossom

the spring winds cleanse
a round of charcoal dust

Prosody 4

Across the English-language haiku community, there is a wildly divergent understanding of what constitutes an effective style of haiku prosody. Even the relatively directive editorial approaches of quality publications such as The Heron’s Nest admit to lots of variants.

And if we look at translations: the shortest rendering of Basho’s blighted frog that I’ve had the misfortune to encounter was courtesy of Lucien Stryck at, from memory, seven syllables, while my all-time hero and sometime mentor Nobuyuki Yuasa gave us a graceful 22 (again, from memory).

Does this matter? No, it probably isn’t crucial when we’re writing haiku because the verse exists in its own right, and on its own merits. Yes, it matters terribly when we’re writing renku because the verse does not exist in its own right, or generate its resonance on its own merits.

Renku is not a succession of individual verses, it is a sequence of dependencies. The consonances and dissonances of utterance, and the organisational structures that govern the phrasing of our individual verses, also govern the relationships between verses.

In the genesis of renku this was unexceptional as Japanese haikai prosody was, and overwhelmingly remains, a matter of fixed form (teikei). Trying to equate this in English, or indeed in any language other than Japanese, is a fascinating challenge.

Balance 5

One of the attractions of renku is getting the balance right between when to meet and when to defeat expectations. Here is a pair by Basho (unusual for him to follow himself) from the sequence Uma Karite (Borrowing a Horse):



slender as ever
the immortal maiden’s
delicate grace

a blush of madder
squeezed into white water

(translators: Yachimoto and Carley)

This is strong stuff from the old chap (not least because he seems to have been more of a man’s man) and particularly as they are verses #31 and #32.

Vulgarity 6

The question of smut, overt, implied, etc., in Basho’s work is interesting, and perhaps informative. This is from The Lye Tub. The order is Boncho, Basho, Yasui.

for supper
kamasugo fry,
a fragrant breeze gets up

that leech-sucked spot
scratched just as you please

all weighty thoughts
are set aside for now
the day of rest

(trans: Yachimoto and Carley)

Eating kamasugo was renowned to induce flatulence. So Basho’s leech-sucked spot is surely envisaged on the backside, and the subtext – ‘easing the itch’ – clearly embraces the relief of more than one sort of corporeal demand.

This is pretty Rabellaisian stuff. But most important of all, to my reading, is Yasui’s sardonic deadpan with ‘weighty thoughts’. To me this illustrates a fundamental truth about renku: for all that the content and/or tone of a verse may be markedly high or low register, it is the transition between verses that carries the greater weight – or rather, it is when the writing is skilful enough.

Another angle on Basho and ‘vulgarity’. This is the closing pair between Etsujin and Basho (in that order) from The Night of the Deep River – an incredibly taut and tense two-voice piece which (as I once politely opined) is characterised by the particular intensity of the rapport between the poets.

at blossom time
they attend the sermon
to my chagrin

having eaten mud snails
this sinful mouth

(trans: Yachimoto and Carley)

The ‘they’ in Etsujin’s alleged blossom verse are a rival and his (much younger) male companion (hence the ‘chagrin’). Buddhist clerics are supposed to be vegetarian and this is Basho’s overt text at ageku – “jealousy, like breaking one’s vow of abstinence, is a sin my son”. But what the books don’t tell you (because the Japanese are too polite to want to shock their interlocutors) is that fact that ‘to eat mud snails’ was a very low-register euphemism for a particular form of homosexual encounter.

All of which makes the following ‘love’ sequence by Chora, Kito and Ranzan of the ‘back to Basho’ school look rather tame. Entertaining though…

my beloved lotus:
withered without trace

come, little lark
yes nightingale
oh so dearly missed

pour a cup of sake
she flees, country girl!

(trans: Carley)

It’s not the Cut, it’s the Turn 7

Japanese renku verses use all sorts of pauses, parataxis, caesurae, and punctuation devices (which, in that language, appear as utterances which are vocalised/subvocalised, and consequently count as ‘words’ in terms of scansion, etc). The vast majority of the ‘rules’ which apply to their use are those of any poetry in any language: grace, balance, variety. In sum, deliberate, conscious and considered application in order to deliver precise phonic and/or semantic effects.

The nature of renku does impose two particular sets of considerations though – which are not ‘rules’ but simply an aspect of technique. One is the fact that renku abhors impediments to its forward momentum. Not only can it not tolerate refrains and themes, it can’t really cope with being strongly referred back to anything beyond the verse immediately preceding.

So in the sequence A:B:C it’s not a problem if A&B use verses which pause markedly, or if B&C use some other form of mirror syntax. The problem arises when A&C employ identical devices: the reader doesn’t just move on from B to C, on arrival at C they experience the “wait a minute, haven’t I just seen that a bit back” experience which fractures the reading and breaks the spell.

The second renku-specific issue is that of juxtaposition / toriawase / conceptual movement / white space / coming & going (c.f) Doho. Wherein lies the principal artspace? In fact Basho and his pals had this bottomed more than 300 years ago. They realised that, with the advancement of theories such as ‘nioizuke’ (‘scent link’, see Linking and Reasoning below ), they were essentially using the same types of creative tension between verses as would otherwise exist within a typical bi-partite hokku (haiku). As a consequence, if one’s renku verses continually contain a stong internal turn this is going to shatter the dynamic of having the principal creative tension between the verses.

Hence the maxim: it is not the pause which makes the cut, it is the turn.

All sorts of things flow from these considerations. One is that renku verses may certainly pause in terms of syntax. Another is that renku verses can tolerate a degree of turn. In fact the occasional one can tolerate a lot of turn, a haiku-like degree of turn, if you are really good and know what you are trying to achieve (for instance how you intend to pick up the deliberately interrupted momentum).

The truth is that the problem here lies with haiku technique, not with renku at all. There is any amount of writing out there which mistakes a pause in syntax for some sort magic creational device. Again Basho had it in one. He remarked: “just because a poem uses a kireji (cutting word) doesn’t mean that it is cut. And a poem may very well be cut even if no cutting word is present”.

He extended this second point with the further observation that turn could be present even in what appeared to be a unified piece of syntax with words to the effect that: “the two-part hokku is for the learner, the single image poem is for the master”.

So renku verses can certainly pause, and they can also use turn – to a degree, sometimes. It is all about artistic judgement – the lack of which forces the gatekeepers to fall back on ‘rules’. And as any rule lover knows: the arbritary ones are the best.

Not haiku 8

Because the misconception is so commonplace that the interior verses of a renku sequence can be considered as a string of haiku I, and many other persons wishing to extend a more accurate understanding of the genre, push the message that only the hokku is in fact indistinguishable from a haiku.

This is a true statement, and, in terms of mainstream renku theory – which of course means ‘Japanese renku theory’ – it is unequivocal. Unfortunately, because English-language haikai prosody is in a state of flux, it is not so easy to make such easy or absolute distinctions.

When my book The Renku Reckoner is published, give yourself a headache by reading the article ‘Cut or Uncut?’ and/or try some search strings on the term ‘nagekomi’ (you’ll probably have to ‘+ renku’ or ‘+ renga’).

Less Talk, More Poetry 9

Here are Basho and Kikaku on a roll. Second folio, front (second movement of ‘ha’). From the kasen The Verse Merchants (Shi Akindo). The English translation captures the irregularity of the source text; some verses are deliberately truncated and fit more readily on two lines where three would be expected

soon my intended,
the season’s first blow
on the fulling block


all fighting over
the kuzu knows no grudge


just for a jest
Madame Komurasaki
cast in gold


dark as a sea bream
Otoku’s breast


her wrack of hair
will coil and crack
the sazae’s spines


Poseidon’s underling
the wave-tossed cape


clasp your iron bow
and enter the fray!


enfolding a tiger
this pregnant dawn


chilly mountain,
the Four Sleepers lie
blown by stormy winds


last embers spent
I go by finger-tip


jealous come the morn
goodwife shuns the moon


a silk wrapped watermelon
such mean tricks


(trans: Yachimoto and Carley)

Redundancy 10

In terms of semantics the concept of redundancy is surely central to our short and imagist verses, but I don’t believe it to be unassailably prime. I would suggest that it is acceptable sometimes to ‘pad’ the meaning to achieve grace of motion and diction.

In truth I’m fascinated by ideas of redundancy, and the way they have influenced English-language haikai (read: English-language haiku) over the course of the last 30 years. If you haven’t seen this site before have a good look. How is it possible to have such massively different understanding of what is or is not essential content?

Linking and Reasoning 11

One of the most significant aspects of Basho’s ‘new’ poetics was that, in advocating the ‘scent’ link (‘nioizuke’), he moved linking technique on to much more indirect and instinctive ground (‘nioizuke’ means ‘vibe-link’ where ‘vibe’ is understood in the original hippy sense). Put the other way round, before Basho a great deal (though not all) of linkage was based on formal word links (homophones and cognates), narrative extension, reference to classic literature, and other stuff that everybody would, if they had the education, ‘get’.

Basho did two things: he extended the repertoire of materials that these pre-existing linking styles might refer to into the realm of the middle and even lower classes, and he trusted his audience to go with more inductive leaps of faith.

So, the desire to directly embody the ‘reasons’ for the link in a given verse is entirely natural, but may often be misplaced. An analogy might be cracking a joke: the funniest ones rarely completely anticipate or completely spell out their punchline – the delight for the listener is in making that final tangential association themselves.

‘Scent’ links are an absolutely key concept in Basho’s directly proposed poetics – he talks about ‘nioi’ til the cows come home – which is unusual because there are very few directly recorded didactic bits from the mouth of the old fraud himself.

I think it’s really good to exchange thoughts on a particular linkage – but only after the verse choice. Personally I try never to analyse beforehand – it was Basho’s great innovation that the vibe link (nioizuke) was more true than the reasoned link (imizuke). For this reason I personally discourage people from explaining the linkage behind their candidate verses when they offer them (my son studies the philosophy of art and would instantly point out that we should never assume that the artist understands his own meaning anyway!) 12.

Backlink 13

There is a lot of misunderstanding about repetition in renku. In English the term most frequently seen is ‘backlink’. This term is unfortunate in two important regards. Firstly it gives the impression that, rather than having forward momentum, renku spends all its time looking over its collective shoulder. And secondly it proposes that the generative force of renku is governed by a sole aesthetic principle – that in order to create good poetry it is sufficient to avoid all and any repetition.

Now, in the very short 12-verse sequences such as the junicho that have become popular in the last 20-odd years, it is possible to adopt the most literal and simplistic connotations associated with the word ‘backlink’ and apply them to the creation of the poem – and a decent poem just may emerge. We can probably have 12 verses where no single word is repeated (including definite/indefinite articles). We may manage to create 12 verses wherein no single idea is repeated. We may even manage to create 12 verses wherein no cognates are repeated, though I can envisage a few arguments, such as whether ‘tin can’ is a cognate of ‘hub-cap’… both being round and metallic (this is a true instance).

But when we look at a kasen by Basho, and see that there are three moon verses, two ‘spring blossom’ verses, and up to five ‘autumn’ verses in a row – either he didn’t know what he was going on about (he was foreign after all). Or the proponents of backlink have some explaining to do!

In contemporary renku there are three basic principles which counteract repetition: ‘uchikoshi (more properly ‘kannonbiraki’); ‘sarikirai’ (sometimes transliterated as ‘sari-girai’); and ‘rinne’ (sometimes referred to as ‘to-rinne’).

The late and truly great Master Meiga Higashi identified ‘uchikoshi’ as being the sine-qua non of renku composition. He proposed that even if every other convention and consideration were disregarded any piece of poetry which respected ideas of ‘uchikoshi’ would have to be treated as renku. Personally I think the great man was being too liberal … but he was a Master! Anyway – you get the idea of how fundamental ideas of ‘uchikoshi’ are.

The core dynamic of renku resides in any set of three verses. Analysing the group at this three-verse level, and working back from the most recently penned, we can name them: added verse (tsukeku), head verse (maeku), so named because it is the lead-in verse for the added verse last-but-one (uchikoshi). So, in the sequence K, L, M, N: ‘k’ is uchikoshi to ‘m’, and ‘l’ is the head verse for ‘m’. Similarly ‘l’ is uchikoshi to ‘n’, and ‘m’ is the head verse for ‘n’.

The crucial ‘link and shift’ dynamic means that each new verse must link to its head verse, but be entirely different from the last-but-one. When, for instance, ‘k’ and ‘m’ do not show sufficient difference from each other this failing is called ‘kannonbiraki’. The word means ‘double doors’ and refers to the tabernacle of the Buddhist altar. This tabernacle has doors which open outwards to either side, symmetrically framing the centrepiece.

Rather confusingly the word ‘uchikoshi’ is sometimes used as an alternative to kannonbiraki – so it may refer either to the ‘leap-over’ position or to the undesirable similarity between added verse and last-but-one. The principal of uchikoshi (kannonbiraki) means that there should be no similarity between added verse and last-but-one, other than possibly belonging to the same seasonal segment, or to the ‘love’ section.

Sarikirai – could be given as ‘clean cut space’ or ‘minimum separation’. The Japanese artistic and indeed wider cultural tradition recognises certain groups of topics: trade-related matters; agricultural occupations; metaphysical discourse, etc. Add to these obvious groups such as animals, plant life, types of precipitation, atmospheric conditions, and it is possible to locate most subjects within one of a dozen or so ‘standard’ groupings. Sarikirai dictates that, although immediately adjacent verses can deal with the same topic group as part of the linkage, after that a poem should not repeat topics drawn from within that same topic group until a certain number of verses dealing with completely different topic groups have elapsed.

Various schools of renku differ in exactly which topics belong to which group, and in the precise number of ‘clear’ verses that are recommended as minimum separation. To a degree this depends on how closely they draw on categories and systems drawn from medieval ‘high’ renga. It is also influenced by the related fact that already in Basho’s time the 36-verse kasen was a contraction of longer forms, and that the last century has seen further contractions, such as the widely written nijuin (20 verses) and of course the 12-verse junicho (there are many others, not least the 22-verse triparshva). It is important to note that ‘sarikirai’ does not deal with the wider sense or tone of a verse. It deals with basic elements at word level.

Rinne – is another term drawn from Buddhism. It might be given as ‘distant reincarnation’. In medieval renga theory ‘rinne’ originally designated any situation in which the norms of minimum separation (sarigirai, above) were breached. It must be borne in mind that medieval renga manuals were heavily codified and proscriptive. In contemporary terms the meaning of ‘rinne’ has changed to embrace the wider sense of poetic sensibility needed to avoid gross repetition in shorter sequences. Rinne is therefore more subjective. It is not limited by proximity. If an added verse strongly recalls another verse from anywhere in the poem the accusation of ‘distant reincarnation’ can be levelled. But ‘rinne’ does not work at single word/idea level. It is applied to the complex of the verse’s meaning and/or phrasing.

Beyond these three broad principles there is one convention worth mentioning which does resemble the simplistic notion of ‘backlink’. Many renga masters will disbar all and any repetition of core semantic elements which have appeared in the hokku. In Japanese this most readily boils down to barring kanji which have appeared in the hokku. In English…. well, if we have ‘lighthouse’ in the hokku we might want to question ‘streetlight’ anywhere else as both contain the element ‘light’.

But it is essential to remember, when learning these conventions, that renku is art. It is not a forensic investigation, or a high school debating society. Renku is about periodicity and modulation. It deals not so much with absolute novelty as with recontextualisation. Renku cannot be written by adherence to ‘rules’. We are artists. We must understand our materials. And create.

Topic Considerations 14

There are theories, derived ultimately from Shingon Buddhism, that a renku sequence should contain ‘all things’ under heaven. These derive from a time when sequences were typically 100 verses long. There is some evidence that Basho’s treatment of the 36 verses of the kasen was influenced by an awareness of these arguments/conventions.

I have encountered the backwash of the theory among contemporary renku theoreticians, perhaps evidenced most strongly by the persistence, in Japan in particular, of ‘tick sheets’ of topics and materials – all of which are supposed to appear in a poem and which are quite literally marked off as they are referenced. Personally I think that anybody who uses a tick sheet for anything should be barred from writing anything more presumptuous than a shopping list. But spiteful arrogance aside, I think one can seriously question whether it is possible to entertain the idea of ‘all things’ once we get down to sequences of only 20 verses in length.

Be that as it may, at a minimum we can say that a renku sequence should not be hearts and flowers throughout. It is also pertinent that there is a mostly mistaken understanding among Occidental renkujin that the last movement of a poem (kyu) necessarily comprises light and airy verses only.

Striking & Plain 15

Several theorists have made a big deal about striking verses (“mon”) and plain verses (“ji”). Anyone with a spare half-hour might care to run a string such as “ji + mon + renga”.

Earl Miner, in particular, dined out on this rather thin stuff. Although it has some merit, Miner tried to argue that in all the best classical renga alternate ‘prominent’ verses with ‘ground’ ad infinitum. So he generated distorted translations to prove it.

There are two issues: one, they don’t alternate, and two, it is not a case of either blare/or bleat, but of degree. Nonetheless the principle that some verses are louder than others and that we switch around deliberately is a sound one.

Seasonal Progression 16

The only absolute ‘rule’ – and this because renku abhors backtracking – is that within any given run of season verses there should be no obvious anachronism; within these narrow bounds, where time is present, it moves forwards. In Basho’s period, before season word lists got autistic, this was a matter purely of common sense and artistic judgement. Among later, and contemporary writers, who consult saijiki which identify ‘early’, ‘mid’ and ‘late’ season then the bottom line is that a ‘late’ should not precede a ‘mid’, etc.

But (and there are several!). Many word lists ascribe many terms to ‘all season’ – and these may appear accordingly at any juncture in a given seasonal run. It is also relevant that typical season breakdowns in renku, as in renga, favour autumn and spring over winter and summer. Accordingly acute sensitivity to precise seasonal positioning is really only a feature of autumn and spring references in long sequences such as the kasen wherein up to five autumn or five spring verses may appear in a row. In those circumstances it is very much the case that one has to be cautious not to start out with a verse that is unequivocally close to the end of a given season’s chronological iconography. By contrast, winter and summer almost never extend beyond a run of three verses, so the issue is still present, but less acute.

As we look at shorter sequences we find that the spring/autumn = major and winter/summer = minor allocation remains roughly the same. So a schema of a typical nijuin will show that whereas autumn and spring are typically assigned a run of three verses together, winter and summer get only a pair of verses each. And indeed even this is considered an option – in some circumstances a single verse is sufficient.

Season Words 17

Another of my personal opinions is that the only persons who should rely principally on kiyose (season word list) and saijiki (season word ‘dictionary’) are those who are of, or very familiar with, the Japanese language and culture.

Clearly anyone who has read the source literature extensively will pick up on key elements of Japanese culture. But I have an abiding fear of mimicry, stereotyping, and cultural appropriation.

Put more positively: it is imperative that if renku is to become a world literature, it must embrace world cultures. I have had the fortunate experience of composing inter-cultural and inter-lingual renku with an extremely heterodox assortment of people. I have yet to encounter a difference that the radically integrative motor of renku has been unable to subsume.

Blossom Verses 18

What’s at the back of ‘blossom’? Well, we know that the parent literature features ‘cherry’ first, ‘plum’ second – and has no third place. I don’t really have a problem with the cultural specificity of all that. But what about for non-Japanese?

To my reading at the back of the millennial Japanese fascination with cherry/plum are several emblems: the blossom is delicate; the blossom is short lived; the tree is enduring; the wood of the tree is fragrant when burnt; the wood of the tree is attractive when worked; the blossom prefigures fruit; the tree may be wild or cultivated. All of these things make the blossom an emblem not just of spring, and not just of vegetation, but of the circularity of life/the seasons, and the nexus between man and his environment. For this reason ‘rhododendron’ in the ‘blossom’ position is pants!

So, with my English head on I am also happy with apple, pear or similar. And have even been known to accept rose – always as long as we allow that these are different to cherry/plum in that they are mid/late spring rather than early. In truth my secret love is blackthorn, which has the distinct advantage in England of blossoming earliest of all.

Love Verses 19

Love verses should really only deal with relationships which might find sexual expression. Therefore they feature adults. Both Edo period and contemporary renku (Shomon haikai-no-renga) do have love verses which centre on homosexual attraction, or are capable of such a reading.

By contrast Japanese friends have told me how scandalised they were to read Occidental sequences that had love verses talking about young children or animals, before realising that there was a very unfortunate misunderstanding at play!

A confession: I really don’t like love verses. In this I’m similar to Basho – who kept them down to the absolute minimum or made sure his mates got them. I suspect his reasons were the same as mine – we’re both rubbish at writing them.

Considering the Whole Poem 20

It is perhaps salutary that a large number of Basho’s most appreciated sequences – those which effectively established the Basho style of haikai-no-renga (renku) as a literary genre – were subject to substantial post-facto revision (sometimes by a ‘disciple’ other than Basho), i.e., the published text differed appreciably from that recorded on the night. This went as far as the substitution of entire verses.

Coming as we do from a background of the supremacy of individual writing I don’t think this latter level of intervention is acceptable. But ideas of ownership and copyright aside, it does point up the notion of a ‘whole poem’ gloss as being the final act: a reminder perhaps that the originators of the genre certainly did not view a renku sequence as being a succession of individual verses.

Centripetal Too 21

I think one of the reasons for the Basho school’s rapid pre-eminence was that they got the sequence length correct. The kasen is long enough to reasonably satisfy notions of ‘including all things’ but short enough to allow the poets to achieve concerted effects of dynamic control (jo-ha-kyu effectively realised for the first time in the field of literature).

But a crucial condition for the realisation of this paradox of variety and coherence is ‘za no bungei’ – the literature of the collective assembly (or some such). I think the renku revival of the last half century (in both Japan and the West) has focused perhaps inevitably on the startling centrifugal forces that are at the heart of the renku generative dynamic. But this is unfortunate if we fail to consider that there are centripetal forces too. One such, perhaps the single most important, is the ‘collective consciousness’ or whatever Jungian construct we want to put on the plural process of renku composition.

And in order for the ‘collective’ to be meaningful I think it has to be ‘dialogic’ – a to-ing and fro-ing; a negotiation; ongoing; and over-arching. Maybe Twitter allows for the kind of dialogue I’m arguing for here. In which case it may provide a closer approximation to Basho’s intent than spectaculars like a 1000-verse monster.

But there is a fundamental divide between approaches to renga, and always has been – is it high art, or just an amusing pastime?

Longer sequences allow for far more subtle and concerted effects. And to be concerted one must have a kind of medium range over-view of where the poem is leading. That’s not so much about deciding what the content will be, but what the mood will be.

When you first tackle renku it tends to be the centrifugal forces that grab the attention: how to shift, how to introduce fresh topics and tones. Whereas renku is actually about the balance between centripetal and centrifugal forces: those forces for change balanced against the forces of consistence.

Some More Poetry 22

Basho’s own sequences clearly demonstrate that his understanding of ‘hai’ still embraced the odd moment of surreal humour as long as (a) it was genuinely more than just coarse and (b) was at an opportune moment.

having lived awhile
in this hermitage
now to break away

news of our anthology …
isn’t life great

[Basho, Kyorai from Summer Moon]

look, Basho the hut-dweller
smites a butterfly

what common cur
could bring itself to eat
rotten haika!

blinking, blinking
neither moon nor darkness rest

[Kikaku, Basho, Kikaku from The Verse Merchants]

(trans: Yachimoto and Carley)

So … 23

Renku is a form of literature that has arisen in a milieu that is more collaborative, and deferential/directive than is typical of the English-language literary context – at least as English-language literature is practised according to the norms derived from European culture (Dr Dre’s crew of rapper/poets look far more like a renku party to me).

So, we’ve got to find a middle way between the hierarchical methods of the early modern Japanese period and the anything-goes individualism of the American haiku. Which sounds challenging. But it is strange that it should. As an erstwhile musician, production assistant and sound engineer I know that the songwriter/ performer/ producer role is entirely normal. As is the role of actor/ director in film. Or lead dancer/ choreographer on the stage. What we need are more sabaki. We need to arrive at a position where for poem A you lead and I follow. Then for poem B the roles are reversed.

Unfortunately, there are no resources, either online or in print, which I’m aware of, that deal directly with the question of how and why to lead renku composition.

My own approach has been learned directly from work with, and instruction by, Eiko Yachimoto, Nobuyuki Yuasa, Shokan Tadashi Kondo and the late William J. Higginson. I have also paid close attention to the comments I have gleaned from scraps on the web from the late Shinku Fukuda, plus discussions at one remove with Tateshi Tsukamoto and Haku Asanuma.

You could try using all of these names as part of search strings, with additional words such as ‘sabaki’, ‘sosho’, ‘shuhitsu’, ‘shikimoku’, ‘tsukeai’.

Issa’s Snail 24

In poems at the Snail we have remarked on how the wide spread of cultural and environmental contexts can make some aspects of renku a little problematic, specially in respect of kigo and the wider concept of ‘season’. But perhaps we haven’t reflected enough on the inverse: that such a disparate group can not only write successfully together, but also forget that they are disparate.

Japanese renku theory has a word for this; it is ‘za’. This term originally indicated a felicitous set of seating arrangements for a renga session and has modified over time to describe the ‘group mind’ that must exist for a poem to be successful. Principal theorists of the renku revival of the last century such as Torahiko Terada, Tomoji Nose and Tsutomu Ogata laid great emphasis on such notions, blending strands of Freudian symbolism, semiotics and post-Buddhism in order to define the process. More recently several noted poets have advanced unashamedly metaphysical analyses drawing on Shingon esoteric Buddhism.

I am not a religious person, and so tend to resist the latter interpretations. But that’s my problem. What is certain is that whether we refer to it as achieving ‘group mind’ or ‘mandala’ the process exists in all good compositions.

So Shiki was both right and wrong. The writing of renku does indeed entail the annihilation of the individual. But there is more to poetry than the raw individualism of the Romantics. And more ways of representing reality than ‘shasei’ and ‘makoto’.


1: Taken from the tomegaki (summing up) for Another Frost junicho, composed in 2009, at Issa’s Snail, published in Kokako 12.
2: Ibid.
3: Taken from comments made during the composition of Poets’ Picnic imachi in 2012 at Issa’s Snail.
4: Taken from comments made during the composition of Yellow Moon junicho at Issa’s Snail, 2009.
5: Poets’ Picnic comments.
6: Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8: Yellow Moon comments.
9: Taken from comments made during the composition of First Warm Day triparshva in 2009 at Issa’s Snail, published in the Journal of Renga and Renku, 2011.
10: Ibid.
11: Ibid.
12: This paragraph from Yellow Moon comments.
13: Ibid.
14: First Warm Day comments.
15: Taken from comments made during the composition of a nijuin at Issa’s Snail, February 2013.
16: Ibid.
17: Yellow Moon comments.
18: First Warm Day comments.
19: Yellow Moon comments.
20: Poets’ Picnic comments.
21: Taken from comments made during the composition of Shades of Autumn triparshva at Issa’s Snail, 2009, published in Presence #40.
22: Nijuin comments.
23: Yellow Moon comments.
24: First Warm Day comments.

Editor’s note: John Carley, who died on the very last day of 2013, was the owner and author of the now defunct Renku Reckoner website and a former renku editor of Simply Haiku. A long-time musician and sound engineer John had also lived in both Italy and France and was fluent in both languages. In 2012 Darlington Richards Press published The Little Book of Yotsumonos, a linked-verse form John invented. The Little Book of Yotsumonos was written by John in collaboration with Hortensia Anderson, Lorin Ford, Carole MacRury, Sandra Simpson, William Sorlien and Sheila Windsor. John Carley lived in England’s northwest. His favourite beer was Rossendale Sunshine.