Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Spring 2007, vol 5 no 1

Haiku, Haikai and Renga: Communal Poetry Practice
by Sonja Arntzen

Most readers of this journal will be very familiar with haiku's origin in the practice of haikai "comic linked verse", often called renku by modern practitioners of the art both in Japan and those composing in English in North America. This article, which comes out of my experience of teaching survey courses in classical Japanese literature to undergraduate students, has been designed for those readers who may be beginners to haiku and haikai. It provides a brief outline of the history of haikai and renga, and then gives practical suggestions for how beginning English haiku poets (or even anyone completely unfamiliar with the Japanese tradition of poetry) might recreate the practice of haikai or renga for the fun of it and to experience the spontaneous creation of poetry as a group effort. There are a few bibliographical references noted throughout the article and gathered at the end for those readers who might like to follow up the subject in more detail, but these references represent only a sample of the literature available in English on the subject.

Opening Without a Closure

Perhaps one of the most salient features of haiku as a form of poetry is that it captures the "opening" of a perception, feeling, or insight without moving to closure. One might say, there is no room in this short form for closure, and part of its attraction as a poetic form is that it seems to reach out for a response in the reader's mind. I think this communicative quality of haiku goes back to its origin in haikai, the impromtu production of poetry as a game in the Edo period (1600-1868). As most readers of this journal will likely know, the term haiku arises in the modern period within Japan to designate this 17 syllable form of poetry when it began to be composed as a genre on its own, separated from the practice of linked verse. The name for haiku in the Edo period was hokku (beginning verse), the term for the first verse in a linked verse session. Every haiku that Bash˘ ever wrote was conceived of as a potential starting point for a linked verse session. All the conventions for traditional haiku in Japanese: that a haiku must contain a season word and include a "cutting word" like ya or kana, are directly related to hokku's role as the opening for a haikai session. The hokku was composed on the spot, generally by the most senior or respected poet in the group. It had to capture the temporal moment of the session, which is why the season word was obligatory. It must constitute an opening for the session, but be satisfying as a complete unit. The exclamatory "cutting words" help cut the verse off from what follows, giving a sense of completeness, without producing closure. This paradoxical completeness without closure made it possible to cultivate the appreciation of hokku on their own and it became popular in the Edo period to publish collections of hokku, which in turn paved the way for the modern transformation of hokku into haiku. Nonetheless, in the Edo period the writing of hokku was never severed from the practice of haikai. Bash˘ (1644-1694) did not make his living from the sale of his collections of hokku. He made his living as a teacher helping others to write better hokku and become skilled at linking during haikai sessions. His travels through the country were financed by the existence of haikai groups in even the smallest towns along his route. They put him up, fed him, gave him gifts and donations to help him on his way, and of course, at every stop on the itinerary, the highlight of his visit would a haikai session. Before describing the activity of haikai in more detail, I would like to examine haikai's roots.

Haikaiĺs Progenitor Renga

The meaning of haikai as a Chinese character compound is "comic" or "humorous". The term distinguishes haikai as a form of linked verse (the literal meaning of renga) that is not "serious." In order to understand in what sense haikai was not serious, one must look at renga, and to understand renga one must go back to the founding form of the Japanese poetic tradition the 31 syllable waka, which can be translated both as "harmonizing song/poem" or "Japanese song/poem." In the modern period, the same form is called tanka "short poem". From the very beginning of Japanese poetry, the waka has been conceived of as consisting of a kami no ku "upper verse" of three lines divided into the syllable lengths of 5/7/5, and a shimo no ku "lower verse" of two lines divided into the syllable lengths of 7/7. Also from the earliest time, it was a custom to sometimes present another person with an upper verse and have he or she "cap" it with a lower verse. There is one case of this is the earliest anthology of Japanese verse, the Many˘shű (c. 750) but the example I would like to present is from 1998. An upper verse was presented to the Japanese public by the female astronaut Mukai Chiaki via a live conversation with the prime minister while she was engaged in her second space flight. She challenged the Japanese public to come up with an appropriate lower verse. In total, 144,781 lower verses were submitted, which were duly judged by the Japan Tanka Club. Here is her upper verse with the two winning lower verses, including as is customary in Japan, the ages of the contestants and their occupation. [Note that long vowels in the original Japanese here and throughout are marked with circumflex and count for two syllables.]

Mukai ChiakiáNov. 4, 1998 from space

Upper verse

nandomo dekiru
Turn somersaults,
As many as you like,
That is weightlessness.

(English translation, AP online, Nov. 11, 1998)

Lower verse, best 2 from 144,781

Mr. Sakamoto Ichir˘  68  no occupation

  yűbune de kururi
waga ko no uchű
turning around and around
in the tub - my child's cosmos

Mrs. Kitahara Shizuka  58  housewife

  tsuki no usagi ni
sharu ui dansu
to the rabbit in the moon
I'd say, "shall we dance?"

[Above translations and all information are from Heinrich's "Cosmic Tanka: Recreating Universes; see reference section. From here on, any titles mentioned will be found with full citation in the reference section in the order of their appearance in the article.]

It is from this custom of capping verses that the practice of renga arose. After supplying the lower verse, if a group of people continues the collaboration by supplying a succeeding unit of 5/7/5 that is understood to cap the preceding 7/7 producing a new poem unit, and a further 7/7 is added to cap the 5/75 and so on, you have a linked verse series which is made up of units of 5/7/5 and 7/7 that form a linked chain. Most important of all, the resulting sequence is neither produced nor read as a linear progression. The attention of the producer and the reader is always on the link between the preceding verse and the following verse. The best way to explain this is by example. Here are the first eight verses of the most revered renga in the tradition, Minase Sangin "Three Poets At Minase", composed by the famous renga master S˘gi (1421-1502) and his two disciples Sh˘haku (1443-1527) and S˘ch˘ (1448-1532) at the Minase Shrine on the Minase River in 1488. What follows is Steven Carter's translation from Traditional Japanese Poetry.

1. S˘gi
yamamoto kasumu
yűbe kana
Some snow still remains
as haze moves low on the slopes
    toward evening
2. Sh˘haku
  yuku mizu t˘ku
ume niou sato
Flowing water, far away—
and a plum-scented village.
3. S˘ch˘
  kawakaze ni
hitomura yanagi
haru miete
Wind off the river
    blows through a clump of willows—
and spring appears.
4. S˘gi
  fune sasu oto mo
shiruki akegata
A boat being poled along,
sounding clear at the break of day.
5. Sh˘haku
  tsuki ya nao
kiri wataru yo ni
Still there, somewhere:
the moon off behind the mist
    traversing the night.
6. S˘ch˘
  shimo oku nohara
aki wa kurekeri
Out on frost-laden fields
    autumn has come to its end.
7. S˘gi
  naku mushi no
kokoro to mo naku
kusa karete
With no care at all
    for the insects crying out,
grasses wither away.
8. Sh˘haku
  kakine o toeba
arawa naru michi
Pay a visit, and by the fence—
a path standing in the open.

Note that no narrative or thematic line is developed; there is nothing that unites all eight verses into a meaningful whole and this will be true of the ninety-two verses to follow these eight. This is because the rules of renga are designed to prevent linear progression. In order to imaginatively reconstruct the creative process of renga production, one needs to know some of the rules of renga.

Renga Rules

Renga became a craze in the mid-medieval period. The writer Shuichi Kat˘ once stated in a lecture that the only phenomenon to match renga for its popularity across all classes of Japanese society is the modern passion for baseball. The reasons for renga's immense popularity throughout in the medieval period are complex and varied, but at least one important factor was that it had the appeal of a game. It was a very sophisticated game, and like any game, rules were essential to it. During the late medieval period, the rules of renga became so complex that during a session, the scribe of the sequence, who was usually a different person from the composers, was charged with the responsibility for checking that the extemporized verses obeyed the rules. If there was an infraction, he would declare it and the poet would revise the verse. However, only knowledge of a few of the vast array of rules is needed to appreciate in general how they worked. [For a more detailed account of the rules of renga, see Miner's Japanese Linked Poetry and Konishi's "The Art of Renga" in references.] Some of the rules prevented any chronological or narrative line from developing for long in the sequence, and other rules created a kind of thematic unity for the sequence by requiring that certain images recur and certain topics be continued for a specific duration. The rules for classical renga were tied to the physical format of the recording booklet. This was a booklet of four leaves with two sides each, eight pages in all. The length of a classical renga was usually 100 verses which were divided as follows, 8/ 14/ 14/ 14/ 14/ 14/14/ 8. Thus, above, we have the complete first page of the Minase Sangin. Here is a synopsis of some key rules. After making some remarks about the general effects of these rules, we will go back to the opening page of the Minase Sangin and see how the rules play out in an actual sequence.

  • Moon rule: one moon per page
  • Flower rule: one flower per leaf (that is one every 2 pages)
  • Rules of continuity:
  Spring/ Autumn:
Summer, Winter,
Travel, Mountains,
Shores, Dwellings:
Other topics
min. 3 verses
min. 2 verses

min. 0
min. 0
max. 5 verses
max. 3 verses

max 3 verses
max 1 verse

The moon, unless otherwise specified, always evokes the season of autumn; the flower, although only designated by the generic term hana "flower" is always understood to refer the cherry blossoms of spring. Thus, together the moon and flower rules mean that the seasons of spring and autumn will recur at regular intervals throughout a sequence. In fact, the season of autumn will come up on every page for a minimum of eight times, and spring must come up at least four times. Moreover, combined with the rule of continuity that requires that whenever spring or autumn occur as a topic they must be continued over a minimum of three links and can be extended up to five links, the moon and flower rules mean that every renga will be dominated by the seasons of autumn and spring with the balance tipped in autumn's favor. This mirrors the content of the imperially sponsored anthologies of waka (twenty-one anthologies compiled over a period of five hundred years) in which seasonal poems of autumn and spring are always the most numerous. The privileging of autumn is a tendency noted in the anthologies from the Shinkokinshű (1216) onwards. The rules of continuity also give love a preferred status as a topic, again in imitation of the important role accorded love in imperial anthologies of waka. Several other topics such as summer, winter and the others listed above (this is not an exhaustive list) are given special preference in terms of the option of continuation. To sum up, these rules mean that seasonal verses will dominate a renga and there will be a constant shifting among the seasons. The content of the renga will stay close to that of waka anthologies, but rather than the orderly progression of topics evident in those anthologies, topics get a random shuffle in renga. Now let us return to the opening of the Minase Sangin and watch it unfold in a different translation. [This is my own translation prepared for this article. For yet another translation see Miner's Japanese Linked Poetry.]

Though there's still some snow,
the foothills are spread with haze
    Ah! Evening

This renga session took place in early spring. "Haze" always associated with spring is the key season word. This verse alludes to a famous waka by the Retired Emperor Go-Toba (1180-1239) composed at the same location two centuries earlier:

yamamoto kasumu
yűbe wa aki to
nani omoikemu
As I gaze around
the foothills are spread with haze
by Minase River—
Why did I ever think that
evenings are an autumn thing?

This waka in turn alludes the famous pronouncement by Sei Sh˘nagon (b. 966? ) that in spring, it is the dawn that is the most beautiful, and in autumn, it is the evenings. Go-Toba felt that this spring evening was so beautiful, it made him question Sei Sh˘nagon's by then canonical opinion. S˘gi nods to the famous poem in order to ground the feeling of their own session, but for them it is so early in spring there is still snow on the ground Given the rule of continuity, the topic of spring must now be continued over at least the two links.

water flowing far away—
village aglow with plum scent.

Sh˘haku fills in the foreground of the foothills with the image of a river flowing off into the distance and introduces scent into the sensory imagery. The next link is also required to maintain the spring topic.

In the river wind,
sways a grove of willow trees—
spring swings into view.

S˘ch˘ pairs the plums with their seasonal partner the greening willows; he explicitly mentions "river" and "spring." He animates the scene with a wind that wafts the scent of the plum and the warmth of spring air right to our faces. Now, will S˘gi, whose turn it is again, carry on with spring as he could if he wished? On the other hand, he must also be aware that the moon and therefore autumn must make its way onto this page within the remaining 5 verses.

sound of a boat being poled,
clear too at the break of day.

S˘gi does the considerate thing, moves the topic into a miscellaneous non-seasonal mode. In conjunction with the link before, we imagine this to be the still dawn of a spring day, but no word in the verse itself specifies a season, thus, it will be easy for the poet on the next turn to shift topics. The verse also introduces for the first time a human subject, a boatman whom we do not see though we hear the sound of his punting pole entering the water. Within the conventional expectations for the development of the first eight verses of a renga, the fifth verse was considered a suitable place for a dramatic turn, will Sh˘haku conform to that expectation or not?

The moon! Is it not
still there, coming through the mist
    that swathes the night?

Of course he does. His shifts the season to autumn and rather than choose a secondary image of autumn and allow the next person to bring in the necessary moon, he introduces it boldly. In the Japanese, tsuki moon is the first word in the link. Note how now, the boatman is poling his boat at break of day in the autumn mist, and the light is very dim, one can still see the moon, but only now and then through rifts in the mist. One expects no surprises in the next link; the autumn topic must be maintained.

On the moors and fields, frost gels,
autumn has come to a close

S˘ch˘ invokes frost and already we are at autumn's end. The river has disappeared, fields and moors spread all around. What more can be said of autumn?

Heedless of the hearts
of the insects who cry out,
    grasses withering.

S˘gi brings up one of the most poignant of all the images of autumn so far as traditional Japanese sensibility is concerned, the crying of the insects in the long autumn grasses. Their cries grow fewer and fewer as they succumb to the cold along with the plants that shelter them. We are only one verse away now from the end of the page. The conventions of renga expect the first page to end "quietly".

As I look in through the fence,
I see the path has become bare.

The grasses have withered away exposing the path, someone is about to enter a gate. This translation makes the subject of the action "I" which is the default assumption for subjects that are not specified but it could just as easily be "he". He opens the gate just as the page is turned. It is a miscellaneous verse enabling a free shift in topic. Where will we go next? Readers who may wish to know will find a complete translation of the Minase Sangin in Steven Carter's Traditional Japanese Poetry or in Earl Miner's Japanese Linked Poetry. I hope that this exposition has given a sense of how recreating the composition play by play gives a sense of the anticipation and the pleasure in the linking process itself.

Haikai, the Irreverent Child of Renga

So how is haikai different from renga and why did it come into being? As implied above in the discussion of the rules, the range of content and treatment in renga is limited to that of the world of the imperially sponsored anthologies of waka. By the time of renga's inception, the composition of waka itself had become a closed shop monopolized by the old families of the nobility. You needed the proper pedigree (or a teacher with one) and access to arcane instructional documents to be taken seriously as a waka poet. This exclusivity broke down somewhat in the later medieval period, but somehow waka retained the air of not being suitable for the ordinary person. In renga, however, you could freely play with the waka tradition and this was certainly another source of its appeal for a wide range of participants. Nonetheless, eventually the limitation of vocabulary and subject matter in serious renga began to chafe. Even at the height of renga's popularity, people would amuse themselves after serious renga by composing mushin "mindless" renga sometimes on bawdy themes. This comic renga came to be called haikai and suited the urban commoners of the new Edo age better. [For a detailed account of the emergence of haikai from renga see Hibbett's "The Japanese Comic Linked-Verse Tradition." ]The rules were loosened and the form was shortened. While the standard length for a renga was 100 links, the most popular length in the Edo period was the thirty-six link form called a kasen, consisting of four pages divided as followed, 6/12/12/6. It was easier to compose at a sitting. The moon and flower rule were more or less kept and also the sense that spring and autumn once introduced should last for three links at least. Love was dropped as a privileged topic. Most other special topics were given a maximum of two links for continuation to fit the shorter format of the kasen. Let us look at the first six verses of a famous haikai sequence entitled "The Summer Moon" from Bash˘'s group that will more than anything demonstrate the possibilities of liberating subject matter and sensibility. The three poets involved were Bash˘, Bonch˘ and Kyorai. [The translation is my own. Readers may find a translation of the whole sequence and an excellent study of haikai in Miner's The Monkey's Straw Raincoat. Another translation may be found in Carter's Traditional Japanese Poetry.]

1 Bonch˘
  ichinaka wa
mono no nioi ya
natsu no tsuki
In the market,
the smells of so many things, oh!
the summer moon.
2 Bash˘
  atsushi astushi to
kado kado no koe
"It's hot," "It's hot," call out
voices from gate to gate.
3. Kyorai
tori mo hatasazu
ho ni idete
Even before the
second weeding is finished
the rice has eared out
4. Bonch˘
  hai uchitataku
urume ichimai
He knocks the ashes off
a single broiled sardine
5. Bash˘
  kono suji wa
kane mo mishirazu
fujiyusa yo
"Here in the boonies,
they don't even know what coins are,
damned inconvenient!"
6. Kyorai
  tada tohy˘shi ni
nagaki wakazashi
He's just out of step, him with
his big long sword at his side

In the world of haikai there is room for a humble farmer's lunch of a single sardine, smelly things, colloquial speech, mini-scenarios, and slang. The moon rule has been observed but note how the conventional aesthetic expectation to have the moon represent autumn has been turned on its head. Summer is not a pleasant season in Japan and traditionally imperial waka anthologies included far fewer summer and winter verses than those of autumn and spring. So for those aware of those expectations, the summer moon is a kind of joke.

Even this brief sample shows, I think, how haikai is probably the better choice for imitation by poets writing in English in our very colloquial and irreverent contemporary North American context. It is also very difficult to limit content in our world. Mind you, haiku poets who model their practice very closely on traditional Japanese verse might like to try traditional renga as a way of honing their familiarity with the repertoire of classical imagery. One could imagine a group of erudite poets deciding to create a linked verse series limiting themselves to the conceptions and vocabulary of T. S. Eliot and Pound. It could be done. Actually, at least two experiments with very loose versions of the renga form have been published. Otavio Paz and a number of poets produced a free form renga in three languages entitled Renga: a Chain of Poems. Two Canadian poets, one a poet in English, Edward Blodgett and the other a poet in French, Jacques Brault, created a bi-lingual renga by correspondence, which they titled Transfiguration. The verses were much longer than a Japanese renga, sometimes filling a page but usually about half a page. When Brault sent a French verse to Blodgett, Blodgett would translate Brault's verse into English and then respond to it with his own verse, and then Brault would translate Blodgett's verse into French and so on. The possibilities are infinite.

Suggestions for Ways to Create Linked Verse

As mentioned at the beginning, I wrote this piece hoping to inspire haiku poets to consider creating linked verse with fellow poets. This desire came out of my experience of teaching survey courses in classical Japanese poetry through the use of English translations. I found the best way to have students understand linked verse was to have them try it in English. They all enjoyed it so much while they indeed learned a lot. Periodically, I was also asked to lead student poets in creative writing courses at my university in the creation of linked verse and these sessions demonstrated that participants did not need a deep knowledge of Japanese poetry in order to appreciate and make use of the possibilities in the practice. The practical ideas that I present in this last section have come out of these experiences.

Group size and rules

One only needs two or more poets; three is an ideal number because the turns come up quickly and the odd number means that the composing of the two and three line segments are distributed equally. One also needs a set of simple rules. I suggest the renga rules set out above as a template for creating a set of rules. The rules above may be adapted to suit different purposes. If the goal is to facilitate group poetic composition and produce a poetry that mirrors the environment, one can change the rules to suit the cultural and geographic setting of the session members. Once, when I mentored a group of creative writing students in Alberta in the composition of renga, they suggested changing the moon rule to the sun rule because the sun is more precious to people in northern climates than the moon. Another change was to equate the "flower" with the wild rose, the provincial flower of Alberta. And the rules of continuity were changed to make winter the one season that must go a minimum of three links and put all the other three seasons into a maximum two link category. These changes cumulatively grounded the sequence in the climate of northern Alberta. Once, a group of students wanted to create an urban linked verse and put neon signs in the moon slot with no particular seasonal association and Christmas decorations in the flower slot.

Line lengths/ sequence lengths

The form for Japanese linked verse is based on line lengths determined by syllable count. This is difficult for an English speaking group to compose extemporaneously and one might argue that the 5/7/5 rhythm is not as natural to English as Japanese. On the other hand, some limitation of line length is useful for encouraging the compression of diction that is so characteristic of Japanese verse and most good verse in any language. Generally, it works to have participants think of the links as three short lines and two short lines, but not bother counting syllables. As for sequence length, the 100 links of a classical renga is daunting unless it is a particularly glib group. The thirty-six link sequence preferred in the Edo period is more manageable.

Composition Procedure

Once the rules are in place, a designated person gives the hokku and the composition proceeds. Once a link has been composed, it is intoned three times and then the turn passes to the next poet. There are two possibilities for composition procedure.

1. Competitive style (preferred in the Japanese medieval period)

After a link has been intoned three times, anyone who has a link to add can jump in. This means all members of the session are trying to compose the next link which keeps the whole group focused. It also means that the person with the most fertile and quick (or facile) mind may end up composing the majority of the links. Records from the medieval period complain about aggressive poets who rush to grab the turn by coming up with the first 5 syllable phrase of a 17 syllable link, and then run a delaying tactic of mouthing inarticulate sounds as they compose the remaining syllabic units. (See Horton article listed in the references section for more on the etiquette and flavor of medieval linked verse performance.) One can adapt this style by having the turn pass to the next person in the circle and give that person a set time limit of one to two minutes after which it becomes a free-for-all.

2.áRelaxed party style (best accompanied by food and drink)

The turn for composing passes in a regular manner and the poet whose turn it is takes as long as he or she needs (within reasonable limits) while the other members of the session chat and enjoy themselves. The group comes together and listens attentively when the new link is ready. In this style, it is best to repeat the preceding verse before the new link to maintain continuity. This style results in a pleasant social occasion that is punctuated from time to time by the whole group coming together to listen as one. At the end, one can recite the entire sequence through.


This is the end of the quick journey through the long history that led up to haiku. I hope some of you will feel inspired to try linked verse in either the haikai or renga style with some like-minded friend poets. What follows is a list of references keyed to recommendations in the body of the article.


[In order of appearance in the article]

Heinrich, Amy. ôCosmic Tanka: Recreating Universesö in Proceedings of Across Time and Genre: Reading and Writing Japanese Womenĺs Texts. Edmonton: University of Alberta East Asian Studies Department, 2001, p. 292-293.

Carter, Steven. Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1991, p. 307-308.

Miner, Earl. Japanese Linked Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979, p. 12-19 [for rules of renga], p. 184-225 [for a complete translation of Minase Sangin].

Konishi, Jinichi.áôThe Art of Renga.öáTrans. Karen Brazell. Journal of Japanese Studies, 2 (1975), 29-61.

Hibbet, Howard.áôThe Japanese Comic Linked-Verse Tradition.ö Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 23 (1960-61).

Miner, Earl and Hiroko Odagiri. The Monkeyĺs Straw Raincoat and Other Poetry Bash˘ School.ááPrinceton: Princeton University Press, 1981. [Translation of ôSummer Moonö sequence entitled ôThroughout the Townö, p. 249-265. Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry. [See above for full reference. Translation entitled ôOut in the Streetsö, p. 366-375].

Paz, Octavio. Renga: a Chain of Poems. Trans. Charles Tomlinson. New York: G. Braziller, 1971

Blodgett, Edward and Jacques Brault, Transfiguration. Saint Hippolyte, Quebec: Editions du Noroţt, Toronto: Buschek Books, 1998.

Horton, H. Mack.áôRenga Unbound: Performative Aspects of Japanese Linked Verse.ö Harvard Journal of Asian Studies 53.2 (Dec. 1993): 443-512.

Sonja Arntzen Sonja Arntzen, author of Ikkyū and the Crazy Cloud Anthology (Tokyo University Press, 1986) and The Kagerō Diary (University of Michigan, 1997) has taught at the University of Alberta and the University of Toronto. Recently retired, she is working on a new translation of the Sarashina nikki and a history of Japanese womenĺs writing, as well as doing a lot of gardening.