It’s important to note that renga has been written in a variety of styles. These vary based on the number of kaishi, or writing sheets, and the number of stanzas. The formats include senku (with 1,000 stanzas), Gojūin (with 50 stanzas), Hyakuin (with 100 stanzas), and Jūnichō (with 12 stanzas).
Influence of Renga Poetry
Renga poetry has been influential in Japanese literature, and it has also inspired Western poets to experiment with collaborative poetry.
Today, renga is still practiced in Japan, and there are also international communities that engage in Renga writing as a form of creative expression and cultural exchange. Some of the best-known renga poems include ‘Three Poets at Minase’ and ‘Three Poets at Yuyama,’ both written in the late 1400s.
The Renga Poetic Form
These poems typically start with a hokku or a three-line verse that sets the tone and subject of the poem (these poems were the origin of the haiku). Interestingly, the hokku was expected to be able to stand on its own. It should be good enough to read without the following stanzas.
The hokku was also expected to set the scene, telling readers what the setting is, the landscape, or the season. More often than not, the most skilled poet of the group was the one responsible for writing the hokku.
Then, the following poets contribute a stanza each. The next stanza was known as the “wakiku” and the third as the “daisan.” These two stanzas, and any that follow, were all known collectively as “tsukeku.” That is, until the final stanza, which is known as the “ageku.”
Also of importance when composing this type of poem is the paper that the poets use. They would have eight sheets of paper and utilize the front and back of all pages. Depending on the paper layout, they were different rules that the poets needed to follow. One of these is known as the “four blossoms, eight moons” rule.
The poem’s verse should flow together as well, a technique known as “jōhakyū.” This means that all should suit the same experience and feel as though they belong together. Also important was the linking rule. Two verses could run into each other or link if they were next to one another. Otherwise, linking isn’t allowed.
Steps to Write a Renga
The renga is a very complicated poetic form, but here are the basic steps to completing one.
- The first poet writes a haiku.
- The second poet responds with a couplet (about 7 syllables long)
- The third poet sees both poems and adds another haiku.
- The fourth poet adds a couplet.
- Repeated until the poem is complete.
Renga Subject Matter
The chosen subject matter is of the utmost importance when it comes to composing these poems. Often, the subject could be described as pastoral. These poems deal with themes of nature, love, the seasons, and everyday life.
As with all strict poetic forms, contemporary renga is less confining than the traditional versions of the poems. Today, it is common to find students writing contemporary, westernized versions of these poems on a variety of subjects without worrying about the many rules noted above.
In a traditional renga, the poem progresses from a more seasonal and naturalistic theme towards a more abstract and philosophical one. The last stanza, known as the ageku, is supposed to be a profound conclusion to the poem. The collaborative aspect of renga poetry also requires each poet to be mindful of the preceding stanzas and to add to the evolving narrative of the poem.
Example of a Renga
Three Poets at Minase by Sogi, Shohaku, and Socho
Here are the first three stanzas of a renga known as ‘Three Poets at Minase.’ The poem has three authors, Sogi, Shohaku, and Socho. Sogi wrote the first verse, Shohaku the second, and Shocho wrote the third.
As it snows the base
of the mountain is misty
Far in the way the water goes
a plum-blossom-smelling hamlet
The wind from the river
sways weeping willows
now it’s spring
Terminology Associated with Renga Poems
Here are a few of the many terms associated with renga poems:
- Asaru: when two stanzas happen in a row.
- Teishu: the patron of the gathering.
- Kyaku: the main guest of the gathering.
- Yukiyō: how the flow of the sequence is based on links and shifting verses around.
- Rinne: a loop where the same idea is repeated.
- Kukazu: the number of verses.
- Sarikirai: a rule to prevent the repetition of the same image or idea.
- Renku: a modern raga in the style of the famed Matsuo Bashō.
- Hiraku: all verses (except hokku, waki, daisan, and ageku).
- Daisan: the third stanza.
- Waki: the second stanza.
Renga is best done by Japanese poets who have a deep understanding of the tradition and cultural context of the form. Collaborative renga requires poets to listen and respond to each other’s stanzas while maintaining the coherence and progression of the poem.
Renga means “linked verse.” It is a form of poetry that originated in Japan more than seven centuries ago. It involves several poets taking turns composing stanzas in response to one another. The poem is a collaboration of poets, with each contributing to the evolving narrative of the poem.
The main difference between renga and tanka is that tanka is a standalone poem, while renga is a collaborative form of linked verse. Tanka follow a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern and typically expresses personal emotions or thoughts on nature and love, while renga follow a 5-7-5 syllable pattern and progresses from a seasonal to a philosophical theme.