Renga and Haiku: A Japanese Poetic Challenge

“A young shoot has borne

Beautiful flowers,

Growing upon

An aged plum tree.”

–Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (tr. by Nobuyuki Yuasa)

Many of us have tried writing a haiku at one point or another. The sweet and simple three-line structure invites teachers to include haikus in their classes on poetry. As a result, most students learn about them alongside acrostics and limericks in elementary school. The Japanese haiku has become as well-known in the English-speaking world as sonnets are, and it’s vastly popular in its simplicity.

What many people don’t know, however, is that the haiku has a rich genealogy. Haikus actually stemmed from hokku, the first stanza of another, longer Japanese poetry form called renga.

So what is Renga?

Renga is a collaborative, linked-verse style of poetry. Hiroaki Sato in his book, On Haiku, describes renga as a “literary game” complete with a complex set of rules (pg 6). He goes on to explain that in renga, two or more poets take turns adding stanzas to an ongoing set of verses. The form alternates between 3-line stanzas with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern (sound familiar?) and 2-line stanzas with 7 syllables in each line. Each stanza had to connect to the theme or descriptions of the one before it, but only to the one before it. Thus, while there’s a connection between each verse, the renga as a whole didn’t have a cohesive theme or narrative.

Traditional renga could either be serious in nature, composed in commemoration of events, or be more humorous. In either case, the honor of writing the first stanza usually went to the guest of honor at an event, often a master poet (Sato, pg. 9). The poet composing the hokku had to include a reference to the current season, as well as one pertaining to the event (Sato, pg. 6). The renga became a social activity, a way for poets to hone their skill while engaging in community. It was a way to challenge each other’s wit, entertain guests at social functions, and join together in the creative process.

Care to try it yourself?

Help us write a renga in the comments below!

Add a stanza based only on the comment before yours, following the stanza pattern. (One person writes a 3-line stanza, the next writes  2-lines). Feel free to come back and add another stanza to the chain after someone adds to yours!  Let’s see how long a renga we can make.

I’ll kick us off with this hokku:

The sky sails bluer

Fringed by fresh green shores,

Earth’s gentle harbor. 




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