A I K U S P
I R I T
Guidelines to compose a renku
A renku is a collective poetry composition, a collaborative linked
Renku, and its parent genre Renga, go back nearly a thousand years as a
tradition in Japanese poetry, reaching its zenith with Matsuo Basho in
the 17th century.
It is a sequence of linked verses (usually 36 in Basho’s time),
composed by a group of poets writing alternately long and short verses
(of 17 and 14 syllables respectively, when written in Japanese).
Traditionally the poets would follow certain codes and rules: each
verse might have a set theme, or season; certain stanzas should mention
the moon or flowers, or different aspects of human nature and
philosophy. Such rules have more or less been generally adopted or
adapted in the practice of renku in the West.
While for many, haiku is considered as “the poetry of the truth” (i.e.
written from a real experience), renku has more to do with fiction and
story-telling, with the possible exception of the first verse (hokku)
which is technically a haiku. The participants are required to invent
events, evoke emotions and moments, and the use of the first person
does not necessarily imply the poet but rather the part played within
the narration. Renku fully tolerates fiction and imagination.
When completed, a renku should offer a mosaic of images and emotions
expressing a broad range of themes, subjects and moods that are
independently addressed or treated by each verse.
Composing a Renku
Composing a renku is a group activity and as such should be treated as
an enjoyable and social experience based on discussion and exchanges,
even when composed via email or snail mail. A renku may be organised to
celebrate an event or a special guest.
As it is closely related to haiku, renku also provides a perfect
opportunity to practice the art of this short form of poetry, reflect
on haiku challenges as well as exchanging views, tips and reviews on
specific issues that may be raised during the composition.
There is usually a sabaki, facilitator or lead poet, who will guide the
participants and may also act as judge to determine which verses are
selected for inclusion in the poem. Obviously the facilitator should be
experienced in renku and haiku composition, and have good communication
skills as well as being tactful or diplomatic, as this person should
initiate the discussion on the verses, but all participants should also
voice their feedback, and it will eventually be the lead poet’s
decision to select or amend a proposed verse.
Format and Content in English
Given the 7/5/7-syllable principle for haiku is not an absolute rule in
English (or most other Western languages), poets composing in English
do not usually follow the 7/5/7 or 7/7 rule in renku.
It is however usually appropriate or recommended to alternate between
3-liners and 2-liners, that is to write in a format of 3-liners and
The 3-liners will usually be similar to a haiku in style and spirit
(but without a caesura or major break) while the 2-liner should be
haiku-like in its style (economy, moment…) and impact. The 3-liners
should have 6/7 stresses (which should make out approximately 14 to 16
syllables) and use concrete imagery, while the 2-liners should have
about 5 stresses (which should make out approximately 11 to 13
It is considered appropriate to start with a verse of the current
season, as it provides a structure and a narrative opening.
The rules of classical renku in Japan may seem very strict, as
participants were obliged to deal with some specific themes and insert
verses about love, the moon (for instance) at particular places in the
renku but these rules are more or less followed in modern and Western
renku - as it is the case with the 5/7/5 or 7/7 rule. However, it may
be worth considering and deciding beforehand to treat and insert some
themes. These predetermined themes may then act a reminders, landmarks
or benchmarks and provide the participants with a thematic checklist
for the renku to progress smoothly.
Generally speaking, participants should write in the present and keep
concrete imagery; the language should sound and read fairly natural and
simple. As for haiku, it is recommended to use the right word rather
than the nicest word and to look for clarity in avoiding contrived
vocabulary, grammar or structure. Words (but also subjects or themes)
should not be repeated from one verse to another, or later on in the
The core principle of renku is “link and shift”.
“Link” signifies that each verse links somehow to its predecessor and
“shift”, by contrast, means that each new verse must shift away from
the previous-but-one verse, and have nothing in common with it.
Thus, in any three consecutive verses A, B and C: B is to link to A and
C links to B, but crucially C shifts right away from A.
As a result, the poem will be non-narrative, without any central or
specific theme and, rather than being about something in particular,
will be as far as possible, about everything.
Each verse is “linked” to the former one as each poet writes his verse
in response to the “fragrance” of the previous verse but each verse is
still in a sense a separate entity. Thus, although there is a
connection between the preceding and following stanza, each verse must
have its own theme and subject.
This connection is the “challenge” in the composition of renku as it
must be neither too obviously nor too remotely linked to its
predecessor (and so forth). It is essential to remember at all times to
avoid any link with the so-called uchikoshi, the previous-but-one
It is also important to mention that this connection does not have to
be logical or chronological in its essence.
The other principle of renku relates to shift. Each verse is somehow
connected to the previous one but should also move on and introduce new
In this way, there is a progression in the narrative. For instance, a
season, or a specific time in a season may be sustained for a couple of
verses. Where there is a shift from one season to another in the renku,
such seasons are normally separated by one or more ‘seasonless’ verses.
The First Verse
The first verse is called hokku and it is worth mentioning that this
opening verse was later isolated, as an entity that stands on its own,
and became what is known now haiku (term created by Shiki about 100
The lead poet would traditionally invite the guest of honour to write
the first verse. In the west, it will more frequently be chosen by the
group, and it is generally perceived as an honour to have one’s haiku
chosen as the hokku; it is worth somewhat more than one verse when it
will come to “sharing” verses in a renku. Originally in Japan, the
hokku could then be published or inserted on its own in anthologies or
collections. In any case the hokku should be selected for its sheer
quality as it will be the starting point of the poetic narrative and
should consequently be positive and forward-looking.
The hokku should have some reference to the season of composition and,
ideally, to the environment or occasion of the event. Like for haiku,
the seasonal reference is made through a season-word (kigo). There are
direct references (snow, sun…) and indirect or cultural possibilities
(such as cherry blossoms for spring, Christmas for winter…).
It will be in three lines and with about 6/7 stresses (which should
make out approximately 14 to 16 syllables), containing concrete
The Second Verse
The second verse is called wakiku and should be a 2-liner including a
reference to the hokku’s season but must avoid any repetition of the
hokku’s imagery or vocabulary. It should have about 5 stresses (which
should make it approximately 11 to 13 syllables).
Obviously, and this is the challenge, it must have a link with the
hokku (see principles above) and the success of this link (and of every
other link in the renku) will affect the overall quality of the poem.
The Third Verse
The third verse is called daisan and may somehow be considered as the
first real verse of the renku, given it will be the first instance that
has both a link to the second verse (wakiku) and a shift away from the
first verse (hokku).
It should resemble the hokku in form (i.e. 3-liner, number of stresses,
though avoiding a caesura so it should read straight through) but must
avoid any link (subject, theme, word…) with the first verse. It usually
is free of any seasonal reference, and though it will bring a new
subject or theme, its link to the second verse should be close enough.
The Fourth Verse
The fourth verse may be seasonless or make reference to another season
than that of the first verse (hokku). It may unroll the narrative, that
is continue the story from the preceding verse, or have a “lighter”
link to this previous verse.
However, it must avoid using or relying on topics, subjects or themes
already used in the previous three verses.
The Next Verses
Depending on the decision to insert some specific themes or not, the
next verses will basically follow the rules as set out above.
The Last Verse
The last verse is called ageku and obviously concludes the renku.
Echoing the situation of the hokku (first verse), it may be decided to
ask a certain person (the host or an invited guest) to compose the last
verse as a fitting conclusion. It may also be written by the leader or
simply chosen among the participants’ proposals.
Renku composition is a group activity and well constructed feedback and
suggestions for each verse are important, and must always be made or
expressed with the overall benefit of the renku in mind, given the
secret of a renku’s success lies in its links and shifts as well as in
the quality of each individual verse.
Obviously, time is a factor in the composition of a renku. It may be
arranged to dedicate a whole day for a renku and therefore set a target
for the number of verses (12 tends to be a realistic target). Many
renku are now being composed by email or snail mail. This way, the time
factor is not an issue and the target may be 20, 22 or the more
traditional 36 verses. In any case, the discussion and feedback on the
verses that are submitted for consideration by the leader or
facilitator are an integral part of the process. It is also at the root
of the social aspect of renku composition and a factor that is maybe
unique in poetry which is usually a solitary activity.
Finally, remember to follow the spirit of haiku.