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ON RENGA VS RENKU
by Hiroaki Sato


Some people, perhaps led by William J. Higginson, once a radical, are trying to replace the word renga with renku. So Terri Lee Grell asks, "What's the difference? Does it matter?" I answer, "There may be some difference, but whatever difference there may be will merely confuse the matter."

As any book on the subject will tell you, the term renku first saw print in 1747, but it gained currency only after it was reintroduced in a 1904 issue of Hototogisu, a magazine under the editorial supervision of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) while he was alive, then taken over by one of his top associates, Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959). Scholars then began to use it retroactively, applying it to a literary genre which Matsuo Basho (1644-94), for one, never thought of calling other than haikai no renga or, in abbreviation, haikai. The process is similar to what happened to the other term, haiku, though it first saw print somewhat earlier, in 1663; it gained currency only some time after Shiki and his friends began using it as an equal or alternative of hokku. Once it was accepted, its retroactive use also was.

The retroactive use of renku and haiku has little to show for itself save the inordinate influence of Shiki and his friends. Academically, it was a mindless cop-out. It merely helped blur the conceptual distinction that members of the Shiki school wanted to make between what they were trying to do and what traditional haikai writers had done and continued to do.

Did the conceptual distinction have any validity? I'll skip commenting on haiku. With renku, the answer is moot. In large part perhaps because Shiki said, "Haikai no renga is not literature," the writing of renga was soon relegated to the position of amusement for the literatti - precisely the position to which Shiki condemned traditional haikai.

Renga, then, practically died out. A few decades ago poet-scholars such as Ooka Makoto and Ando Tsuguo composed and published some 36-link renga to show off their knowledge and skill, and that helped rekindle interest in the form. But aside from occasional modern words and images, the sequences they write strive to conform strictly to the traditional rules, and it's hard to say whether they are more "literature" than those composed till Shiki's days.

How about the term renku itself? I can only note that in introducing the latest round of his group's attempts in Tokutoku Kasen (Bungei Shunju, 1991), Ooka makes it clear that the proper name of the form is renga and he and his friends use the term renku only for convenience.

Is there any sense in trying to replace renga with renku in English when the former term is about to take hold? Yes, but only if you have an obsession to align yourself with whatever some of the present-day Japanese writers in the form do. In form, renga is renga is renga.

Article Copyright © Hiroaki Sato 1999.

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