School of Renga 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Eight

That also means shooting trouble down before it starts. Since renga-writing is fairly intimate (you are each putting your souls and your skills on the line in the light of day) there are guidelines to behavior to keep the emotions under control.

In Japan, in the olden times and even yet, most renga have been written under a renga master. That is usually the someone who knows more about the form than others in the group. Since there is no actual school of renga, the renga master is usually the member of a group who has either been around the longest, or has actually studied read and done renga longer than anyone else.

In Basho's day he studied with a teacher and actually had a ceremony that declared him a renga master and he published a book of his work as calling card and proof of professionally.

Nowadays, any one with sufficient chutzpah can declare her or himself a renga master. It has been done, my friends..

When working with a renga master you will not need my rules here because he (so far most of them they have all been male; Kiyoko Tokutomi is the only one I knew of and she is now gone) will be making them and you will be following them. And when you mess up he will let you know. The renga master has complete control over what style of renga you will be doing, who will be working with you, who goes first, and, which rules he expects to have followed.

The renga master, as I described in the story about doing the ones with the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society at Asilomar, decides if the offered link is worthy, if it fits the poem, or if another should be tried. The shaping of the renga by a renga master goes so far that when the poem is written, he still can cast out a link that doesn't fit , write one of his own to replace it, and move the links around to get the fit that best reflects his idea of what the renga should be.

By agreeing to do a renga with a renga master you are giving up all authority over your words. You may learn a lot by doing one by this method and I suppose there are persons who enjoy not having to know or worry about the finer points of renga writing and just go along for the ride. Not many writers are like this. At least not outside of Japan.

Most English writers have lived too long with too much freedom to easily knuckle under someone else with any grace. So most English renga have been written without a 'master.' It makes the process and the resulting work different.

Our way means the couple wanting to do a renga together have to spend s little time on setting up their own guidelines before the work begins.

Start with a clear idea of what you both want. Will you be doing a traditional kasen renga or a less demanding form? Will you be trying an experiment? Will you do all 36 links or only a han (half) renga  consisting of 18 links? Or an even longer one?

Will you use caps and punctuation or not?

Will you use a one-line format or the the usual three-line style for the links? There are well-known writers whose personal approach or style of writing their haiku is so strong that no matter what the partner may be writing, this has to be abandoned in order that the renga be written in the hostess's style (both cases I've experienced were with women!).This gives a certain consistency to their works, but is often a barrier for finding a partner.

These schema or forms I've given you are help both of you can refer to and use instead of having the master tell you, "Now you need to write a two-liner on the subject of lover." Using such a form also solves the de terming some of the parameters.

Usually the one who wants to do a renga, the host, asks the guest to write the first link but there is nothing wrong with the initiator writing the hokku and then asking someone to write a renga using that as the beginning.

Send your responses back as quickly as possible. Nothing wrinkles a renga like letting it get old on your piled up desk. Remember you are working on a living thing.

Unless someone makes such a terrible error that there is no way you can respond with a link, you should leave glitches, repeats and even bad writing until the whole poem is written. One writes renga with emotion and if pointing out corrections and errors angers the partner, the lines will become brittle and snappish and perhaps the renga will be broken off.

When the poem is complete allow the first guest to make any corrections in his or her own links that that he or she thinks are necessary. Don’t completely replace a link with another one that is very different. If you do, the partner will have to rewrite his or her link and then you will have to rewrite the following . . . you get the idea. Revise and make corrections but don’t change out everything unless it fits appropriately with the next link.

On this corrected version of the renga the host makes corrections to his or her work.

Then there can be an exchange of questions about why such-and-such was done or if the other person really wishes for the link to stand as it is. Be courteous, cautious, and polite. You are still clinched cheek to cheek in a dance.

Instead of pointing and saying, "You used the word 'rain' in links 4, 21, 30 and 34, in addition to my 'rain' in link 3!" You might ask, "Do you really want to repeat the word 'rain' that many times?" BTW, it is usually assumed that whoever used the repeated word first gets to keep it and other instances of its use need to be fixed by that author. However, it is possible to negotiate who makes the trips to the thesaurus and in the best cases both authors start flipping pages..

Sometimes during the process where a partner is fixing his links, he will want to change a link so drastically that it no longer bears any connection to your following response. It takes some serious negotiating skills to point this out, to ask for a less drastic change. If you were not very happy with your original response you can see this as a chance to repair that. but if you really liked your link or the linkage, both of you may have to work on the problem stanza to find a way to fix it that keeps the flow of the poem and does not upset the following material.

By doing a renga it is agreed that either partner may publish the final poem. It is very bad form to do a renga and then withdraw your own links from the work or refuse to let it be published.. 

Unless it is otherwise agreed, the host takes care of the renga by making fair copies, offering it for publication and keeping the partner(s) informed.



Things do happen during the writing of a renga. It can be that the partners simply are not compatible. And some people seem unable, no matter how hard they try, to work collaboratively.

If the work is not going well one can offer to quit at link#18 and having half a renga is better than no renga at all.

Occasionally a renga writer will quit and 'pick up the toys and go home.' You can still salvage your links by making the work into a solo renga and writing to fill in the blanks. I have read a few very curious 18 link "renga" that look more like a sequence because one can see are the remnants of a renga partnership gone wrong.

In one case I was asked to pick up the pieces of an abandoned renga and write in all the missing stanza but the situation lacked the marvelous play between authors. The result had all the grace and joy of Frankenstein.

Like dance partners, your heart will lead you into a renga relationship that brings you much joy and many poems. These are rare. I can count on one hand the renga partnerships that I know which have endured and flourished. Usually these end up as books.

When you find someone whose writing fits with your renga , marry them, be good to them, love them.


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Page and Materials Copyright © Jane Reichhold 2011.

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The above picture of Basho at a renga party was painted by Buson and added to the text of Basho's book Oku no Hosomichi - Narrow Road to the Far North. It was scanned from a facsimile scroll of the original work purchased at the Museum of Art in Tokyo, Japan.