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Beginner's Guidelines to Composing Nijuin Renga
A renga is a series of short verses linked into one long poem, composed collaboratively by a group. Nijuin means a 20-verse renga.

Each constituent verse must make sense independently. It should also connect in some way with the verses that follow and precede. The verses alternate between 3-liners and 2-lines throughout.

The opening verse of a renga is called the hokku. It takes the same form as haiku -three short lines, preferably with some reference to the season of composition. It communicates feeling through the use of concrete images, and generally avoids abstraction and conceptualisation. Renga practice and haiku practice go hand-in-hand. To learn haiku there is no substitute for practice. This means, before writing, reading - whatever you can, in translation from the Japanese and original work in English.

A renga opens with some reference to the season of composition and moves - not necessarily in orderly sequence - through all four seasons, generally ending with a spring verse. Seasonal themes are generally sustained for at least a couple of verses, and the passage from one season to the next is often broken by one or more non-seasonal verses.

Seasonal reference is made through the use of a season-word, which may be obvious, like ‘autumn rain’ or ‘snow’, or more subtle, for instance, ‘watermelon’ for summer. Season words include cultural as well as natural references; for instance, you might use April Fool's Day for spring. The two key principles of renga are link and shift. Link means that each verse should connect in some way with its immediate predecessor. Shift means that, with the exception of the link just noted, each verse should move on, drawing on imagery, which is new (for that particular renga). That is, repetition is to be avoided. Even when linking, although there will be some implicit connection, actual words and phrases should not be repeated.

A nijuin renga is divided into three phases of 4, 12 and 4 verses respectively. As a beginner it is not necessary to have any further knowledge of how these phases relate; an understanding will develop through experience.

Certain images are expected to appear in every renga. In a nijuin, a moon reference usually appears in the third verse, and a flower reference in the penultimate verse (verse 19). The theme of love should also appear somewhere, although it has no set position, and is generally sustained for two or three verses.

The overall effect of a renga is a scattered mosaic of images covering a broad spectrum of atmosphere and mood. Although narrative connection is one means of linking, there is no sustained narrative or logical thread.

To take part, it isn't necessary to remember all this. The template of seasons and images only exists to provide a rough structure, anyway. It is important to follow the spirit of the specific occasion, rather than be tied to the template. The only two indispensable requirements are: respect the dynamic of link and shift; and write with haiku-like texture and economy.


Martin Lucas
(British Haiku Society)

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