Japanese “renku” Group Poetry: An Ancient and Unique Style

By Matthew John Turnbull, MA Japanese Studies

Renku has a long history in Japan, dating all the way back to the Heian Period (794 to 1185) and beyond. It was popularised by poet Matsuo Bashō and, during the Edo Period (1603-1868), finally saw widespread practice as the use of poetic nicknames ensured the anonymity of participants meaning that people of any social class could join in. In what was otherwise a rigidly segregated society, here peasants sat beside samurai.

Aside from who was present at these gatherings, what was made had, and continues to have, great social and creative effect. Renku is not like many poetic styles, especially Western forms where individual writers sit alone and pen their lonely pieces. Renku is a shared experience. A group of any size, led by a decision maker called the sabaki, take turns writing and submitting individual verses that come together to form one collaborative poem. This was radical in the Edo-period, but still today group poetry is almost unheard of. Even Japanese people have often never heard of, and certainly never practised, renku!

A single glance at a renku poem may confuse the uninitiated; ‘What do these verses have to do with each other?’. Well, like with all creative endeavours, this is where deep consideration rewards you. Each verse carries subtle links to the one before it while also shifting away, creating an elegant and dynamic movement through the piece. This can be seen particularly well in the longer formats which can be up to one hundred verses long. I encourage you to look for the delicate connections between the verses. Consider: how would you respond to a verse? It is not as easy as it may seem!

‘Pointillism’

With contributions by Eiko Yachimoto, Heidi Völkl, Andrew Shimfield, and Matthew Turnbull. (Author’s initials are shown after their verse).

dew soaked lawn 

the postman leaves behind

his footsteps                            

(AS)

sardines on pizza

a crime not to be repeated   

(HV)

harvest in

drinking cider

by moonlight

(AS)

jays, sparrows and finches

bathe in the birdbath

(MT)

held captive

thousands of Muslims

in Xinjiang

(AS)                        

one cool evening

we marched arm in arm

(MT)

fireworks painted

in pointillism

Yamashita Kiyoshi

(EY)

my son delighted

by the clown’s red nose

(AS)

Photo Caption: Matsuo Bashō, celebrated renku and haiku poet, by Hokusai. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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