Renga – ‘linked verse’ – is a collaborative poetic form. It originated in Japan almost a thousand years ago with two writers contributing alternating verses to a tanka poem consisting of a 3-line verse followed by a 2-line response.
This practice grew into renga and two poetic traditions evolved. In the one, court poets would vie with each other, creating successive witty verses as a sort of literary game; in the other, monk poets would gather under cherry trees at Buddhist temples to compose linked verses permeated with the sense of change, impermanence, and the interdependence of all things.
By the 14th century renga became valued as a serious literary form and absorbed some of the religious significance invested in it by the hana no moto, the “under the blossoms” renga masters.
Renga might be practised by two poets creating tan renga (2 verses) or longer sequences or by several poets led by a ‘master’ in the creation of gojuin renga (50 verses) hyakuin renga (100 verses) – sometimes these formed part of longer sequences of 1000 or more.
In the 17th century through the influence of Bashō and other writers the 36-verse or kasen renga became popular. At this time too the popular haiku form arose, derived from the hokku, the first verse of the renga.
In modern times the form has been used and adapted by writers across the world, meeting in groups like the early writers in Japan, or corresponding by letter or email to create their renga.
Alec Finlay, Verse Chain: Sharing Haiku and Renga (Edinburgh: morning star; Gateshead: BALTIC, 2003)
Linda France, Book of Days (Smokestack Books, 2009)
Alistair Peebles, ed. From Milk to Mercury: Three Orkney Winter Nijuin Renga (Orkney: Brae Editions, 2009)