An Introduction to Tan-Renga

Written 15 August 2008 for a workshop handout. Not previously published. Poems quoted from How to Haiku: A Writer’s Guide to Haiku and Related Forms by Bruce Ross. Boston: Tuttle, 2002, pages 115–116. It also seems possible to write solo tan-renga. Such poems might be indistinguishable from tanka, however, unless one retains the blank line between verses and uses a deliberately different voice for the second verse. See also “Tanned and Healthy: A Dozen Tan-renga from Asilomar.” For more examples of tan-renga, see the Collaborations page.

Tan-renga (短連歌) is a short collaborative poem for two poets, consisting of a three-line haiku followed by a two-line response or “capping verse.” The roots of haiku lie in renga (now known as renku). Renga is linked verse, where two or more poets take turns writing a short verse that links to the previous verse, yet also shifts away to create variety and diversity, as if to “taste all of life.” The first verse of a renga is known as a hokku, or “starting verse,” and these verses were later collected and separated as independent verses that we know today as haiku. Bashō, for example, was really a hokku and renga writer, not a haiku writer, and excelled at writing various kinds of linked verse collaborations, often given the honour position of writing the starting verse. A kasen renga consisted of thirty-six verses in a specific pattern of seasonal development, with moon and flower verses in prescribed places. Shorter and longer varieties of renga have also been written in Japan and now around the world, ranging from a nijuin renga of twelve verses to renga of 1,000 verses or more.

        In Japanese, a renga begins with a verse written in a pattern of 5-7-5 sound symbols (or mora, in Western linguistic terms, which are not the same as syllables—the word “haiku,” for example, counts as two syllables in English, but three sound symbols in Japanese). This starting verse is followed by a capping verse in a pattern of 7-7. The pattern repeats with another 5-7-5, then 7-7, and so on. Because of the difference in Japanese and English, the vast majority of literary haiku in English are not 5-7-5; similarly, renga or renku in English do not follow a 5-7-5 / 7-7 syllable pattern, although you’re free to do that if you wish. While these verses are written in a single vertical line in Japanese, in English the pattern has become common to have three lines followed by two lines, often in a short/long/short, long/long line pattern. Typically, each verse relies on implication to create an emotional effect by presenting a sensory moment described objectively (although some subjectivity can be effective).

        So what is a tan-renga? The word “tan” simply means “short,” so a tan-renga is a short renga—just two verses. The two-line capping verse responds to or turns on the three-line starting verse, thus making a new whole, creating something similar to the 1,300-year-old form of waka (known today as tanka). A key technique is to link and shift with each response verse, adding something at a right-angle to the preceding verse, yet still connected, whether emotionally, tonally, or in some other creative way.

        The following are two examples of tan-renga:


small clouds

in a clear sky—also swallows Carol Purington

flying high


        all that I did today I did Larry Kimmel

        as if her eyes were on me


~     ~     ~


morning sun—

all the patio tables Paul O. Williams

shining with new rain


        church bells Michael Dylan Welch

        church bells