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The Renku Sessions: Introduction to junicho


Welcome to the latest Renku Session. I am Sandra Simpson and I will be your guide as we tackle a junicho (june-ee-cho, as in choke). A junicho is only 12 verses long, so a third of the kasen that was composed last year under the guidance of John Stevenson.

If you’re new to all kinds of renku (linked verse by several authors), don’t worry! There is a small description of the form at the end of this text, although references to renku in general are scattered throughout.

The junicho form was developed by Master Shunjin Okamoto in the late 1980s, and is one of the shortest forms for group composition (along with the 12-verse shisan). His intent, apparently, was to shear away classical precedent, hence in a junicho the moon does not automatically equate to autumn and the blossom verse is not automatically a cherry blossom or even a spring verse. (However, please note that I am a fairly conventional sabaki.)

A junicho follows roughly the same template as any other renku, albeit with more flexibility.

hokku – head verse
wakiku – second verse, buttresses the hokku
daisan – third verse, first shift away

NB: The exclusions that apply to the first verses of a kasen – no war, famine, death, no proper nouns, etc – do not apply to a junicho, although I will not be looking for anything tremendously shocking to start our poem.

Typically, a junicho has:

two spring verses
two autumn verses
one summer verse
one winter verse

two love verses  – appear together
one moon verse – may pair with any season
one blossom verse – may pair with any season, any type of flower

six non-season verses

ageku – final verse

Junicho – which means ‘12-tone’ – uses the jo-ha-kyu movement roughly split as 3-6-3.

Jane Reichhold has described jo as the polite welcome to the party, a getting to know one another; ha as the less inhibited period when dancing starts and conversation reaches a crescendo; and kyu as things are winding down when it’s late, mellow farewells. The ha section is where the confronting and challenging topics are best used; where the writing can “show off”.

Our hokku will be either summer or winter and we will proceed from there remembering that in the short renku forms the seasons are not followed in chronological order (despite my preference to be logical!).

My mentor in all things renku, the late John Carley, wrote to me in 2011: “The possible demerits of following calendar order are that in very compact poems it gets harder to avoid the impression that the whole thing is chained together by temporal progression.

“The convention that the poem starts in the current season dates back to at least the 14th century … but other than that the junicho can go anywhere it pleases.”

As with any renku, the poem is not a series of haiku. The hokku is the only haiku-like verse in the poem – and the only verse in the entire poem that may use an obvious cut.

Making a link from one verse to the next is at the heart of renku composition. But for a renku to succeed it must also display progression and diversity, which is where the shift movement comes in.

As the poem progresses it is up to me to ensure that there are differences in tone, subject matter, style, setting, etc to keep the poem interesting for readers. Yet it is not a case of novelty at all costs – balance and harmony are key.

Renku should be seen as something like a pearl necklace, with the silken knots between the pearls just as important as the beads themselves. Best of all, the point is that we should be having fun at all stages.

My next post will be a call for candidate verses for the hokku – if you’d like to begin writing, please remember that poets in the southern hemisphere should offer summer verses and those in the northern hemisphere winter verses.

All verse positions in this junicho will be degachi, that is competitive but, as John did with his kasen, I will be using work by a different poet for each stanza.

As our poem is so short we can approach it in a more leisurely fashion, so I would like to ask poets to submit only 3 candidate verses for each position, rather than using a “shotgun” approach and offering several versions of the same verse, plus others. We will have a week between each verse selection so poets will have plenty of time to consider their submissions before making them.

To read an example of a junicho, go here.

Some notes on renku

John Stevenson’s introduction to his kasen was so good, I’m going to steal it!

“Renku is a participatory literary game, following a set of rules implemented by the leader of the session. Success, as with all games, is achieved by playing well and creatively within the rules to reach the goal: a collaborative poem featuring many voices and widely ranging subject matter. The object, as with all games, is to have fun. The more you incorporate the rules into your practice, the greater your achievement, the more fun you have.”

As you will have read above a renku, no matter which form, begins with a hokku, which literally mean “head verse” or “lead verse”. It is this hokku that Matsuo Basho thought had potential as a poem in its own right (ha, I almost typed “write”) and who began composing hokku as stand-alone poems.

It was a fad that caught on, with Shiki renaming the poem “haiku” in the late 19th century.

The basis of any renku is link and shift, a concept I found particularly difficult to grasp when I began writing renku. The easiest way to explain it (I think) is to call the verse being composed F. It:

  • Must link in some way (it may be intuitive only) to the verse directly preceding it (E) but …
  • Must shift away from the verse before that (D).

Repetition of concepts is a thorny issue that always generates much discussion in renku composition – the theory is that once a colour, for example, is named, then another colour should not be used. And in a short renku, such as our junicho, I would agree. However, the separation of the verses must also be considered, so if a colour is named in the third verse of a kasen, it’s going to be all right to have a colour reference in verse 30 (or even somewhat earlier).

But besides all this, we should remember that renku was popular as party game – that Basho and his cronies had fun doing this. Not the destination but the journey. It was something a group of like-minded people could do together while having a few laughs.

I will close with a few good words of advice from John Carley:

“It is essential to remember, when learning these conventions, that renku is art … Renku cannot be written by adherence to ‘rules’. We are artists. We must understand our materials.

“And create.”

If you would like to read more of John’s thoughts, you can find his Introduction to Renku here.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Dear Sandra, I enjoyed your introduction, and this renku form is new for me. I look forward to learning more.

    I know this is a big time commitment, and thank you. I enjoy reading your blogs, and comparing the seasons in the southern and northern hemispheres. After the storm and cold, there are icebergs now along our Lake Michigan shore. When I began blogging, I was more literal about going in order with the seasons as I experience them. Now I enjoy spring photos with winter poems. Your statement about balance and harmony is nice too. I don’t really know the work of your mentor, John Carley, so appreciated the quote.

    Thanks again.

    Best wishes, Ellen

    1. Hello Ellen, I hope you’ll have time to contribute verses. Your Midwest winters are so much more harsh than the ones I experience, it makes them seem “exotic” (though I’m sure living through one would be enough for me!).

  2. Simply thrilling. Looking forward to your post.

    buzzing bees come
    with the warm breeze –
    sweet scent of mango flowers

    Amauri Solon

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