wikiHow to Play Haikai (Collaborative Poetry Game)

Haikai collaborative poetry (aka renku, or renga) has a long history in Japan, where it combines aspects of game-play with literature.[1] It's a fun and creative group activity which is becoming popular in the west in recent years. You don't need to be a poet to play!

The plan below is for a 12-verse haikai, but there are many other plans (up to 100 verses, if you and your writing partner(s) are feeling energetic!). Each haikai consists of alternating three- and two-line verses.

There's an example haikai down the page, to give you some ideas.


  1. Image titled Play Haikai (Collaborative Poetry Game) Step 1
    Decide who is to write the first verse. It should make reference to the current surroundings and season (not necessarily by name - e.g. 'Christmas' indicates winter; 'beach' would suggest summer). Three lines, up to 17 syllables total.
  2. Image titled Play Haikai (Collaborative Poetry Game) Step 2
    Pass the writing pad to the next player, for the second verse. This one will be just two lines, up to 14 syllables maximum. Come up with something to suggest the same season as the first verse. It should link to the first verse, but shift away from it a bit as well. After that first verse, everything is fictional.
  3. Image titled Play Haikai (Collaborative Poetry Game) Step 3
    Pass it over to the third player (or back to the first if there are only two). Another three-line verse now, but this one should make no reference to season. And while it should link somehow to the previous verse, this should shift right away from the verse before that (the first verse)
  4. Image titled Play Haikai (Collaborative Poetry Game) Step 4
    Alternate three- and two-line verses. Of every three verses, one or two should mention a season. Main thing is to link (sometimes quite tentatively) to the preceding verse, while always shifting away from the one before that. Link and shift, that's what it's about.


  • Remember: long (three-line) verses are up to 17 syllables, short (two-line) ones up to 14 syllables. A haikai always starts with a long verse and ends with a short one.
  • While haikai are traditionally written in a live 'session', with all the players sitting together, they are increasingly written by email, over a period of days or weeks. Start one with your friend now - what are you waiting for?!
  • This game is collaborative rather than competitive, so everyone is a winner!
  • To allocate long and short verses fairly among participants, feel free to switch around the poet order at any point
  • Though the first verse should reference the current surroundings and season, all of the other verses are fictional. Your imagination is your limit!
  • Avoid repeating topics, or words (other than small ones).
  • Variety is the key! Vary the subject matter, style, intensity, grammar etc. as much as possible from verse to verse. The idea is to convey the feeling of change.
  • Start and end the poem on an upbeat note. In between, anything goes!
  • As well as all four seasons, reference should be made to the following special topics:

    • The moon (once in the poem)
    • A flower (once in the poem)
    • Love (in two adjacent verses)

Things You'll Need

  • Pencil and pad (or a computer).
  • One or more writing partners.
  • An active imagination.

Example Haikai

See if you can figure out the links between each verse.

Summer Dawn

summer dawn -

the tide laps

on sandcastle walls [summer]

ancient mosses cling

to the cliff face

shadows slowly fade

as I set out

for Sally Gap

through the wormy thatch

an autumn breeze [autumn]

mushrooms magic

moon glow

in deserted woods [moon: this signifies autumn unless clearly otherwise]

divining her man

with a shillelagh1[love]

a ball of malt2


before we try again [love]

children call

through densely falling snow [snow:winter]

out the aircraft window

a thousand miles

of wing

patching over cracks

in this old mill

the tulip fancier


for a daff [tulip: spring]

sighting home

our ewes come into milk [ewes in milk: spring]

1 - shillelagh: a stout wooden staff or club

2 - a ball of malt: a measure of whiskey

3 - acushla: 'beat of my heart', a term of endearment

First published in Simply Haiku, 2004

Did you know...

  • ...that the haiku originated from the first verse of the haikai, and that all those Japanese haiku masters of old, such as Basho, were first and foremost haikai masters.
  • ...that the first verse of a haikai is called a hokku. Traditionally, it was allotted to the most important guest at a poetry meeting to compose it. He/she would be expected to use the verse to symbolically offer praise to the host. The second verse then fell to the host, who would reciprocate. Try it out!

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