An Invitation to Rengay

The following is the introduction to my book, True Colour, published in December of 2014 by the City of Redmond, Washington, as one of my activities as the city’s poet laureate. The book consists of thirteen solo rengay, each one paired with a colour photograph in a design by Dan D Shafer. Also included with the book is a brief tutorial on rengay, “How to Write a Rengay.” See also Rengay Worksheets, and all the individual rengay in True Colour.

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

—Anaïs Nin

If you’ve ever tried writing haiku, you’ve written what began as the hokku, or starting verse, for a linked-verse form known as renga, later called renku. For centuries in Japan, two or more poets wrote renga collaboratively in a sort of poetic conversation. Renga parties were social events, something to do when there was no television or Internet. Each verse linked to the previous verse, yet shifted away to present something new at each turn. As the renga unfolded, it sought to “taste all of life” in its many glorious colours. The starting verses of renga are where haiku came from, because poets often preserved these poems, even while the social dialog of writing the rest of each renga was forgotten.

In Japan, renga were often a hundred verses long, or longer, but also popular was the kasen renga, a shorter variation with just thirty-six verses. As a modern adaptation, in 1992 California poet Garry Gay invented a six-verse form, which he called rengay, combining the word “renga” with his last name. Unlike renga, a key goal of rengay was to develop a central theme. Garry and I wrote the very first rengay together, following the pattern he proposed for two poets, and I also proposed a pattern for three poets. Writers have also adapted rengay for six poets, and for one poet writing solo. The pleasure of writing rengay lies mostly in writing together with one or more partners, or in exploring the chosen theme.

While rengay is primarily intended as a collaboration between two or three poets, the pieces in True Colour are all solo rengay, written with different colour themes for each rengay—each verse tasting life in one colour or another. In this book, the poems become collaborations through the photographs and design artistry of Dan D Shafer. I invite you to try writing rengay yourself, whether solo or in collaboration with others.

Michael Dylan Welch

Redmond Poet Laureate


How invisibly

it changes color

in this world,

the flower

of the human heart.

Ono no Komachi, translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani, from The Ink Dark Moon

Rengay, as with haiku, is a poetic means of catching the colours of the heart. With both haiku and rengay, we can record daily experiences as they pass by—and so these moments will not pass us by. The goal with each verse in a rengay can therefore be to capture the essence of an object or experience, observed in either nature or human nature—a matter of tuning in to the cosmos and what it has to offer us.

Indeed, one of the fundamental principles in the art of haiku as practiced by Bashō, its greatest master, was that of following zōka, or “the way of the cosmos” (according to Haruo Shirane in his book Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998, 260). For Bashō, “the way of art (fūga), the way of the inner spirit (kokoro), and the way of the cosmos (zōka) become inseparable” (Shirane, 260). In 1702, one of Bashō’s disciples, Dohō, compiled the book Sanzōshi. In it, he quotes Bashō as saying “the changes of heaven and earth are the seeds of poetry,” and that “when the color of the heart, of the thoughts and emotions within, becomes the object, the verse is created” (Shirane, 265, 333). Shirane explains that “‘Seeing’ is as much an internal matter, of realizing the zōka within, as it is an external matter. The ‘cherry blossoms’ do not exist by themselves in nature,” but “come into being only when they are ‘seen’ by and fuse with the zōka within the poet” (261). As Thoreau said, it isn’t what we look at that matters, but what we see. The poems in True Colour are, I hope, examples of seeing, or recognizing the myriad details of our lives—indeed, the colours of human existence.

More than this, I hope these poems become experiences themselves. Pablo Picasso once said that “There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who, with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun.” Likewise, ordinary haiku are experiences transformed into words, but extraordinary haiku are words transformed into experiences. At the very least, I side with Vladimir Nabokov, who said “All colours make me happy, even grey.”

—29 November, 4 December 2014