Rengay: Its Birth and Growth

First published, in a significantly shorter version, titled “Introducing Rengay,” in Frogpond 17:3, Autumn 1994, pages 19–22. The shortened essay included only two example rengay, “Deep Winter” and “Taking the Field.” Links for each rengay mentioned in this essay appear together at the end.

In commenting on the history of haiku and its origins in renga, Naomi Wakan recently wrote the following in Haiku: One Breath Poetry, a concise and valuable introduction to haiku for children (Pacific-Rim Publishers, Victoria, British Columbia, 1993, page 46):


After some years, many rules came to be adopted regulating how to write these linked verses (renga). So many rules, in fact, that almost all originality disappeared and poetry writing of this kind became like a game you played with friends. Rules became totally ridiculous . . .


Naomi Wakan’s comments on historic Japan may also be true of “traditional” renga and renku in English today. Certainly, when renga or renku becomes overburdened by rules, the originality and enjoyment can disappear too easily.

In reaction to and in anticipation of the growth of this problem, former Haiku Poets of Northern California and Haiku Society of America president Garry Gay invented a renga alternative in August 1992: the “rengay.” The first rengay was written on August 9, 1992 by Garry Gay and Michael Dylan Welch. “Deep Winter” was written in Foster City, California the morning before the first major Renku North America renku-writing session and was shared at that meeting. Garry Gay writes the following in a letter explaining the rules of his American poetic invention:


Two writers participate in a six-stanza linked poem. The first writer (to be decided between them) starts off with a three-line verse, then followed by the second writer with a two-line verse. Again the first writer writes a three-line stanza. At this point you are half way through the rengay, and the writers switch places. Now the second writer writes a three-line stanza, followed by the first writer’s two-line verse, and again by the second writer with a final three-line stanza.


Garry emphasizes that “unlike the renku this form is meant to develop a theme. The poets may stay focused on one topic, and should stay within the chosen season.” In this sense, rengay is a new but natural Western extension of the long-established renga and renku traditions. The rengay is not intended as a replacement for English renga or renku, but is an addition to it and a dynamic Western outgrowth of it.

Garry also writes about the personal advantages of the rengay form:


Rengay gives you the opportunity of working one-on-one with another poet. It also offers the satisfaction of seeing quick results from your work, rather than waiting months to see a renku finished through the mail. It is much easier to sit down with one person and write a short six-stanza poem than to get two or more people together for a renku party or organized through the mail. But it’s so easy for two people together to go for a walk in the woods or sit and have tea in a garden and write a rengay. Also, less time is spent showing the work to a master or leader of a group (do Americans really have or want anyone who can be called a ‘Master’?)—and then possibly have it rejected. Here’s to writers who can work out the details between themselves!


As the following examples hopefully show, the rengay form is fun and easy to write, allows development within a theme, can stay in one season, shows quick results, and is easy to read. Garry’s pattern for two writers is as follows, with the letters representing the poets and the numbers indicating the number of lines in the given verses: A-3, B-2, A-3, B-3, A-2, B-3. I have also adapted Garry’s idea for three people, in the following pattern: A-3, B-2, C-3, A-2, B-3, C-2. The first three-person rengay, “A Rain of Leaves,” was written by Donna and Pat Gallagher and Michael Dylan Welch on November 18, 1993 in Sunnyvale, California. It was published in Woodnotes #20, Spring 1994, along with “Canoe Through Autumn” by Garry Gay and John Thompson, the first two rengay published in North America. Another recently published rengay is Garry and John’s “Between Storms” from the pages of Romania’s Albatross (Volume II, Number 2, Autumn–Winter 1993). In the patterns for both two and three writers, all poets write an equal number of two- and three-line verses. A solo rengay is also possible, of course, but this misses the value of the social interaction, and essentially would be just another sequence. Thus by definition the rengay should be written by two or sometimes three poets [Ive since softened on this point].

Garry also explains another advantage to rengay once they are finished:


Often the haiku magazines and journals are limited in the space they have in each issue and are not as willing to give up four pages to accommodate a standard 36-stanza kasen renku. It will be much easier to find an editor willing to devote one page to two poets. Even a page given to a haiku sequence only showcases the work of one poet, but for the same amount of space you can share the collaborative work of two poets.


While it remains to be seen if rengay will be published readily in the leading haiku journals—or even written regularly and explored by today’s haiku poets—surely a rengay has a greater chance of publication than renku, if only for its brevity.

Garry writes of a third consideration for rengay:


The clarity of the work is significant. The problem I have found in the classic kasen renku is the commonly disconnected way the stanzas are linked. Too often you have no clue as to why or how a verse links to the preceding one, or even relates to the topic. In renku, the poets often wander all over the place (in fact, they’re supposed to), and with 36 verses they cover all four seasons (sometimes twice). Being able to focus on the here and now in an entire rengay improves its clarity and adds the quality of greater con­tinuity to the poetry. It is much easier to grasp a work written about a single season, for example, than to wander about and still in the end not come to a conclusion. With a rengay you can have a clear beginning and end, even a narrative flow, and a much more complete piece of poetry.


The themes are clear in the first two rengay examples that follow. In “Deep Winter,” Garry Gay and Michael Dylan Welch explore the final season of the year. And “The Old Vic” by Garry Gay and John Thompson conveys the earthiness of a small-town bar.

John Thompson is another California poet and a past winner of the Henderson Haiku Contest who has spent much time and effort working on rengay with Garry Gay and Michael Dylan Welch. John has written several fine examples of rengay, and has helped define and develop the form. In a letter, John emphasizes rengay’s thematic nature:


Unlike Japanese linked verse, the subject matter throughout the rengay may remain fixed. Thus a new verse may link to verses other than the one immediately preceding. There are no required subjects, such as the moon or flowers. Also, I strongly encourage season words (though they are not required), because seasonal awareness links the poetry to the larger cycle of nature. However, senryu-like or non-seasonal rengay are also possible—this form is new, open, and evolving.


As in haiku, the “present moment” is easily explored in rengay. And, as in renku, the first verse sets the tone of the poem, as well as setting the season and theme. Thus the rengay depends heavily on the opening (and closing) verses, even more than in renga or renku. This is especially true given the rengay’s brevity, as John explains:


Because a weakness in the opening or closing haiku is fatal to the whole rengay, special care should be taken with the composition of these verses. The opening haiku may be composed beforehand, although I would prefer that it be written ‘in the moment.’ The opening haiku should have sufficient resonance to support the generation of the rest of the rengay. I prefer it when the closing verse links with the first, making the rengay’s progression both linear and cyclical.


Rengay are easily written in person during a short visit between friends. They can commemorate a meeting or special time together, much as the “Christmas in the City” rengay that follows. It commemorates the December 20, 1993 visit of Nika [Jim Force] from Calgary with Michael Dylan Welch and vincent tripi in San Francisco. Indeed, John Thompson concurs that a rengay should reflect to some degree where it was written and the connections between the people and the place:


There is a fun, social aspect to rengay. It is an art of connections, both profound and lighthearted, that has the potential to entertain and enlighten on as many levels as we aspire to.


This connection is especially evident in “Taking the Field,” a rengay written by Christopher Herold and Michael Dylan Welch at a baseball game on July 28, 1993, as well as in the previously mentioned “Old Vic” rengay. In through-the-mail rengay, however, this connection to place is perhaps less likely or possible, as in one through-the-mail rengay that follows, “Dawn Traces,” by John Thompson and Michael Dylan Welch. Yet thematic unity is still easily achieved, whether a rengay is written in person or through the mail.

To sum up, the rengay is a collaborative six-verse linked thematic poem written by two or three poets alternating three-line and two-line haiku or haiku-like stanzas in a regular pattern. While the rengay form is new, it offers many creative possibilities. It is briefer than renku, and thus perhaps more memorable. It is also easier to write and read, requires less space to publish, and provides an accessible Western alternative to the limitations and restrictions of traditional renga and renku that too often stifle originality, freshness, and enjoyment.

Rengay’s inventor writes in conclusion:


To be sure the renku has its place in Japanese and English (assured by history), but it is time for American writers to move into a more workable form, something with a flow more natural to us, one that is more in line with our culture and the way we think.


Garry Gay’s rengay form has proved to be popular among members of the Haiku Poets of Northern California since it was first attempted on August 9, 1992, and first publicly introduced at the November 1, 1992 HPNC meeting in San Francisco (see Woodnotes #15, page 2). Since that time, a number of poets have written rengay, and many more have responded positively to its possibilities. Indeed, on April 17, 1994, ten HPNC members gathered in Sunnyvale, California for a special workshop on rengay. Present were Donna and Pat Gallagher (hosting), Garry Gay, Michael Dylan Welch, John Thompson, Christopher Herold, Cherie Hunter Day, Eugenie and Emile Waldteufel, and Laura Bell. The five two-person rengay that resulted explored the senses, and such themes as rooms, origins, and motion. Perhaps of greatest significance from this meeting was the group’s idea that it is not a theme that matters for rengay, but some sort of overarching unity, whether in subject, tone, season, content, or whatever. In this sense, the term “theme” is potentially too narrow or limiting for rengay, when really a unity of some sort is more broadly inspiring. Themes are still valid for rengay, of course, but creating or discovering these broader unities is the challenge to rengay writers of the future.

At this time, it is important to widely share an overview of what rengay is, and present its birth and growth in North America. With this knowledge both writers and editors can have a clear understanding of what to expect when rengay might grace the pages of haiku journals. Only the future will tell if the rengay form will catch on with many English-language haiku writers. Perhaps it could even be introduced in Japan. Or perhaps it will evolve into something else. For now, however, you are invited to read, study, and enjoy the following five rengay examples, and to try writing a few yourself.

Example Rengay