Rengay is a six-verse form of linked thematic haiku invented in 1992 by Garry Gay. He came up with the name rengay by combining his last name with the word renga, a centuries-old tradition of Japanese linked poetry, more recently known as renku. Haiku evolved from renga in the first place, as its starting verse, known as the hokku. And yet, rengay is not renga or renku, and it’s worthwhile to understand the differences. If your publication receives a rengay submission, or if you’re judging a rengay contest, how would you assess it? If you have little experience with the rengay poetry form, how do you consider it? What do you look for as hallmarks of success, and what do you keep an eye on as possible weaknesses? The following are seven fundamental issues to think about when considering rengay for publication or for a contest.
Theme. Of prime importance is the rengay’s theme. Does it have one, and how clear is it? The theme may well be obvious, or perhaps a bit more subjective, but it should always be there—and reasonably clear to the reader. The theme serves to benefit the reader, not just the writers in the process of writing. If you’re uncertain about the theme, then perhaps the rengay fails. If all six verses don’t contribute consistently to developing a theme, then it isn’t a rengay, but just linked poetry. Look for secondary and even tertiary themes. Primary themes work best if they are concrete and immediate (rooms of a house, balls used in different sports, or aspects a seasonal event such as Christmas), but a secondary theme could be more abstract (love, envy, or grief). Picasso said, “The hidden harmony is better than the obvious,” but this does not mean to avoid the more obvious surface theme.
Form. For two writers, the form should be A3, B2, A3, B3, A2, B3, and for three writers it should be A3, B2, C3, A2, B3, C2, with letters representing poets, and numbers indicating the number of lines in each verse. Solo and six-person rengay could follow either pattern of lines.
Verse integrity. Are the two-line verses really three-liners forced into two lines? Are the three-line verses stretched two-liners? Neither option makes for the best rengay. Although each verse should work as a standalone haiku, some leeway might be given to the two-liners, yet each verse should contribute to the whole effect of the rengay. Especially watch the two-liners, which, for some writers, can be the weakest verses.
Freshness. Are the poems about tired subjects, and are the subjects presented in a predictable way? Look for energy and freshness in each poem. Same with the theme: Is it a common theme, and if so, is it treated freshly? Look for rengay that cover new ground or cover familiar ground in new ways.
Bonuses. Look for extra aspects, in addition to the theme, such as a seasonal progression, a narrative structure, or a final verse that links back to the first verse or that makes a deliberate exception to or variation of the theme as a surprise. Or maybe the entire rengay is acrostic, or is creative in other ways. Also look at how adjacent verses work together, such as by employing links that connect just those two verses (in addition to the theme).
Titles. Rengay are typically titled. Sometimes the title identifies the theme, or hints at it, especially if the theme might be a bit elusive otherwise. Yet if the theme is clear from the verses, the title could be weak or redundant if it gives away the theme too easily. Discovering the theme is one of the pleasures of reading rengay, so the title should tread the fine line between making it too obvious and being too obscure. If the title comes from the rengay’s last verse, that choice can create a feeling of closure and completeness when readers find the title when they get to the last verse. A title could come from any of the verses, however, or not be based on any of the verses. An effective title should draw the reader in, either by creating mystery (what’s this?), which is resolved by the rengay, or by creating a promise (here’s what to expect, at least partially), and then delivering. In some cases the title might even serve as a sort of misdirection, making it more pleasurable to readers when they discover the rengay’s real theme.
Verse quality. And of course, are the poems effective? Could they each stand alone as strong independent haiku, or is there a good reason why one or two of them might not? Be open to the cumulative effect of all the verses together, even if individual verses might not be ideal on their own (and yet, if any single verse is sufficiently problematic, the whole rengay can fail). Also check to see that punctuation and capitalization are treated consistently and logically, either for the rengay as a whole or at least by each individual contributor. Other rules of good haiku composition apply to each verse in a rengay, emphasizing objective sensory imagery, a juxtapositional two-part structure, and perhaps seasonal reference, although some allowance may be given for the two-line verses, which can sometimes be transitional, or serve as “quiet” verses designed to let the three-line verses shine brighter on either side of them.
These targets may also be useful to those who write rengay, not just editors in considering them for publication or judges deliberating contest entries. Either way, rengay sometimes appear in journals where the reader may have no clue what the theme is. This could be because the authors or editors did not know that a theme was essential, or because the writers chose such an abstract theme that it eluded readers too easily. It is not enough for the verses to work well on their own—at least one theme has to be clear, too.
One other consideration for authors and editors is how to present rengay. In many cases editors can defer to the visual presentation offered by the authors, such as indenting the two-liners, or indenting verses by particular contributors. Complete author names could be presented at the top, followed by just first names or initials to the right of each verse. However, given the established patterns for rengay, just listing the names at the top should make it clear who wrote each verse (the problem with this approach is that it presumes readers will know the pattern of verses in order to know who wrote each verse, which won’t be the case for some readers). Another option is to use different fonts or a mix of roman and italic to indicate authorship, or the verses could even be in different colours to match a colour assigned to each author’s name (these approaches can sometimes look cluttered, however). Any of these approaches could work, but the publication should at least be consistent. And yet if a rengay is submitted with an entirely original visual presentation, that creativity is worth honouring despite whatever default methods of presentation a journal usually adopts.
Rengay is a unique collaborative form of writing that remains easily publishable on a journal page because of its six-verse limitation. Journal editors and contest judges have a responsibility to present or select rengay with a sufficient understanding of the thematic and formal necessities of the rengay genre. Each rengay should present a pleasing and creative exploration of whatever theme is offered.