Rengay: A Status Report
First published in Frogpond 21:1, 1997, pages 37 to 40. See the new postscript at the end.
Five years have passed since Garry Gay invented the linked, thematic, collaborative verse form known as rengay. And it has been some three or four years since articles about rengay composition first appeared in Woodnotes, Frogpond, and elsewhere to introduce and promote the form. In addition, Haiku North America conferences as well as regional and national haiku meetings have included rengay workshops and discussions about the form. Now, five years later, a few observations on rengay’s status and progress may be in order.
First, rengay seem to be written by an increasing number of people. While the most enthusiastic supporters of the form continue to be California poets (for example, in 1997 the Haiku Poets of Northern California sponsored its third annual rengay contest), interest is broadening. I have read numerous rengay by poets in the American midwest and east coast and beyond. In such journals as Blithe Spirit (U.K.), Albatross (Romania), Spin (Australia), Raw Nervz (Canada), Northwest Literary Forum (U.S.), and elsewhere (including the Shiki online discussion list and elsewhere on the Internet), rengay make occasional and sometimes regular appearances. This has been especially true in Frogpond and Woodnotes. Perhaps some of this “increasing number” of writers writing rengay is poets merely trying the form once or twice and then abandoning it. That may be so for some people, but even so, rengay is enjoying a period of growth and exploration.
One part of this exploration is experimentation. A pleasant surprise in rengay’s development has been the creative ways some poets have chosen to arrange their poems visually. Some rengay are printed all flush left; some have the second and fifth verses (the two-line verses) indented from the left margin. These two presentation schemes are fairly common. Other rengay, however, have had the first three verses stair-stepped to the right, with the second three verses following the same arrangement (for example, see “Light in Darkness” by George Ralph and Merrill Ann Gonzales, Frogpond XIX:3, December 1996, p. 34). Still others have had creative arrangements unique to the rengay (see several rengay by Connie Meester and Valorie Broadhurst Woerdehoff).
Another aspect of the visual presentation of rengay is the occasional choice to leave off the names or initials next to each rengay verse, which rengay has usually done, following the practice for renga/renku. John Thompson favours this approach, emphasizing that authorship of individual verses should be automatically apparent by knowing the established rengay pattern. (The pattern for two writers, with letters indicating the poets and numbers indicating the number of lines in each verse, is A-3, B-2, A-3, B-3, A-2, B-3.) The poet listed first would be understood to have written the first, third, and fifth verses, and so on. The dropping of names or initials by each verse makes the rengay look less cluttered.
Another trend seems to be a preference for rengay written by only two poets. Three-person rengay have so far been relatively rare (the pattern is A-3, B-2, C-3, A-2, B-3, C-2). The reason for their scarcity may be that rengay composition is somewhat intimate and thus more naturally suited to just two poets. By contrast, a full 36-verse renku, even if by just two poets, may feel less intimate simply because of its length. It seems, though, that the three-person form is ripe for further exploration.
Other variations of the form include solo rengay, first tried by Cherie Hunter Day. The solo form may be differentiated from being merely a haiku sequence if the poet adopts two different voices to fulfill the pattern, as Cherie has done. Another variation is a semi-solo adaptation, tried by Fay Aoyagi. In the semi-solo form, the poet writes a solo rengay starting with someone else’s haiku (see Fay’s “Loss” in Frogpond XIX:3, p. 33). The starting verse is thus honoured, and serves as a catalyst for the rengay, often also setting the theme.
In reading many rengay (all the ones I see in print, via email, and the many that have been submitted for publication in Woodnotes), I have noticed that thematic development is not always present. In addition to having the six-verse collaborative structure, the most important characteristic of rengay is its thematic nature. I would say this is a requirement for the form, and Garry Gay concurs. I have seen some rengay attempts that were entirely unthematic (even deliberately so). In such cases, these linked poems are merely amputated renku—or something else. In renga or renku, the point is to avoid thematic development—to taste all of life, as it were. Rengay does not seek to preserve that facet of renga/renku. It does preserve the collaborative process, and does use the technique of linking verses together, but does not employ such radical shifting from verse to verse. If rengay is to retain its original intent, however, it seems that greater emphasis should be placed (by some writers) on thematic development, whether the theme be a concept (sounds, flow), or something more specific (stones, roots, shelters), narrative (telling a story or parts of it), descriptive (describing various details of a person, place, or thing), or occasional (describing or commemorating an event). Most published rengay I’ve seen are indeed nicely thematic, even if subtly so, but a few are not. Either the theme escaped me, or the rengay attempts in question missed the form’s thematic necessity.
Speaking of theme, in some rengay I’ve seen the theme directly identified in the title. This may be helpful if the theme happens to be esoteric or subtle. But, in some cases, I’ve found such titles to be overdone—giving the game away. I would prefer more careful titling. For example, if one’s theme is shapes, something like “A Wedge of Geese” would be a more evocative and memorable title than something as bland as “Shapes.” Furthermore, such titling trusts readers to figure out the theme on their own, and doesn’t deny them the pleasure of discovering the theme, which I think can be one of rengay’s rewards.
One other weakness I’ve noticed is an occasional tendency to cram three-line verses into two lines when a two-line verse is required. Each verse in a rengay should, ideally, stand alone as an individual haiku—whether in three or two lines. Rengay is meant to consist of haiku or haiku-like verses! Because haiku poets are so accustomed to writing haiku in three lines, sometimes we have too much to say in our two-line verses. I’ve seen many two-line verses in rengay that seemed too long, obviously lineated into two lines when three lines would have been more natural for the verse in question. As a consequence, I would encourage greater emphasis on crafting the two-line verses as two-liners. Likewise, three-line verses shouldn’t be stretched two-liners. These are all detractors from rengay refinement.
As the rengay form continues to develop over another five years—and I trust it will—I imagine and hope that more people will try their hands at this rewarding form, and that rengay will still regularly reach the pages of more and more poetry journals. I would also like to see more humour in rengay—using senryu verses as well as just haiku. Creativity within the form—regarding subjects, themes, and visual presentation—seems limited only by poetic imagination. I look forward to seeing more of rengay’s development and maturation. Thanks once again to Garry Gay for his enjoyable and useful poetic gift!
Now, more than twenty years after the preceding comments were written, it is safe to say that the rengay form is well established in the English-speaking haiku world—or rather, even more established. Rengay makes regular appearances in most of the leading journals, except for Modern Haiku, which has long avoided linked verse such as renku. Indeed, the number of rengay markets continues to grow.
However, rengay has never taken root in Japan, although I myself have written them in Japan with Emiko Miyashita, Ikuyo Yoshimura, and Ryu Yotsuya. In a July 2018 email discussion I had with Toshio Kimura, chair of the International Section of Japan’s Gendai Haiku Kyōkai (Modern Haiku Association), he wrote about renga (not rengay) that “As you know, in Japan, just a few poets are writing it now, not many. Maybe that’s because we had a long familiar tradition of cooperative work till the 19th century, and Shiki rejected it to make them private poems.” The focus of our conversation was rengay rather than renga, but this comment implies that rengay (like renga and renku) has generally not been of interest in Japan because of Shiki’s rejection of renga (and renku), and because of Japan’s turning away from the performative and social aspects of collaboration toward individual composition. I would, however, be pleased to see rengay being written more in Japan. Beyond this underexplored frontier, however, rengay appears to be healthy in English, with new poets giving it a try with regularity. I have, on occasion, even heard from poets new to the form that they had no idea it was a Western invention, assuming it to be Japanese.
As mentioned in the preceding essay, it is still an occasional weakness to have three-line verses forced into two lines, but a more prominent observation is that some rengay in recent years seem to lack a theme, or the theme is so subjective or obscure that readers would be hard-pressed to determine what it is. This would suggest the need to emphasize that the purpose of the theme, or so it seems to me, is not merely as an aid to the writer (where the poets may be aiming each of their verses at an obscure and opaque target that is satisfying to them) but should be clearly apparent to readers too. One of the arts of rengay is making the theme clear, but not limited to the superficial. For example, a rengay could superficially focus on different kind of balls (soccer, baseball, ping pong, and so on), but a better rengay might weave in a more resonant theme, or a secondary theme, such as the cyclic nature of life (thus echoing the circular shape of balls). A good rengay should at least have the obvious (surface) theme, but better yet if it has a secondary theme as well. The problem on occasion, however, is for some rengay to proceed too much like a renku or renga, deliberately shifting away with each new verse, and not clearly developing a central theme. This problem has manifested itself in some of the results for the Haiku Poets of Northern California annual rengay contest, perhaps because the judges were chosen for their expertise with haiku, not necessarily with rengay, and has also shown itself in some haiku journal selections, where the editor may be entirely conversant with haiku, but not with rengay (thus my impulse to publish “Seven Fundamentals: A Guide to Rengay for Editors” and “How to Present a Rengay”). On the other hand, these judges and editors may wish to embrace experimentation, and like the verses of particular rengay even when their theme might not be readily apparent.
In the vein of free exploration, Garry Gay himself has been loose in letting rengay be whatever its practitioners make of it, even altering the established patterns himself occasionally. My sense is that too much experimentation, and employing themes that are too loose, too subjective, or too obscure, are likely to conspire to dilute the rengay form. However, these explorations tend to be in the minority, and fortunately the majority of rengay celebrate clear themes with strong individual verses. In 2017, rengay celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary, and I look forward to another twenty-five years of its growth and exploration. I would just say that growth and exploration itself is not necessarily the goal. Rather, the best goal would seem be to write fine poems in the thematic tradition of rengay collaboration.
—29 July 2018, Sammamish, Washington