The Place of Rengay in Tanka Journals

First published in Skylark 3:2, Winter 2015.

The poetic form of rengay was first inspired by renku (and thus its predecessor, renga), or perhaps as a reaction against it. It offers a simplified alternative to the rules of renku that the West often perceived as arbitrary and overly complicated. Garry Gay has said that each of the six verses in the form he created is meant to be a haiku—or at least “haiku-like” in the case of the two-liners. Consequently, the verses are based in haiku, not tanka, and thus do not belong in a tanka journal. Or so it would seem. But does this settle the question that David Terelinck raises in his support for rengay in Skylark 3:1, Summer 2015? Not necessarily. As David notes, the relationship between the three-line and two-line verses is indeed similar to tan-renga, and thus to tanka. It’s therefore gratifying to see tanka poets, especially those who do not write haiku, find an attraction to rengay—thus opening, as David says, a new audience for the form. Because haiku grew out of renku, which itself grew out of tanka, perhaps the attraction of tanka poets to rengay brings everything full circle.

For a three-person rengay, it’s easy to see that the structure resembles a set of three tan-renga and therefore, by extension, a set of three collaborative tanka. Rengay writers have always been free (or not, if they so choose) to write content that is more overtly emotional or subjective than haiku, and thus closer to tanka, even if the majority of published rengay have veered more toward the objectivity of haiku. But still the tanka-like relationship of the three-line and two-line verses remains. That structure is muted in the two-person rengay form, where two three-line verses appear in the middle, but two other pairs of verses in each rengay retain the three-line/two-line pattern, and even the third and sixth verses, both three-liners, could be said to be part of a tan-renga structure, but with the two-line verse coming first. So the tan-renga and tanka dynamic is definitely there.

So is rengay in the haiku camp, or tanka camp? How about both? Ultimately, it’s fine for rengay to embrace both haiku and tanka, and it’s satisfying to see that rengay can grow in an unanticipated new way by representing a set of collaborative tanka in its verses. As Claire Everett said in Skylark #5 (Summer 2015), “It is not disputed that rengay has its poetic foundations in the haiku tradition, but it seems that it is a linked form that appeals to many tanka poets, who believe, like me, that it can stake a claim in both genres” (5). Indeed, it’s pleasing to see that rengay now has its own special section in Skylark.

The embrace of rengay by tanka poets would also seem to be an extension of the recent growth in writing collaborative strings or sequences of responsive tanka, as seen in recent books by Naomi Beth Wakan and Amelia Fielden, among others, as well as such collaborative writing in tanka and tanka-friendly journals, including Lynx, Ribbons, and Red Lights. Perhaps I contributed to that growth myself by writing rengay with Amelia, one of our most prominent and influential tanka writers—a poet who does not also write haiku. I suspect that Amelia feels, like Joy McCall (writing in Skylark 3:1, Summer 2015), that “If I was an editor I’d be welcoming to all kinds of things that looked like tanka and calling them tanka or sequences or sets or strings—it’s all Japanese-tradition poetry, short songs, whatever name we give it” (140–141).

My own personal stake here is that I’m eager to find new outlets for rengay poetry, so of course I’m inclined to welcome Skylark’s stance towards rengay purely for that reason. But more than that, on an aesthetic level, I also agree that a tanka dynamic is at work in rengay verses, the same tanka dynamic that’s been at work in adjacent renga and renku verses for centuries. The difference, unlike renga, renku, and even tan-renga, is rengay’s development of a theme. I would encourage rengay writers to always remember the central importance of thematic development in all six rengay verses—and most often an objective theme works best, with possible secondary or tertiary themes that might be more subjective.

In any event, what I find most interesting is the idea that rengay is evolving, and now attracts tanka poets as well as haiku poets, and long may it do so. It may indeed be time to start an independent rengay journal—something I myself had already thought to publish, probably in an online format. If I were the editor, I would welcome contributions from both haiku and tanka poets, and welcome rengay that had the flavour of haiku and the feel of tanka. Here’s to rengay as an ongoing collaborative celebration that embraces both worlds—haiku and tanka.