Poetry Form - The Rengay


The Rengay Verse Form
by J. Zimmerman

* History. * Form. * Examples. * Your Composition. * References.

The Rengay is a North American variation on the Japanese linked verse form. It was invented in 1992 as a synthesis of:

History.

The original form of rengay, a 6-link collaborative poem by 2 poets, was invented in August 1992 by Garry Gay.

Gay was the first president (1989-1990) and co-founder of the Haiku Poets of Northern California and former president of the Haiku Society of American. He felt that many rules of the Japanese renku ("linked verse") were rather too complex and culturally irrelevant to North Americans.

To allow collaboration among three poets, the 6-link form was soon adapted to support the 3-person form of rengay.

The first 2-person regay written was Deep Winter, composed August 9, 1992; its authors were Garry Gay and Michael Dylan Welch; it was probably written with special glee in being out of season! It was published in Welch's Frogpond essay (see Related Publications). That essay also notes the first written 3-person rengay, A Rain of Leaves was composed on November 18th, 1993; its authors were D. Claire Gallagher, Patrick Gallagher, and Michael Dylan Welch.

The first 2-person rengay published was Canoe Through Autumn written by Garry Gay and John Thompson. The first 3-person rengay published was A Rain of Leaves (also mentioned earlier). Both appeared in the Spring 1994 issue of Woodnotes, a haiku magazine edited by Michael Dylan Welch.

More information on the rengay's history is in Related Publications.

Form.

These are the attributes of the Rengay:

  1. A 6-verse linked poem that follows a theme. The linkage means that the rengay is more than simply six depictions by different poets of a theme. Each verse responds in some way (often by contrast or by association) to the verse that precedes it.

  2. The form acknowledges the renku tradition of mingling the stanzas of different authors, with each stanza composed in the form of a 3-line (haiku) verse or a 2-line verse.

  3. The 2-person form of rengay. The initial form of rengay was created for 2 collaborating poets with each poet writing two haiku and a total of three verses. This is the form, with the 2 poets labeled A and B:

    
        A's Haiku.
        B's Haiku-like verse.   
        A's 2nd Haiku.
        B's Haiku.
        A's Haiku-like verse.   
        B's 2nd Haiku.
    

    If the "traditional" syllable count is used for the haiku, and if the haiku-like verses are written as 7-syllable lines (as are the "traditional" alternate verses of a renku), then the form is:

    
      5-7-5 syllables        - A's Haiku.
        7-7 syllables        - B's Haiku-like verse.  
      5-7-5 syllables        - A's 2nd Haiku.
      5-7-5 syllables        - B's Haiku.
        7-7 syllables        - A's Haiku-like verse.
      5-7-5 syllables        - B's 2nd Haiku.
    

    The first edition of Rechhold's has a significant "typo" on p.149: the book gives the rengay form as stanzas of "3-2-3-2-3-2" for both the 2-person and the 3-person rengay. The error is that form of the 2-person rengay is "3-2-3-3-2-3" lines.

    Writers in the USA often use fewer syllables in their haiku, either from personal preference or from a belief that this approximates better the time taken to speak such lines in Japanese. In the first rengay written, Deep Winter, I count:

    
      3-5-4 syllables        - GG [Garry Gay]
        2-6 syllables        - MW [Michael Dylan Welch]  
      5-6-4 syllables        - GG.
      4-6-4 syllables        - MW.
        3-4 syllables        - GG.
      3-6-5 syllables        - MW.
    

    In English it may be useful to count stresses rather than syllables.

  4. The 3-person form of rengay. For 3 collaborators (labeled A, B, and C below) this is the rengay form, which is closer to the renku form in structure. Its content, however, remains in the rengay spirit. Each collaborator writes one 3-line verse and one 2-line verse. If the "traditional" line lengths are used, that gives:

    
      5-7-5 syllables        - A's Haiku.
        7-7 syllables        - B's Haiku-like verse.
      5-7-5 syllables        - C's Haiku.
        7-7 syllables        - A's Haiku-like verse.
      5-7-5 syllables        - B's Haiku.
        7-7 syllables        - C's Haiku-like verse.
    

    American rengay tend to have fewer syllables, such as in Seasonings below:

    
      5-6-5 syllables        - A's Haiku.
        4-6 syllables        - B's Haiku-like verse.
      4-5-6 syllables        - C's Haiku.
        7-7 syllables        - A's Haiku-like verse.
      6-5-4 syllables        - B's Haiku.
        4-8 syllables        - C's Haiku-like verse.
    

  5. As Ce Rosenow (in our references) proposes, the rengay can be written as a solo rengay, when one poet explores the topic in two independent voices.

  6. Each verse should stand on its own.

  7. The rengay is similar to the renku, from which it was derived. Both:

    Have each successive verse (or link) created by a different author.
    "Link " between verses by:
    • Association, where something in the new link shares something (perhaps in appearance, or in use, or in situation) with something in the link it follows.
    • Contrast of something in the new link (e.g., quickness) with something in the link it follows (e.g., sloth).
    • Comparisons, which (like the European use of simile and metaphor) causes one thing to bring another subject to mind.
    • "Fragrance", which either associates or contrasts the emotional conditions or "atmosphere".
    "Shift" or leap between verses, so that the poem is not a linear narrative.
    Have short links, each being of comparable length to a haiku, or shorter.
    Have the same sequence of stanza forms in the 3-person rengay and the renku. Each of them alternates the haiku-length link with the shorter link.
    (The 2-person form of rengay uses a different sequence so that each of the two poets writes two haiku.)

  8. The rengay differs from the renku (and the historic renga) in:

    Architecture:
    Starting and ending.
    The rengay, being short and theme-based, has links like the ribs of a parasol with the theme of the rengay at the hub.
    There is typically no overall progression.
    A renku has a clear beginning and a closure, akin to a butterfly's seemingly random flight from one blossom to another.
    The poets are mindful of the overall structure of the poem, by making each link a definite wing beat (to continue the simile) along the way to the alighting place that is not yet know.
    The last link is recognized as being connected to the opening link (the hokku).
    Prescribed links. The rengay uses no recipe for what types of links (such as compliments to the host, or special topics like the moon or love) appear anywhere. To guide renku poets, recipes have been developed, such as inviting an honored guest to contribute the opening stanza (the hokku), whom the hokku writer recognizes in the stanza, while also referencing the season when the poem is written. Other links are required to reference the moon or flowers, or one of the seasons.
    Reference. The rengay does not necessarily refer to the current season, location, or circumstances of writing. The renku traditionally references the season when the poem is written, the current location, and the circumstances of composition.
    Length. The rengay is brief (6 verses).
    [Werner Reichhold in his essay A Few More Words About Symbiotic Poetry bridles against Garry Gay's creation of such a short form: "The dynamics between collaborating partners don't have enough time to develop."
    Ariadne's Web, however, believes poets that enjoy the rengay appear to have enough time.]
    The renku is longer, with 36 links being popular. Historic renga of 1000 verses and more are recorded.
    Theme. The rengay is thematic; it develops a theme. The renku either has no explicit theme or wanders further from the theme in its shifting.
    Control. Acceptability of rengay links is controlled by participant poets. Acceptability of renku links is controlled by the "renku master".

Examples of Rengay.

These 3-person rengay are from Beyond Within: A Collection of Rengay, a collection edited and introduced by Cherie Hunter Day.

One is Seasonings by J. Zimmerman, Ebba Story, and Marianna Monaco:

Seasonings

   sewing a garland
   of cloves and cinnamon
   my mother's gnarled hands
   
      behind each ear
      a touch of vanilla

   hum of a bee
   my dog snuffles up
   a waft of rosemary
   
      rain squall and the scent of salt -
      dropping off legal papers

   a splash of vinegar
   over fish and chips
   the awning snaps
   
      our goodbye kiss -
      the lingering taste of breath mints


Copyright © 1997 by Sundog Press.
Reprinted with permission of Sundog Press.

Another sample rengay published in that collection is The Right Words by Ebba Story, Marianna Monaco, and J. Zimmerman (the following preserves the published layout):

The Right Words

   brisk autumn breeze - 
unraveling my midnight scrawl
   in the morning light
   
      sparrow for company -
      I read my new poem aloud

difficult letter -
   on the wall
      the cuckoo clock keeps ticking
   
      searching for just the right word
      in my tattered dictionary

call of a crow
   above
the keyboard's clatter
   
      looking up from the last line
      to the new moon


Copyright © 1997 by Sundog Press.
Reprinted with permission of Sundog Press.

Your Composition.

Here are some steps to take in creating a Rengay:

  1. First, get some experience writing haiku.

  2. With some interesting haiku in hand, propose them to some fellow poet as potential candidates for an opening link to a rengay.

  3. The other poet may select one of your haiku and respond to it with a 2-line link. Each link can revisit that material and show more facets of what this other poet feels, while also acknowledging what this poet recognized in the preceding verse.

  4. You (or a third poet) respond to the second verse with a third.

  5. Continue following one of the forms above until you complete your rengay.

  6. As with all formal poems nowadays, it is vital that the form does not "drive" your poem. If the form begins to feel forced, then the poem's content must be asserted.

  7. Traditionally, one keeps the line lengths close to that of the form, or of your agreed variation. That gives the rhythmic repetition that the ear associates with music. It is fine to vary the line length, if you do it deliberately.

A Last Word.

Just because you start with the intention of writing a Rengay, you do not have to keep your poem in that form if it does not work for you and your collaborators. Your attempt to write a formal poem may help you find words that you would not have found otherwise. And you may decide that you choose to end up with a poem in a different form.

Related Publications.

A collection of rengay. Beyond Within: A Collection of Rengay,
Edited and introduced by Cherie Hunter Day. Day writes in her Introduction, "This collection is the first of its kind - poets writing together over a span of years, intentionally exploring the rengay form."
Essay. Several essays by Michael Dylan Welch introducing and explaining the rengay include his "Rengay: An Introduction" and "Rengay Clarified".
Essay. Collaboration: Exploring Rengay, Northwest Literary Forum #25 (Summer 1997), by Ce Rosenow.
Explains the benefits of rengay, and contrasts with renku.
Essay Toward an Aesthetic for English-Language Haiku by Lee Gurga.
Buy Haiku Seasons The Haiku Seasons: Poetry of the Natural World by William J. Higginson.
Buy Haiku Handbook Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku by William J. Higginson, William S. Higginson.


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