Rengay Clarified

First published in Frogpond 18:2, Summer 1995, pages 36–39.

 

It appears from Higginson and Kondo’s article, “Shorter Renku,” in Frogpond Vol. XVII, No. 4 that the new poetic form of rengay needs clarification. If one’s business is to champion the renku form, rengay might be perceived as a threat, especially when the HSA renku contest has generated relatively few entries each year (only five in 1994 [one of which was one of mine!]). Whether rengay threatens anything or not, it seems necessary to reaffirm what rengay is and to clarify its relationship with renku.

        As with any literary development, indicated even in the above-mentioned article, new growth can come about when writers or critics identify a problem, meet a need with a new poetic form, or simply when writers become especially creative. As much as I and other active poets enjoy writing renku (especially more free-form renku), the results too often remain uninspiring and unmemorable. I have many times enjoyed renku composition—and the challenge of following traditional rules is certainly no obstacle to me and other keen haiku poets. But sometimes the reading of other people’s renku is unrewarding—the product does not always match the value of the process. Rengay seeks to address this frequent imbalance.

        Indeed, rengay intends to assert a new poetic form (based initially on renku—with linking, but not such radical shifting) that seeks to solve several problems. While the “Shorter Renku” article focuses primarily on the relatively superficial problem of renku length, it misses the crucial concern: the rules for traditional kasen renku are too convoluted, technical, seemingly arbitrary, and/or culturally dependent to be of significant or universal relevance in the English language, let alone much fun. The rules for “shorter renku” are also convoluted, and although shorter, are likely still a turn-off to many readers.

        Yes, diversity and progression may be renku hallmarks, but perhaps they also limit the rewards of writing renku. Higginson and Kondo hit the nail on the head when they say that the rengay “may be enjoyable and useful in itself.” That’s it—the reasons rengay are rewarding and enjoyable point up the problems and limitations of renku (and also short-form renku). Why, I might ask, did the Japanese themselves invent the short-form renku if there weren’t problems with the full-length renku? If even the Japanese experience frustration or limitations with some aspects of renku, surely in English, where the logic of Japanese renku traditions is even farther removed, the need for rengay (or something like it) is obvious. The development of “shorter” renku in Japan should illustrate at least one need fulfilled in English by rengay, that renku are often too long and complicated, and take too much time to write. Quite simply, we need something shorter and more accessible.

        But that’s not the only concern. Many problems were addressed in the original article (“Introducing Rengay,” Frogpond Vol. XVII, No. 3), and all are neatly solved by rengay. These issues include the need for or benefit from thematic unity (intentionally abandoning “diversity” and “progression,” knowing that a clear focus is also good and rewarding), cultural relevance, greater brevity, quicker results, greater likelihood for publication, and other benefits, including social ones. As Garry Gay put it, “Here’s to writers who can work out the details between themselves!” This is not anarchy, but valid poetic self-assertion. It shows rengay to be—potentially—an intriguing new poetic development, just as shorter renku forms may have been in Japan.

        Higginson and Kondo may dislike the term “rengay” because of its verbal derivation from “renga.” They assert that rengay “bears little relation to renku” (or renga, I should presume). But that was never intended. What’s more, for Garry Gay to name the form after himself and the word “renga” is the inventor’s prerogative; he could have even called his creation a “higginson.” To dismiss the rengay as just a “collaborative sequence of haiku- and senryu-like verses” is to miss two points: that rengay does retain the linking concept of renku (plus the idea of alternating verses between collaborating poets), and usually consists of complete haiku or senryu—not just some sort of diminished “haiku-like” or “senryu-like” verses. Call it a “collaborative sequence” if you want, but the rengay is still fun and easy to write, and has many other benefits, many of which renku lacks. What’s more, I take delight from the word “gay” in its established meaning of “joyous,” “lively,” and “lighthearted,” for that is exactly how rengay can be. I have rarely felt a renku to read like that. It just takes a different kind of energy to tackle a full-blown or even a “short-form” renku. The rengay is to renku (and other collaborative verse) as the nosegay is to a flower garden—small, intimate, accessible, and typically lighthearted and joyous.

        Speaking of enjoyment, I’d like to say a few words about rengay writing process. My experience with one or two other poets has not been to simply offer a starting verse and see where it goes. Rather, rengay seem to be more effective if the participants first decide on a theme. The theme could be a time of year (such as Christmas), a location (a baseball game or a pub), a narrative idea (moving day), a concept (moments of spiritual awareness), or a focus on one of the senses, on a single colour, or a single mood, for example. From then on, each verse seeks to convey, in objective poetic specificity, an element or step in the chosen theme or narrative. The participants can discuss and refine each new poem and image, making the product and process truly collaborative rather than just alternating. While many of the best rengay I have seen tend to be written in person at a specific place (taking on the energy and authenticity of the location or event), successful rengay have also been written through the mail [email too, although that hadn’t caught on much yet]. Either way, a simple agreement on theme among the participants beforehand adds direction and is all you need to start. Then the fun can begin!

        I should hope that no one perceives rengay to compete with renku. That is hardly rengay’s intent. What happens with rengay and also with renku, in English and other languages, is up to the poets. I assert and trust the democracy of haiku and agree with Harold G. Henderson that haiku in English will become what we poets make it. I myself will still write renku—and may even enjoy the process, especially if the rules are relevant and nonarbitrary and tend toward cultural universality. But then again, I may not enjoy some renku, especially with such hoop-jumping as suggested even for the short-form renku shared in the Higginson/Kondo article. Rengay—its very spirit—runs quickly away from this sort of codification, chart-making, technicality, and over-restriction. That is the point of rengay. It is linked and it is collaborative—and in this regard it derives from renku. But it is also distinct, simple, and accessible, and should be evaluated on its own terms, not just in relation to renku. It is meant to differ from renku. It is meant as an addition to it, yes, but also as a relief from it. After all, haiku (and renku) need not be elitist. To apply Harold Henderson’s wisdom, rengay will become what poets make it—or rengay will die a natural death if it remains ignored. I should like to thank Higginson and Kondo for the attention they have the rengay worthy to receive, and for helping to clarify renku’s differences form rengay. It seems, though, that rengay isn’t dying. I know why I enjoy rengay, so it pleases me that its popularity is growing!

        Whatever anyone’s pontifications—theirs or mine—the new poetic form of rengay has indeed taken on a life of its own. Whether this trend of increasing popularity continues or not is out of even the inventor’s hands. More and more poets are trying rengay and saying that they enjoy it. Letters and email have reached Garry Gay and me from across the United States and from such distances as Europe and Australia, attesting to rengay’s growth and attraction. As a sample of the many rengay that have been written, a growing number have been published in Albatross, Frogpond, Mirrors, Raw Nervz, Spin, Woodnotes, and elsewhere, and many more are ready for publication, to be sure. I find rengay to be most enjoyable when written in person to commemorate a special event or get-together, but rengay have even been written on CompuServe, America Online, and other online computer services [imagine that, folks!], and frequently through the mail. What’s more, the Haiku Poets of Northern California, in response to this splash of interest, is now sponsoring a rengay contest for 1995, offering a $100 first prize. But whatever happens to rengay is up to the poets. Rengay is not renku, and is not in competition with renku, but if one form attracts more poets than the other, that trend says something important about the pleasure, accessibility, and cultural relevance of the more popular form. As for me, I see no reason why I can’t enjoy and understand both.

 

Postscript: This article is admittedly reactionary, as was the one to which it responded, so it takes one or two polemical stances that I somewhat overstated—and don’t even think I felt as strongly then as it may seem from this article. I have since, too, come to better understand renku rules myself, or at least to realize that a great deal more variety is possible within the form, and thus renku certainly should not be dismissed as not being relevant in the English language. Let me be unequivocal: There’s a time for everything under the sun, and over the years I have continued to contribute to numerous renku, just as I have also contributed to rengay and other linked-verse variations. Both rengay and renku can live in harmony, and this mutual respect has indeed been the way things have been in the fourteen or fifteen years since this article first appeared. Fundamentally, though, I continue to find most renku far more enjoyable to write than to read—and continue to find renku rather tedious to consume as a reader, even when I was one of the participants. Rengay may not appeal to everyone, but its continuing growth and popularity testifies to the niche it fills, to the value it adds to English-language haiku. There’s certainly room in the world for renku in all its manifestations, as well as for rengay, and I look forward to long and prosperous futures for both.

—29 October 2009