Breaking Through Novelty: 
A Survey of Invented Forms of Linked Poetry

First published in In Good Company: An Exploration of Haiku-Related Linked Forms, Supplement #3 of Acorn haiku journal, edited by A. C. Missias (Philadelphia: Redfox Press, 2003). See also Rengay: An Introduction.

 

In the narrow realm of haikai literature, much of its technique revolves around the art of linking. In a haiku, the two juxtaposed parts connect in some way, sometimes surprisingly. In renku and in the older renga forms, the wakiku (second verse) links to the hokku (starting verse) yet shifts away, just as each successive verse links to the one before as the entire linked form attempts to taste all of life.

        Other poetry in the haikai tradition also uses this linking strategy. In haibun, a leap yet link occurs between the prose and haiku. In haiga, a similar, unstated, nonobvious link yet shift connects the verse to the painting. In tan-renga, too, the imaginativeness of the link between the opening three lines and the capping two lines is what gives the form energy.

        It is no wonder, given the range and adaptability of this linking technique, that it be applied to new forms of haiku-related poetry by innovative poets. Most prominent among these invented forms is rengay, yet other recently invented forms also show English-language haiku poets to be creative and energetic. These invented forms, which this essay surveys, also generate some problems and challenges that may make them mere novelties with little lasting merit. However, if they can meet certain challenges, I believe they are more likely to stand the test of time. At some point all poetic forms were invented—tanka, haiku, and renku included—but through a worthwhile process of literary natural selection, the best haikai and related inventions have evolved into the viable poetry forms we know today. Perhaps the best of today’s newly invented linked poetry forms might also evolve into permanently established and respected pillars of haikai literature. In this way, I believe it is possible for Western innovations in the haikai tradition to broaden the ancient Japanese inventions of haiku, tanka, and renku and add increasing energy to these genres of world literature. Some of these inventions, however, are merely novelties, and it is worthwhile to understand why this is so, and why some invented linked forms are perhaps not.

        I’d like to begin this survey of linked poetry inventions with rengay. This invented form serves as an effective baseline for comparison with other invented forms because it has proven itself to be the strongest candidate yet to rise above being a mere novelty. What prompted rengay’s invention in 1992 by Garry Gay (hence its name) was a visit by a party of renku poets from Japan to the United States. The meeting of this group with American haiku and renku poets in San Francisco featured lectures and papers on renku’s linking techniques, structural elements, and seasonal progression. To some attendees, the rules piled up and seemed arbitrary and complicated. Renku can certainly be a pleasure and challenge to write, but many haiku poets commonly assert that renku are less pleasurable to read than they are to write (for it is often just a pleasurable social activity). After attending this day of lectures, Garry Gay sought to fill a void. He chose a length of just six verses to make the finished piece easily publishable on a single page (compared with kasen renku, with thirty-six verses that can monopolize four to six pages of scarce space in a haiku journal). The limit of six verses also made it easier to write simply by taking less time. Garry retained the collaborative social nature of renku by having two poets alternate verses. So that each poet wrote an equal number of lines, he adapted the three-line then two-line pattern to have two three-line verses in the middle (each poet thus writes two three-liners and one two-liner). But the chief genius of his invention, I assert, was to make the entire form thematic, with each verse developing some central concept, whatever the poets might choose. This, Garry believed, made the form more memorable than renku, the numerous verses of which came and went to readers like water down a river. The rengay, by contrast, may be likened to a stylish boat on that river, sometimes just floating by, yet still the object of focus and attention, at other times its occupants paddling energetically yet skillfully to navigate the boat through exciting rapids. The thematic nature of rengay, I believe, gave linked poetry a valuable center of attention and memorability. In the decade since its invention, rengay has proved increasingly popular in more and more parts of the world, and its popularity is, I believe, a testament to a number of rengay’s distinctive achievements.

        It has never been Garry Gay’s intent with rengay to diminish or replace renku—if that were even possible. The forms accomplish different goals, and I believe renku and rengay serve different yet complementary purposes. Garry Gay and I wrote the first rengay together on the Sunday morning of that 1992 weekend renku event. Though it did not take nearly as much imagination as Garry’s initial creation, I immediately proposed a three-person variety, but we both concluded that further variations for more poets were not likely to be viable and would dilute rengay and make it too complicated. Garry, though, has personally been very open to experimentation with rengay content, and even slight variations in form, trusting poets to make it what they will. One other virtue of the rengay form, too, was its memorable and simple name—a factor not to be underestimated in helping to promote newly invented linked poetry forms.

        Another aspect of Garry’s genius with rengay is that he refined just a single useful linked form, stopping at just this one invention. In contrast, though a few inventions by British poet ai li appear interesting, the value of any one of them is severely diluted by the sheer number of the varieties of short linked forms that she and others have created. The enthusiasm of those with creative abilities in producing so many variations of invented linked forms has unfortunately hampered the success of any single one of them. Rengay, in contrast, has become more popular than any other recently invented linked form partly because it is so clearly defined, is essentially limited to just two chief varieties (for two or three poets), and unmuddied by excessive invention of similar forms.

        Before considering other linked poetry forms, I’d first like to note an invented form that does not rely on linking techniques. Adelaide Crapsey’s well-known creation of the cinquain, which consists of five lines with a syllable structure of two, four, six, eight, and then two syllables in each successive line, has never been widely popular, yet it has established itself sufficiently in American literature to be taught in schools as readily as haiku. Since its invention in 1911, the cinquain has met with varying responses, one of which has been contempt because the form was merely the creation of a single person of no particular stature, and not an evolved form of “respectable” antiquity that had generated a large enough canon of approved examples. Rengay has faced a similar problem. Insofar as it is only written within the haiku community, rengay is far outstripped by the cinquain in being known by the public. I mention the cinquain because one challenge that faces each recently invented linked verse form is how it is accepted by the poetic public. Resistance to a form such as the cinquain in the wider field of poetry somewhat mirrors a degree of resistance to rengay within the haiku community. Some poets will not write it, perhaps because they believe it lacks respectable status, and that doing so pays homage to its inventor when they feel no need to do so. They would rather invent their own form, perhaps, and thus try to assert themselves as creators of a linked form rather than seemingly defer to another inventor. Such poets may have other reasons for not being interested in rengay, but social aspects such as this produce some measure of resistance. The social factors may have nothing to do with the value of the invented form itself, but they are a compelling factor affecting the success of invented linked forms within the haiku community. Rengay, it seems, has done the best thus far of all recently invented linked forms, and this may be a testament not only to its simplicity and distinctive features, but to the respect accorded to its inventor as an accomplished haiku poet and leader in the English-language haiku community.

        In 1976, long before rengay, a new form of linked poetry was created called “net renga,” and I believe it was first written by Anita Virgil, Cor van den Heuvel, and William J. Higginson. Another one was written in 1988 at a Haiku Canada annual retreat. In this form, not one but two verses (two-liners) are composed in response to the single starting verse. In response to these two verses, participants then write three three-liners, the middle one responding or linking to both of the previous two two-liners. After this, four two-liners appear, the far-left and far-right ones connecting to the poems immediately above it, and with the two middle verses each responding to the two closest verses above it, as demonstrated in the following diagram (with the numbers representing the number of lines in each verse):

 

3

2     2

3     3     3

2     2     2     2

 

This pattern continues to expand for a number of rows of verses, and then contracts down to a single verse, creating, as it unfolds, not just a single chain of links as in a renku but a more complicated net of connections among the many verses. The form can be read in many ways, following various vertical strands of links, perhaps revealing different flows of mood in the process. Such a linked form is an interesting experiment, and was never written often, but serves as one example of the variety possible in creating new linked-poetry variations.

        Another variation has been the “other rens” created by Francine Porad, Marlene Mountain, and Kris Kondo. A freewheeling take-off on rengay and one-liner linked verse, these “rens” are like rengay in having six verses, but are limited to just one-line verses. While sometimes loosely thematic, these creations are an energetic call-and-response communication between three practiced poets writing without subject-matter boundaries, often in a diary-like fashion about social issues and events of the day. These poets produced a small set of books recording many dozens of their “rens” but few other poets have followed their example by writing anything similar.

        As already mentioned, the poet ai li, along with Alexis K. Rotella, has invented a number of linked forms. ai li’s website provides information about how to write these forms, along with examples. On my latest visit they included forty-three different linked verse forms labeled with such names as “alphenga,” “movierenga,” “symbolenga,” and “weddenga”—and with subject requirements to match. Alexis invented twenty-two of these forms, ai li fifteen, one was created by the two of them together, and the remaining ones were created by Fay Aoyagi, Alice Benedict, Carlos Colón, and Jeffrey L. Salter. All but one seem to have been invented in a flurry of activity in 1997, with few examples being written since then, and most attempts being by a very small number of poets. One wonders if these forms even need to be asserted as independent forms when they are so particular and even obscure and arbitrary regarding content as well as form. It is hard to choose what might be the best of these invented forms because of the capricious and seemingly frivolous and personal rules. Perhaps the two forms with the most effective names, at least, are the “cherita” (a one-line, two-line, and then three-line verse telling a story) and the “septenga” (a seven-verse form alternating three-line and two-line verses, with a “psychological and/or empathetical theme”). But is there any value in such idiosyncratic forms? Other than as a temporary diversion that might please a few poets, perhaps not. Nevertheless, the number of these playful though not widely differing inventions demonstrates some malleability with the haikai genre’s central technique of linking. The creation of these forms enables the poets to expand their creative inclinations beyond just writing in an established form or genre to invent new forms themselves. However, the very creative spirit or ego that may drive or attract some poets to do this may also prevent them from wishing to write in another poet’s invented form.

        Yet another recently invented linked poetry form, this one from Japan, is Ikuyo Yoshimura’s invention of the “necklace renku.” It begins with a single starting verse, which two poets respond to with separate two-line verses. It then continues with two distinct strands of verses for an undetermined length until the last verse, which connects the last verses in both strands with a single concluding verse. Think of it as a string of pearls, like a necklace, in the following pattern (though longer than this):

 

3

2     2

3     3

2     2

3

 

Ikuyo’s English-language haiku group, Evergreen, based at Asahi University in Gifu, Japan, has written a number of these sorts of renku, but I do not know of any examples of the form being written outside the group. It occurs to me that further variations of this form could be as follows:

 

                                                                                                       3

                                               3                                                  2     2

                                           2     2                                               3     3

                                               3                                                      2                                               And so forth . . .

                                           2     2                                               3     3

                                               3                                                  2     2

                                                                                                       3

 

Because of the unlimited permutations that are obviously possible, not just with necklace renku but with other variations of linked poetry, one wonders what value many of them might have beyond being novelties. The renku tradition has gained its value and reputation not necessarily by the form alone, but by the body of literature written in the form, and by the influence of this form on other streams of haikai literature, most notably haiku, which it begat. Obviously, the quality of the actual verses in invented forms will determine the value of each such creation, but what is the value of the underlying invented forms themselves? Some of them are exceedingly difficult to write, such as the complicated “pyramid renga” written by Jane Reichhold and Bambi Walker and published in the aptly named book, A Literary Curiosity: The Pyramid Renga “Open” (AHA Books, 1989). It is hard to even describe this form of linked poetry, which, in its spiral-bound publication, is two inches thick, and contains pages of varying dimensions, with shorter pages revealing verses on the taller pages behind. What’s more, when the shorter pages are turned, yet more verses are revealed behind them that connect in an exponential fashion to the verses that were previously visible. Jane acknowledges that this form was invented in 1988 by Tundra Wind, the founder and editor of the linked-poetry journal APA-Renga, which later became Lynx. The way the form worked was that two verses were written in response to the opening verse, and then two more verses linked to each of the previous two verses, taking the poem in new directions with each verse, doubling its size at each level, producing numerous branches, as follows:

 

3

2                     2

3         3          3         3

2  2     2  2      2  2     2  2

 

(and so on, ad infinitum . . .)

 

Jane explained in her introduction that their pyramid renga had 308 branches just at link number eighteen (thus not strictly exponential), thus they stopped because the increasing complexity made it impractical to continue each permutation to the extent of thirty-six levels. In fact, if the number of verses doubles at each branch for just thirty-six levels, the total number of verses required to finish the full number of permutations would be 68,719,476,736 haiku! (Forgive me if these calculations might be off by one or two.) Needless to say, this sort of renku has not been attempted often, and this one example is utterly unreadable merely because of its complexity, yet it does indeed serve as a literary curiosity.

        Jane and Werner Reichhold have also experimented with other sorts of linked-verse creations, including the use of tanka and longer poetry, and even visual art in a linked manner. Werner has written about what he calls “symbiotic” poetry, which now regular appears in their journal Lynx. In addition, the “participation renga” in Lynx have produced a number of varieties of experimental linked verse creations as well, though unfortunately they proved to be largely undisciplined in following the author-defined structures or content limitations. In 1971, Nobel-prize winner Octavio Paz published a book of linked longer poems called Renga: A Chain of Poems, written with Jacques Roubaud, Eduardo Sanguineti, and Charles Tomlinson, showing yet another possible variation of collaborative linked poetry. More recently, in their book Circling Bats (Tragg Publications, 2001), Carlos Colón and Raffael de Gruttola have written a thirty-six-verse renku consisting of concrete/visual poems. There are undoubtedly many more creative variations to linked poetry, and I am probably remiss in not enumerating some of the most distinctive examples (and I regret that limited space prevents me from quoting any of them).

        Where does this lead us? One question is to wonder whether the inventions of new poetic forms really are that new, or just logical possibilities. As John M. Ellis points out in his Theory of Literary Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), “for the most part, technical innovations in literature are new practices from among a range of possibilities that has always been and will continue to be available.” So perhaps, at least for poetic forms, nothing really is ever new under the sun. These forms are really discoveries rather than true inventions.

        Perhaps a more practical conclusion would be to assert some factors that might distinguish invented linked poetry forms from mere novelties. Let me therefore offer the following characteristics of a successful invented linked poetry form that will likely prove it viable in the longer term beyond being just a passing experiment or mere novelty:

  1. Has a respected inventor (not essential, but helps hasten its acceptability).
  2. Has a distinctive, memorable, and natural-sounding name.
  3. Is invented for a specific and needed purpose, not just for the sake of invention.
  4. Is clearly defined, yet not so narrow in scope to ever limit its creative possibilities.
  5. Is flexible enough to facilitate a healthy degree of experimentation.
  6. Is written by a wide and growing variety of people.
  7. Inspires an expanding body of excellent work.

        In addition to the invention of linked poetry forms, the haiku community has at times invented variations on haiku itself, starting with the name. Allen Ginsberg created his “American sentences” as an alternative to haiku, and poets Steve Sanfield and John Brandi used to call their haiku poems “hoops” (though they were really haiku). In the early years of Frogpond, the poet Tao Li (pen name of Evelyn Tooley Hunt) presented her haiku in three vertical lines, an invention that some other poets mimicked for a short time. In the last decade, haiku translator David Lanoue and poet John Martone have presented their translations or haiku and other short poetry in single vertical lines, imitating the Japanese practice, something that many other English-language poets, haiku and otherwise, have explored in Western poetry. A more distinctive invented haiku-related poem is John E. Carley’s “zip” form, which he defines as a fifteen-syllable “analogue to the Japanese haiku,” an untitled poem in two lines with each line having a pause indicated by extra space. One may ask, though, what this invention accomplishes that isn’t already possible within the existing parameters of the English-language haiku. The same question may also be asked of many invented linked verse forms. Very few of them break through mere novelty to accomplish goals that established linked verse forms don’t already reach.

        It seems for some poets that the impulse to invent forms comes hand in hand with the impulse to write poetry. As a species, poets sometimes seem to be imbued with a desire not just to create poems, but poetry forms as well. And long may this continue, for the spirit of invention brought us the telephone, the light bulb, and strawberry cheesecake. With the various invented linked forms, though, it remains to be seen how well they might fare amid the developing tradition of English-language haiku. At the moment, the rengay form appears to be the most successful, but only time will really tell.