Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve Poem

The end of the year
Two-thousand and nine --
Waves at the sea-shore
And wind in the pines


Branches of the pine
Seen in the cold evening air
The full moon behind

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Safe Harbor

Night falls
On the harbor
Night falls
Quick in winter
Saturn slowly descends
Into the fog
Hovering at the edge
Where the ocean and the sky blend
A stone stairway ascends
Stepping past the sun and the moon
Planets and galaxies dwindle and fade
Scattered petals from wind-blown blooms
All that's constructed and all that is made
Disappears in the depths of a hidden lagoon
There at the harbor of eternity

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Formal Attraction

Why would a poet deliberately restrict their options by writing in verse forms where syllabic restrictions define the form? Why would a poet want to write a syllabic Tanka in five lines of 5-7-5-7-7, or a Tetractys in five lines of 1-2-3-4-10, or a Cinquain in five lines of 2-4-6-8-2 or a 100 Friends form consisting of fifteen lines of 2-4-2-4-6-4-6-8-6-8-10-8-10-12-10, or a syllabic Quatrain consisting of four lines, each line containing five syllables?

In an era where free verse dominates the official poetry scene, at a time when for many poets free verse IS poetry, what is the attraction of composing a poem in a pre-set form?

There are a number of reasons, but I’d like to point to one aspect of syllabic verse which, I think, is a pervasive reason for the syllabic poet’s commitment to form. It is this: composing a poem in a specific form focuses the mind. For example, if someone is composing a Cinquain, then the first line consists of only two syllables. That formal consideration eliminates a huge range of possibilities which simply fall away from the poet’s consideration. Instead, various two syllable possibilities arise. The mind of the poet, then, becomes focused through the lens of the syllabic contours of the particular form.

What I’d like to suggest is that this focusing of the mind feels good. A scattered mind is frustrating and people often complain about “feeling scattered”. In free verse there is a tendency to scatter the focus precisely because there is no regulation of the line. The regulation of the line in syllabic verse is an objective device, that is to say it is not a device chosen by the poet. If I am writing a Cinquain that means I am going to follow the formal parameters of the form which are shared by all Cinquain poets. Like a meditator counting breaths, and knowing that this counting of breaths is an experience shared by countless other meditators, the syllabic poet shares with a community of other practitioners a method for focusing the mind. This allows the syllabic poet to feel connected to an extended community that includes poets never met.

In this sense, then, syllabic poets dwell in an extended community of people who also write in the same form. I think this combined sense of focus and community is inherently pleasing both to the mind and to the soul.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Armstrong Woods

Where the footpath ends
A creek quickly flows
Over logs and rocks
Giant redwoods grow

Sunday, December 27, 2009


I can feel the light
On Sunday morning
When Friends are gathered
It is transforming

Revision 1:

I can feel the light
On First Day morning
When Friends are gathered
It is transforming

While My Neighbors Sleep

Before sunrise
The world's a quiet place
It's like finding a hermitage
In time

Saturday, December 26, 2009

When I Visited a Mountain Temple in Korea

Shadows on the valley floor
Appear with the rising sun
Pine trees cling to the steep slopes
Over boulders a stream runs

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas Prayer

On the ground
On Christmas day
May there be peace on earth without delay

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Remembering Winter

When I was younger
A long time ago
Winter was easy
We played in the snow

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Few Things I Remember

And the years
Dawn, day, dusk, night --
And sharing a dinner by candlelight

Monday, December 21, 2009

Gates of Time

The Winter Solstice --
Rain falls all night long
On the swollen stream
Reflections of dawn

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Memories Intrude

Silent and chilly
Frost covers the garden straw
A black bird flies by

Hot tea on a cold morning
The cozy kitchen stove is warm

She has a brainstorm;
She serves him breakfast in bed
Just for a surprise

Little things that summarize
The meaning of our days

Though he'd like to stay
He tells his friend he must go,
Other errands wait

The morning mist dissipates
Around the plum tree's branches

Sunlight enhances
Each of the many blossoms
And the melting snow

With her youngest child in tow
She walks through the local park

It is a small part
Of the afernoon routine,
Weather permitting

Some think this is limiting
They want more variety

It's not hard to see
That the night arrives on time
The world works that way

The moon always has its say
As the guardian of change

Shadows from the range
Of mountains in the distance
Cool the day's heat

While the whole sky is replete
With numberless grains of stars

Outside of the bar
Pausing before walking home
To his lonely room

October memories intrude
Then drift away on mind tides

Fallen leaves disguise
The long path through the forest
By the slow river

Where the bridge crosses over
A few miles before the town

She looked down and found
A stone of perfect colors,
Muted green and blue

Blending with the faded hues
Of the altar table cloth

Saturday, December 19, 2009


A sliver of moon
After days of dark
A stranger wanders
Through the city park

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mourning Rain

The sound of the morning rain;
As the year ends, I falter,
Recalling friends who have died,
Pine incense on the altar

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Behind the Restaurant

Starlings and blackbirds
On the frost-covered dumpsters
The morning sunlight

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Seasons come and go
The years pass away
Where the river flows
Deserts once held sway

Friday, December 11, 2009


Across the valley
Snow blankets the highest hills --
December morning

The falling temperature
As clouds disperse in the sky

Her son waves goodbye
On his way to his friend's house
For serious play

Shooting hoopes in the driveway
On days when the weather's right

A cops' black-and-white
Slowly cruises by the house,
They received a call

"It's really nothing at all,
I thought that I saw someone."

In the small garden
Full moon shadows in the wind
Seem to come alive

Apple blossoms twist and dive,
A bluebird clings to a branch

She pauses, entranced,
The beauty of the moment
Caught her by surprise

Following numberless tries
The toddler takes his first steps

"I've a new concept,
It will make the living room
More comfortable."

He finds it agreeable
If it will make her happy

To have fresh iced tea
As opposed to turning on
Air conditioning

Everyone's restructuring
Their finance situation

The contributions
At the charity have dropped,
A cause for fear

As a bum of many years
Doesn't notice any change

In the subtle range
Of the colors of the leaves
On the maple trees

An enduring legacy
From someone who is long gone

A single pinyon
Beside the abandoned store
In the empty town

The perfect place the owl's found
To build a nest safe from harm

Thursday, December 10, 2009

North of Chicago

The year is fading;
Bare branches on a gray sky --
Children in the snow.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Love Everywhere

Frost on the branches,
Frost on every blade of grass,
This time will soon pass,
We'll look back, find it matchless --
Love bloomed in the winter air.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Threnody for Baghdad

Sleepless in my room,
The sound of constant thunder
And a ceaseless wind;
Even the stars are weeping
As vengeance consumes the sky

Sunday, December 6, 2009


After forty years
Dwelling in the winter light --
The aged couple

Contemplating retirement
Watching their grandchildren play

Under the array,
The web of cherry blossoms,
Sitting quietly

As the mind wanders freely
While taking a morning break

He is never late,
His table is always ready,
At the corner cafe

Leaves scatter, falling away,
A cascade of red and gold

The moon, bright and bold,
Traverses the Libra sky
And a few thin clouds

"Turn it down, it's much too loud,"
She's looking out the window

Thoughts, like seeds, can grow
And change the course of a life,
The course of the world

The new house plans are unfurled,
He is very proud of them

"We'll preserve the glen,"
A summer sanctuary
For birds and wildlife

The hermit, free from all strife,
Listens to the fading wind

Saturday, December 5, 2009


I've seen this before,
It's another total war.
You'd think they'd be bored
As hell doing this again,
Standing in a field of gore.

Published in Modern English Tanka 10
Winter 2008

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Just War Theory

When we launch a war
It's a necessary chore.
When they launch a war
It's despicable and wrong;
Strife goes on and on and on . . .

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Waiting for the Sun

Driving in the dark,
The sun has still not come up;
December morning.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Padding in Haiku

One of the tools of traditional Japanese Haiku is the use of ‘kireji’, often translated as “cutting words”. (This Wikipedia article is a good introduction to Kireji: ). Kireji are words which have no significance in terms of naming; that is to say they do not refer to some object, or feeling, in the world. Kireji have a grammatical function; they separate two grammatical clauses when a kireji appears between such clauses. Often they appear at the end of a Haiku and in that case their grammatical function is more obscure. Different Kireji have different emotional weight, but even here the exact meaning of the emotion is not altogether clear. Because there is no equivalent in English grammar to Kireji there is a kind of fascination about them, once a Haiku poet, writing in English, makes their acquaintance.

I would like to suggest a function of Kireji that I have seen mentioned only in passing. I suspect that one function of Kireji is padding; that is to say Kireji are used to fill out the syllable count of a Haiku when the count falls short. From this perspective Kireji resemble syllables used in song to simply fill out the melody; words like “Fa-la-la-la-la” or “Sha-na-na-na”. There are many examples of this kind of usage in song.

In song these kinds of syllables fill out the shape of the melody; the composer/singer wants to retain the shape of the melody, but the words of the verse don’t fill out the shape. So the singer inserts some syllables just to fill in and retain the melodic shape. Similarly, Japanese Haiku poets will fill out the syllabic contours of a Haiku by using Kireji if the poetic material does not fill the syllabic shape. I think this is particularly true of Kireji used at the very end of a Haiku. In fact I have read on several occasions reviews of Japanese Haiku that end in “kana” (a widely used Kireji) where the reviewer states explicitly that the poet probably used “kana” just to fill out the count.

I agree with that assessment, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. In fact, I think it is a wonderful tool. I wish that English had such a tool for filling out a line that was a syllable or two short.

If one looks at Kireji in this way it opens up the possibility of a non-minimalist approach to Haiku in English. English language Haiku has been dominated by a minimalist approach; “less is more” is the doctrine and trimming is the method. This has given rise to Haiku that at times seem to me to be anorexic; so slim as to be unhealthy. Adding a word or two for the purposes of rhythm, alliteration, assonance, or general flow would allow for a more full bodied Haiku. And such an approach would be consistent with one of the functions of Kireji as used in traditional Japanese Haiku.