Friday, December 17, 2010

Streams of Time

It has been slate gray the whole day from the time I woke up until late afternoon,
I find it difficult to distinguish the time without some signals from the sun,
Events used to proceed in strict order, one after the other, when I was young,
Now all my days intermingle like many streams merging in a forest lagoon.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Morning Contemplation

The morning mist at the beginning of winter possesses a life of its own,
As the shapes drift and twist through the branches of the broad maple tree in the garden,
Sometimes they hide and sometimes they reveal that the leaves have suddenly turned to gold --
I sit on the couch wrapped in a blanket in the house which still holds the evening cold.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Rainscape Moment

The rain's been falling for many days and nights in the season of early winter,
It's been falling off and on, not constantly, so the streets have not become rivers,
The tips of the needles of the deodar tree hold a drop of rain that shimmers,
A gust of wind and all the drops fall and suddenly the whole world appears dimmer.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dialectic

I don't mind having discussions
With those with whom I disagree,
If I'm right or wrong is nothing
Measured against eternity.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Checking In

Winter mist dissolves
Late in the morning
I call an old friend,
"So, how's it going?"

Friday, December 3, 2010

Skyscape

You would think the clouds
Are the unmoving mountains --
December stillness

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Old Photo

Found in a drawer --
I thought I had forgotten
The winter romance.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How We Spend Our Days

Dawn on the First of December under a clear and cold sky
Shoppers drive here and there for a gift that will be a surprise;
Under a four-lane bridge that spans the meandering river,
A discarded man, wrapped in a discarded blanket, shivers.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Better Worlds

Frost covers the grass
By the bridge over the stream
Homeless people dream

Richard Wright Day

Today is the anniversay of Richard Wright's passing. He died on November 28, 1960, fifty years ago. Wright is famous for works such as 'Black Boy' and 'Native Son.' His autobiographical writing, his novels, and essays vividly chronicled the effects of racism on the black community.

During the last years of Wright's life he was living in Paris. He became enamored of Haiku. According to his estate, Wright composed over 4,000 Haiku in less than two years. That's an incredible pace. Before Wright died he selected 817 Haiku for publication. But publication didn't happen until after he died.

The publication of Wright's Haiku collection, 'Haiku: This Other World', took everyone by surprise. Wright was well known as a novelist and passionate advocate for minorities, but only a few people were aware of Wright's interest in poetry and Haiku specifically.

Wright wrote syllabic Haiku. In my opinion 'Haiku: This Other World' is the finest collection of English language Haiku yet written. It is a collection I frequently refer to, learn from, and model my own Haiku writing on.

I remember when I first encountered Wright's collection of Haiku. My immediate reaction was "At last! Haiku that are in English. I mean by this that there are no 'Japanisms' in Wright's Haiku. I also mean that Wright's Haiku sound like vernacular English, natural English. Wright's Haiku are so good that one feels that Haiku is actually an English form of poetry, rather than a transplant from another culture. All the articles are there, the normal English syntax is present, yet it is all crafted and shaped into the syllabic structure of 5-7-5 syllables.

Here's something intriguing about Wright that I only recently discovered. Both Wright and Basho share the same death day anniversary. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, Basho died on November 28, 1694. What a wonderful coincidence! Because Wikipedia is not always reliable, I checked with Gabi Greve, who lives in Japan and has practiced traditional Haiku there for years. She said that actually there are several dates used. This is because when Japan switched from the lunar based calendar to the western solar based calendar, sometimes people had different ideas as to how to do this. So in some cases you get alternative datings. But one of the dates used for Basho's anniversary is November 28. This kind of coincidence is just so cool -- Basho and Wright, two giants of the Haiku form.

I wanted to post a long essay on Wright, with samples from his Haiku and other observations. But right now I am very busy, so an extended essay will have to wait for another time. My suggestion for people interested in English language Haiku in general, and in syllabic Haiku in particular, is to take some time today to read some of Wright's Haiku or to purchase a copy for your own library. It can be found here:

http://www.amazon.com/Haiku-Other-World-Richard-Wright/dp/1559704454/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1290962690&sr=1-2

This is a collection of Haiku that you will return to over and over.

With deep appreciation for Wright's Haiku, I dedicate this day.

Thanks,

Jim

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reasons for Hope

Stars at night
A clear view
Ocean waves
Dreams come true

Fortuna's Power

The homeless man
Counting his change,
Once he was rich,
Now he's deranged.

Fibonacci Day

Good Friends:

Today is Fibonacci Day, a day set aside to celebrate the Fibonacci form of poetry. This is Fibonacci day because 11-23 are the four numbers for the syllable count of the first four lines of a Fibonacci: 1-1-2-3.

I have written only a few 'Fibs' (as they are affectionately called), but there is a thriving community of poets who really enjoy this form. Take a moment today to visit the Fib, the online zine devoted to the form. You can find it on my list of blogs and sites I like. Just click on 'Fib Review' and you can find out what the Fib Poets are up to.

Better yet, write a Fibonacci. The linneation is as follows: 1-1-2-3-5-8 . . . Since it is based on a mathematical series that keeps expanding, if you are adventuroues you can go past the six lines:

1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21-34 . . .

If you want to write some of the really long lines, my suggestion is to think of Proust and his beautifully crafted long lines. He's a good model for the longer lines of the Fibonacci.

Sonnet poets have written a lot of Sonnets on the Sonnet. So here is a Fibonacci on the Fibonacci that I wrote just for fun to celebrate this special day:

Fibs --
Poems --
Not lies --
Poetry --
Based on a series
That slowly unfolds like a seed,
At first you hardly notice that the Fib has started,
Then the lines that were once so constricted suddenly open like branches of a tree,
This is its nature, its ever-expanding essential meaning and centrifugal motion of the exhilarating Fibonacci!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Book of the World

Silence is my scripture,
Stillness is my true home,
Solitude my palace --
The peace within my soul.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Turning to Nature

Moonlight on the parking lot
After seeing a movie
Leads me to forget the plot --
Immersed in awesome beauty

Winter Begins

Gray skies
Cold days
Dusk wind
Life fades

Signs of the Changing Season

A sun-filled morning
In mid-November
High clouds in the sky
Winds hint of winter

Domesticity

A vegetarian quiche
For breakfast Monday morning
With a hot cup of coffee
In the oven, bread's warming

A Critique of Pure Reason

Reason
Is a virtue,
It can tell us what's true
But some things reason can't see to --
Like love

Holidays Busy

Good Friends:

I will be posting less frequently on this blog through the end of the year. As the holiday season picks up my job at the store becomes more consuming.

Thanks,

Jim

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fallscape

Red and yellow leaves flutter
In the steady morning breeze
Clouds across the sky skitter
Shadows form and then they leave

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Open Secret

There's nothing esoteric,
Nothing hidden or withheld,
God's presence is like music,
A song that the heart knows well.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

At the Village Bakery

It's nice to find a quiet spot
That doesn't have background music;
It's easier to talk and share
Without distractions melodic

Fresh-Baked

Saturday morning is busy
People are coming and going
At the warm Village Bakery
Children and parents look happy

At the Village Bakery

Saturday morning
At the bakery
An island of warmth
In the cold fall air

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Riverscape

The wind this morning
Is strong and steady
A river flows by
Leaves in an eddy

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Keeping Track

Days
Months
Phases
Of the moon
When I've time to look
Appointments marked in my datebook

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Melody

Dawn
Autumn
November
Almost winter
I wear a sweater
There is frost on the ground
Birds are gone, there is less sound
Than one hears in other seasons
The morning is more quiet, I have found,
As I leave the house on my morning rounds


Dusk
Autumn
November
Almost winter
At this time of year
My mind is less scattered
I am more focused and clear
And even though the nights are long
I don't think of the season as drear --
I contemplate the cosmos' sacred song

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Neal Henry Lawrence: Tanka Poet

Neal Henry Lawrence, Tanka Poet
Born: January 22, 1908
Died: November 3, 2004

A white haired lady,
Bent over, walked with a cane,
A white haired man helped.
Gaily they talked as though cares
Existed not – still in love.

Today is the anniversary of the passing of Neal Henry Lawrence. Lawrence was the first American poet to write a substantial body of Tanka in English. In that sense Lawrence was the pioneer of the form in English.

He was born in Clarksville, Tennessee in 1908. He went to Harvard and Columbia Universities, receiving degrees in Business, Public Law and Government.

During World War II Lawrence served in the Navy. He participated in the invasion of Okinawa, seeing firsthand the terrible destruction that war brings. Later, at the conclusion of the war he became a diplomat. In 1948 he was with the first group of U.S. officials to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In 1960 Lawrence was ordained as a monk in the Order of Saint Benedict at St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota. He then went on to serve at St. Anselm’s Priory in Tokyo, Japan. It was while serving at St. Anselm’s that Lawrence became enamored of Tanka.

The transmission of Japanese poetic forms to the west did not follow the history of those forms in Japan. Tanka is by far the oldest poetic form currently written in Japan. Tanka has a written history of about 1400 years. In contrast, Haiku has a history of about 200 to 300 years.

But it was Haiku that first attracted westerners. Then Renga followed, though the interest in Renga was, and remains, small in comparison to Haiku. Tanka did not gain a following in the west until the late twentieth century.

The reason for this is primarily a belief that Tanka was too intimately intertwined with Japanese culture for westerners to write it. This was sometimes stated explicitly and sometimes simply assumed. Tanka does play a central role in Japanese poetry; it is the root of both Renga and Haiku. Tanka anthologies such as the Kokinshu, and the Tanka found in the earlier collection, Manyoshu, were studied carefully by Japanese poets. The Kokinshu was nearly memorized as it set the standard for how to compose poetry for many centuries. It is still very influential.

Thus one can see how people would consider Tanka to be a kind of quasi-religious following. It didn’t hurt this view that many of the famous Tanka poets were committed religious. Saigyo is a very famous example, as is Sogi. Being a poet in Japan, at a certain level, for many centuries, almost required taking Buddhist orders if one was going to travel, teach, and visit students and patrons.

I think that one of the reasons Lawrence was immune to this attitude is that he was outside of the official poetry organizations in the west that were dedicated to Japanese poetry. As far as I know he had little to no contact with the nascent Haiku Societies just beginning in the west. It seems that Lawrence noted the pervasive cultural presence of Tanka in Japan and while living there for many years, teaching, learning Japanese, he simply became enamored of the tradition.

Lawrence took a syllabic approach to English language Tanka and that makes his contribution particularly valuable. His work demonstrates the efficacy of taking a syllabic approach. When I say Lawrence took a syllabic approach to English language Tanka I mean that he mimicked the syllable count of the Japanese Tanka, applying it to the English language. Just as the Japanese form is in 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, so also the English Tanka of Lawrence are also in 5-7-5-7-7. It works very well. This isn’t really a surprise since Japanese and English share many characteristics, allowing for such a smooth transmission.

Lawrence published four books of Tanka:

Soul’s Inner Sparkle – 1978
Rushing Amid Tears – 1983
Shining Moments – 1993
Blossoms in Time – 2000

In addition, ‘Soul’s Inner Sparkle’ was later republished in an edition with both the original English Tanka and Japanese translation. I believe that this makes Lawrence the first English Tanka poet to have a book of his Tanka translated for a Japanese audience. In this edition there is an essay by Lawrence, ‘Why I Write English Tanka!’ which provides valuable insights into Lawrence’s views. He wrote, “I write English tanka poems, 31 syllables in five segments as in Japanese tanka 5-7-5-7-7, because I discovered for some mysterious reason that it was a compatible way for expressing ideas and experiences of a lifetime. On April 5, 1975, I wrote my first tanka in English riding on a bus on the way to Boeki Daigaku near Mt. Fuji. Being in cherry blossom time, the countryside and mountains were a panorama of magnificence. I have been writing ever since almost daily at times and in spurts when especially inspired.”

Father Lawrence was fortunate in that he was encouraged in his endeavors as a Tanka poet by such people at Atsuo Nakagawa, founder of the Poetry Society of Japan and others. As he continued others noted the quality of his work. In 1985 he represented Japan at the World Congress of Poets which was held on the Isle of Corfu, in Greece, that year.

When I read Father Lawrence’s work I notice a learning curve. Some of his very early work contains ‘Japanisms’, usually they are in the form of an awkward English syntax which mimics Japanese usage. I refer to things like leaving out articles (because Japanese does not use articles) and sometimes a confusion of tenses (because Japanese has a different approach to tense). As Lawrence became more confident, his Tanka become more clearly English and there are less of these grammatical peculiarities. Here is an early example of what I mean from ‘Soul’s Inner Sparkle’:

Autumn Equinox:
Carrying broom and bucket,
Each family clean tomb,
Places fresh flowers in honor
Of those who have gone before.

It is an affecting scene and the lack of articles where one would normally expect them does not fatally damage the Tanka. That has been my experience with some of these early efforts; the image and the idea override the eccentric grammar.

One of the refreshing things about Lawrence’s work is the great range of his subject matter. The traditional topics of season, nature (he had a great interest in gingko; there are a lot of Tanka about that particular tree), and love are there; but there are also a surprising number of political Tanka that remark on current events. Some of these are dated, in the sense that the events the Tanka refers to are no longer current. If these books are reprinted, my hope is that the editors will take the time to footnote these Tanka, as it is worth knowing the context.

Naturally, a lot of Father Lawrence’s Tanka reflect his religious commitment:

The church walls echo
Sounds of Gregorian chant
Of the Easter Mass,
Lovingly cling to each note
Then release reluctantly.

Here is a Tanka on a classic nature theme:

Like a bridal veil,
The flower-festooned branches
Of the cherry tree
Flow gracefully in an arc,
Lighted by the morning sun.

This, I think, is particularly well done; the rhythm is natural and the whole Tanka flows effortlessly.

Here is one about the gingko, one of Father Lawrence’s favorite topics:

The sacred gingko,
Its bare branches tapering
Into the heavens,
Traces its own ancestry
To the age of dinosaurs.

It’s a nice touch, adding that dimension of deep time. I sometimes think it would make a nice little collection if all of Father Lawrence’s gingko Tanka were brought together under one volume. Here’s another Tanka on the gingko:

Each so beautiful
I stepped gingerly between
Golden gingko leaves,
Bedecking the frozen ground,
To prolong such gift of grace.

Sometimes Father Lawrence will intermix his favorite themes of nature and religion:

In the soft moonlight
A bank of white iris stands
Behind the chapel,
Ghostly guardians of faith,
Witnesses to God’s grandeur.

I admire the way the Lawrence can see the presence of God in the natural realm. It is one of the aspects of his Tanka that I find particularly appealing.

Here’s a humorous Tanka:

Hop, hop, hop, hop, hop.
The squirrel made his way cross
The blanket of leaves
A ripe acorn in his mouth
Seeking his winter storehouse.

Wouldn’t that be great in a collection of Tanka for children?

Father Lawrence writes eloquently on the topic of love which, I think, contain some of his finest Tanka:

Tread softly my love
The night is clothed in moonlight
With breezes gentle
All the harshness of the day
Is forgotten when you come.

I’ll conclude this series with a contemplative Tanka:

Why do I love you?
Mysterious attraction
Reflecting God’s love.
God loves all He created
And all who will ever be.

Father Lawrence, as you can see, wrote in a traditional style. In addition to the traditional syllabic form he also begins each line with a capital letter; the standard procedure for English language poetry until very recently. His use of punctuation is abundant, especially by current standards, an aspect of his Tanka which I think should be emulated. Each Tanka ends in a period.

I have found reading Lawrence’s Tanka to be a contemplative experience. There is a peacefulness about them which I enjoy. Father Lawrence was not, for the most part, a dramatic poet; that is to say he seems to have enjoyed contemplating the ordinary and the beauty found therein.

The only one of Lawrence’s books currently in print is ‘Shining Moments’ available from the publisher or from Amazon. Used copies of his other work are available online. It is my hope that Father Lawrence’s work will be reprinted as the English language Tanka community would benefit greatly from his steady, classically oriented, command of traditional Tanka. In addition, it is my hope that in the future more of Father Lawrence’s Tanka will be published. What is currently available is only a tiny fraction of what he wrote. It would be a wonderful service to English language Tanka poets to have more available.

I think of Father Lawrence as the Patron Saint of English language Tanka. He demonstrated that a traditional approach to Tanka in English is efficacious and it is with deep gratitude for his efforts, which have made my own so much easier, that I dedicate this day.

In 1993 Father Lawrence received the ‘Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette’ for his teaching at Japanese Universities. He would continue to teach and write Tanka almost to the end of his life. Though he died on November 3, he had stated that he wanted to be buried at sea. So on Saturday, April 8, 2006 the ashes of Father Lawrence were scattered in the East China Sea; 61 years to the week after the invasion of Okinawa.

I want my ashes
Scattered at sea to join all
In peaceful oneness;
To follow the ebb and flow
Of tides for billions of years.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Untitled

Autumn leaves
On the ground
The sun's rays
At sundown

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Quiet Night

On this quiet night
A night of many spirits
Hours before the dawn
There are voices in the wind
And songs sung among the stars

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Sorting Through Old Files

On a dark October night
As the month comes to an end
Darkness thick falls on the street --
Letters written I won't send

Friday, October 29, 2010

Talking it Through, Working it Out

Coffee
Banana bread
The sharp and the sweet blend
Difficulties dissolve and mend --
Close friends

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Keeping Perspective

At election time
Tensions rise with hope and fear
After a few years
Nobody will understand
What we debated and planned

Landscape

Oak trees in the field
Under a sky of thick clouds
No shadows are cast
In the early morning hours
The sound of some autumn crows

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Kokinshu Commentary -- 10

Kokinshu Commentary – 10

10. Fujiwara Kotonao. A poem recited at the beginning of spring

Has spring come early
Or might the blossoms be late?
There is no answer –
Not even from the warbler,
Who could tell me if he would.

We return to the theme of the ambiguity of time and season. In Tanka one the question is how to determine the beginning of the year which is marked in the traditional calendar as the beginning of spring. Here the ambiguity relates to how far along we have entered the Spring season.

This points to a way that seasonal verses are organized in Japanese poetry. There is a progression to a season, particularly spring and fall. There are the first signs of spring; where I live that would be the quince blossoms, which are the first to bloom, often in mid-February, before the plums. Where I live the sequence of blooms is first quince, plums, cherry and apple at about the same time. In Japanese poetry this kind of sequence of seasonal events was noted and the sequence of Tanka in the seasonal sections of the Kokinshu replicates these seasonal appearances. Beginning with mist rising from snow because of the warming air, the arrival of the warbler (uguisu), the blossoming of the plum which often happens in the snow, first spring rains, cherry blossoms, etc.

When Renga, or linked verse, developed there were locations in the linked verse sequence which were designated seasonal sequences. The verses needed to be in seasonal order; that is to say if there was a verse that referred to cherry blossoms the next verse could not refer to plum blossoms because plum trees blossom before cherry trees do. Similarly for other seasonal appearances.

These became codified in what are called Saijiki, a book of words and their seasonal associations, among other things. It is a standard tool for Japanese poets. No Japanese Haiku poet would write without one. All of this is rooted in, and takes its nourishment from, the way Tanka were placed in the classic collections such as the Kokinshu.

This consciousness of the signs of nature, and the placement of those signs in the seasonal unfolding, is one of the characteristics of Japanese poetry, particularly Japanese poetry anthologies. This indicates a culture which was acutely aware of this aspect of their environment, celebrated it, honored it, responded to it.

This particularly Tanka points to the fact that the sequence of seasonal events doesn’t always follow our expectations. The warbler is here, which means we are in spring, but where are the blossoms that normally coincide with the warbler’s appearance? As the poet says, “There is no answer.”

The link to Tanka 9 is “flowers have yet to bloom” from Tanka 9 raises the question of why they are blooming late in Tanka 10.

The author, Fujiwara Kotonao, does not appear often in the Kokinshu. However, the Fujiwara clan as a whole makes many appearances. This is the first Tanka from the Fujiwara clan. This clan was the most powerful clan in Japan for a long period of Japanese history. It is not surprising, then, that the Fujiwaras would be significantly represented in the Kokinshu.

The lede to the Tanka indicates that the Tanka was ‘recited’. This likely means that Fujiwara Kotonao was asked to present a Tanka on Spring at a gathering or party of some kind and that he came up with this Tanka spontaneously. Sometimes at these gatherings people would know ahead of time what the topic would be for any poetry offered. Sometimes the host would name the subject after the guests had gathered. In any case, this recitation sufficiently impressed people that it was remembered and included in the Kokinshu.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What I Learend From Emily Dickinson

What I Learned From Emily Dickinson

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
Poem 372

Emily Dickinson is my favorite American poet. I read her poetry regularly. In addition I enjoy reading about her. She is such an intriguing personality.

Dickinson was not a syllabic poet. Her poetry is metrical; most of her poems revolve around three or four beats per line arranged in strong metrical forces. Her poetry, according to scholars, is resonant of American Hymnody which is also structured in this way.

Nevertheless, Dickinson approaches metrics in a way that often sets up a rhythm, and then counters it in a line or two that do not seem to have a definite metrical shape. This is one of the distinguishing features of her poetry. In some ways this treatment of meter resembles her treatment of rhyme where Dickinson freely mixes traditional, perfect, rhyme with slant rhyme, near rhyme, or distant rhyme.

My focus in syllabic poetry is primarily centered on fixed form syllabic verse. What I mean by ‘fixed form syllabic verse’ is poetry which has a determined number of lines with a determined number of syllables for those lines. This includes such forms as Cinquain, Syllabic Haiku, Lanterne, Tanka, Etheree, Fixed Form Quatrains, Fibonacci, Tetractys, etc. Dickinson did not write fixed form verse. In spite of this I have learned more from Dickinson on how to write fixed form verse than from any other American poet. The broad reason for this is that Dickinson wrote short form verse. That is to say her poems are brief; both in terms of the number of lines for her poems and in the line length. Most fixed form syllabic forms are also brief and because of this I believe that Dickinson has much to offer any syllabic poet who wants to learn how to write short form poetry in English. What follows are a few of the specific lessons I have learned.

Rhyme

The biggest lesson I have learned from Emily Dickinson is not to be afraid of rhyme in short form English verse. Dickinson loved rhyme. I doubt that there is a single poem of hers which does not include rhyme. Because of Dickinson I consciously started including rhyme in short form syllabics, including Haiku, Tanka, and that shortest of all, Lanterne, as well as others. Before studying Dickinson I had the idea, widely held, that in short form verse rhyme will make the poem sound like a nursery rhyme or a commercial. What Dickinson showed me is that rhyme can sound completely natural and when done well adds immensely to the beauty of the poem. Here is an example, the last verse of poem 372:

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

One of the ways, I think, that Dickinson makes rhyme sound so effortless and natural is that she has a very broad understanding of what constitutes rhyme. She will use the perfect rhyme of ‘snow’ and ‘go’, but she will also use the slant rhyme of ‘of lead’ and ‘outlived’. By using them in the same four lines, and using them to define the lines, the garden of rhyme becomes more complex and a perfect rhyme like ‘snow’ and ‘go’ is seen in a broader landscape. This opening up of the garden of rhyme allows the short form to include rhyme without the short poem becoming sing-song or childish. Here’s another example, it is poem 210:

If I should’nt be alive
When the Robins come,
Give the one in Red Cravat,
A Memorial crumb –

If I could’nt thank you,
Being fast asleep,
You will know I’m trying
With my Granite lip!

In the first quatrain Dickinson rhymes ‘come’ and ‘crumb’; a perfect rhyme. In the second quatrain she rhymes ‘asleep’ and ‘lip’; a slant rhyme. Yet the reader or listener makes the connection. Again, Dickinson’s broad view of rhyme showed me how to include rhyme in short forms such as Haiku or Tetractys without the rhyme becoming mechanical or forced or childish. Dickinson is the great guide to English language rhyme in short forms and studying Dickinson convinced me that English language Haiku, Cinquain, Tanka, and other short forms, can benefit greatly from the inclusion of rhyme.

Punctuation

Dickinson loved punctuation. She is famous for it. Her poems are sprinkled with commas, dashes of various lengths, periods, exclamation points, the whole panoply of punctuation is used by her. What I discovered by studying Dickinson is that punctuation can be expressive and can add meaning to a poem. Before studying Dickinson I had adopted the contemporary view that eschews most punctuation and seeks to eliminate punctuation as much as possible. As one poet friend of mine put it, lineation is sufficient punctuation; meaning that line breaks are all a poet really needs. Dickinson showed me otherwise.

After studying Dickinson I began to incorporate ordinary punctuation like commas, but I also began to use dashes much more, and I found parentheses to be a useful punctuation device (one that I don’t think Dickinson uses). I don’t use punctuation as frequently as Dickinson (who does?). But I now feel comfortable about using it and I have dropped completely the idea that lineation is sufficient unto itself.

Lineation

Dickinson was a master of the line break. What I learned from reading Dickinson is how to frame a line coherently. Basically, I see Dickinson’s approach to lineation as having each line be a grammatical unit; that is to say each line has integrity, expresses a thought, or modifies a coming thought. There are no run-ons. Conjunctions begin a line, rather than end a previous line. Similarly, prepositions begin a line and are not used to end a previous line. I believe this approach to lineation is one aspect of Dickinson’s poetry which makes them easy to remember (along with rhyme, of course). When a line of poetry is broken in the middle of a grammatical unit the line loses its ability to lodge itself in the mind.

I am deeply grateful to Dickinson’s approach to lineation because it offered me a defense against contemporary lineation practices where clauses are dismembered and lineation often seems arbitrary and pointless. In short form syllabic verse I think it is especially important to have a secure sense of lineation; otherwise the short poem tends to collapse into a single line and the shape of the particular form is lost. Dickinson demonstrates how to accomplish clear lineation in short forms.

Allusion

Dickinson’s poems are full of allusions. Most of them are Biblical or refer to well-known hymns. Here is an example, it is poem 805:

These Strangers, in a foreign World,
Protection asked of me –
Befriend them, lest yourself in Heaven
Be found a Refugee –

The oblique allusion here are to teachings of Jesus where he tells his disciples that they should care for the least of people and that if they do so, their reward will be in heaven, because by caring for the least they will be caring for Jesus Himself. There are also oblique allusions to the City of Refugees found in the Pentateuch; where it says that if someone kills another accidentally they may go to a specified City of Refuge where they will be protected from retaliation. At that time Dickinson’s readers (if she had allowed her poems to be published) would have understood these allusions right away.

This kind of allusions enriches Dickinson’s verse, but these kinds of allusions have been for the most part abandoned in syllabic verse in English. I think that is because poets don’t think they have enough time in a short form to make the allusion clear. What Dickinson does, though, is to write a poem which is efficacious on the surface as well as with the allusion. Dickinson’s allusive poems are sufficiently meaningful without the allusion to be attractive to a reader who does not know the reference. In other words, Dickinson is able to write a short poem on two levels; one where the reader does not know the allusion, and the other level where the reader does know the allusion. Since studying Dickinson I have felt free to include allusions in my short poems. Sometimes they are literary, sometimes religious, sometimes to movies. But I try to follow Dickinson’s lead here and write a poem that can be appreciated without knowledge of the allusion, on its own terms.

Closing Thought

Dickinson offers so much to the syllabic poet, particularly those writing in short syllabic forms. I cannot recommend highly enough the study of Dickinson for anyone interested in writing short form syllabic verse. Dickinson is the master of the short form and even though she did not write syllabically, she is the great teacher of short form verse in general; whether metrical or syllabic. She is a sure guide, she is generous, and I guarantee that a study of Dickinson will improve your own short form poetry.

In closing, here is one of my favorites, it is poem 143:

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea –
Past the Houses –
Past the Headlands –
Into deep Eternity –

Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from Land?


[All quotes are from “The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition”, Edited by R. W. Franklin, Bleknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998]

Jeremiad

Many war criminals are walking free,
Basking in the bright sun of fame and wealth.
They are ev'rywhere, they are on TV,
They're famous for destruction done by stealth.

A whole country ruined, plundered, destroyed,
While lust for domination runs rampant.
A regime of torture has been employed
And when asked to stop they say they just can't.

Woe to the Capitol! Woe to D.C.!
You've abandoned truth, you've abandoned life;
You've sold your souls to high salaries,
You've sold your souls to the peddlars of strife --

You have abandoned the commandments of the Lord;
There's nowhere to hide from His terrible swift sword.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Armstrong Woods

Trees
Forest
Redwood trees
At Armstrong Woods --
Standing by the creek,
For centuries they've stood,
Seasons arrive and retreat,
A different sense of time is there,
Seasons are a breath upon the air,
A sense of calm is found that is quite rare.

Friday, October 22, 2010

On Translation and Meaning

On Translation and Meaning

Suppose you discovered a modern English version of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. In this modern English edition all obsolete words are eliminated and modern equivalents are substituted; kind of like several modern updates of the King James Version of the Bible such as the “Third Millennium Bible” or the “New King James Version”.

Gratefully you purchase the new edition. You feel grateful because there were some expressions that were never quite clear to you (e.g. what does ‘bootless’ mean?) and you are aware that some words have changed meaning in the last four hundred years. Your hope is that the Sonnets will be more accessible and therefore more meaningful.

To your surprise you find that not only has the language of the Sonnets been updated but also the lineation has been updated in accordance with modernist esthetics. Intrigued, you find a free verse rendering of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Gone are any regularity of count, gone are any attempt at metrical usage, gone are the mellifluous rhymes. Here’s the opening of Sonnet 73:

In fall you see
A few leaves, just a few, on the branches,
Shaking in the wind;
They look like ruined buildings with birds singing in the rafters.

You go to your old edition of the Sonnets just to check the original:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

The hypothetical modern rendering of Shakespeare’s Sonnets simulates a certain translation philosophy. It is the view that thinks that poetic form has negligible meaning, or perhaps none at all, and that the job of the translator of poetry is to translate semantic, or discursive, meaning. The view here is that the meaning of poem is not primarily embedded in the formal parameters of the poem’s structure, rather the meaning is, from this perspective, primarily conceptual, primarily related to the idea that the poet is trying to communicate.

One of the primary ways that we form an overall view of a foreign language poetic tradition is through translation. The choices a translator makes in transmitting poetry from language to another strongly effect how the reader will place the foreign language tradition. I bring this up because one of the barriers syllabic poetry in English has in developing a native syllabic approach is that access to long-enduring syllabic traditions is often obscured by the translation philosophy used by the translator. If the translator feels that the form is unimportant or of negligible significance, if the translator is further influenced by free verse norms (which is likely if they are a contemporary poet, particularly if they are university trained), then it is likely that the translator will offer a free verse rendering of poems which in the original context are highly regulated and formal.

I think the most extreme example of this has been the way that Chinese poetry has been translated into English. There has been almost no attempt on the part of translators of this type of poetry to convey to the reader the highly structured, formal characteristics of the Chinese poetic tradition. Free verse lineation is the norm in such translations. Because of this the majority of those reading Chinese poetry in English translation get the impression that Chinese poetry is unregulated and unrhymed. The opposite is true: Chinese poetry is highly regulated, rhymed and formal. Chinese poetry in English is particularly afflicted by this problem; it is really very difficult to find translations which seek to mimic, even to a minimal extent, the formal characteristics of Chinese poetry.

Japanese poetry translated into English differs. What I have discovered is that there are two major approaches to Japanese poetry translations. The first approach seeks to mimic the syllabic requirements of the poetic form. A primary example of this is the two translations of the Kokinshu into English; one by Laura Resplica Rodd and the other by Helen McCullough. Both of these translations mimic in English the syllabic structure of the Japanese Tanka. That is to say the translations share the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure of the original Japanese. Other translators of Japanese poetry into English who use this approach include Cranston and Carter.

In contrast, other translators of Japanese poetry use a free verse approach to lineation. Examples of this include all of the translators of Basho’s Haiku that I am aware of. Another widely read example is Jane Hirschfield’s translation of Ono no Komachi, “The Ink Dark Moon”.

The example of Rodd and McCullough is based on a philosophy which regards the form of the Tanka as having meaning and that therefore the translator needs to communicate that meaning to the reader. This is done by mimicking the formal structure. Perhaps the fact that the Kokinshu consists of over 1,000 Tanka, and that all of these Tanka have the same form in the original, lead the translators to focus on the form of the Tanka itself as having significance.

Think of what a translation of the Kokinshu would look like that ignored the formal count of the traditional Tanka, say one that took a free verse approach to lineation. Each Tanka would have a different overall syllable count; there would be no observable pattern of line length as one moved from poem to poem. Gone would be the lyrical, rhythmic, and musical linkage as one moved from Tanka to Tanka.

It might be the case that such a free verse approach would more accurately translate the semantic and discursive meanings of particular poems. That isn’t necessarily the case, but it might be the case in specific instances. But I would argue that the formal parameters of Tanka are significant to the meaning so that even if the semantic meaning is more accurate, the loss of the formal meaning would constitute a significant overall loss.

Rodd and McCullough have done English language readers of Japanese poetry a great service by conclusively demonstrating that it is not only possible to mimic Japanese syllabics in English, but also that it can be done with eloquence and accuracy. Although it is difficult, it is possible, because Rodd and McCullough have done it, to transmit from Japanese into English the overall syllabic shape of Japanese poetry.

For the syllabic poet writing in English, this is a significant find. Reading Japanese poetry translated into English which preserves the syllabics of the Japanese poetry opens up a whole culture of syllabic verse to the English language poet. By studying how a long-enduring syllabic approach to poetry approaches lineation, what kinds of tools such a culture uses in its poetry (such as pivot and caesura), the syllabic poet in English receives guidance on how to write syllabically in English, where a syllabic approach to poetry is new and, in comparison, untested.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Apparition

I thought I saw you
The other day in the park
Leaves were falling and . . .

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mountain Lodge

Winter's not yet here
But I can feel it coming --
There is almost frost

Shadows vanish from the roof
Of my neighbor's small garage

She asks as he leaves,
"When will you be back tonight?"
The sound of the door

Ever anxious and fearful,
Seeing danger everywhere

Looking here and there
A deer, cautious and quiet,
Steps into the field

Coverd with yesterday's snow,
A cloudless sky overhead

Slow moving shadows,
Cast by the almost full moon,
By the frozen stream

Two lovers are whispering
Though no one else is around

The blooming plum tree
Remembers all of the words
Spoken beneath it

He opens a file he's kept
From when he was in college

Archaeologists
On their summer vacation
Sort fragments and shards

On the ledge of the mountain
A pine tree and a boulder

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Post-Post Modernism

Wow! Post-modernism is all the rage,
The new intellectuals tell me so,
We're in a diff'rent time, a diff'rent age,
What we thought before we no longer know

For certain. They are very sure of this
Which makes it easy to discard the past,
To see old views as dull and to dismiss
Them in complex, verbose, jargon-ridden, obfuscating, unreadable treatises whose excessive, ponderous and prolix dullness is unique and unsurpassed.

This chronocentric view is nothing new
(What age has not had it to some degree?),
But in spite of post-modernism's spew
I'll take a stand on real eternity.

There exists a wisdom that transcends time;
It exists before creation; it is sublime.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Scattered

October morning mist,
Some trees still have their leaves,
I have to get to work --
Where'd I put my car keys?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Untitled

It is the tenth month
My favorite month of the year
The transparent air
Carries leaves into the sky
On an invisible wind

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In Beauty It Is Finished

On a sleepless night while the crickets sang
I took a road that went under the sea
Following the sound of the bells that rang
At the gate that leads to eternity.

I wasn't the only one on that road,
Numberless people were walking with me,
It was effortless, we carried no load,
We were unencumbered, totally free.

The waves of the sea, the sound of the bells,
Light in the distance that glows ceaselessly;
They are always speaking, they always tell
Of the way to end all anger and greed.

Follow the beauty to its source, its start,
There's the pure well of the infinite heart.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mothers With Young Children

Children making noise
Mothers try to talk
"I'll call you later"
Laughing while they walk

Local Gathering

Strong
Hot
Coffee
The cafe
Where friends come and stay
Gossiping the morning away

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Twenty

I have posted previously about analogs; but to refresh our memories (something I need to do more and more these days), in syllabic poetry analogs are two or more syllabic forms that share an overall syllable count but distribute the count differently. I have found that composing poetry using analogs is one of the best ways of becoming clear about how syllabic poetry functions, the rhythm and pulse of particular syllabic forms, and how linneation works.

Recently I was reading the online 'Fib Review' (see my blog list), a journal devoted to the Fibonacci form of syllabic poetry, when I realized that many Fibonacci are analogs of two other syllabic forms; the Tetractys and the Five-Four Quatrain. The Fibonacci form is open ended; that means that theoretically a Fibonacci could be any number of lines long. Practically most Fibonacci are six or seven lines long. The six line Fibonacci, which seems to be the most frequently used, has the following syllabic structure: 1-1-2-3-5-8, for a total count of twenty syllables.

That makes three syllabic forms that I know of that have an overall count of twenty syllables:

The Five-Four Quatrain: 5-5-5-5
The Tetractys: 1-2-3-4-10
The Fibonacci: 1-1-2-3-5-8

I think this is a wonderful set of forms to learn from. My suggestion, for those interested in deepening their understanding of syllabic poetry, is to take a traditional subject and then write on the subject in all three forms. By 'traditional subject' I mean something like the seasons, the moon, love, parting, old age, etc. By composing poems on the same subject in the three syllabic forms the nature of syllabic poetry becomes clearer. This set of forms is, I think, particular well suited because the number of lines differs from form to form: the Five-Four Quatrain has four lines, the Tetractys has five lines, and the Fibonacci has six.

Don't worry about writing something great or original. Think of this as an exercise. The purpose of the exercise is to increase one's understanding of syllabic linneation and how syllabic poetry works. Here is an example I wrote using all three forms taking the subject of the moon:

Five-Four Quatrain:

The autmn full moon
Thin clouds in the sky
Slowly cross its face
Slowly drifting by


Tetractys:

Moon
Full moon
Summer moon
A few thin clouds
In the distance the weird cry of the loon

Or:

Moon
Full moon
Summer moon
A few thin clouds
Draped around the moon resembling a shroud


Fibonacci:

Moon
Round
Some clouds
High thin clouds
Drift across the face
A slow moving dance done with grace


The Five-Four Quatrain has a regular pulse and each line has the ability to contain a full semantic structure. The Tetractys and Fibonacci start out with very short lines, lines that are too short for full semantic meaning. For those not used to writing a very short line, I would suggest thinking of a list, like a shopping list. That's an everyday usage of the very short line and provides a good entrace into the opening lines of the Tetractys and Fibonacci. Try to avoid using articles like 'the' or 'a' in the very short lines, particularly the one syllable lines. In a shopping list one wouldn't place an article on a separate line. Also, try to avoid using prepositions for very short lines; again one would not place a preposition alone on a shopping list. The clearest way to write a very short line is to use nouns. A strong second are modifiers like adjectives and adverbs.

Have fun with this exercise. Taken together, these three syllabic analogs can really open up the world of syllabic verse.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cars and Consequences

In the parking lot
Two people argue
Over the last spot --
All traffic has stopped

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

City Lights

In the small village
Children move away
The side of the house
Is fading to gray

Monday, October 4, 2010

Precession

Lunch in October
It's unseasonably warm --
No coats or sweaters

"I haven't seen you in months.
Tell me what you've been doing."

It is a long list:
Laundry, gas, bills, groceries
And etcetera

The July winter full moon
Above the stop and go traffic

At the Pizza Shack
Taking orders from the phone
And the internet

At the end of the long shift
A smile for her new boyfriend

It's reassuring --
Bees and apple blossoms,
Like the year before

Millions at Kumbha Mela --
Over a span of twelve years

Do the stars observe
The galactic precession?
Do they celebrate?

They decide on one more dance
For one more memory

Even late at night
The heat of the day lingers
And melts the ice cubes

She lights candles and incense
And prays silently for peace

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Aware of the Presence

First Day
Gathered worship
Touched by the inner light
Touched by the everpresent Lord
Silence

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Guardians of the Night

Night
Darkness
Sleep and dreams
In the distance
Stars

Friday, October 1, 2010

Why I Like Getting Up Early

In the early morning hours
When the sky's first touched by light,
There's a silence that empowers,
A solitude that gives sight

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Haiku of Susan August

Susan August
A review of her Haiku

Haiku Applecart
ISBN: 9781430323402

Haiku Building
ISBN: 9781435701595

Haiku Chance
ISBN: 9780557046577

Haiku Distance
ISBN: 9780557204243

All books are $12.95
Available from http://www.lulu.com/

Author’s website: http://www.haikuapplecart.blogspot.com/

I take the time to explore new or ignored books of syllabic poetry, including books of Haiku that are focused on a syllabic approach to Haiku. I have been surprised and gratified to discover that there is a lot of fine work being published by syllabic Haiku poets. Poets who take a syllabic approach to Haiku are, for the most part, locked out of official Haiku associations because most of these associations have a strong commitment to a free verse approach to Haiku lineation. Authors who pursue a syllabic approach to Haiku have taken advantage of the new print-on-demand services. Among those that offer these services lulu.com seems to have a large number of syllabic poets.

I discovered Susan August while searching print-on-demand services for Haiku books. Lulu allows me to look at sample pages and in this way I can find syllabic Haiku. I liked the sample pages of August’s books so ordered all four of them.

August arranges her Haiku in chapters and all the Haiku in a chapter are on the same theme. In three of her books the seven chapters are the same: in season, here and there, at the table, creature features, at play, two legged beasts, at work, and whatnots. These chapter headings are used in Haiku Applecart, Haiku Building, and Haiku Chance.

Haiku Distance features a different set: aam, baud, cubit, ell, fresnel, gamma, horsepower (these are all technological terms; a Fresnel equal 10 to the 12th cycles per second, ‘aam’ means ‘air to air missile’, and ‘ell’ means an extension placed at right angles to the original building). Haiku Distance is, I believe, the second volume in the series so I suspect that August found the original grouping of chapters attractive since she returns to them in her third (Haiku Chance) and fourth (Haiku Distance) books.

August groups the Haiku in each chapter in such a way that they form a sequence. At least I read them that way. I found that August seems to take care in the placement of her Haiku so that the flow is easy and the linkage between Haiku is clear. Here’s an example:

30,000 roar
as two baseball dugouts clear
all fists and hormones

so unexpected
this love that shifts the world off
its spinning axis

(Haiku Distance, page 86)

The line ‘all fists and hormones’, followed by ‘so unexpected’ is a very good link and the two Haiku work well together. Here’s another example:

the monarch, the tree
tracing sunlight on the bark
and then it is gone

hovering above
the pale winter hawk patient
for rustlings below

(Haiku Chance, page 46)

Line 3 of the first Haiku moves smoothly, effortlessly, to Line 1 of the second Haiku. There are many examples like this, although it is not always the case, and this kind of linkage makes the reading smooth. I found that I would read a chapter at a time, from start to finish.

The seven topics shared by three of her books are a good way of categorizing Haiku. This topical arrangement appears to be an update of the seven topics that are traditionally used in Japanese poetry to group Haiku together. August has a chapter on the traditional seasons, nature is the focus in the chapter on animals or ‘creatures features’ and humanity is the focus of three chapters; at play, two-legged creatures, and at work. And finally August’s chapter ‘whatnot’ allows for a ‘miscellaneous’ collection.

When August writes Haiku on traditional topics, such as the moon or seasons, she does so in a way that I found new and refreshing:

fidgeting full moon
waits for her turn to jump rope
with the power lines

(Haiku Applecart, page 14)

Here is another lunar Haiku:

the pale winter moon
beneath a veil of thin clouds
watching, opening

(Haiku Change, page 7)

And a final lunar Haiku:

tickling midnight hour
a lake forming in the street
moonlight on raindrops

(Haiku Applecart, page 11)

This last one is very plain, but notice how all three Haiku use personification, which seems to be a major approach to Haiku in August’s work. The moon fidgets or watches, the hour tickles. This is an approach that threads its way through all the books and chapters. I particularly liked the image of the ‘fidgeting’ moon; I haven’t run across quite that image before and it brought out for me a new way of looking at the moon.

August at times uses the pivot line technique to good effect:

leaving her lover
tonight under a full moon
the swing set squeaking

Line 2 is a perfect pivot, and this Haiku is, I think, really excellent in many ways. The interweaving of the traditional topics of love and the moon is done effortlessly.

Sometimes August can be humorous in a droll kind of way:

dozing in their chairs
cats question my sanity
as I keep jogging

(Haiku Building, page 83)

And sometimes the mood is more serious, contemplative:

I will remember
the moment of her kindness
and forget her name

(Haiku Building, page 82)

August’s Haiku are written in a plain style. There is no punctuation, the lines are centered on the page, and no use of initial capitals. There are no titles for individual Haiku. Each page has four Haiku and each chapter begins with a thematically related graphic. This simple design adds to the ease of access and ease of reading.

I haven’t counted the syllables of every single Haiku in all four books, but as far as I can tell they are in 5-7-5. None of them feel wordy or overdone; yet none of them fall into the trap of minimalism. They have a sense of being written in a natural English. In this they remind me of Wright’s Haiku which also read as if Haiku were a native English language form. This isn’t meant to conflate Wright and August as their voices are distinct.

One of the benefits of keeping with a syllabic count is that when the Haiku are arranged in sequences, as they are in these books, a pulse begins to appear. The regularity of the form creates a current, a rhythm, in time. It’s like the current of a river under a canoe that carries the canoe along. When there is a regular syllabic structure that regular structure carries the reader along, like the underlying time signature in a song. This is reinforced in August’s Haiku because her approach to lineation is also steady and regular. By that I mean that run-ons are just about non-existent, each line has both syllabic and grammatical integrity. This adds to the sense of pulse, which at times almost becomes metrical, in the sequences.

Taken together these four books represent a significant addition to contemporary Haiku. They are also noteworthy for demonstrating that the creative energy of syllabic Haiku introduced to us by poets such as Richard Wright and James Hackett continues to flourish. August has a keen eye for detail and a poet’s sense of craft. Her Haiku are beautifully shaped and I suspect I will continue to learn a lot from reading and studying her Haiku.

if you look closely
winter’s hard buds are dreaming
of tender blossoms

Generations

A lullaby sung
By my neighbor to her son --
The falling leaves' song.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Untitled

Now that I am old,
Now that I'm irrelevant --
Autumn afternoon

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Untitled

At the old graveyard
Swirling mist and falling leaves
Tombstones chipped and scarred

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Formal Advantage

A Formal Advantage

One of the ongoing topics of discussion on internet sites devoted to Haiku and Tanka is simply what are they? These kinds of discussions also appear regularly in journals devoted to these two forms as well as blogs focused on these forms. The discussions can become somewhat rancorous as people take different sides and come to different conclusions.

Maybe half a year ago I posted a notice to one of these forums that the European Union President had just published a book of Haiku. I also posted the notice here at Shaping Words because he writes syllabic Haiku and I thought people attracted to Shaping Words might, therefore, be interested. One of the responses to the post I placed at the online forum was to raise the question as to whether or not these Haiku qualified as genuine Haiku. I responded that I thought they did qualify because they followed the traditional formal syllabics of Haiku, contained seasonal references, and that therefore they are Haiku. Whether or not they are good Haiku, now that’s another question, but that they are Haiku seems to me self-evident.

But many Haiku and Tanka poets in the U.S. today do not consider the traditional formal parameters of Haiku, such as the 5-7-5 syllabics, to be significant and ignore them. Heavily influenced by free verse norms, lineation in these approaches to Haiku remains unregulated. Haiku organizations, with the significant exception of Yukki Teikki, are heavily invested in advocating for a free verse approach to Haiku and Tanka lineation in English.

The result of this is that there is no standard whereby one can objectively decide whether or not a poem is, in fact, a Haiku (or Tanka). To comprehend how this has affected English language Haiku compare a Haiku journal to a journal devoted to some other specific form. For example, if you look at the Fib Review all of the poems are recognizably Fibonacci; all one has to know is the syllabics of the Fibonacci and one can easily perceive that what is contained in the Fib Review are examples of that form. The same observation applies to a magazine like Amaze, devoted to the Cinquain, or 14 X 14 which is devoted to the Sonnet. In contrast, when one reads a Haiku Journal there is no focus, no recognizable pattern of lineation. The journals read simply as standard journals of free verse; nothing wrong with that, but then why not simply call it what it is?

Along with the abandonment of a regulated, that is to say counted, line the seasonal reference has also been abandoned by these organizations. What is left?

What is left is a focus on technique. By technique I mean a focus on things like pivot, conciseness, and a heavy emphasis on minimalism as if minimalism were a virtue in itself. The difficulty with this is that technique is not definitive of form. Take a technique like the pivot line or word. This kind of technique can be used in any form of poetry; it is not form specific. Conciseness is also something that can be applied within any formal scheme; even a sonnet can be concise or verbose. Attempting to define a form by technique resembles attempting to define a cup or plate by its glaze. Think of a potter trying to define a cup as that kind of pottery which uses a red glaze, or a blue glaze. That would mean that a plate with a red glaze would be a cup, which, I suspect you will agree, doesn’t make sense. Similarly, defining Haiku or Tanka by certain techniques doesn’t make sense.

One of the reasons, I have discovered, that poets resist a formal definition for a type of poetry, such as using the syllabics of a form, is that poets want to distinguish between what is ‘real poetry’ from ‘mere verse’. There is a long history of attempting to do this. It goes all the way back to Aristotle who argued that Empedocles, who wrote in rhymed hexameters, was not a true poet but was instead a mere versifier. In contrast, Homer was a true poet, even though both Empedocles and Homer used similar poetic craft.

Ever since Aristotle made this distinction poets have been trying to figure out what makes a poet real art in contrast to mere verse which isn’t art, or isn’t high art, or something. I remember having a conversation with a friend, who has a deep love of poetry, about Robert Service, one of the most successful poets of the twentieth century. When I expressed admiration for a few of Service’s efforts, my friend was surprised and responded dismissively that Service was not a ‘real poet’, that Service wrote ‘mere verse’, doggerel, hardly any better than an advertising slogan. I in turn responded that I don’t make that kind of distinction, that to me advertising slogans can be poetry, as are popular song lyrics, country western lyrics, etc.

Behind these kinds of disagreements lie differing visions of the role of the poet. My view is that poetry is a craft; I think of poetry as resembling other crafts like pottery, gardening, baking, and basket making. From a craft point of view a cup is a cup; that is to say a badly made, off center, first effort by a pottery newbie is still a cup if it can hold liquid and serve the purpose of a cup. Similarly, a clich├ęd Haiku, a first effort by a Haiku newbie, is still a Haiku. Over time the potter becomes more familiar with clay, how the wheel works, glazes, etc., and their efforts produce better results. Similarly, over time the Haiku poet learns more about counting, seasonal reference, caesura, etc., and their efforts produce better results.

In contrast, many poets view poetry as ‘high art’, something superior to a craft. This was Aristotle’s view and it has had a huge impact on western poetics down to the present day. ‘High art’ is, in some sense, superior to craft, is in some sense more meaningful. At least that is the view that the ‘high arts’ have of themselves. I don’t share this view. In my view poetry and music, to take two examples, are at the same level as baking and gardening and pottery; they are all crafts.

But to return to Haiku (and Tanka) – the advantage of using a formal definition is that it is less esthetically aggressive, less esthetically imposing. For example, if I am teaching Haiku and I take a formal approach to Haiku, as a teacher I can leave the specifics of esthetic technique more open and free by concentrating on the formal characteristics of Haiku. This allows each person in the class the freedom to explore their own esthetic impulses within the formal parameters of Haiku. It probably sounds paradoxical, but when the formal parameters of Haiku are abandoned the result is a reduced range of individual expression because the focus shifts to specific techniques and/or specific esthetic criteria. This is not to say that we abandon our esthetic preferences. For example, I prefer Haydn to any other music; he’s my favorite. But I also easily recognize the symphonic beauties of many other composers. Similarly, I have a great admiration for Richard Wright’s Haiku, but this admiration does not interfere with my admiration for other Haiku poets.

If one comprehends poetry as craft this isn’t really difficult to understand. If I am teaching pottery, I can teach my students how to make a cup without demanding that they follow my esthetic preferences in glazes. I might take the time to introduce students to my preferences; or maybe not. But the point is that I can teach students how to make a cup without such imposition. Similarly, when Haiku, and Tanka, are formally defined, I do not need to force upon students my personal esthetic criteria and the form remains open for the students to explore.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ledge

Brown leaves and cool air
Switching to the thicker socks
Blankets on the bed

The almost full moon is seen
Crossing the garden of stars

Beside the hawthorn
Whose first blossoms have opened
Near the empty house

"For Sale" -- a sign of the times
As the sub-prime loans come due

"I wonder," he says
"Why it's difficult to save
And easy to spend?"

Warm rain's falling to the earth
Pooling on the yards and streets

Incense slowly burns,
The subtle smell lingering
At the household shrine

Something has come between them
But they cannot see it yet

When does a day end?
The last rays of the sunset
Give way to the night

Glittering in the clear air
Drifts of snow upon the ground

The profound stillness
Of the unmoving branches
Of the conifer

Perched on a high mountain ledge
An eagle surveys her realm

Sunday, September 19, 2010

At the Yearly Meeting

I can feel the grace of God
In this gathering of Friends
It's the presence of the light
No beginning and no end

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Darkscape

Slow
Sunset
Saturday
September dusk
Street traffic's curtailed
Silent moments emerge
Some thoughts that remain unheard
Slide into the luminous dark
Sinking above the ocean of words
Slipping into each other, shadows merge

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fallscape

Days
Of wind
Fall begins
Days grow shorter
Leaves drop and scatter
Chidren go off to school
The pace of life seems quicker;
A carpenter sharpens his tools,
Measuring carefully, taking pains
To finish the roof before there are rains

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What Great Rulers Don't See

You say you will be famous
That people will sing your song --
Never mind weeping women
Or the orphans' countless throng

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In Praise of Beauty

There is much beauty
Everywhere I look
The stars in the sky
The sound of a brook

Fate

The lamp is covered
And so is the couch
The dust on the desk
They used to be rich

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A First Day Contemplation

Weeks
Begin
On First Day
I dwell in grace
I recall the Lord
In silence and stillness
Tracing back the radiance
To the transcendental presence
The source of forgiveness for all sin
A luminous darkness that's found within

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Untitled

There's not much I know,
Very little I'm sure of,
Most people seem sure
Of their views and convictions --
'Being sure' is a kind of hell

Friday, September 10, 2010

After the Saturn Return

I'm sixty years old,
The things that I've relied on
Have all slipped away;
I'ts like I've dropped a backpack
That was full of heavy stones.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cinquain Day

Cinquain Day

Today is American Cinquain Day. The American Cinquain, also known as the Crapsey Cinquain, is the first syllabic verse form for the English language. It was created by Adelaide Crapsey who was born on September 9, 1878. So I decided to designate this day, Adelaide’s birthday, as Cinquain Day.

The Cinquain is a five-line syllabic form with the following syllabic structure: 2-4-6-8-2. It has a total of 22 syllables. Ever since it first appeared, early in the 20th century, it has attracted poets and today there is a thriving, dedicated, community of Cinquain poets who continue to write in this efficacious form.

The Cinquain is, as far as I know, the first syllabic form to use what I refer to as a “very short line”. (I have posted here about this previously, you can find it under the topic “Syllabics”.) The great challenge of the Cinquain is in the opening and closing lines of two syllables each. I have found particularly the closing line carries a lot of weight in this particular form.

The idea of having a very short line of just two syllables was a startlingly original offering. Though some have suggested that Crapsey’s Cinquain has some roots in her awareness of Japanese Haiku and Tanka, I tend to doubt this influence was central because the syllable count for these forms does not consist of very short lines. The Japanese forms may have shown her examples of syllabic forms with long and brilliant histories, but in terms of the specific contours of the Cinquain there does not seem to be much of a match.

My own feeling is that the Cinquain is more rooted in her systematic study of English prosody. She was working on a long essay, “A Study in English Metrics” when she died at a very young age. She didn’t finish the essay, but it has, nevertheless, been published. In this essay Crapsey classifies word usage in terms of percentage of words used that are one or two syllables, and those that have more than two syllables. For example, she analyzes Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. In Part 1 there are 5,960 words; 91.67 percent are one or two syllable words and 8.33 percent are more than two syllables, polysyllabic. She engaged in this kind of analysis for the entire Paradise Lost, for the poetry of Pope, Tennyson, Swinburne, and others. What I think Crapsey was uncovering is how English, compared to more inflected languages, contains a high percentage of short count words; words of just one or two syllables. In addition, she was uncovering how poets writing in English tend to write in such a way that they prefer these short count words over other words of longer syllable count. When I read “A Study in English Metrics” I pictured Crapsey hovering over these poetic texts. First she had to count the number of total words, then she had to go back over and count the one syllable, two syllable, and polysyllabic words. This took a lot of effort, a great deal of concentration, and time. It must have been important to her.

I think the idea of an opening and closing two syllable line for the Cinquain came out of this concentrated focus on English Metrics. Crapsey, through this analysis, had absorbed an understanding of this basic, two-syllable unit of English poetry. Because of this, and against all precedent, she was able to see the poetic potential of the very short line.

After Crapsey’s initial innovation, a number of other syllabic forms that use very short lines have followed: the Fibonacci, the Rictameter, the Lanterne, the Etheree, all of these, and others, stepped into the space that Crapsey created with her Cinquain; by that I mean that the Cinquain demonstrated how the very short line works and that it has a place in English poetry. Think of the Cinquain as the grandmother of English syllabic verse.

In closing, here are a few of Crapsey’s Cinquain:


Listen . . .
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall


Amaze

I know
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
Like these.


Niagara Seen on a Night in November

How frail
Above the bulk
Of crashing water hangs,
Autumnal, evanescent, wan,
The moon

So take some time today to read some Cinquain, or write some Cinquain, or just offer some thanks to Adelaide for creating this gift of a new form of verse.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Why I Dream of a Hermitage

Streets
Traffic
Stop and go
The ebb and flow
During the lunch hour
Crawls along, it's real slow,
People tend to become sour,
Tempers flare in spite of the pow'r
Of the cars they are driving and so
I'll retreat from the world's bustle and show

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Signs of Love

Two
People
Hand in hand
Smiling a lot
It's love in their eyes, it's love that they've got

Syllabic Ambiguities

Syllabic Ambiguities

Consider the following words: fire, choir, steel, and steal. How many syllables do they have?

The syllabic poet counts syllables. In most cases in the English language this is easy to do. For example, the previous sentence does not contain any ambiguities and is easy to count.

But there are some words, words that usually contain what are called “dipthongs” or more colloquially, “glides”, that can, under different circumstances be counted as either one or two syllables.

Sometimes it is a matter of the local dialect. In some English dialects the word “fire” sounds almost like “far”; in fact I think in those dialects a poet might rhyme “fire” with “tar” or “car”. In other English dialects “fire” has two distinct syllables “fy-er”.

Another aspect that effects how we count these syllabic ambiguities is how they are spelled. Consider the following pairs of words:

Higher and hire
Liar and fire
Steel and steal

The first two, “higher” and “hire” are, in most English dialects, the same sound. But I think the tendency would be to count “higher” as two syllables and to count “hire” as one syllable, based on how they are spelled. The same applies to the two words “liar” and “fire”; the tendency, I think, would be to count “liar” as two syllables and “fire” as one because of their spelling, even though they rhyme perfectly. “Steel” and “steal” are homonyms, but they are spelled differently and this difference might result in a different syllable count. Again, this can depend on the English dialect. In some dialects “steel” sounds like two distinct syllables (stee-uhl), while in others it sounds like one.

To show how this might impinge on syllabic composition consider the following sentence:

There was a fire in the steel mill.

If “fire” and “steel” are each one syllable then it is an eight syllable line. If “fire” and “steel” are counted as two syllables each then the line is a ten syllable line. And, of course, there are two options for a nine-syllable line. How does one go about counting these inbetween words?

There are several approaches the syllabic poet can take. One is to see how the line works with other lines in the poem. For example, if “There was a fire in the steel mill” was a line from a standard sonnet, then I think I would read it as a ten syllable line, giving “fire” and “steel” two counts each. For example:

Grandfather rushed into the room and said,
“There was a fire in the steel mill,
They told that me your best friend Steve is dead” -
I couldn’t move, I was perfectly still.

Here is a possible opening quatrain for a sonnet, ten syllables per line. In this case I would give a full ten count to line 2 in order to maintain the syllabic contours. Here’s another example:

Grandfather came into the room,
“There was a fire in the steel mill,”
Smoke filled the sky creating gloom,
For a few moments all was still.

Here we have a series of eight syllable lines, so my tendency would be to count line 2 as an eight syllable line, in accordance with the overall design of the poem. In a syllabic form such as an Etheree, my tendency would be to count a line such as line 2 in accordance with its placement in the syllabic structure of the poem. An eight syllable line would be line 8 in an Etheree, while a ten syllable line would be the tenth and last line of the poem. In a Cinquain the line we are using as an example could be the fourth line, which is eight syllables, and if it appeared in a Cinquain that is how I would count it. On the other hand, if this line appeared as the last line of a Tetractys, which is a ten syllable line, then I would count it as ten.

Another approach to determining the count for these ambiguous syllables is to sing or chant the line in question. Use a very simple melody or chant, one that gives each syllable a single beat. Observe when you chant the poem if the word is pronounced in one or two beats; that’s your answer as to how the syllable should be counted in that particular poem, particularly if you are the one creating the poem because that is how you are hearing it.

I have listened to popular music and paid special attention to these ambiguities. It is interesting to observe how a word like “fire” (a word which seems to come up often in popular song) will sometimes occupy a single beat and sometimes two distinct beats. Similarly, in syllabic poetry these kinds of words can be used for either one or two counts, depending on the context. From this perspective becoming aware of how these words exist in a kind of inbetween world, a world where they can be counted as either one or two, offers the syllabic poet a flexible tool, one that the syllabic poet can use in shaping lines to the specific counts of syllabic forms.

Where Do Dreams Go?

Dreams
At night
Seem so real
Under the light
Of the rising sun
The dream which had begun
Concludes its dance, is now done,
Like a plan which has had its run,
Like a memory lost in times' mist,
Like opportunities that have been missed.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Untitled

Country western tunes --
As autumn leaves form a wake
After the divorce

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Syllabic Haiku Day

Syllabic Haiku Day

Today is September 4th and I hereby declare September 4th Syllabic Haiku Day. I have set aside this day to celebrate all those Haiku poets who have written and continue to write, English language Haiku using a syllabic approach; that is to say all those who compose their Haiku in the 5-7-5 format.

I have chosen September 4th because September 4th is the birthday of Richard Wright. Wright is, in my humble opinion, the finest composer of syllabic Haiku in English and, I would suggest, wrote the finest collection of Haiku yet to appear in English. So it seems appropriate to pick this day to celebrate Syllabic Haiku.

Syllabic Haiku continues to be written and published in English and taking a day to celebrate Syllabic Haiku is, I think, a good way to encourage the continued composition of syllabic Haiku. From James Hackett and Richard Wright to new Haiku poets such as Susan August, Johnny D, and numerous others, Syllabic Haiku is flourishing.

I also want to give a nod of appreciation to all those teachers, particularly grade school teachers, who have introduced countless youngsters to Haiku in their classes. Often Haiku is included in grade school curriculums that introduce poetry and the standard approach in grade school is to introduce Haiku as a “three line poem about nature written in 5-7-5 syllables.” This is a great summary, a good working definition, one that can serve well Haiku poets throughout their lives. So I hereby extend a heartfelt thanks to all those teachers who have taken the time in their busy schedules to offer their students the basics of this little jewel of poetry.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tetractys Prosody

Tetractys Prosody

The syllabic form known as ‘Tetractys’ was created by British poet Ray Stebbing in the late 20th century; sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s is my understanding. Every since I encountered the Tetractys online I have found it an unusual, distinctive, and attractive form. I was attracted to it for two reasons. First, the syllabic structure is unique and unusual in that the last line of the form contains as many syllables as the rest of the lines combined. This makes the last line unusually long in comparison to the previous lines.

This becomes clearer if one knows the syllabics. The Tetractys has five lines with the syllables distributed as follows: 1-2-3-4-10. The first four lines add up to ten syllables, while the last line, the fifth, has ten syllables all by itself. I was attracted by this unusual balance. In syllabic forms I have seen before the Tetractys, the ebb and flow of the syllable count is usually one or two syllables. The classic Tanka is typical with its five lines as follows: 5-7-5-7-7. Note the two syllable variation between some of the lines. This is typical of most syllabic forms I have observed.

The dramatic change in the number of syllables does have a precedent: the American Cinquain created by Adelaide Crapsey. In the Cinquain the five lines have the following syllable count: 2-4-6-8-2. The difference between lines 4 and 5 is six syllables. That is the same difference found between lines 4 and 5 in the Tetractys, but in the Tetractys line 5 increases by six syllables over line 4, while in the Cinquain line 5 decreases by six syllables. The Cinquain reduces its count in the last line, while the Tetractys increases its count in the last line, but both the Cinquain and the Tetractys do so by the same amount; six syllables.

This sudden opening up of the line to a full count of ten in the Tetractys appealed to me. I liked the examples of the Tetractys form I read and found the form a challenge.

The second reason I was attracted to the Tetractys is that the Tetractys is an analog for the Five-Four Quatrain with which I have been working for some time. Both the Tetractys and the Five-Four Quatrain contain an overall syllable count of twenty syllables, but the distribution of those syllables differs. In the Five-Four Quatrain there are four lines with five syllables per line; for a total of twenty syllables: 5-5-5-5. In the Tetractys there are five lines with an irregular distribution of syllables as noted before: 1-2-3-4-10.

I have found that using formal analogs (which in the context of syllabic poetry means two or more forms that share the same overall syllable count, but differ as to how that count is distributed) is one of the best ways of gaining clarity as to how a particular form works, its rhythm and pulse. Working with Tetractys helped me to access the Five-Four Quatrain and comprehend its specific character.

I was assisted in exploring the Tetractys by the fact that Ray Stebbing, its creator, wrote about the prosody of the Tetractys. Stebbing was a conscious creator and made efforts to communicate to other poets what he had in mind when he created the Tetractys. Here are some excerpts from his writings on the form:

A short form of verse the Tetractys
You pronounce it to rhyme with malpractice

Searching one day in the Oxford English Dictionary, I came across an unfamiliar word – ‘tetractys’. It seems that Euclid, the mathematician of classical times, considered the number series 1, 2, 3, 4, to have mystical significance because its sum is 10, so he dignified it with a name of its own – Tetractys. This gave me the idea for a new form of syllabic verse consisting of five lines, the first of which contains a single syllable, the second two, the third three, the fourth four and the last ten syllables. What better name could I give it than ‘Tetractys’? . . .

The Perfect Tetractys

The perfect Tetractys would satisfy all the following criteria:
1. the correct syllable count,
2. meaningful words (e.g. not the, a, an) in the single-syllable line,
3. line breaks that make sense, i.e. conform to normal syntax, not separating words that quite obviously form a unit of meaning.

(If 2 and 3 did not apply, writing a Tetractys would merely involve taking a twenty-syllable line and chopping it arbitrarily into the requisite lengths – it doesn’t take a poet to do that!)

In addition to these the normal criteria for good poetry apply:

4. effective use of imagery,
5. effective choice of words,
6. appeal to the ear, certainly by rhythm, possibly by use of other sound effects (rhyme, alliteration, etc.),
7. and lastly, and most importantly, appeal to the intellect and the emotions; moving the reader to laughter, tears, deep thought, anger . . .

In writing a Tetractys it is essential to satisfy at least the first and last of the criteria. To satisfy most of the rest is highly desirable. Manage to satisfy all seven – Well, we all aim for perfection, but usually have to settle for mere excellence.

End of quote

Stebbing discusses in his writing on the form reverse Tetractys (10-4-3-2-1) and two forms of double Tetractys (1-2-3-4-10-10-4-3-2-1 and 10-4-3-2-1-1-2-3-4-10). In addition there can be linked Tetractys with a series that is connected either in the original form or the reverse form. This kind of manipulation of the forms is routinely found among practitioners of specific syllabic forms. For example, the original Cinquain is 2-4-6-8-2; the reverse Cinquain is 2-8-6-4-2, and there are double Cinquain as in 2-4-6-8-2-2-8-6-4-2 and this can be reversed as well. Linked chains of Cinquain either by a single Cinquain poet or by a group, mimicking in some respects Renga, are also found.

But the original five line form of the Tetractys, 1-2-3-4-10, is the one I find most satisfying.

I have found the Tetractys to be a wonderful form. When done well it has its own unique rhythm and pulse which is attractive. Give the Tetractys a try. It is a wonderful addition to the world of English Syllabic Verse.

Sleepless

3
A.M.
Crickets' song
Minutes last long
Dark

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Sogi

Sogi

Today is the anniversary of the Japanese poet Sogi’s death. Sogi was born in the year 1421 and he died September 1, 1502.

Of all Japanese poets Sogi is the one who has influenced me the most. I reread his work in translation regularly and I find both his life and his poetry a personal inspiration.

Sogi lived at a time when poetic tastes in Japan were changing along with political alignments. This is reflected in Sogi’s mastery of two poetic forms; Tanka and Renga. But it is as a Renga poet that Sogi is most remembered. Steven Carter writes, “ . . . [W]e may summarize by saying this his life followed a pattern just as surely as did his many renga compositions. Leaving behind him a score of critical writings as well as several volumes of verse, he spent his professional life in travel between and among the estates of the mighty, where he earned his living as a poet, critic, literary judge, and scholar. He was, in other words, the quintessential Master of Linked Verse.” (The Road to Komatsubara, page 110) As a leader of collaborative Renga, Sogi is remembered for two Renga that are still widely read and studied: “Three Poets at Minase” and “Three Poets at Yuyama”; both of these have been translated into English.

Personally, there is one Renga that Sogi wrote that revealed to me the beauty and scope of Renga and continues to inspire me. It is a solo Renga, or Dokugin, called “Sogi Alone” which Sogi wrote towards the end of his life. It is translated in Earl Miner’s “Japanese Linked Poetry”. “Sogi Alone” is a 100 Verse, or Hyakuin, Renga which was the standard length for a Renga at that time. To give you an idea of how thoroughly Sogi had internalized the rules for Renga, Sogi could compose a 100 Verse Renga in a day or two, evidently upon command, for an event or a special occasion. But “Sogi Alone” took four months of careful work and concentration. Here are some of the opening verses:

Now that they end
There is no flower that can compare
With cherry blossoms

The garden softly stirs with shadows
As a spring breeze brings the dusk

Beyond the eaves
Faintly cast in haze the peak
Brightens with the moon

The contemplative Spring imagery, the mood of calm introspection exhibited here pervades the entire 100 Verses. Here are the closing verses:

The beadlets from the sudden shower
Rest a moment on the leaves and fall

The wind-shattered clouds
Are part of that unfinished dream
From which I awake

To see the shadow of my old age
Cast by the light of a dying lamp.

I consider “Sogi Alone” to be the great masterpiece of Renga. With a deep sense of gratitude I take this moment to remember Sogi:

Who would have thought
That there’s a bridge to the past
Made from falling leaves --
On this autumn afternoon
I am alone with Sogi

Beyond

On the other, shaded side
Of the mountain range of time
Stretches forth a mystery
One can't grasp it with the mind

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dating Dance

"Is you is or is you ain't", that's what I really want to know.
Just as I thought you were loyal you found somewhere else to go,
Should you decide to keep this up, I'll find other rows to hoe.

Why People Write Diaries

Pen
Paper
Diary
Thoughts for the day,
What some people say,
Happenings on life's way,
Contemplations to convey,
To recall so that one can weigh
The course of one's life, how it displays
A shape and a flow that one can survey

Monday, August 30, 2010

Untitled

Broken promises
Are what I remember --
The end of summer

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Gate of Night

Dark
Shadows
At sunset
Growing longer
As night approaches
Memories grow stronger
Slowly the past encroaches
While shadows merge with each other
Past, present, future become porous
A prelude to sleep where our dreams flourish

Friday, August 27, 2010

Procrastination

Warm
Summer
Afternoons
Under the sun
In the oak tree's shade
In the month of August
The plans for the day I've made
No longer appear so robust,
Perhaps I shall allow them to fade --
A sudden dry wind is stirring the dust

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Single Blossom

Santa Cruz Harbor,
The sound of the barking seals
In the morning fog

Summer heat pushes people
To the California coast

Watching the sunset,
Newlyweds are holding hands
On the balcony

A power outage has occurred,
But nobody seems to mind

The moon is rising
Over the distant mountains
In the cool fall air

She adjusts the thermostat
To a much lower setting

"We should concentrate.
We are blowing our budget.
Where is it going?"

He puts the folders away
And gazes out the window

Relentless winds blow,
Whistling through the power lines
Past the frozen pond

A diner prepares coffee
In the early morning light

The hawthorn blossoms,
White, with a tinge of yellow,
Bright against the leaves

She plucks a single blossom
And places it in her hair

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Quarrels End

Quarrels End

August afternoon
Unintelligible chanting
From the temple

It was hot yesterday
But not so hot today

Sun on the sidewalk
Shading his eyes with his hand
On his way to work

The coffee shop costs too much
And gas prices have risen

Two lovers talking
On their cell phones in the night
Watching the moon rise

In the late September sky
A few clouds in the north-east

A shipment of clothes
Made in some foreign country
Arrives at the store

Just in time for the first snow
A feral cat finds a home

Surrounding the park
New developments emerge
In mountain shadows

Power lines sway in the wind
Together with the branches

Apple tree petals
Spread across the yard and street
Quickly disappear

I can't even remember
The reason why we quarreled

Monday, August 23, 2010

While Walking

The boy
By the river
Playing with the wet sand,
May the Lord gently guide his way,
I pray

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tea Etheree 22

Fifth
Oolong
Infusion
Not weak, not strong --
Multiple brewings,
If not brewed for too long,
Can last for the entire day.
Each brewing becomes more subtle,
Each pot diminishes our troubles
As all the cares of the world float away.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Priorities

Throat tight, constricted,
"I am finished arguing."
He slams the book shut.
"Dialectics of the mind?
Better to learn to be kind."

Friday, August 20, 2010

For Chuang Tzu

Stream
River
A small boat
Meandering
Parting morning mist
An otter surfaces
A heron stands on the shore
The sound of the dip of an oar
No schedules, no calendars, no war --
At home in the cosmos, who could need more?

One Year Later

You
Remain
On my mind
And in my heart
As the day begins
As another day starts
I can hear your voice again.
It's as if we are holding hands,
It's as if we're talking, making plans --
Or is that only the sound of the wind?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What I Saw This Morning

Morning
In August
As the sun rises
Clouds in the west changed colors
A silent display unobserved by others

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Riverscape in August

Redwood trees amidst the fog on the flowing Russian River
The sun breaks through at two hours past noon to finally deliver
Rays of warmth that touch the earth, dispelling the morning shiver

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Choices

I have many memories of choices unwisely taken --
If only I knew some magic to turn back relentless time,
I would keep the sun from rising and hold the moon in the sky.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Twilight Sunrise -- A Review

Twilight Sunrise: A Collection of One Hundred Tankas
By Christiana Rodgers
ISBN: 9781844261871
$12.95

“Twilight Sunrise” is a collection of 100 Syllabic Tanka by American born, but British resident, poet Christiana Rodgers. One of the first things which struck me about the collection is the idiomatic nature of the English (note her use of the plural ‘Tankas’ in the subtitle). Rodgers’ English is the English used in everyday speech, found on the net, heard in commercials and songs. It is clipped and pointed. In some ways her work reminds me of Charles Bukowski in that it has the same kind of swift and to-the-point observational quality. Often her Tanka take note of gritty aspects of life:

Sarcasm is a
Refuge for one whose daily
Pint has been stolen
Along with his livelihood.
He is priceless and starving.

Other Tanka have a more traditional structure and theme:

Red leaf and brown stem,
November’s sign of winter,
Why are you so late?
Southern weather is as cool
As the souls who live in it.

Here we have a Tanka that uses juxtaposition. It moves from an observation of nature in lines 1 and 2, to a personal and emotional expression in line 3, and then concludes with a sociological remark in lines 4 and 5. The scope of this Tanka is remarkable and the amount of material Rodgers is able to include in this Tanka surprises me. Rodgers does this with no apparent strain and at first I didn’t even realize the scope. I think this is really fine work.

Rodgers has a gift for ambiguity which is expressed in the title of the collection, ‘Twilight Sunrise’. For example:

Stranger, I meet you
Lost in my own little world:
Familiarity.
How can you chat with me now
When I will lose you later?

The ambiguity in this Tanka draws the reader in. The stranger contrasted with the familiar, yet the only actual contact in the poem is with that same stranger who is not familiar. It is an excellent expression of how the familiar can create a barrier to encountering what is right in front of us.

Most of the Tanka in this collection are thoughtful and they tend to stimulate introspection in the reader:

Two hearts together
Are a child’s challenge to live
Past a parent’s death.
One heartbeat’s arrhythmia
Is a parent surviving.

I am a stranger.
I live outside me, counting
Days until night falls.
Sleep becomes solace often
When we are awake alone.

This is another example of juxtaposition, which seems to be an approach that Rodgers likes. Regarding technique, generally speaking lineation is consistent with grammatical meaning, though run-ons are fairly common they are not disruptive and are used for emphasis and meaning when they appear. I don’t think Rodgers uses the pivot or other techniques that are derived from the Tanka tradition and which some English Tanka poets take special delight in. If there is a favorite deliberate technique it is, as already mentioned, juxtaposition.

This is a collection I have read several times since I purchased it a few years ago. I think I return to it because some of the Tanka have the mysterious quality of suggesting more, of echoing in my mind and leading me on to considerations I had not previously engaged. All of this is done in a natural English that is also focused on the traditional syllabic structure which makes this a valuable contribution to English syllabic verse and English language Tanka. In closing, here is one of my favorites:

Peace is unquiet;
War a hedonist’s excuse
For self-absorption.
God is really on our side
When we commute with strangers.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Source

Think
Ponder
Contemplate
The seasons' flow
The days of our lives
Everything comes and goes
But there's one thing that remains,
It's like the dawn's daily refrain,
Completely at ease, free of all strain,
A gift from the source, a nourishing rain