Sunday, February 28, 2010

Why I'm Not A Minimalist

There is a certain esthetic dominating the Haiku and Tanka communities in the U.S. and also, I understand, Britain; perhaps the English speaking world in general. This esthetic view is called “minimalism”. It’s operative slogan is “less is more”. Writing concisely, with a taut or tight presentation, is encouraged and thought of as an ideal.

It’s not the way I write in general and it’s not the way I write Tanka or Haiku in particular. I have no objection if people want to adopt the minimalist esthetic; some excellent poetry has been penned under minimalist guidance. However, minimalists often criticize non-minimalists so I thought I would take a few moments to offer a different perspective, an apology for a non-minimalist perspective on Haiku and Tanka.

First, though, for the reader who may not know exactly what I’m referring to, I’d like to offer an example of a Haiku done in both a minimalist and a non-minimalist manner. I’m going to use a well-known Haiku by James Hackett, a British Haiku poet, to show the differences in the two approaches. First Hackett’s Haiku:

A bitter morning:
sparrows sitting together
without any necks.

This is a full count, non-minimalist, Haiku. It has a seasonal reference. In short, it is a traditional Haiku both in terms of syllabics and in terms of topic. Here is a minimalist re-write:

Cold morning
Sparrows together
No necks

Or perhaps:

No necks

The minimalist would look at the Hackett Haiku and immediately see it as too wordy. I think Line 3 in particular offends minimalist esthetics because of the redundancy of “without any”. There is no need, from a minimalist perspective, for the word “any”, “without necks” would do in expressing the meaning. Even shorter, and therefore better from the minimalist view, would be “no necks”. In Line 1 the article “A” isn’t necessary; minimalists tend to eliminate articles, regarding them as extraneous and “padding”. The word “bitter” is too subjective; how do we know what the sparrows are feeling? So the minimalist would remove it, opting for the more objective “cold”. In Line 2 “sitting together” has an element of redundancy; “together” is sufficient to depict the scene. And perhaps some minimalists would consider the word “sparrows” alone sufficient. Hacking away at Hackett’s Haiku, the minimalist would remove what they consider to be unnecessary elements in the way I have suggested.

Dear Reader, which do you like? I confess that I prefer the original Hackett Haiku. Using this Haiku as a reference, what follows are random comments on the minimalist perspective and why I prefer a different approach. The comments are in no particular order.

1. Personally, I never approach a poem with the idea in mind of “using as few words as possible” (a phrase I have repeatedly read in minimalist contexts). As a syllabic poet, my approach is to allow my mind to expand to the contours of the particular form I am writing in. This approach resembles a potter deciding to make a cup; once that decision is made the potter proceeds in a way that conforms with that decision. Having decided to make a cup, the potter won’t produce something flat, like a tile. There is a form to a cup; it has to be a shape that can hold liquid. There is a form to a plate; it needs to be flat enough to place food on it. Similarly, there is a shape to a Haiku and a shape to a Tanka and once I decide that I am writing a Tanka, and not a Sonnet or Tetractys or Free Verse, the shape of the Tanka determines many decisions that follow in the writing.

2. For the syllabic poet the form of a type of poetry has meaning. This is something that the free verse approach to Haiku and Tanka miss. There is a rhythm and pulse involved in the traditional shape, the traditional syllabic count, of Haiku and Tanka that transcends any particular manifestation of those forms. That is why the syllabic approach to Haiku and Tanka appeals to many, because the form itself is seen to have beauty and meaning.

3. One of the reasons I am not a minimalist is that I have a visceral dislike for the kind of English it generates. I sometimes refer to this type of English as “Haiku Hybrid English”. It is an approach to English which lacks flow and a sense of pulse or rhythm.

4. The elimination of redundancy is a logical consequence of a minimalist approach. In the quoted Haiku by Hackett I mentioned that Line 3 in particular violates minimalist canons because of the redundancy of “without any”. But redundancy and repetition are features of any language. Repetition of meaning assists in communication. The reason repetition and redundancy appear in our ordinary speech is that it ensures that the meaning we are trying to get across has a better chance of being received by the listener or reader. This is true not only of language, but also of music; both in instrumental music and in song. Themes in instrumental music are repeated, deliberately, so that the listener can be more secure about the center around which variations are played out. In song, a melody is repeated while the lyrics may change. In most songs there is a chorus which is repeated at regular placements.

Repetition in poetry is usually not as exact as one finds in music; but there are exceptions. Take Robert Frost’s famous “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” with its famous repeated last line, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.” The repetition of the “miles” line is perfect and deepens the impact of the poem. Readers find the repetition fitting and meaningful.

In other words, an approach to poetry which eliminates redundancy and repetition runs the risk of being obscure.

5. From a syllabic perspective the minimalist approach is unbalanced. The syllabic poet uses two primary techniques when writing in a specific form such as Tanka and Haiku. Those two techniques are trimming and padding. Trimming is used to shorten a line when it goes beyond the parameters of the form. Padding is used to lengthen a line which isn’t long enough for the parameters of the form. It takes practice in using padding and trimming to know when to use them, to what extent, and to use them effectively. It resembles a potter knowing when to remove clay from some clay spinning on the wheel, and when to add some clay in order to attain just the right shape.

The minimalist, however, only uses trimming. In fact, minimalists often criticize a Haiku or Tanka by saying that it is “padded” or “wordy”. But there are good reasons to pad a Haiku or Tanka such as: rhythm, meter, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, or to create a parallelism, etc. True, one shouldn’t add words just to add words; and there instances where a short count Haiku or Tanka is the right choice. On the other hand, one shouldn’t trim just to trim, just to reduce the syllable count to the minimal number possible; there are instances where a long count Haiku (say 19 to 21 syllables) or Tanka (say 35 to 38 syllables) is the right choice. Again, what is needed is a balanced approach.

In closing I would say the reason I’m not a minimalist is because I see too many Haiku and Tanka that seem to me to be of great beauty that do not fit in with the minimalist esthetic, because I do not think that Japanese Haiku and Tanka poets ever operated on a minimalist basis, and because I am willing to pad a line of a Haiku or Tanka if I think it will make the poem more meaningful and more accessible to the reader. Again, I have no quarrel with those wishing to pursue a minimalist approach; I wish them well. As for me, though, it’s not an approach that nourishes my creativity and so I have opted for another way.


It begins
In the silence
In the heart that is free from violence

Saturday, February 27, 2010


What a wonderful idea!
If only I could.
After all these years I find
Small things still disturb my mind.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Presence of Eternity

I sat down one day
By the banks of the river,
I had meant to stay
Just an hour, maybe a day,
Now eons have passed away.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dialogue 1 with Richard Wright

Naked to the sky
A village without a name
In the setting sun (RW)

Preparing for confession
He recalls his many sins

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Every writer goes through periods of dryness when the creative energy just isn’t flowing. Sometimes this is called “writer’s block”. For most writers it is an unpleasant feeling. You sit down at the desk, or you take out your notebook, or you turn on the computer, and nothing happens. During this kind of period if you force yourself to write something, anything, you return to it the next day and all its glaring faults are embarrassingly apparent. Into the trash it goes.

Writers have developed various ways of getting through this period. What I use is a way of dialoging with other poets. The way I do it is to take a Haiku by some other poet. I then write a response to the poet in two lines of seven syllables each. In other words I turn the Haiku into a kind of Tanka. There is a name for this in Japanese; it is called “Tan Renga”, the shortest form of Renga consisting of only two verses.

Psychologically, I envision that the other poet has sent me their opening verse and is now waiting impatiently for my response. This creates a sense of obligation and it becomes my duty to respond as soon as possible; like now, not tomorrow.

This approach does several things for me. First, I let another poet set the stage or start the process of writing the poem. This takes the burden off of me, which allows me to relax and feel comfortable with the fact that I’m not, at the moment, coming up with anything original, interesting, or worthwhile. Second, because another poet has set the stage, I am deliberately placing myself in a context where I am entering into how someone else approaches poetry. This often gets me out of my poetic dead-end. The third benefit of engaging with Haiku poets in this way is that I learn a lot about how the other poet works, the rhythms, interests, techniques; in general how the Haiku poet sees the world. I find dialoging with another poet more illuminating than just reading the poet’s work.

I found that I really enjoy these dialogues. The two Haiku poets I have found most agreeable to this process are Richard Wright and Buson. Both of these Haiku poets write in a way that seems very accepting of completion; that is to say their images are open to additions. I haven’t found that to be the case with all Haiku poets. Some Haiku poets, Basho is a good example, feel strongly framed to me and are often resistant to this kind of interaction. This may say more about my own taste and what I respond to than about the Haiku poet in any objective sense. If someone reading this post feels inspired to use Basho to dialogue with, go for it.

I’ve decided to post some of these dialogues now and then, as I think others might benefit from this process and, truth to tell, I think the results are sometimes of poetic interest as such. I hope you will enjoy these experiments in dialogue as much as I have.


From dusk to dawn
The monotonous spring rain --
Memories of you

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lanterne Prosody

Lanterne Prosody

The Lanterne is the shortest of all syllabic forms that I know of. It is a five-line form with the syllabic count distributed as follows: 1-2-3-4-1. There are no other restrictions on the form; rhyme is optional, any subject matter is acceptable, the Lanterne may be with or without a title.

It is called “Lanterne” because if the lines are centered it then has the appearance of a Japanese Lanterne. This is also true of the Cinquain and the Rictameter; it is true of any syllabic form that gradually increases and then decreases its line length. For some reason, though, the metaphor of the Japanese Lanterne has stuck with this particular form.

Because syllabic poetry is fairly new to the English speaking world, many of the syllabic forms have a history which is traceable to a single person’s creative insight. A good example is the creation of the Cinquain by Adelaide Crapsey in the early twentieth century. The Cinquain has a devoted following and there is a lot of excellent poetry in this form being written today. A more recent example is the Tetractys, which was created by the British poet, Ray Stebbings in the late 1980’s. The Tetractys is one of my personal favorites. The Etheree and Rictameter also were created by specific individuals at known times and places.

However, the Lanterne, as best I have been able to determine, has no specific creator, even though it is very recent (variant spellings include; Lantern, Lanturn, Lanturne). I have done several online searches, but none of these has yielded any specific information. Though I have communicated with a number of poets who write in this form, no one has been able to direct me to its origin, who first published it, or to any essay on its prosody formulated by its originator. Poets who I have discussed this with suspect that the Lanterne as an identifiable form first appeared in either the late 80’s or early 90’s. According to some the Lanterne appeared in several different venues nearly simultaneously.

I find this intriguing and suspect that a form which arises spontaneously in this way is answering a felt need in the poetic community. Tentatively, I would suggest two background sources for the emergence of the Lanterne; the Cinquain and the Free Verse Haiku communities.

The relationship of the Lanterne to the Cinquain is that the Lanterne is half a Cinquain. Compare the syllabic structure:

Cinquain: 2-4-6-8-2
Lanterne: 1-2-3-4-1

The Cinquain has a total of 22 syllables, the Lanterne a total of 11 syllables. I can see how some Cinquain poets could easily come up with this half-Cinquain as a variation on the Cinquain form. Cinquain poets often toy with variations to the standard form; usually this involves types of linking or inverting the original syllabic structure (e.g. changing it to 2-8-6-4-2). In playing with the Cinquain and its possible variations halving the line length might have been something that more than one person thought of. This would appeal particularly to Cinquain poets who have adopted a minimalist esthetic.

Which brings me to the second possible source for the Lanterne; the Free Verse Haiku poets. By Free Verse Haiku I mean Haiku in which syllabic count is not used as a factor to generate the Haiku. English language Haiku poets who have adopted a free verse approach to Haiku have simultaneously adopted a minimalist esthetic. Reading their journals, or interacting with such poets online, the idea is to use as few words as possible, even to the point of distorting normal English syntax; for example, articles are usually not used, conjunctions ignored, and prepositions bypassed if possible. It is also recommended by those writing in the free verse Haiku tradition that roughly twelve syllables be the normal count for an English language Haiku because, from their perspective, the full count Haiku is too wordy. In practice many who write using this approach use far less than the recommended twelve syllables; I have seen a great many Haiku in this style of eight, nine, and ten syllables. This closely maps onto the syllable count of the Lanterne and the highly restricted count of the Lanterne is something that free verse Haiku poets would feel right at home in.

My sense is that some free verse Haiku poets may have missed having a syllabic structure, some kind of specific, formal, structure into which they could shape their poems. A specific formal structure is attractive to many people. Critics of free verse Haiku have often noted that it seems unfocused and lacking in any standards. By adopting the Lanterne form free verse Haiku poets can maintain the short count they like while at the same time adding a formal focus to their poetic craft.

I think it is relevant to point out that online poetry groups that have a strong Haiku focus often also include a section devoted to Cinquain. So there would be opportunity for these two communities to interact.

One reason that I suspect the influence of free verse Haiku poets on the emergence of the Lanterne is the name of the form. It isn’t called a “Mini-Cinquain” or the “Half-Cinquain”; it is called the Lanterne and what one reads is that this is a reference to the shape of the Japanese Lanterne. It is not said that it resembles a Chinese Lanterne. This specific reference to Japan, I suspect, indicates some input from the free verse Haiku community early in the Lanterne’s history. I also suspect, though I haven’t been able to trace this, a British origin for the form because of the most common spelling, “Lanterne”. If it had started in the U.S. it would probably be spelled “Lantern”.

Here are a few personal observations, based on my own use of this form:

1. The first line of one syllable is a real challenge. I suggest avoiding articles, such as “the” and “a”. The first line needs to have more substance and the use of an article will tend to undermine the feeling that the opening word is also a line; in other words, the reader will tend to attach the article to the second line and read it as a three-syllable line which for some reason has been broken in two. Prepositions have almost the same effect; though there are some exceptions. Nouns tend to work best for the first line, and secondarily, modifiers.

2. The brevity of the Lanterne makes it almost impossible to maintain normal English usage; though there are some exceptions I’ve seen. This is a distinctive feature of the Lanterne; it almost requires a minimalist esthetic and the paring down of syntactic structures.

3. I recommend that each line have a sense of integrity. In other words, avoid run-ons or enjambment. The reason I make this suggestion is that I think the Lanterne is just too short to sustain enjambment. My feeling is that enjambment works when the underlying pulse of the poem is returned to. But the Lanterne is too short for that kind of return and the result of the use of enjambment in the Lanterne I have read that use it, is the loss of the sense of form. In other words Lanterne which use enjambment don’t communicate a sense of the syllabic shape.

4. I have found the use of rhyme efficacious, though most Lanterne poets seem to avoid it. I think there is a place for rhyme in the Lanterne as rhyme will assist in delineating the specific contours of the syllabic shape. Rhyme is not required in Lanterne, but it is something which, I think, can be usefully taken advantage of.

5. The Lanterne is definitely a challenge. But a good Lanterne is like a sparkling jewel.

Note: If any readers have additional information about the origin of the Lanterne, I would be pleased to hear about it.

As Night Begins

Slow dusk
As the sun sets
Behind the leafless trees
A raccoon walks among the long

Monday, February 22, 2010

Day and Night

On the pond
In the sunlight

On the pond
In the moonlight

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Making Room for Grace

I am a friend of silence,
Particularly when it's shared,
Silence dwelling among us
Allowing grace to appear

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Between Heaven and Earth

Aurora shimmer
Above a frozen ocean
A small plane quivers

Friday, February 19, 2010

At the End of the Graveyard Shift

Shadows vanishing
In the early morning light
The sound of starlings

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Nothing's Ever Fully Gone

Traces still remain
Of the time we shared
In the small backyard
The fence you repaired

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Second Thoughts

Maybe I shouldn't
Retire to a hermitage,
Just me and four walls;
I'd drive the angels crazy
With my interrogations

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Morning at the Shopping Center

Sunlight on the bare branches
Blackbirds in the parking lot
A child sits upon the ground
Homeless count the change they've got

The Calligraphy of Clouds: A Review

The Calligraphy of Clouds
Contemporary American Tanka & Haiku
By Yeshaya Rotbard
ISBN: 0595420710
Distributed by Ingram so also available through most bookstores including

Sweeping the front stoop,
clearing off my entrance way
to the universe.

This is one of my favorite recent collections of Tanka and Haiku. It is a fine example of how taking a syllabic approach to these forms in English is efficacious.

Rotbard’s voice is distinct. He is also innovative. There is a section of “Titled Haiku” as well as a section of “Untitled Haiku”. He also adds titles to his Tanka. This is unusual. If you go to online sites devoted to Haiku and Tanka you will read that both of these genre are untitled. Editors at magazines, with some exceptions, devoted to these forms will reject submissions with titles. Personally, I often title my Haiku and Tanka so it was a pleasure to see someone else doing this as well. My sense is that Rotbard does this spontaneously, meaning that having a title for a poem is simply part of the English poetic tradition. I think it works well, adding an additional dimension of meaning.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section are Haiku in series. Here the Haiku are grouped together because they all speak to a certain topic. Rotbard starts with the traditional four seasons, and then continues with a wide range of other topics from the ordinary, “Pencil”, to the emotional, “Missing You”, to the eccentric, “Sex and the Single Haiku”. The series work well, each Haiku flowing to the next, yet also able to stand alone as individual Haiku. Rotbard links well.

The second section consists of single Haiku divided into two sections of “Titled” and “Untitled”. Here’s an example:

From Afar

The tattered sail bends
In the wind. The frail boat dips
then lifts up again.

Notice the slant rhyme between lines 1 and 3; this is something that Rotbard uses frequently and it gives a lyrical cast to his poems. Rotbard uses the full range of poetic tools and he’s not adverse to using metaphor. Here is one of my favorites:

Indian Summer

It’s the heat’s last squeeze,
when all the leaves bleed their best
juices from the trees.

Wonderful description! And a wonderful use of rhyme.

The third section consists of Tanka; all of them titled. Tanka are more expansive than Haiku and these Tanka allow for more exploration and consideration than is possible in Haiku. Some of the Tanka are sweet:

White Caps

Ankles in ocean,
the whole sea is mine, until
the wave pulls back and –
leaves me stranded in wet sand –
then curls round my toes again.

Some are contemplative:


What can be worse than
longing for what cannot be:
the path not taken,
poems lost, songs forgotten,
your picture, tossed, in the sea.

Some are erotic:


How I love to play
the piano on your back,
fingers poking at
the curved keyboard of your spine,
the music of your breathing.

Indeed, one of the attractions of “Calligraphy” is the wide range of subjects the author handles. It is a book that I have had the pleasure of rereading several times. Highly recommended.

There Is A Stillness

There is a stillness
in the morning. Walls of light
and trees surround me.
Toward heaven’s brim, staring up,
Sitting in an earthly cup.

The Things That Matter

I’m tethered to earth
by bakeries and book stores.
If not for those words,
and muffin in the morning,
like a kite, I’d float away.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Kokinshu Commentary -- 4

Book One -- Spring

4. A poem by the Nijo Empress [Koshi] on the beginning of spring

Springtime has arrived
While fallen snow lingers on.
Ah, now at long last
The warbler’s frozen teardrops
Will surely be dissolving.

Comment: The fourth Tanka refers back to the opening Tanka; the structure, and even some of the lines, are identical. Here are the two of them so you can compare:

Tanka 1:

Springtime has arrived
While the old year lingers on.
What then of the year?
Are we to talk of “last year”?
Or are we to say “this year”?

Tanka 4:

Springtime has arrived
While fallen snow lingers on.
Ah, now at long last
The warbler’s frozen teardrops
Will surely be dissolving.

Tanka 4 announces the arrival of spring by referring to the dissolving of teardrops, which implies that the temperature of the air is warming, one of the first signs of approaching spring. Tanka 1 raises the question of the meaning of a season, whether it is designated by reference to a human made calendar or something else. Tanka 4 designates the arrival of spring by an indirect reference to the warming of the air, a natural appearance unrelated to the human made calendar.

In a sense I read Tanka 4 as a restarting of the spring series of Tanka found in Book 1. It is almost like Tanka 1 was a false start and the series really begins with Tanka 4. The feeling here for me is one of tentativeness. I am thinking of the feeling I have sometimes had when starting a lecture on some topic, and then deciding after a few minutes to take a different approach, and so I would start over; I might even say to the audience something like, “Let’s get at this from a different perspective.”

The link to the previous Tanka is strong; if one takes the last lines of Tanka 3 they lead smoothly to Tanka 4:

While snow still falls
In the hills of Yoshino,
The hills of fair Yoshino

Springtime has arrived
While fallen snow lingers on.

Tanka 4 is the first Tanka that uses personification; the warbler is said to have “tears” which became frozen in winter and are now, in the warmer air of incipient spring, beginning to melt. It is possible that this Tanka refers to some folk story that I am not aware of, which would add a dimension of meaning. In any case, personification is used frequently in the Kokinshu, emotional states are read into the natural world so that the difference between the human and natural world is reduced. The message here is that spring is an optimistic time, a time when tears dissolve as new life emerges.

Personification is an effective means of pointing out what I call “resonance” between the human world and the world of nature. In traditional Tanka poetry the emotional world of humans is understood to mimic the world of nature and the world of nature is thought of as having an emotional life. This is not something that is easy for modern human to understand because modern humans tend to look at nature mechanistically. In my own opinion one of the virtues of the Kokinshu is that it does not view nature mechanistically; rather it seems the world of nature and the world of human beings as seamless.

Inner Space

Planets in the sky
And numberless stars
The space of the heart
Goes at least that far

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Silence Speaks

Can you hear the song of love
Or the witness of the wind?
God's speaking every moment
When there's stillness deep within.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Quatrain Prosody -- Part 3

In Part 1 of this series I noted that the traditional rhyme scheme for the Chinese Quatrain is A-B-C-B. Here is an example of this kind of traditional rhyme scheme:

Armstrong Woods

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

The effect of this kind of rhyme scheme is to give a strong sense of closure to the quatrain. In the traditional rhyme scheme the first end-rhyme that is heard is the last syllable of the quatrain. This is like a sonic cadence and I think it is one of the reasons why this kind of rhyme scheme has proven so successful in the Chinese Quatrain. I have found that it transmits well to an English language context.

Even though I felt a sense of satisfaction with the traditional rhyme scheme I set out to explore other possible rhyme schemes, to see how they would affect the sense of the Quatrain. Here is an example of A-A-A-A:

Homage to Heraclitus

The river flows to the sea
Events become history
The swirl of the galaxies
Time’s flow is eternity

I haven’t used this rhyme scheme very often, but I felt that in this case it fit the subject matter, which is the Heraclitean view of the ever-flowing, river-like, nature of existence. In this type of rhyme scheme there is not felt the sense of cadence and closure that the traditional rhyme scheme provides. My sense is that the A-A-A-A rhyme scheme feels like it could continue this way, almost like the Quatrain is just a portion of a much larger sequence, whereas the traditional rhyme scheme gives me a self-contained feeling. For certain subject matters, though, this kind of rhyme scheme may be efficacious.

Another rhyme scheme, one that I have used often, is A-B-A-B. Here is an example:

An Old Man’s Morning

February cold –
Back ache and joint pains
I am feeling old
Not much time remains

I like the effect of this rhyme scheme; it feels very “round” to me, very balanced. The weave of the lines is sonically tighter than with the classic rhyme scheme of A-B-C-B. It also has a sense of closure and cadence that is almost, though not quite, as strong as the classic rhyme scheme.

I have tried other rhyme schemes rarely. A few times I have used A-B-C-A. Here is an example:

On George Fox

I will walk the path of peace
Though the world chooses war,
Strife and hatred and deceit;
War within my heart has ceased.

In addition to lines 1 and 4 rhyming, line 3 is a slant rhyme to both 1 and 4. It’s also unusual in that line 3 is a run-on from line 2. Here’s another example of A-B-C-A:


I am very small
Which means I’m not God,
But through His kind grace
I can glimpse the all.

Here only lines 1 and 4 rhyme.

My sense is that there is not as strong a feeling of cadence and closure in this rhyme scheme. That surprised me. I had thought that it would more closely resemble the traditional rhyme scheme of A-B-C-B, but it really feels different to me.

Another Quatrain rhyme scheme appears in traditional English nursery rhymes, for example:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are,
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

Here the rhyme scheme is A-A-B-B. I haven’t used this rhyme scheme myself, even though I’ve become interested in it because it appears naturally in English poetry of seven syllable lines (for line 4 I read “diamond” as “dymond”). My feeling is that this rhyme scheme feels more like a series of couplets, that is to say it sounds like two two-line verses, rather than a organic Quatrain of four integrated, woven together, lines. On the other hand, this kind of rhyme scheme probably has potential in English since it is already clearly established; it shouldn’t be put aside and some subject matter might be agreeable to such a structure. I am thinking of, for example, a Quatrain which opens with a question in the first two lines, and then the last two lines either offer an answer, or a comment on the question. In this kind of Quatrain there is a natural division into two sections and a rhyme scheme of A-A-B-B would support that division.

The result of all these explorations in rhyme is a renewed sense of the efficacy of the traditional rhyme scheme of A-B-C-B. It is this rhyme scheme which provides the strongest sense of completion, the strongest sense that the Quatrain stands as an organic whole. Still, I do find the other rhyme schemes to be efficacious at times, they each have their own expressive tone or quality and certain topics seem to merge well with these other rhyme schemes.

There is a common factor to all of the rhyme schemes: That is that line 4 always rhymes with some other line. Without that closing end-rhyme, the Quatrain loses its integrity, its sense of completeness and unity.

No doubt as I continue to compose these Quatrains more insights into how rhyme works in these brief poems will become clear.


Yesterday and today and tomorrow

Friday, February 12, 2010

Not Knowing

There's a path beneath my feet
It is flowing like a stream
Though I trust its twists and turns
Where it's going can't be seen

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Rich and Poor

Wealthy people laugh a lot
At the poor who have no time
For the new fashion statement
Or the trendy place to dine

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Long Winter

For more than a month
The sky has been gray
Life seems suspended
Not quite night or day

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Quatrain Prosody -- Part 2

In the traditional Chinese approach to the Quatrain the line is divided so that there are caesurae placed at specific points in the line. For the Five-Four Quatrain the ideal is to have the line pause after the first two syllables. This gives an overall feel of 2 + 3 syllables. Is it possible to mimic this structure in English? I found that I am able to replicate this kind of division. Keep in mind that the pause here refers to a grammatical unit, not so much an extra beat or pulse, but a pause in terms of structural meaning. Here is an example:

Moonlight through the mist
Moonlight through the pine
Strange shapes drift and twist
Strange shapes intertwine

The division after the first two syllables is graphically hihglighted here:

Moonlight -- through the mist
Moonlight -- through the pine
Strange shapes -- drift and twist
Strange shapes -- intertwine

However, I found that generally speaking I am not able to maintain this kind of structure. Here I think the differences between Chinese and English impinge on this kind of structural element. Because Chinese is a monosyllabic language, all words are one syllable long. In English, by contrast, words have a variety of syllable counts. In Chinese the first two syllables will always be two words, but in English the first two syllables might be two words, one word, or part of a three, four, or five syllable word. Nevertheless, I think this kind of structure is worth watching and pursuing. I have just begun working on this type of Quatrain and perhaps with more practice the usage of this kind of structure, adapted to an English language context, will become clearer.

One of the ways that the varied syllable lengths of English can be used is to create what I call “parallel density". In a five syllable line the maximum number of words will be five; that is the highest density. The fewest number of words will be one; that is the lowest density. I have found that when two lines share the same density, that is to say when two lines have the same number of words, there is a kind of resonance that they share. A good example is the following:

The Policeman in the Café

The policeman sits
Sipping his coffee
A gun on his hip
Music plays softly

Lines two and four have the same density (three). In addition they have the same syllabic structure; 2 + 1 + 2. They also rhyme. This combination of factors makes them strongly resonant of each other and unites them rhythmically and sonically.

Parallel density can be either strict or loose. The “Policeman” Quatrain has a strict parallel density for lines 2 and 4 because the syllabic order of the words is the same. In line 1 the number of words is also 3, but the syllabic order differs from lines 2 and 4. In line 1 the syllabic order is 1 + 3 + 1. I refer to this kind of relationship as loosely parallel, which means that the density of the two lines is the same (meaning that the number of words is the same), but the syllabic order is different. When the density and the syllabic order are the same the parallel is strict.

In the following Quatrain the parallel density is loose:

Heard in the Distance

Clouds in the morning
Slowing down the dawn
Shadowless gray light
A solo flute’s song

Lines 1, 2 and 4 have the same density (4), but the distribution of syllables is different. For line 1 it is 1 + 1 + 1 + 2, for line 2 it is 2 + 1 + 1 + 1, while for line 4 it is 1 + 2 + 1 + 1. Strict parallel density, it seems to me, creates a stronger resonance. Yet loose parallel density has a discernible effect. In this particular Quatrain, line 3 has a density of 3, which makes it stand out. When line 4 repeats the density of 4 found in lines 1 and 2, it provides a sense of return and closure.

For Chinese Quatrains the placement of the grammatical division was codified. For the English Quatrain derived from the Chinese Quatrain, it seems to me that a less codified approach is needed. I say this because, again, of the variable syllabic length of English words; this would seem to lead to a variety of possible patterns, interactions, and resonances between the lines of the English Quatrain which wouldn’t be available in the Chinese language (just as tonal interactions are unavailable in English). No doubt more will be revealed as I continue to explore this form.

Note: There are also codified caesurae for the Seven-Four Quatrain. The same kind of analysis applies as that given above for the Five-Four Quatrain.


There is a clear sky
On this winter afternoon
Snow on the bamboo

A feral cat emerges
And pauses to clean itself

Near the wooden shelf
Outside of the garden shed
Next to the garage

Plum blossoms on the garbage
Neatly bagged and put in cans

She rapidly scans
A message in her email
Then she deletes it

At the found-art exhibit
The opening's going well

He asks, "Can you tell
What is art and what is not?
I am not so sure."

It's doubtful that there's a cure
For ambiguity

She wonders if he still loves her;
Something in his voice

Does the sun act out of choice
To make it hot in summer

The training runner
Sometimes changes his schedule
With the shifts in time

The moon tonight is sublime
In the cool September air

Monday, February 8, 2010

Peaceful Passing

Of the plum tree
Thick snow
On the branches
A few wisps of steam rise
As a warm wind
The first of the season
Carries the sound of ice cracking
Through her still closed window
The light of the first quarter moon
And the glow of the angel beside her
Lights a path in the land of dreams
A land where time ebbs and flows like the tides
Where all those she had loved wait patiently for her
As her last few breaths quietly subside

Sunday, February 7, 2010


There's a light in everyone
It's the presence of the Lord
See this light in all people
It's sublime, its own reward

Saturday, February 6, 2010

When Asked About What Happens After Death

When I reach the other side
Of this journey we call life
I don't know what I will find
Does a drop know of the tide?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Long Life

Redwood trees are very tall
Reaching up into the sky
Then they stand there patiently
Watching you and I pass by

Thursday, February 4, 2010

History Lesson

People want to make their mark
On the story of mankind
Desert dunes and shifting sands
Cover everything in time

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Visitor Who Stayed

The old gray cat sleeps
Through most of the day
He came to the door
As a scraggly stray

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Quatrain Prosody -- Part 1

Those who are regular readers at Shaping Words will have noted that two of the syllabic forms of poetry that I post are Quatrains; that is to say they are four line poems. I want to take a few moments to post about the prosody, the structure, and source of these Quatrains.

My inspiration for the Quatrains is the Chinese poetic tradition. During the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) there arose in China two forms of short verse. Both of them are Quatrains. One of them consists of four lines with five syllables to each line, for a total of twenty syllables. The other consists of four lines with seven syllables to each line, for a total of twenty-eight syllables.

Many of China’s greatest poets wrote in these forms, including Li Bo, Du Fu, Wang Wei and many others. Some of the most famous poems in Chinese history are in one or the other of these Quatrain forms.

I found these poems to be greatly inspiring. It was remarkable how much meaning was concentrated in these brief forms. I decided to see if I could adapt the Chinese Quatrain to an English language context. The chief means for such adaptation was mimicking; that is to say I sought to mimic as many aspects of the Chinese Quatrain in an English language context as possible.

At first this may seem an unlikely possibility because English and Chinese are so different. Chinese is monosyllabic and tonal, while English is polysyllabic and non-tonal. Yet there are also striking similarities. While it is true that English is polysyllabic, it is also true that English has a larger percentage of single syllable words than other European languages. This is because English has, for the most part, dropped inflected endings. Inflection increases the number of syllables for a given word. The absence of inflection in English means that, relatively speaking, it has a large pool of monosyllabic words and this tendency in English maps well onto the Chinese linguistic context.

A second similarity is that for both languages the position of a word in a sentence determines meaning in the sense of grammatical function. Not all languages are like that; highly inflected languages are loose regarding word order. Chinese is uninflected and English is largely uninflected, and so for both these languages word order takes on a significant role.

A third similarity is that for both poetic cultures rhyme is a central organizing principle. For both English language poetry and Chinese poetry end-rhyme in particular is a pervasive means for organizing poetic structures. For those who have read Chinese poetry in translation this is probably not clear. In fact many Americans think that Chinese poetry is almost equivalent to modern free verse. This has to do with decisions that translators have made in how to bring Chinese poetry into English and also the great difficulty a translator would have finding equivalent rhymes in English for the Chinese rhymes. It is almost impossible to do that, except on very rare occasions. Some volumes of Chinese poetry contain the Chinese characters of the poem along with the translation. However, this is not really helpful for the English speaking reader. What is needed is a transliteration of the Chinese poem so that the dedicated reader can get an idea of what the poem sounds like in Chinese. The Chinese characters do not represent sounds and because of this the English speaking reader has no opportunity to grasp the rhyme scheme of the original poem when looking at the Chinese characters. Only a transliteration offers that possibility and there are very few volumes of translations from the Chinese that do this. I think this is unfortunate because it hides the nature of Chinese poetry from the average reader. For these reasons many American continue to think that Chinese verse is unrhymed and unregulated when exactly the opposite is true.

Another similarity between Chinese and English poetry is that for the traditional poetry of both cultures the line is regulated by counting. That is to say the length of a line is determined by a particular count. For example, the English Sonnet has ten syllables, or five iambs, per line, while the Chinese Quatrain has either five or seven syllables per line. What is counted is somewhat different for the two poetic traditions. In traditional English poetry what is counted are the accents or stresses; that is to say a line of five stresses makes up a line of a Sonnet. Since the Sonnet typically is made up of iambs, that usually results in ten syllables; but other stress patterns are possible which result in slightly different syllable counts even though the stress count remains at five. In contrast, Chinese poetry is strictly syllabic. Only the number of syllables is counted (in this respect Chinese poetic culture is similar to Japanese and French poetry). I decided to map the Chinese approach onto English by confining the count to syllables rather than stresses. I did this because of my ongoing interest in the possibilities of syllabic verse in English. I have reached a point where I trust a syllabic approach to English verse because so much excellent syllabic poetry has been produced since the early twentieth century. I have come to admire the results of a strictly syllabic approach to English poetry as found in, for example, the Cinquain, the syllabic Haiku, the syllabic Sonnet, and many other examples. I therefore felt that adopting a syllabic approach could prove efficacious in the example of the Chinese Quatrain’s transmission to the English language.

Finally, I was intrigued by the idea of a syllabic form where the lines were all of a uniform length. In the syllabic verse I had previously dealt with the syllable count varied from line to line. In the syllabic Haiku the count is 5-7-5. In the syllabic Tanka it is 5-7-5-7-7, for the Cinquain it is 2-4-6-8-2, for the Tetractys 1-2-3-4-10, etc. It seems to be the case that when English language poets write syllabically they tend to write in structures with changing line lengths. I’m not sure why that is the case, but it seems to be consistent. The Chinese poetic culture tended strongly towards uniform line lengths; I’m not aware of a Chinese form that is not of uniform line length. This contrasts with Japan where the poetic forms have varied line lengths. The Chinese forms have a certain steadiness. They remind me of going on a walk on a trail, keeping up a steady pace, not to fast, not too slow, just walking forward. There is a feel about the uniform line length which I found attractive. I also found it familiar. Most English language poetry (leaving aside free verse) also has uniform line lengths. From Elizabethan poetry to Robert Frost and Millay, a uniform line length has been a standard feature of English language poetry. In this both Chinese and English poetry are similar and I thought that resemblance might prove fruitful.

I was aware, of course, that some aspects of Chinese cannot be mimicked in English. In Chinese poetry regulation of tone is an aspect of their prosody. Since English is non-tonal such regulation is not applicable and cannot be transferred from Chinese to English. My quest was to discover how much of the prosody of the Chinese Quatrain could be mimicked in English and then to see the results.

I started out with what I gleaned to be the basic structure which is as follows:

1. The quatrain has four lines.
2. The quatrain has a title.
3. Each line has the same number of syllables; either five or seven.
4. The Quatrain has the following end-rhyme scheme: A, B, C, B.

Based on this I proceeded to attempt writing these Quatrains in English. Here are two early examples:

On a Clear Night When the Full Moon Was Very Bright

Moonlight on my bed
Wakes me from my dream
Memories of you
The sound of a stream

Found in a Closet

Fossils from a mountain top
Signs of life from ages past
The first gift you gave to me
When I thought our love would last

There is much more to Quatrain prosody, but this was my starting point. I’ll write more about other aspects of the Strict Quatrain form in Part 2.

P.S. A note on terminology. The Chinese word translated as “Quatrain” is “jueju”. In Chinese this word designates a four-line poem. In English poetry “Quatrain” can refer to a poem of any length as long as it is organized into four-line groups. So Robert Frost’s famous “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a Quatrain containing four groups of four-lines, a total of sixteen lines.

The jueju are subdivided into two types, depending on line length. The five syllable jueju is called “wujue”. The seven syllable jueju is called “qijue”. I developed a nomenclature to describe these two forms as follows: I refer to the “wujue” as the “Five-Four Quatrain”. I refer to the qijue as the “Seven-Four Quatrain”. “Five-Four” means “five syllables per line, four lines”. “Seven-Four” means “seven syllables per line, four lines.”

Here’s a guide for the terminology:

Chinese: Jueju
English: Strict Quatrain, or Quatrain

Chinese: Wujue
English: Five-Four Strict Quatrain, or Five-Four Quatrain

Chinese: Qijue
English: Seven-Four Strict Quatrain, or Seven-Four Quatrain

For the purposes of this essay “Quatrain” will refer to a poem of only four lines. If the possibility of confusion arises, I will refer to the adaptation of the Chinese Quatrain into English as the “Strict Quatrain”, meaning only four lines; and I will refer to the English usage as the “Open Quatrain”, meaning open as to the total number of lines. In most cases the context will be clear and I will simply refer to “Quatrain”.


Moonlight through the mist
Moonlight through the pine
Strange shapes drift and twist
Strange shapes intertwine

Monday, February 1, 2010

An Old Man's Morning

February cold
Back ache and joint pain
I am feeling old
Not much time remains