Tuesday, April 13, 2010



I sometimes wonder if a new form will have longevity; whether the new form will endure or whether it will be looked at as a kind of interesting attempt, an historical footnote. So many new and interesting syllabic forms have been offered in English in the last hundred years or so that it makes quite a long list. I think one can start with the Cinquain, Adelaide Crapsey’s contribution. It has been around now for about a century and is beginning to have the feel of historical depth to it, the sense that it will endure and that poets in the future will continue to have an interest in it.

Why do some forms endure? What grants them longevity? The poet Larry Gross wrote, “A form evolves and persists over time because it does certain things exceedingly well.” (Tanka Splendor, 1995, Judge’s Comments) Exactly what a particular form does, though, is attractively elusive.

For the syllabic poet the form itself has meaning, but if asked to define the particular meaning of a form, it is difficult to say exactly what that is. A contrast with pottery is helpful here. A cup has a certain form; it has to have a shape that can hold liquid and at the same time is small enough to be held by a single hand. Potters have been making cups for thousands of years because the form of the cup is useful, people always need them, and so there is a persistent demand. In the case of pottery the meaning of a form is the function of that form; a cup to hold liquids, a plate to place food upon, etc. What the function of a poetic form is does not reveal itself so easily.

Part of the answer, I think, has to do with rhythm, or pulse. Part of the answer, I think, has to do with the sonic shape of a form. Certain sonic shapes seem to be inherently attractive; they also may acquire an aura of attractiveness through continued usage. I think, in the end, we have to accept that the beauty of a particular form, like Sonnet or Tanka, is elusive. Just as we cannot precisely state why a sunset is beautiful, or why a mountainscape moves us, yet it is definitely the case that we do find these natural display worth contemplating and visiting over and over. So also certain poetic forms seem to touch us and draw us to them such that we want to visit and revisit them.

When a poetic form has this similarity to natural appearances, like sunsets, I think the form has the capacity to endure and to be transmitted across cultural lines; across cultural lines because at a certain level the poetic form has aspects of being a part of nature, not just a part of a culture. Tentatively I would focus on two aspects of a poetic form that one can also find in natural displays that, I think, lead to the longevity of the form. Those two are recognizable parameters and variety within those parameters. By ‘recognizable parameters’ I mean that we all recognize a sunset as a sunset because sunsets share certain features in common; the time of day, the colors on display, the brevity, etc. By variety within those parameters I mean that no two sunsets are exactly alike but this does not hinder the observer from knowing that what is observed is still a sunset.

There are three poetic forms I’d like to apply these observations to: the Sonnet, the Tanka, and the Chinese Quatrain. The Sonnet appears in the 1500’s thus having a history of about 700 years. The Sonnet has a recognizable form with its fourteen lines and its syllabic rule of ten syllables per line for the English Sonnet. Yet within the frame of those restrictions infinite variety can unfold. Different rhyme schemes have evolved, different ways of grouping the fourteen lines such as 8 and 6, or 4 and 4 and 4 and 2, or 5 and 4 and 3 and 2, etc. The Sonnet has been flexible enough to evolve and respond to the needs of different poets and this evolution has continued to make the Sonnet appealing to readers.

The Japanese Tanka has a written history of about 1400 years; about twice as long as the Sonnet. Quite a venerable form. It is amazing how the form has maintained itself down through the centuries. Other Japanese forms have come and gone, but the Tanka has endured right down to the present day. At first the brevity of the Tanka would seem to be too constricting to allow for evolution and variety. Unlike the relatively spacious Sonnet, it might seem that the syllabic parameters of the Tanka would be too tight to keep interest in the form high. Nevertheless, poets down through the centuries have been able to use this short form in a remarkable variety of ways. Some Tanka are a single thought from beginning to end. Other Tanka are divided in two, using such techniques as juxtaposition or pivot to add complexity to the poem as the multiple images interact. Some Tanka are naturescapes, almost like Haiku with two additional lines (Saigyo wrote some Tanka like this). (One person has suggested calling this subcategory of Tanka a ‘Walden’; I kind of like the idea.) Many Tanka combine nature with human emotion and have a romantic sensibility. Many Tanka are devoted to love. The subject matter is endless. Tanka has proven that a strict form, even a brief one, can be endless varied.

Finally, there is the Chinese Quatrain in its two forms of four five syllable lines or four seven syllable lines. The written history of these Quatrains goes back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), so the written history is a few centuries longer than the Tanka. Personally I suspect that both the Tanka and the Chinese Quatrain go back to into the mists of time for both cultures. However, that may be, the Quatrain has also been able to serve multiple purposes, with diverse poets, over a long period, proving its durability. It is remarkable what poets have been able to do with this brief, and highly structured form. One of the reasons why I think the Quatrain has endured for so long is that it is easy to memorize. In addition, it is also amenable to musical settings because of the regularity of its lines and its rhyme scheme. This has made it easy for Chinese Quatrains to be integrated into the musical life of Chinese culture as well as the strictly poetic society.

I sometimes find myself fantasizing about the future of syllabic verse in English. Five hundred years from now will we have anthologies of the Great Cinquain Poets? It wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t know, of course, but I still enjoy speculating.

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