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


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

Friday, September 24, 2010


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

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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?

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


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.


Crickets' song
Minutes last long

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On 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


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