Sunday, October 31, 2010

Quiet Night

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

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Sorting Through Old Files

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

Friday, October 29, 2010

Talking it Through, Working it Out

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

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Keeping Perspective

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


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

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Kokinshu Commentary -- 10

Kokinshu Commentary – 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 25, 2010

What I Learend From Emily Dickinson

What I Learned From Emily Dickinson

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
Poem 372

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Closing Thought

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Armstrong Woods

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

Friday, October 22, 2010

On Translation and Meaning

On Translation and Meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


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

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mountain Lodge

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

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

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

Ever anxious and fearful,
Seeing danger everywhere

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

Coverd with yesterday's snow,
A cloudless sky overhead

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

Two lovers are whispering
Though no one else is around

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

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

On their summer vacation
Sort fragments and shards

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

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Post-Post Modernism

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 16, 2010


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

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


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

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In Beauty It Is Finished

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mothers With Young Children

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

Local Gathering

The cafe
Where friends come and stay
Gossiping the morning away

Thursday, October 7, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

Five-Four Quatrain:

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


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


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


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

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

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

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cars and Consequences

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

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

City Lights

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

Monday, October 4, 2010


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

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

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

The July winter full moon
Above the stop and go traffic

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

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

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

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

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

They decide on one more dance
For one more memory

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

She lights candles and incense
And prays silently for peace

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Aware of the Presence

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

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Guardians of the Night

Sleep and dreams
In the distance

Friday, October 1, 2010

Why I Like Getting Up Early

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