Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Still Life With Darwin

A book by Darwin
Well worn from frequent reading
Next to the keyboard
A cup of cooling coffee,
A photograph of children

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Kokinshu Commentary -- 6

Kokinshu Commentary 6

Book One – Spring 1

6. Monk Sosei. On fallen snow clinging to a tree

Now that spring has come,
Does he mistake them for flowers –
The warbler singing
Among branches deep-laden
With mounds of snowy white flakes?

Comment: This is the first example in the Kokinshu of a technique that the reader will encounter frequently. The technique is called “elegant confusion”. The technique allows the poet to draw a comparison, using the pretense that the observer is confused. In this Tanka the elegant confusion is the mis-identification of snowflakes for plum blossoms, or spring blossoms. Here, I think, the translator may be off somewhat. The previous Tanka, Number 5, specifically mentions plum blossoms, while this Tanka, Number 6, uses the generic “flowers”. However, the deliberate linking here is, I think, supposed to guide the reader to inferring that the flowers in question are plum blossoms, and not just any kind of blossom. It is rather like flowers/”hana” functions as a kind of pronoun, or place holder, for the plum blossoms of Tanka 5. This kind of usage was later encoded in Renga where the word “blossom”/”hana” was understood to mean cherry blossoms unless otherwise specified. This is still the rule in traditional Japanese Haiku. However that may be, the linkage to Tanka 5 would lead the reader to infer plum blossoms if the two Tanka are read together as a single, longer, poem.

But back to elegant confusion; this is a technique that was inherited from Chinese poetry. Elegant confusion was, at one time, widely used. It has fallen into disfavor in modern times because it seems to us to be too affected. Who ever really confuses snowflakes and blossoms?, our realistic approach to the world asks.

I think this misunderstands the technique. My sense is that elegant confusion was a form of structured metaphor. In East Asian poetry in general, and Japanese poetry in particular, explicit metaphor is not a widely used, or admired, technique. One does not often come across the deliberate comparison through a linguistic structure of “X is like Y”, or “X is Y”. Elegant confusion, however, provided poets a means for stating a metaphor which would be accepted by the canons of their poetic culture. If we look at elegant confusion as “elegant metaphor” I think we can be more accepting of what the poet is offering. We do not blanche when the poet says, “My love is like a red, red, rose.” We accept this because it is part of the structure of western poetic culture. Similarly, we can be accepting of “X looks so much like Y that I got confused between the two when I saw them . . .”; such an approach is similarly a means for making a metaphorical statement within the acceptable range of Japanese poetic culture. In other words, the elegant confusion between the plum blossoms and snowflakes draws our attention both to how they are alike and how they differ; this is exactly the beauty and function of metaphor.

The author of this Tanka was the Monk Sosei, a famous Tanka poet who lived from 816-910. His work appears in many Tanka/Waka anthologies. He has been elevated to one of the Thirty-Six Poetry Immortals in Japan; in other words he has been deified in the same way that many living figures have become deified following Japanese Shinto custom. An earlier example would be Sugawara no Michizane, who became the deity Tenjin. A recent example would be the great Renga and Haiku poet, Basho.

I find it instructive that the editors of the Kokinshu placed this famous Tanka poet between two anonymous Tanka; both Tanka 5 and Tanka 7 are Anonymous. I think this achieves several purposes. First, it allows Sosei’s Tanka to stand apart somewhat. Second, I think it is a signal to the reader that the editors may have particularly liked this Tanka and may also reflect their admiration for Sosei.

The links to the previous Tanka are: the warbler, the setting of spring flowers/plum blossoms that are blooming in the snow. The shift is one of perspective. Tanka 5 is a simple landscape. Tanka 6 is more introspective and takes us into the mind of the poet, in this case Sosei. Here the poet is explicitly speculating, wondering, thinking about, the scene. It is this speculation that gives rise to elegant confusion.

In closing I’d like to say a few words about “topic”. After the author attribution the Kokinshu has a brief phrase. Sometimes it is “topic unknown”, and sometimes there is a statement of topic, and at other times there is a brief description of the circumstances under which the Tanka was written. When there is a specific topic that indicate to the reader at the time that the Tanka was likely written during a poetry meeting in which the gathered poets were given an assigned topic upon which to write their Tanka. This was a widespread custom in Japan for many centuries; perhaps it is still done, I’m not sure. The idea is that someone, the host, would gather the poets together and then at the gathering the topic would be announced. All the assembled poets would then compose a Tanka on that theme. The poems would then be judged and the winner receive accolades. If the gathering was put on by a high aristocrat there might be considerable material rewards. Teachers would use such gatherings for their advanced students to hone their students’ abilities. Topics were not spontaneous; there were lists of appropriate topics. Certain subjects were off-limits among which were explicitly erotic or pornographic subjects, political commentary, or subjects that might endanger the participants in the highly volatile world of Japanese politics. Acceptable topics were the seasons, love, travel, parting, impermanence in all its manifestations, religion (which meant Buddhism and Shinto), occasional Tanka that were usually laudatory of the sponsor or the sponsor’s family and/or clan affiliation, etc. Though there were numerous examples of acceptable topics, they all fell under a few headings. For example, there were many topics that fell under the category of Spring, or under the category of Love. Poets practiced writing Tanka on these specified topics so that they would be prepared for poetry gatherings.

So when we read that the Tanka was written on a specific topic it is likely that this particular Tanka won at whatever gathering it was written at. When the editors say “topic unknown” the inference is that they think that the Tanka was written at such a gathering, but they are not sure; perhaps it has folk origins outside of this kind of refined poetic culture. “Topic unknown” is a signal to the reader of the time that the source of the Tanka may lie in the wider public sphere, beyond the refined aristocratic pursuit of poetic excellence in accord with specific canons. When the situation under which the Tanka was written is explicitly described, this is done because the circumstances are meant to show the reader the talent and ability of the poet and give us a context under which it was written.

In this particular instance the topic was “On fallen snow clinging to a tree”. We do not know how many others were gathered at this poetry gathering, or when exactly it took place. But we do know that Sosei’s Tanka carried the day, eventually ending up in this anthology.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Number Mysticism

Number Mysticism

One thing I have observed in contemporary English syllabic verse is a tendency to base the structure of a new syllabic form on a mathematically generated sequence. Here are three examples: the Tetractys, the Fibonacci, and the Prime.

The Tetractys has the syllabic form: 1-2-3-4-10. The first four lines when added, 1+2+3+4 equal 10. This was observed millennia ago by Pythagoras who referred to this relationship as Tetractys. It was the basis for the idea of “pyramid numbers”. So the reason the last line of the Tetractys poetic form is 10 syllables is because the first four lines add up to the number 10, and because of this ancient history regarding this relationship, going all the way back to Pythagoras.

The Fibonacci has the syllabic form: 1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21, etc. This is an open-ended mathematical sequence. In practice most Fibonacci poems use six lines for a syllabic structure of 1-1-2-3-5-8; sometimes there are Fibonacci with seven lines for a syllabic structure of 1-1-2-3-5-8-13. The syllable count of the poem is based on a mathematically generated sequence where one starts with the number 1, then adds the two numbers together to generate the next number. That number is then added to the previous number to generate the next number, etc. Here is how it works:

Begin 1
0 + 1 = 1
1 + 1 = 2
1 + 2 = 3
2 + 3 = 5
3 + 5 = 8
5 + 8 = 13
8 + 13 = 21

The syllabic count of the lines is determined by this mathematical sequence.

The Prime uses the sequence of prime numbers to determine the syllabic count of the lines. In the five-line Prime, the most common form, the syllable count is: 2-3-5-7-11.

Behind the syllabic count of the poem lies a mathematical construct and it is this dimension that I refer to as “number mysticism”. There is a long history in western art of this kind of number mysticism. Painters in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance often based the placement of the figures in their drawings on mathematical relationships so that, for example, figures might be placed at the points of a triangle. This was felt to add further meaning and to incorporate significant form into the painting.

In music mathematical relationships and transformative functions have been applies to music to generate formal relationships and types of variations. In the twentieth century this was taken to its greatest extreme by the short-lived serial movement. But there was some precedence for this way of approaching music in medieval isorhythms.

But to return to contemporary syllabic verse, the interesting question for me is does number mysticism have any real effect. I mean do people find the poem effective because of this hidden Pythagorean dimension?

I think the Tetractys is a good example to use to contemplate this question. When people read a Tetractys do they read, or hear, the numerical connection between the first four lines and the last line? I doubt it. The distinctive shape of the Tetractys is that it starts would with very short lines, and then in the last line suddenly there is a long line; a line of ten syllables which is a length easily recognizable as a standard line in English poetry. I think what the reader or listener encounters in this form is the unusual experience of the dramatic change in line length, of how that closing line suddenly enlarge the syllabic universe of the poem. I’m very fond of the Tetractys; I think it’s a great contribution to English syllabic verse. And it is interesting to read up on how Ray Stebbing, the inventor of this form, came up with it. But, on the other hand, one does not need to know this information in order to appreciate the Tetractys; if someone simply told you the syllabic count of the Tetractys (1-2-3-4-10) and left it at that you would be able to access the Tetractys as a form in a complete way.

I think number mysticism doesn’t tell us very much about how a particular form works, how it is or is not effective as a poetic form, as it tells us something about the creative processes of the individual who came up with the form. It tells us something about how their mind works.

One way of recognizing this is to contrast constructed forms based on number mysticism with forms not rooted in number mysticism. First, there are the traditional syllabic forms that have no specific creator; forms like Haiku, Tanka, and the Chinese Quatrain. These forms arose out of ordinary usage in their language. There is an interesting episode from the book “The Haiku Apprentice” which illustrates this point. The author, Abigail Friedman, is a diplomat living in Japan. She is studying Haiku in a traditional Japanese Haiku group under the tutelage of a Haiku Sensei, or “Master”. One day Friedman sees an ad on the side of a bus that is in perfect Haiku form; 5-7-5 syllables. She remarks on this to her Haiku teacher. Friedman’s teacher responds that the syllabic structure of 5-7-5 is natural to Japanese speech, and then goes further to explain that just because something falls into a 5-7-5 pattern does not, in itself make it a Haiku.

These kinds of forms that arise spontaneously, without authorship, are not based on number mysticism, but rather arise from the ground of linguistic usage. Like a plant emerging from a field, these kinds of forms emerge spontaneously.

The other contrast with forms based on number system is constructed forms that have a single creator, but the creation was not a product of number mysticism. Adelaide Crapsey’s Cinquain is a good example. The structure of the Cinquain was worked out by Crapsey based on her analysis of English prosody. In other words it was based on the sounds, shapes, and sonic contours of English. The Etheree is another example; with a syllable count of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, the Etheree uses the basic counting series which is so ingrained in our minds it is almost natural. In fact, I think a good case could be made for animals using a counting series that closely resembles this; at least some animals.

Both the Cinquain and the Etheree are easy to remember, easier to remember than the Fibonacci or the Prime. This ease in memory comes, I think, from the fact that there is no intermediate realm to refer to in order to comprehend why the syllabic count is what it is. The Cinquain pattern of 2-4-6-8 and then a closing 2, uses the even numbers which are also used in countless chants, schoolyard rhymes (and taunts), that it also is almost natural to our psyche. In this way they share with the traditional syllabic forms a sense of emerging from nature in a material, rhythmic, sense, rather than emerging from the realm of mathematical mind.

Personally, I do not prefer one over the other. As I mentioned I have a fondness for the Tetractys; I think it is a fertile form. And I have gradually yielded to the charms of the Etheree, that simplest of all syllabic forms. On the other hand, I would say to the degree that both the Tetractys and Etheree are successful; they are successful for the same reasons; because they are forms that a poet can use to generate successful poetry, vehicles for the shaping of words into significant form.


The coyote sings
A lullaby to the moon
Slowly sliding down
To the western horizon
A jet keeps pace with the night

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Different Voice

I think it was God
Speaking to me this morning --
The sound of the wind
Pulsating through the branches
Of the stand of ancient oaks

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Saturday in Spring

In my neighbor's yard
Cherry blossoms fall
Children are at play
By the garden wall

Friday, March 26, 2010


Moving clouds
As the sun sets
In the afternoon
The fresh leaves on the trees
Flutter in the late March breeze
Like the vaguest of memories
Hovering at the mind's horizon
Slowly fading into the sea of time

What Do You See?

What Do You See?

For over thirty years I was a diligent practitioner and student of Buddhism. Buddhism is a huge subject, covering a vast array of practices, traditions, and interpretations. Here I want to focus on one school of interpretation referred to as “Mind-Only”.

The basic idea in the mind-only school of interpretation is that people bring with them their own conceptual understandings to whatever they encounter and this literally alters their perception. The result is that what we perceive is, actually, not just the object in front of us, but also we perceive our own mind shaping the appearance.

This seems like a bewildering position to hold, but it isn’t, I think, that difficult to understand. The key to gaining access to what the mind-only school is referring to is to pick a really gross example. A good starting point is the avowed bigot; say someone who is strongly racist or has an extreme animosity towards some religious group. Upon meeting the object of their dislike, such a person literally cannot perceive the human being standing in front of them; instead what they perceive is their own mind, churning out categories of animosity. If you have ever been the object of such distorted perception you know exactly what mind-only means.

Another example that most people can access is the borders between countries. I grew up with the division between East and West Germany. This border was heavily militarized and great nations vowed to destroy each other over the maintenance of that border. Yet a few decades ago the border vanished and is now simply a part of history. Where did it come from? It came from the human mind, and when the human mind no longer had an interest in maintaining the border, it vanished. Note that I am not saying the border was non-existent. Mind-only interpretation is not solipsistic. What is being pointed out is the power of mind to generate distinctions that seem to have an objective basis in the world when their actual basis is entirely the human mind.

I would like to apply this kind of analysis to how different people view a poetic tradition, particularly a poetic tradition that is new or foreign. Specifically, I am going to take the tradition of Japanese Tanka. As someone interested in syllabic poetry when I look at the Tanka tradition I see a poetic tradition that has maintained its syllabic integrity over 1400 years of written history. What I see as the singular distinguishing feature of Tanka is the syllabic count of 5-7-5-7-7. Everything else about Tanka is secondary to the syllabic contours of the Tanka tradition because it is only the syllabic count which has been maintained over the centuries; other aspects of the Tanka tradition have come and gone, but the count has remained the same.

Because I bring a strong interest in syllabics and the application of syllabics to English poetry, I was surprised to discover that hardly any of the self-identified Tanka poets in the U.S. have even a slight interest in the syllabic structure of Tanka. Opening an American Tanka journal, I had the distinct feeling that I was simply reading free verse. I couldn’t find anything in the journals that distinguished the offerings from the free verse one finds in countless poetry magazines across the country. Syllable count in these journals is all over the map, from counts as low as ten syllables, to long counts of forty or more. Lineation was also chaotic, just like what one finds in standard free verse. No attention to count was discernible.

What baffled me was how it was possible for a poetic tradition with a written history of over 1400 years, and whose written history was clearly formal, a tradition that was based on a closely regulated, counted, line, could be used as a basis for what was obviously a free verse approach and that dismissed the idea of a regulated line. I still find that amazing.

But when I thought about it some more, I realized that what many American poets who encounter Tanka bring with them is a strong background in free verse. Unlike me, they are not interested in syllabics and a regulated line. Just as I bring with me my own interests and focus on syllabic verse, so other poets bring with them a set of different interests based on their own background and approach to poetry, which in the case of most American Tanka poets is free verse, meaning verse with an unregulated, that is to say uncounted, line.

So what does an American free verser see when they look at Tanka? I think what free versers see when they look at Tanka is a set of techniques that have become prominent in the Tanka tradition. I’ll use one example; the pivot. Many Tanka are structured in two parts which are connected through the use of a pivot line. The pivot line simultaneously functions as the last line of part 1 and the first line of part 2. This technique allows for a short poem like the Tanka to become richly complex as the two parts both interact with each other and also pull in somewhat different directions. Here’s an example where I use this pivot technique:


On the silent street
A deer quietly grazes
Among the ruins
All the windows are hollow
Open to the moonlit wind

Part 1 contains lines 1 through 3:

On the silent street
A deer quietly grazes
Among the ruins

Part 2 contains lines 3 through 5:

Among the ruins
All the windows are hollow
Open to the moonlit wind

What the reader feels here is that Part 1 is a complete image and Part 2 is also a complete image. Together they make a complex set that both re-enforce and tug at each other. This particular example is mild; the two images feed into each other easily. Stronger usage occurs when the pivot line sets up a stronger contrast between parts 1 and 2.

Here’s another example where the usage of pivot occurs several times:

The Tree Branch

The tree branch falling
As I looked out my window
I saw you walking
Farther and farther away
A swan flies over a field

Line 2 functions as a pivot. Part 1 is

The tree branch falling
As I looked out my window

Part 2 is

As I looked out my window
I saw you walking

The pivot of Line 2 serves to complete the image of Line 1 and at the same time starts the image completed in Line 3. There is a perceptual shift, a shift in focus, from the tree branch to the person walking.

Line 4 is also a pivot. Part 1 is

As I looked out my window
I saw you walking
Farther and farther away

Part 2 is

Farther and farther away
A swan flies over a field

Line 4 completes the image started in Line 3 and begins the image started in Line 4. Again there is a shift in perception and focus as in the first pivot line; here it is from someone walking to a swan flying.

In addition, Line 3 is a pivot for Lines 1 through 3, and Lines 3 through 5:

The tree branch falling
As I looked out my window
I saw you walking


I saw you walking
Farther and farther away
A swan flies over a field

In this particular Tanka the use of pivots weaves multiple images together, yet each image directs the focus of the reader in a slightly different direction and towards other objects.

Now this technique of pivot, which is a strong part of the Tanka tradition, is a technique which does not depend on form; that is to say as a technique the usage of a pivot can be applied outside of a Tanka context. It can be applied to free verse or it can be applied to non-Tanka formal verse (it is sometimes used in Haiku, for example).

Which brings me to my point here; if someone is a poet who is committed to free verse, who sees the world of poetry through free verse concepts, then it makes sense that what they will find intriguing about the Tanka tradition are techniques, such as the pivot, which can be absorbed into a free verse context. When I clearly understood this my sense of being baffled about American Tanka journals fell away. Just as my own interests in syllabic verse have shaped what I see in the history of Tanka, the interests of the free verse poet shape what the free verse poet perceives in the history of Tanka.

There have been some consequences for my own Tanka composition that flow from my focus on form. Because of my interest in syllabic verse, for me the singular feature of Tanka is its syllabic count and clear lineation. For this reason I don’t see any specific technique as definitive of Tanka. The consequence of this is that I often write Tanka that do not use a pivot; I refer to them as “unified Tanka”. By “unified” I mean that they present a single image, that they are not meant to have a pivot. Sometimes I use simple juxtaposition. By juxtaposition I mean two images placed side by side, but without a pivot line that belongs to both of the images. This preserves the two-part structure so often found in Tanka, but severs the structural link between the two parts. And in many cases the Tanka have no pivot or juxtaposition; they are simply a single image, event, or emotional depiction. Focusing on the syllabics of Tanka has freed me from any ties to a particular technique. From a syllabic perspective technique is secondary.

If, in contrast, syllabics is not of great interest, then technique moves into the foreground and what one looks for is the skilled usage of that technique; the pivot line is a favorite among free verse Tanka poets, but there are others as well.

What I’ve learned is that both are valid approaches to the Tanka tradition. We bring with us our own interests, focus, and understanding when we encounter something new, we bring with us our own minds. And what we find in this something new has resonances with our already formed views, interests, and curiosities.

So the question of which approach to Tanka on the part of English language poets is more accurate isn’t the right question. Both are accurate. Both use the Tanka tradition to nourish their own different approaches to poetry. It is a wonderful thing that the Tanka traditional is nourishing enough to enrich such disparate poetic expressions.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dialogue With Richard Wright 2

The harbor at night:
The scent of oranges
On gusts of March wind (RW)

On the margins of the page
The previous owner's notes

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


The old maple tree
(I don't know who planted it)
Stands in my backyard.
In the wind, spring leaves flutter;
Morning light, shimmering jade.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tanka Melody 1

Homage to Haydn

Has elegance
His music is sunny
Listening to his melodies
I smile

Monday, March 22, 2010


"What kind of flower
Pulls us into the future
And offers us hope?"

She turned away, hid her face,
And softly spoke, "White Lily."

Sunday, March 21, 2010


The snow is melting
In the first warm wind
I ask forgiveness
For my many sins

Saturday, March 20, 2010

European Union President a Haiku Poet

Good Friends:

The President of the European Union is a Haiku poet. I first encountered this bit of news when he was being considered for the post. His love of Haiku was actually something the media, particularly the BBC, dwelt on in considering him for this office. And guess what?, he's a syllabic Haiku Poet. Cool.

There's a new article about him and Haiku at the BBC, you can find it here:

Best wishes,


In This Time

In this time of constant war when peace seems but a distant dream,
In this time of endless hatred as waves of vengeance drown the land,
I awake with the light of dawn and pray for all living beings

Friday, March 19, 2010


Of the plum
In the first warm wind
The sound of melting snow
Moonlight, like a river, through the curtains flows

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Seven years ago the United States attacked Iraq without provocation, without necessity, based on a campaign of propaganda and lies. At the time I wrote this Cinquain:

Slaughter --
Slaughter Iraq.
Destroy the whole country.
This is what all our leaders mean
By "peace".

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Fib Review

Good Friends:

I've added to my blog list today The Fib Review. This is an online poetry zine devoted to the syllabic form known as the Fibonacci, affectionately referred to as the Fib.

One aspect of English Syllabic Verse that I enjoy is how those interested in a particular syllabic form often get together and create a zone where they can explore their interest. The internet has greatly facilitated this. There are such zones for many syllabic forms and I'll be adding them to my blog list as time goes by.

The Fibonacci, or the Fib, is one of those forms based on a mathematical sequence. The Fibonacci Sequence is generated by taking two numbers, starting with zero and 1, then adding them, which generates the next number. Then that generated number is added to the previous number to generate the next number, and so forth. The Sequence starts as follows:

Begin with 1
0 + 1 = 1
1 + 1 = 2
1 + 2 = 3
2 + 3 = 5
3 + 5 = 8
8 + 5 = 13

Unlike most syllabic forms the Fib has no set number of lines since it is an ongoing sequence. In practice most Fibs are six line poems with a syllable count as follows: 1-1-2-3-5-8, for a total of twenty syllables. However, some poets have begun looking at the possibilities of the longer lines, such as 1-1-2-3-5-8-13, for a total of 33 syllables; about the length of a syllabic Tanka. Apropos my recent post on the very short line, the Fib has the most very short lines of any syllabic form I know; the first four lines are very short lines.

I have not written any Fibs; no particular reason, I just haven't been drawn to it. But, like the Etheree, the Fib has its following and I found the online zine, the Fib, to be well run and well edited, filled with a lot of enjoyable, well done, and creative poems. Drop by and take look. It's at:

Best wishes,


After Reading Chuang Tzu

Wandering freely,
Cheerfully pacing the void,
Coming and going --
Even candles in the wind
Briefly shed light on the path.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Very Short Line

The Very Short Line

One aspect of modern English syllabic verse that I find both attractive and challenging is the emergence of the very short line. I think this started with Adelaide Crapsey and her Cinquain (in general Crapsey’s influence on English syllabic verse is pervasive). The first and last lines of the Cinquain are only two syllables long. At the time that Crapsey put forth the Cinquain I don’t think there was any other form that had so constricted a line.

Since the Cinquain other syllabic forms have also used the very short line. The Lanterne, Etheree, Fibonacci, and Tetractys all begin with lines of one syllable. All of these forms then proceed to a second line of two syllables, with the exception of the Fibonacci where the second line is also one syllable, followed by a line three of two syllables. This adds to the constricted nature of the openings of these forms. The Cinquain, Prime, Rictameter, and 100 Friends all start with a two syllable lines. For the purposes of this discussion I define as “very short” a line of three syllables or less.

The emergence of the very short line is something new in syllabic verse. Traditional syllabic poetry, like that of China, Japan, and France, do not use such a highly constricted count in their traditional verse. As far as I can determine, the very short line is a twentieth century phenomenon.

The very short line presents significant challenges to the poet. First, the very short line drastically shrinks the available words. In this context I think it is significant that Crapsey did a statistical analysis of the percentage of single syllable words in epic poetry. This allowed her to have clarity about the implications of having an opening line in her Cinquain of only two syllables. The one syllable line shrinks the available vocabulary even more. The difficulty with the very short line lies in writing a line that actually feels like a line; meaning a line that has a certain coherence and integrity. It is easy for the reader to attach a very short line to the next line and thereby form a larger unit. When this is done, though, the particular shape, rhythm, and pulse of the form is undermined, often lost altogether.

Here are a few observations about the very short line, based on my own experience using the various syllabic forms that require such a line:

1. I have noticed a tendency among some poets, particularly when they first start out with one of these forms, to use an article (“the” or “a”) for the one syllable line. My observation is that this does not work. As a reader, it is almost impossible not to attach the article to the following word in line two. This means that the sense of a one syllable line is lost. Ray Stebbing, the British poet who created the Tetractys, which starts with an opening line of one syllable, recognized this and in his prosody on the form suggests not using them. I also think there is almost as strong a tendency to dissolve the sense of a line when the single word is a preposition such as “on”, or “in”, etc. Again, the tendency is for the reader to attach the preposition to the next line and lose the feeling that the one syllable line is an actual line. Modifiers are a grayer area; sometimes they work and sometimes they also pull the reader too quickly and strongly to the next line. Nouns seem to be the type of word most congenial to this kind of formal arrangement; that is to say nouns make a kind of statement, or suggest a picture, by themselves. Words like “hill”, or “beach”, or “wind”, are capable of standing by themselves and give the reader a sense of an actual line.

2. The very short line gives a lot of weight to a limited number of words. The words of the very short line, therefore, have individual significance over and above words that appear in lines of normal length. One can see this strikingly in the Tetractys with its five-line syllabic form of 1-2-3-4-10. The last line has ten syllables, the first line has one, and the second line two. If one looks at each line as significant, the single word of the first line needs to carry the same significance and depth of meaning as the last line of ten syllables. A ten syllable line might consist of several words, up to ten single-syllable words.

One can also see this in the Crapsey Cinquain with its five-line syllable count of 2-4-6-8-2. The first and last lines need to have the same significance as the fourth line of eight syllables. The fourth line could be up to eight single-syllable words.

3. In Chinese Quatrains each line has the same number of words, because Chinese is monosyllabic, and each line carries the same significance because all the lines are the same length. In the Japanese Tanka the line lengths change, but in comparison the change is subtle; from five syllables to seven syllables. The difference between five and seven syllables is not as great as the different between one and ten syllables, or between two and eight syllables.

Thus this area of the very short line in syllabic verse is unexplored and how it will ultimately work is still an open question.

4. One technique I’ve noticed, and used myself, for a very short line is to use the line as a way of building up an image. Here’s an example of what I mean:

Low hills
Shaded hills
Under spring clouds

This is a Lanterne. The first three lines repeat the word “hills”, gradually adding information about the hills. Line 1 is simply the noun. Line 2 adds that the hills are “low”, in other words they aren’t cliffs or mountains and the reader will think of something like rolling hills. Line 3 adds “shaded” to the picture, expanding the image to include what the sky is doing.

I think this kind of approach that gradually builds up the image for the reader is an effective way of using the very short line. Here’s another example:

The moon
The autumn moon
The waxing moon
A few days short of full . . .

These are the opening five lines of a 100 Friends form; the first five lines have the syllable count of 2-4-2-4-6, containing two very short lines, Lines 1 and 3. The technique of building up the image is used here in the same way as in the previous Lanterne. Line 1 is simply a noun plus an article. Line 2 adds the season. Line 3 narrows the timing down further to the astrological time of Libra, which also implies a northern hemisphere location because the season is autumn; Libra in the southern hemisphere would be spring. Line 4 tells us another detail about the moon; it’s waxing. And Line 5 tells us it is near to full, giving us more detail.

That’s the basic procedure; to start with a general noun and then gradually add details to the description. I think it has the effect of drawing the reader into the scene. Here are three examples from a form called “Prime”:

On Sunday . . .

At sunset . . .

Of the plum

The syllable count of the Prime is 2-3-5-7-11, so the first two lines are very short lines. In each of the three examples given the first lines are general nouns, followed by second lines that give more specific information.

5. I’d like to note, again, that the very short line is a challenge to the poet. When writing a very short line, read it out loud and then pause after the line. See if the very short line holds together in the air and in your heart and mind. If it does, then the very short line will maintain a sense of being an actual line. If it doesn’t hold together, that could be a signal to try another approach.

6. The very short line is difficult to write well, but when it is done well the very short line feels like a door swinging open, inviting the reader to come in and enjoy the rest of the poem.

I Saw You Last Night

I saw you last night, again, in a dream.
We stood hand in hand by a forest stream
That meandered gently to pine and pond.

Rays of sunlight were sparkling in you hair,
Bright blue, like the sky, were your eyes so fair,
And you smiled that smile of which I was so fond.

Morning came and I found myself in bed,
I turned to face the clock and felt the dread
Of another ashen day without you.

Steam patterns on the mirror as I shave,
The sky slowly turning from night to dawn,
Across the street a neighbor starts his car.

A dream of seven years remains a dream,
A dream of seven hours lasts just one night.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Kokinshu Commentary -- 5

Kokinshu Commentary – 5

Book 1 – Spring

5. Anonymous. Topic Unknown

O warbler perching
On a bough of the plum tree,
You come with your song
To welcome in the springtime
Yet snowflakes still flutter down

Comment: This is the first mention of the plum tree (ume). The plum is an early bloomer, often blooming before the last snow has melted. It is, therefore, a sign of spring, but the earliest part of spring.

I think this is one of those unsophisticated Tanka that appear scattered through the Kokinshu. I could see it included in a “Child’s Garden of Tanka” collection. Sometimes critics of the Kokinshu have pointed out that the editors include Tanka of questionable value, while not including Tanka of high quality that were available at the time. Often these admired Tanka were picked up in later royally commissioned Tanka collections such as the Shinkokinshu.

I think, however, that this kind of criticism misses the mark. In the west, and among moderns generally, there is the idea that all poems in an anthology should be of the first rank. Editors of poetry magazines often have that view and sometimes explicitly say they are only interested in poems that are unusual, original, or stand out. But that’s not the way the Kokinshu editors worked. My sense is that what the editors were attempting was a kind of record of actual usage; that is to say a collection that reflected how Tanka worked in the lives of the Japanese people. So Tanka were selected that have various functions from the highly literary to the folk song to the nursery rhyme style.

Personally, I have grown to admire this esthetic variety; I think of it as one of the great strengths of the Kokinshu. This approach also had a lasting influence on later developments in Japanese poetry, specifically in Renga. Not every verse in a Renga is supposed to stand out. Some Renga verses will be “background” verses. But these background verses serve to highlight the strong, memorable, foreground verses in a Renga.

In composing a Renga it was considered acceptable to write a “good enough” verse. I think that the editors of the Kokinshu included some Tanka that were “good enough” even if they were not show pieces. I understand that even some modern Tanka poets in Japan will collect their Tanka using the same esthetic; that is to say some Tanka are “good enough” to include, while only a few in the publication are sparkling jewels.

I find this approach restful and soothing. As a poet I think there is an important lesson to be gleaned here. And that is simply that when writing a poem it is OK to write a poem that is “good enough”. Just as a potter will make “good enough” cups, or a baker will make “good enough” bread.

The links between Tanka 5 and four are, first, the warbler, the snow, and the technique of personification. The shift takes place by adding in Tanka 5 the sonic element of the warbler’s song which is a new element. If one reads Tanka 4 and 5 together, the first sonic element is this song of the warbler. Actually, this is the first mention of a sound, none of the previous Tanka refer to the sonic world. This re-enforces my view that Tanka 4 was a kind of new beginning for the Spring Series of Book 1 because a more complete picture of Spring is being presented that includes both the visual and the sonic domains.

Contemplating Impermanence

This house on this street
In the past did not exist.
This house on this street
In the future will vanish --
Sunlight on the quince blossoms.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Etheree Armstrong Taylor Day

One of the aspects of English Syllabic Verse that I enjoy is how people are inventing new forms of syllabic verse in a kind of playful way. Sometimes these new forms have no specific creator. Instead they arise spontaneously from a number practicing poets simultaneously. Two examples of this are the Lanterne and the Fibonacci. Others are deliberate creations from individuals and the grandmother of this kind of deliberate creation is Adelaide Crapsey and her offering of the Cinquain in the early twentieth century. But the creative development of syllabic forms continues.

Which brings me to Etheree. Today is the sixteenth anniversary of Etheree Taylor Armstrong’s death; (born February 13, 1918, died March 14, 1994) so I thought I’d take a few moments today to express my appreciation for her.

I know very little about Etheree, other than she was a poet from Arkansas who seems to have developed a local following in her State. She is the inventor of a syllabic form which has developed a small, but devoted, following. This form is appropriately called “The Etheree” and it is simplicity itself.

Consisting of ten lines, the Etheree starts with a one syllable line, then adds one syllable per line, until the last line of ten syllables for an overall syllable count of 55. In other words the syllabic structure is as follows: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. Now, wasn’t that easy!!! I bet you won’t have any trouble remembering the line count for this form. I have a fondness for this kind of simplicity; there is something wonderfully unpretentious about it. Just count from one to ten, and there you have the syllabic structure. There are no other requirements for the Etheree; an Etheree can have a title or not, rhyme is permissible, but not required, and an Etheree can be on any subject.

Etheree poets have elaborated on the form. There are now inverted Etheree (10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1) and double Etheree (where you start with a traditional Etheree, then add an inverted Etheree to create a twenty line poem). All sorts of variations are possible. Some Etheree poets have developed sub-categories that involve rhyme schemes. Like the Haiku, the Cinquain, and other syllabic forms, Etheree poets are lovingly expanding the expressive possibilities of the form they find meaningful.

I have to admit that at first I didn’t think much of the Etheree. Not challenging enough, or perhaps I wanted something more explicitly sophisticated. But I’ve come to see the Etheree is a valid form, capable of embodying as much depth and wisdom as any of the more well-known syllabic forms. So in honor of Etheree Taylor Armstrong and the form that bears her name I wrote the following Etheree:


After the rain
That lasted for days
The air is clear again
And we have stopped arguing
For reasons I don’t understand
We’ve both dropped the posture of command
And found the openness of heart within

What I have found in writing Etheree is that the form has the feeling of something slowly opening, like a flower blossoming. It starts slow, gradually adding meaning. Writing an Etheree in some ways resembles painting a picture; there is the first tentative stroke, then the next one, and fairly quickly the picture takes shape. The opening lines of the Etheree are like those tentative first strokes, and by the time you get to the middle of the poem, the five and six syllable lines, the shape and direction of the poem is becoming clear.

Give the form a try if you like. I think you will find it rewarding.

Quaker Meeting

Silence and stillness
And the inner light
Dwelling in this place
We all reunite

Saturday, March 13, 2010


When I remember
My friends from the past
I hear their laughter
It is unsurpassed

Friday, March 12, 2010

Melodies for Poems

Melodies for Poems

In studying Japanese Tanka and Chinese Quatrains I discovered that traditionally they are rooted in song and that the rhythmic pattern for the songs is placed within a simple structure. Each line of the poem receives the same number of musical measures and beats. In western terms this would be two measures of four-four time. For the Chinese Quatrains this would result in eight measures, two measures for each line, and each line would have the same rhythmic pulse. For the Japanese Tanka the rhythmic pattern is the same, but there will be ten measures of four-four time, two measures for each of the five lines.

The important lesson to be learned here is that each line is given the same musical duration; two full measures of four-four time. (See my previous posts, “Poetry and Song”, under the category “Syllabics”.) Contemplating this structure, I saw how placing a syllabic form into this musical context allows for the poet to access the pulse of a particular form, how a five syllable line differs from a seven syllable line, and in the case of Tanka, how the two can be woven together.

Contemplating this further, I experimented with applying the same principle to other types of syllabic verse such as Cinquain, Lanterne, Tetractys, etc. In each case I followed the same principles as found in ancient Chinese Quatrains and Japanese Tanka; which is to give each line two measures of four-four time.

By placing all of these syllabic forms into the same context of musical measure the poet has a tool to feel in the body and breath how these forms breathe, how they sing, and how they differ from each other. The contrasts between the forms emerges with clarity even when they are analogs of each other (analogs are syllabic forms with the same number of syllables, but the syllable count is distributed over the lines differently).

I posted my first melody yesterday; a melody for the Lanterne form. There are five lines. Each line receives two measures of four-four time. Since the first line of a Lanterne consists of a single syllable, it will fill the entire two measures. The second line is two syllables, so each measure of the second line has one of those syllables. This basic procedure is followed for all the syllabic forms to generate melodies for these forms.

There are countless melodies that can be generated in this manner, just as there are countless poems that each form can embody. The melody for a particular form, such as the Lanterne Melody posted yesterday, can be used for any Lanterne. In addition, the Lanterne melody can be used for a series of Lanterne, thus generating a song with verses. The same applies to the melodies I will be posting for other forms such as Tanka and Tetractys. Finally, the same poem can be sung using different melodies for that particular form; for example, a particular Lanterne can be sung to Lanterne Melody 1, or Lanterne Melody 2 (soon to be posted), etc. In this way different emotional nuances of the poem can be emphasized using different melodies.

For the poet I think this is an invaluable tool because it gives the syllabic form an added dimension of meaning. It is my personal feeling that this dimension of melodic meaning was near at hand with ancient Chinese Quatrains and Japanese Tanka, but that over time this kind of relationship was almost lost, though not entirely; there are still echoes of this relationship in the way a particular poem might be read and paced.

There is a personal dimension to the melodies for me. When I come up with a poem in a particular syllabic form it almost always comes to me with a melody. Basically, when I write a poem I am jotting down the lyrics I am hearing in my mind. Now the melody is not a new melody each time, but rather there are a set of melodies that support a particular form. That’s just how my mind works in writing poetry. I have found that adhering to a particular syllabic form shapes the melody as well as the content of the poem itself; so in a sense when I write poetry I am shaping melodic lines as well as shaping words.

Please feel free to use the melodies posted here if you find them helpful in writing poems in a particular form. You can use these melodies for your own poems, to create a song from your favorite poems in a particular form, or just to hum should you so wish.

Traces and Memories

As the sun sets
I think
About the week
That will come to a close
In a few days
Another week will start
But where are all of my old friends
The ones I remember
(Though sometimes I forget their names)
They appear to me in my memory
A touch that dispels loneliness --
Perhaps I will see them again, who knows?
Where do the shadows go after the sun has set?
Plum trees blossoming in the winter snow.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lanterne Melody 1


My grandmother's voice
Speaking kindly from the past,
Present in my mind.
Wander in the fields of time;
The "now" is overrated.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Shifting Sand

Countless ages past,
On this beach of shifting sand
Great mountains once stood.
I can barely remember
The reasons for our parting.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Pale stars
In the morning
The waning gibbous moon
And the slow rising of the sun --
Pale sky

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Third Way of Syllabic Verse

The Third Way of Syllabic Verse

There is an online poetic community called “Eratosphere”. You can go there, post a poem, and have it critiqued by some high-powered, knowledgeable, poets. I’ve seen A. E. Stallings, for example, participate. You can find the Eratosphere Forums here:

The Forums at Eratosphere are divided into “Metrical” and “Non-Metrical”. Note that Free Verse and Syllabic poetry are put in the same forum while Metrical poetry has its own forum. I find this interesting.

Syllabic poetry is new to the English speaking culture. It is the smallest of the three main approaches to contemporary poetry. The largest, and historically the most significant, is the Accentual/Syllabic, or what Eratosphere refers to as Metric. It is the poetry of iambic pentameter. It is the approach that has been used for centuries, it is how Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Frost wrote. Easily 70% of English poetry is of this type.

The second great stream of English poetry is Free Verse. Most people think of Free Verse as new or modern. Strictly speaking, though, that is not true. The oldest collection of Free Verse in English culture is the King James rendering of the Psalms; these have influenced many poets since they were first published. In spite of this, it is true that in the early twentieth century Free Verse became a self-conscious movement, with a dedicated program, and became an approach to poetry that large numbers of poets adopted.

For the purposes of this essay, the distinction between Free Verse and Metrical Verse is that Free Verse lacks a regulated line. By regulated line I mean that in Free Verse the line of the poem is not controlled by counting. In Metrical Verse the line of the poem is regulated by counting the accents, stresses, and/or the number of syllables. In the context of this essay the “Free” of “Free Verse” means a type of poetry that is free of the constraints of counting.

The third type of poetry in English culture is Syllabic Verse. Syllabic Verse is the dominant form of poetry in such cultures as France, China, and Japan. It is not surprising that these cultures have exerted a strong influence on the development of Syllabic Verse in English.

Briefly, Syllabic Verse is that type of poetry that regulates the line of the poem by counting the number of syllables in the line. Whereas Metrical Poetry counts stresses, Syllabic Poetry counts syllables only; stresses are not taken into consideration in the regulation of the line.

Syllabic English Verse is new; I would date it to the early twentieth century and specifically the work of Adelaide Crapsey. She is the first English speaking poet that I know of to suggest a strictly syllabic poetic form; the Cinquain, a five line form with a syllabic count of 2-4-6-8-2.

From a Metrical Verse point of view both Free Verse and Syllabic Verse are non-metrical because neither uses stresses, or poetic feet, to regulate the poetic line. Hence Eratosphere, whose founders seem to be metrical poets, put them in the same forum while placing Metrical Poetry in its own forum.

From a Free Verse point of view both Metrical Verse and Syllabic Verse are non-Free because both of them regulate their lines of poetry by counting, in contrast to Free Verse where the poetic line is unregulated and uncounted. From a Free Verse point of view it would make sense to place Metrical and Syllabic Verse in a shared forum, while having a separate forum for Free Verse.

It all depends on your starting point, where you stand determines how you are going to group these various approaches.

As I said, Syllabic Verse in English is new and in some ways it is still untested third way. I think it is fruitful to explore why a Syllabic approach to poetry would emerge in English culture at this time.

First, I think one reason is that English has become a world language. When English was confined to the British Isles, its accentual nature was clear to everyone and contrasted with languages, such as French, which were non-accentual in nature. But the emergence of English as a world language means that there is greater variance in how English is pronounced and that has implications for how a poet goes about constructing a poetic line in regulated verse.

Here is an example. In the U.S. the word “brochure” is accented on the second syllable – broCHURE. I was watching a British spy series once and a woman in the episode pointed out a BROchure – accent on the first syllable. An Australian friend of mine confirmed that in Australia broCHURES are BROchures. There are many examples like this.

The point here is that the metrical poet can no longer depend on readers placing a stress on the same syllable that the poet intends or that is common among the dialect the poet finds natural. As my Australian friend put it, “It’s safer to count syllables.” It is safer to count syllables because even though different English speaking dialects will stress a word like “brochure” differently, they both agree that the word has two syllables; so that syllable count is the same in Britain, the U.S., and Australia.

In modern metrical prosody that I have read this difficulty is ignored, as if it has no significance. But I think it is a problem for metrical approaches to English verse that can undermine a poet’s metrical efforts. For example, if a metrical poet is writing iambic lines, and they want the word “brochure” to instantiate an iambic pattern, not all speakers of English will read it that way. Some will read/hear it iambically and some will not. This undermines the basis for metrical construction.

There are today large communities of English speakers for whom English is a significant second language, or whose native language strongly permeates the manner in which their English is pronounced. In India alone there are millions of English speakers; the patterns of the native Hindi, or other language from the sub-continent, affect how their English is pronounced, stressed, and patterned. The same is true of a country like South Africa.

Another difficulty is that the metrical approach oversimplifies the stress patterns of English. Basically metrical verse divides syllables into stressed and unstressed. But the actual patterns of English are far more complex; there is a whole range of stresses from very strong to lightly touched. In addition there are patterns of elongation and diminution (where a vowel, for example, is drawn out, or clipped). These stress patterns are affected by the words surrounding a given word, by the emotional context when the word is spoken, by the dialect and region. It simply isn’t true that the syllabic nature of English can be reduced to just these two.

This observation has been met by some metrical poets by creating complex patterns of semi-stresses. Timothy Steele, the most articulate contemporary spokesman for metrical verse, uses these kinds of schemes in his book “All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing” (highly recommended). Though Steele’s presentation is nuanced and articulate, I find myself ultimately not convinced. I’m not convinced that the intermediary stress patterns actually constitute stress patterns that map onto classical poetic feet. Rather, it seems to me, that there are a wide variety of patterns which cannot be collapsed into the two categories of “stressed” and “unstressed”. An example is the phrase, often spoken by mothers, “Johnny, come in now.” It is in two beats, but the rhythm is jazzy, syncopated, and it is a rhythm that I have observed in numerous other contexts for five syllable statements. I don’t think it can be conflated to a simple stressed/unstressed pattern.

For the syllabic poet all these considerations are simply laid aside. The syllabic poet, by opting to count syllables instead of stresses and poetic feet, simply allows the variant stress patterns their free reign. The syllabic poet expects different stress patterns and therefore different pattern readings to be superimposed on the syllabic line. In reading a syllabic line the syllabic poet might alter the stress pattern deliberately at different readings in order to bring out different emotional nuances.

I think there is a third reason for the slow emergence of syllabic poetry in the English speaking world. This is speculative, but I have the feeling that the English language is undergoing a profound change. Because we are embedded in this transition it is difficult for us to hear it. But my suggestion is that the English language is becoming “flattened out”. I mean by “flattened out” that the dialects of English that are most strongly stressed are either disappearing or are being marginalized. Part of this is the influence of mass communication. Television tends to offer a type of English that is, relatively speaking, lacking in dramatic stress patterns. I think the idea behind this is that a relatively unstressed type of English can be understood by a broader audience than a dramatically stressed dialect, such as Scottish.

An additional factor, alluded to above, is the emergence of large communities of English speakers whose native languages are not strongly stressed. These communities have tended to carry that pattern of pronunciation into their English, creating an English which, compared to some English dialects, is only lightly stressed. I believe this has had an influence in what I refer to as a “flattened out” English.

I suspect that some early twentieth century English poets were intuitively aware of this shift in how English is spoken. Poets such as Adelaide Crapsey, Elizabeth Daryush, Richard Wright, Dylan Thomas, Thom Gunn, and others, all of whom wrote significant syllabic verse, intuited, I think, that English is ready for this approach.

Syllabic Verse is a third way for English poetry and still somewhat unsure of itself. It is neither Metrical Verse nor Free Verse. In my opinion, the early results of English Syllabic verse are indicative of great potential.


They wanted heros
So we gladly volunteered
To destroy our foes.
Alas, we were successful.
Now there's only dust and tears.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

First Day

All people
The touch of love
Descending on all from the source above

Saturday, March 6, 2010


We sang
I remember
Even as the fire fades to an ember

Friday, March 5, 2010

On the Forest Floor

Orchids are scattered
At the base of the redwood
Darkness is shattered

Thursday, March 4, 2010


On this quiet night
Under the moon's silver light
People are dreaming

As Devas offer guidance
In the silence of a glance

A possum freezes
In the headlights of a car
That brakes just in time

"It makes a big difference,
All that new insulation."

While folding laundry
She makes plans for tomorrow
And for next week

"I'm sorry you can't make it.
That's OK. Another time."

For him it's a song,
Even afer all these years,
The sound of her voice

Mingling with a steady wind
And the falling plum blossoms

Starlings are in flight
During the long, slow sunset
Clouds of red and gold

She begins her second job,
The bills just keep coming in

The weather report:
At least five more days of heat
And no rain in sight

In an abandoned building
A runaway finds a home

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Is brief
And it's long
Moments linger

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Land's End

Petals on the stream
That's now unfrozen
Suddenly wider
Sunset and ocean

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Pulse of the Poem

How to read a Chinese poem --
Find the pulse beneath the words,
The current that gives them life,
In this way the poem is heard.