Sunday, February 13, 2011

Happy Etheree Day!

Good Morning:

Today is Etheree Day, a day set aside for appreciation of the Etheree form of syllabic verse. I chose this day to celebrate the Etheree because it is the birthdate of Etheree Taylor Armstrong, the poet who first proposed this form sometime in the 1980's.

I have become enamored of this simple form. It is a ten-line form with the syllable count as follows: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. I have found that I enjoy the way it gradually opens up. I also like the way it concludes with a 10-syllable line, which is so strongly embedded in the English poetic tradition. The closing 10-syllable line often feels cadential in a rhythmic sense and has reverberations in much of traditional English poetry.

In honor of Etheree Day I thought I would take the time to review a book of Etheree poems by Carol Knepper. It is called "My World of Etherees".

If you want to know how Etheree are constructed I can't think of a better collection than this. Ms. Knepper has internalized the form and its dynamics in the way that sonnetteers sometimes internalize that form, so that the form becomes part of their consciousness. I get the impression that Ms. Knepper thinks in Etherees.

If you want to know the variations on the Etheree form that Etheree poets are developing I can't think of a better collection than this. Ms. Knepper has examples of the original form, which I noted above. She also has examples of the reverse Etheree (10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1), the double Etheree (both 10 to 1 and then 1 to 10, as well as 1 to 10 and then 10 to 1). She also has triple and quadruple Etheree and other variations. Ms. Knepper is playing with the form and the result is a reference volume for all these possible variations.

If there is a weakness in Ms. Knepper's collection I would say it has to do with lineation. At times I find the lineation arbitrary in the sense that she will sometimes end a line with a preposition or a conjunction or a verb that pulls us too quickly to the next line, weakning the sense of the unfolding of the form. Here is an example:

blood is
thicker than
water we might
wonder why at times
our closest friends are not
kin which perhaps is because


Almost every line in this particular Etheree has what I would think of as a weak ending. For example, I think "is thicker", "might wonder" and "not kin" naturally form units and when I write Etheree I tend to try to make the line ending more in sync with grammar. However, it neeeds to be pointed out that Ms. Knepper's approach to lineation is well within the standards of today's free verse, so others may not react in the way that I do. Also, I think that this weakness (if it is a weakness) does not fatally undermine the Etherees in which they appear.

Most of Ms. Knepper's Etherees are didactic; that is to say most of her Etherees express a point of view, offer an insight, or make a clear ethical point. Poetry has many purposes and didactic poetry has a long and rich history. The earliest example in the west I know of is Empedocles' philosophical poem where he presents his metaphysical views. Lucretius was another significant example of the didactic philosophical poem and his "On the Nature of Things" had a pervasive influence in the classical world.

My personal tendency is to compose descriptive poems, but some of my poems are didactic. The challenge of composing a didactic poem is to mould one's thoughts, or views, or opinions, within the formal constraints of the chosen form without sounding simplistic or preachy. Ms. Knepper manages to do this and the result is a thoughtful collection which tells us a lot about how Ms. Knepper views the world. She sounds like someone I would like to meet and have some discussions with regarding the issues of the day. Here's one of my favorite examples:

Time and Space: A Quadruple Etheree

goes on
in its way
even when we
feel that it pauses
for we are tiny specks
in this wondrous universe
yet in self-conceit we believe
that the planets revolve around us
yet it may be comforting to perceive
the minor nature of our own struggles
that so occupy those days and nights
since indeed each human problem
is naught but a speck of dust
when placed in perspective
hence helping us view
problems as less
in this

The Etheree continues for two more cycles. This is a really skillfully done work. Here the lineation is assured and clear. In addition, she sometimes will use rhyme to clarify lineation; note the "believe" and "perceive". Also note the three lines ending "less, momentous, this"; the repetitive "s" sound is used very effectively to define the lines at this point in the Etheree.

Not all of her Etherees are didactic. Some are seasonal and in these Ms. Knepper demonstrates that Etherees can illuminate classical nature topics as well. There is a series of four Etherees on each of the four seasons where each Etheree begins with the words "I love the . . .". They are all reverse Etheree, beginning with a 10 syllable line. They are wonderful evocations of the seasons.

So well done Ms. Knepper! And for those interested in Etheree I highly recommend this volume. The ISBN is 9780978231880. It is available from


Dan Gurney said...

Thank you, Jim, for this tip. I have really enjoyed the Etheree form and hope to spread my pleasure with it around. How good it would be to get it into the schools! I'll talk to Gwynn about this the next time I see her.

Jim714 said...

Hi Dan:

You speak my mind! I think kids would have great fun with the Etheree. It's structure is simple, yet long enough and interesting enough to keep kids engaged. The parameters are open enough (rhyme is permitted but not required, for example) that kids won't feel that it is too tight.

In this context of offering Etheree to kids, I've thought of the idea of having the first line, the one syllable line, given by the teacher or lesson. For example; 'spring', or 'rain', or 'night', or 'moon'. Then everyone in class continues from there. In other words all the kids will be writing on the same theme and then they get to share their observations/poems with each other. My guess is that there will be interesting overlaps and contrasts.

Just an idea.

I look forward to reading more of your Etheree.

Best wishes,