Saturday, January 29, 2011

Flow of Grace

The silent morning;
The sound of the rising sun
In the winter air

While eating a quick breakfast
He wanders through cyberspace

There is just a trace
Left of the first settlement
In the field of wheat

She walks away, she retreats
From the family gathering

As the moon, singing
In the crisp October air,
Disples the darkness

The Matins Psalms as witness
To the endless flow of grace

He longs for the face
Of one who has departed
Many years ago

"All's impermanent," I know
This truth as a comforter

The Russian River,
Keeper of the tides of time,
Like a melody

The blossoms of the plum tree
Open in the gentle wind

"I think we should end
This quarrel we have had.
Life is very short."

Though she thought of a quick retort
It no longer felt important.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Here's a light verse Tanka, penned on the occasion of Syllabic Tanka Day. Those who have worked in retail will, I think, like it:

He wants a latte
With soy milk, not too much foam
With room at the top
For some cinnamon sprinkles . . .
The barrista's face wrinkles

English Syllabic Tanka Day


Today is Syllabic Tanka Day. More precisely, it is English Syllabic Tanka Day. It is a day set aside to celebrate Tanka, written in English that follows the syllabic pattern of 5-7-5-7-7.

For nearly 1,400 years Japanese poets have found the form of Tanka congenial for poetic expression. This makes Tanka one of the oldest continuously written syllabic forms in the world. In addition, Tanka is the root of all other currently written forms of Japanese poetry, including Renga and Haiku.

Tanka came to the U.S. late. People began writing Tanka only in the later half of the 20th century. My sense is that it has yet to take root; it is still a form whose potential in English is being explored. My observation has been that the defining form, the 5-7-5-7-7, is not yet secure among Tanka poets in English.

Which makes this day all the more worthwhile celebrating. Take some time to read some English language formal Tanka that is based on the centuries old syllabics of 5-7-5-7-7; perhaps some of Neal Lawrence's Tanka are worth reading today, or the Tanka found in "The Calligraphy of Clouds" by Yeshaya Rotbard.

Better yet, compose some syllabic Tanka on your own. It is a rich form, possessing a deeply musical quality. I think you will find it eminently satisfying and when you do write syllabic Tanka you will join in with some of the most celebrated poets in Japanese history.

Enjoy Syllabic Tanka Day!


Friday, January 21, 2011

The Intention of the Author: Part 2

To fill out what I mentioned in Part 1, I'd like to give some theoretical examples that would mimic what happened to Emily Dickinson's poetry. I like syllabic poetry and I have a special fondness for syllabic quatrains. Syllabic quatrains have a regular line; that is to say that all the lines of the quatrains have the same number of syllables.

Suppose I were to take Walt Whitman's poems and reshape them in accordance with my personal likes. I mean suppose I made all of Whitman's lines regular, and, for good measure, tossed in some strong end rhymes.

I think most people would see this as undermining Whitman's intention as an author. At best I think my rewrite could be viewed as 'poems inspired by Whitman', but I think it would be a mistake to think of them as Whitman's poems.

In a previous post I spoke about taking Shakespeare's Sonnets and reworking them in accord with modern free verse norms. In other words, Shakespeare's Sonnets would be transformed into lines of irregular length, end-rhymes would be removed, metaphors translated or eliminated. Again, I think most people would be able to see this as undermining Shakespeare's intention. Again, at best these rewrites might be considered 'poems inspired by Shakespeare's Sonnets', but it would be a mistake to think of them as the actual Sonnets of Shakespeare.

What I'd like to suggest is that the same logic can be applied to translation. I mean that the intention of the author should be primary and to the degree that it is possible, the intention of the author, the poet, should be manifest and visible in the language into which the poems are translated.

What has happened, however, is that the intention of the author is often ignored and what is offered instead are a version of the original that bears no formal relationship to the original. Here is an example of what I mean: traditional Chinese poetry is syllabic, formal, and uses end rhyme. Traditional Chinese poetry is not free verse. Yet the way Chinese poetry has been translated into English leaves the English speaking public with the strong impression that Chinese poetry, even ancient or traditional Chinese poetry, is a type of free verse and that it closely resembles modern free verse norms. I'd like to suggest that this situation could only come about by ignoring the intention of the author and imposing on the poem an esthetic which is alien to the author's intention, thereby denying the reader access to a representation of what the author actually wrote.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Waves roll in from the ocean,
How long will the ocean last?
How long will clouds grace the sky?
Endlessness is hard to grasp.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Intention of the Author -- Part 1

When Emily Dickinson died in 1886 her close relatives entered her house and eventually her private room where she wrote poetry. This was a small room upstairs. It had a small desk in front of a window and it was at this desk (really just a small table) where, evidently, she wrote her poems.

They discovered thousands of poems separated into neatly bundled packets, tied together with ribbons. This took everyone by surprise. Although Dickinson's interest in poetry was known, and she had published a few poems decades before, and although her letters often contained poetry, she kept this collection hidden away.

Her relatives recognized the high quality of the poems and set about getting them published. They faced one difficulty. Emily's poems were, in some ways, eccentric by the standards of the time. Her sense of rhyme was quirky, her rhythms sometimes awkward in the sense that one line of a poem might have a few extra, or a few too few, beats.

So her family set about editing the poems. Smoothing out the rhythm and reworking the rhymes so that the rhymes were all 'pure' and slant rhymes were removed as much as possible. The intent was generous; they wanted to get Emily's poetry out into the world.

For many decades the Emily Dickinson people read and knew was this edited version. It was only in 1955 that the poems were published as Dickinson had written them, with all their irregularities retained, including sometimes eccentric spelling.

Today people prefer to read the version that Dickinson wrote.


This isn't obvious. Some of the edited versions are good poetry, are memorable and, I think, would receive good comments at a contemporary poetry seminar. It's not that the edited versions are terrible or lacking in any value. People enjoyed and admired the edited versions for many decades.

What is critical, I think, is that the version we read today reflects Dickinson's intention. That is to say the poems we read today are the poems she intended to write. The earlier versions are interpretations, or commentaries, on Dickinson's poems. The earlier versions stand between us and Dickinson, blocking our access to what she actually wrote. I think it is for this reason that today we prefer to read the unedited version rather than the sometimes more polished versions that were first published, but did not reflect Dickinson's unique voice.

This is the first post in a series about the intention of the author and translation, and how this has effected the access that we have to foreign-language poetry, particularly that of China and Japan. As I progress in this series I would like the reader to keep this example of Dickinson's poetry in mind. I'm going to use it as a template, or a measure, regarding a cluster of issues that center on translation.

Come What May

At the coffee shop,
"I've a confession to make . . ." --
The winter storm's stopped.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Greetings for 2011

Good Friends:

I've been absent from this blog for a bit. First it was the holiday rush at work my dayjob. Then my access to the net ran into some problems. And after the holidays I experienced a kind of post-holiday crash and I didn't want to do much. Just sort of taking a rest seemed in order.

But two to three weeks is enough of that!!

Here's wishing you all a prosperous and poetry filled 2011.

Best wishes,


January Morning

The oak tree's branches
Shrouded in the winter fog --
Last night's dreams