Friday, November 9, 2012

On Definitions, Recipes, and Rules

On Definitions, Recipes, and Rules

When looking at a particular syllabic form we work with a group of characteristics.  For example, the Tetractys form has the following characteristics:

1.         Five lines
2.         Syllable count for each line is determined: 1-2-3-4-10
            Alternatively, you could look at this as five distinct characteristics:
2.1       Line 1 has one syllable
2.2       Line 2 has two syllables
2.3       Line 3 has three syllables
2.4       Line 4 has four syllables
2.5       Line 5 has 10 syllables
3.         Line 1 should not consist of the articles ‘the’ or ‘a’
            This characteristic was put forth by the originator.
4.         There is a title

Now, how do we relate to this group of characteristics?  There are several approaches.

The first approach is that they are rules in the sense of rules of a game.  From this perspective if you compose a poem and the poem strays from even one of these characteristics, then you have not composed a Tetractys.  Rules of a game are determinative in the sense that if you violate the rules you are cheating.  For example, if we are playing chess and I move a pawn diagonally, that would be cheating.  It would not be considered an ‘alternative’ play.  It would simply be wrong.  If we view the characteristics of a poetic form in this way then we would conclude that a Tetractys that differs from the listed form was simply not a Tetractys, in the same way that if I make a move in chess that is outside of the rules of play I am no longer actually playing chess.

A second way of looking at the characteristics of a form is to regard them as a definition of the form.  Let’s use as an example a traditional listing of Haiku characteristics:

1.         A three line poem
2.1       Line 1 has five syllables
2.2       Line 2 has seven syllables
2.3       Line 3 has five syllables
3.         Somewhere in the poem will be a seasonal reference
4.         There is no title

This is a good summary of a traditional view of Haiku.  If you take this last as definitive, as a definition, then if you come across a Haiku that deviates from this list you will conclude that it is not a ‘real’ Haiku.  It is similar to coming across a statue of a rabbit and concluding that it is not a ‘real’ rabbit.  It may have some of the characteristics of a rabbit, but in essence it is not a rabbit because it lacks life and other characteristics, such as motion.  It is a representation of a rabbit, but it lacks ‘rabbitness’.  Similarly, a traditional view of Haiku might view a three line poem in 5-7-5, but that does not have a seasonal reference, as lacking in ‘haikuness’; the essence of Haiku is simply not there.

A third way of looking at the characteristics of a form is that they are a recipe for generating the form.  From this perspective the characteristics are ingredients which, combined, produce the form in question.  Let’s take the Cinquain:

1.         A five line poem
2.1       Line 1 has two syllables
2.2       Line 2 has four syllables
2.3       Line 3 has six syllables
2.4       Line 4 has eight syllables
2.5       Line 5 has two syllables
3.         There is a title

From the perspective of a recipe the idea is to combine all these ‘ingredients’ and by so doing you will produce a Cinquain.  It may or may not be a good Cinquain, but if it has all of these characteristics it will be considered a Cinquain.

The recipe model allows for deviations from the given recipe.  For example, if I am making bread pudding and the recipe calls for cinnamon, but I have run out, I might add some other seasoning, or just drop the cinnamon.  But I would still consider it to be bread pudding.  The recipe model is not based on the idea of essence, nor does the recipe model function in the same way as rules do.  It is not cheating to make a substitution in a recipe for bread pudding.  I might make a substitution out of necessity or out of choice, but in either case it is simply a variation on the recipe.

Similarly, if I look at the characteristics of a given syllabic form as ingredients in a recipe, that allows for substitutions.  In Haiku this would allow for non-seasonal Haiku, or for a line that is longer or shorter than the recipe.  For the Cinquain it might allow for a concluding line that is one syllable, or three syllables; these would be two variations on the recipe.  From the perspective of a recipe I would not be cheating.  And from the perspective of a recipe I would not be moving away from the ‘essence’ of the form because a recipe is not a matter of essences.  A recipe is a matter of outlining a procedure; a recipe is craft oriented rather than essence oriented.

Personally, I have found the recipe model to be rewarding.  Though recipes allow for changes and deviations from the listed ingredients, I also find myself realizing that there is a lot of inherited wisdom in a recipe.  It is good to take the recipe seriously because the recipe is the distilled inheritance of many practitioners’ understanding. 

Using a recipe based view of syllabic form allows for a relaxed response when one runs across the occasional Haiku by Basho that deviates, plus or minus, from the standard count.  It allows for variations on the form as sub-categories that can take on their own life.

Here’s an example of what I mean from the world of tea.  One of the world’s favorite black teas is Earl Grey.  The recipe for Earl Grey is:

1.         A blend of black tea
2.         Bergamot oil

If these two ingredients are present, you have Earl Grey.

But over time people have creatively engaged with Early Grey and come up with the following variations:

Lady Grey

1.         A blend of black tea
2.         Bergamot oil
3.         Lavender

Earl Grey Green

1.         A green tea
2.         Bergamot oil

London Fog

1.         A blend of black tea
2.         Bergamot oil
3.         Rose
4.         Cream

Victorian Earl Grey

1.         A blend of black tea
2.         Bergamot oil
4.         Lemon oil
5.         Cornflower

And there are many other variations as well.

Something similar has happened to the Sonnet.  Different rhyme schemes have defined sub-categories of the Sonnet so you have Shakespearean, Petrarchan, Spencerian, Terza Rima, etc.  Each of these sub-categories can then engender further variations.

Using the model of a recipe, we can see what has happened to Haiku in the west.  Just as Earl Grey Tea has developed many offshoots, so Haiku in the west has developed many variations.  Syllabic Haiku is a variation from the tradition in that it drops the seasonal reference as a necessary, though often cultivated, ingredient in the list.  Free Verse Haiku has kept the three line ingredient (for the most part), but dropped the syllable count and seasonal reference ingredients.  Just as the different types of Earl Grey are all legitimate variations, so also the different types of Haiku are all legitimate expressions of the poetic impulse.  But they are different; just as Early Grey Green is different from the Earl Grey types that use a black tea base.  They taste different and they appeal to different types of people.  So also the different types of Haiku ‘taste’ different and will appeal to different types of poetic sensibility.

From the perspective of a recipe, an interesting question is ‘how far can one go in changing the ingredients before you are now creating something else’?  I don’t think there is a way to answer this question.  I think one has to rely more on a sense of feeling.

When I was working my way through graduate school I worked as a waiter at a creperie, a restaurant that specialized in many kinds of crepe (I think it was called ‘The Magic Pan’).  One day I was taking an order and the customer ordered the ‘chicken crepe’ lunch from the list.  Then the customer asked if they could substitute the ‘crab crepe for the chicken crepe and the spinach salad for the tossed salad’.  You see the ‘crab crepe lunch’ was more expensive.  So the customer wanted the chicken crepe price but a crab crepe lunch.  As politely as I could I declined the substitutions and the customer ordered something else.

The point of the story is that when we make substitutions in a recipe, or any kind of aggregate, there comes a point where we are constrained to think that we have gone beyond the parameters of the ‘form’; whatever it might be.  But this sense of having gone beyond is going to be different for different people.  I don’t know of an objective way to make this determination; again I think it is more feeling based.

For example, if someone offered me ‘Earl Grey’, but it did not have bergamot oil, I would be inclined to think it wasn’t ‘really’ Earl Grey.  But suppose it contained other citrus oils (Bergamot is a citrus and the oil of Bergamot is what is used in Earl Grey).  Some might consider using a combination of different citrus oils to be ‘close enough’ to Earl Grey to qualify as a type of Earl Grey.  It might be called ‘Earl Grey Orange’, for example.  Again, I do not know of any objective way of making this kind of determination and the two of us would likely have to agree to disagree about what constitutes ‘genuine’ Earl Grey.

But to return to poetic forms; my sense is that many of the discussions about poetic form, especially those surrounding Haiku, are essence based.  I fall into that view myself at times even though I strongly incline towards a recipe view of poetic form.  In part this is derived from Japanese views of essence (Japanese: honi).  This view of essence is not often explicitly touched on, but it lies behind many of the presentations of formal Japanese verse.  I understand this view; it makes sense.  But it also leads to unnecessary rancor.  A recipe view undermines the feeling that everyone must compose according to the same ingredients.  There is no reason, for example, why syllabic and free verse Haiku cannot live side by side.  They use different recipes, for sure, but that should be OK. 

Philosophically, the three views of form (rule based, essence based, and recipe based) probably appeal to different types of people.  And whether or not an individual has one or the other view is likely to be related to how that individual views other areas in their life.  The three views reflect deeply held metaphysical positions that are not often consciously examined.  In addition, I do not think it is possible to make a final determination as to which approach is superior.  Essence and rule based approaches have the virtue of continuity and are more likely to preserve tradition and pass it on to the next generation.  A recipe based approach can be more innovative and allows for more creativity in terms of the characteristics themselves; though essence and rule based approaches can be just as creative.  And perhaps, in the end, they are not mutually exclusive.  Perhaps they are more like on a continuum.  I have noticed that at different times in my life I have been more drawn to an essence based view, while at other times more drawn to a recipe based view. 

But it is good to take a look at how one relates to these characteristics.  By becoming consciously aware of how we relate to them we can communicate more clearly about our own view and comprehend more accurately those who take a different approach.  This increases our understanding of each other and I think that is a good thing.

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