Wednesday, February 29, 2012


The first touch of night
Marks the eastern horizon
I've spent the whole day
Trying not to remember
The skill of your deception

Monday, February 27, 2012


Dear Friends:

The slower pace of posting recently is due primarily to changes Google/Blogspot have made in their Blogspot procedures.  A few weeks ago when I tried to post I received a message that Blogspot no longer 'supports' my browser.  The message recommended that I switch to 'Chrome'; that's the browser put out by Google.  I attempted to get around this.  I emailed a poet blogger who also uses Blogspot and asked if he had the same message.  He had received the same message, but did not like the new format.  Somehow he managed to get the old format back, but he didn't really know how that happened.

I'm of two minds about this.  First, I have the latest version of Internet Explorer.  That's the first thing I checked online.  I asked for an update via their downloads and was told that I had the latest version.  Part of me is disgruntled that Google is pushing me to use their own browser, Chrome.  It feels manipulative to me.  And unnecessary.  And not very good business practice either.

I realize that Google and Microsoft are in intense competition and I suppose that it makes sense that the consequences should ripple down to my tiny little corner of cyberspace here at Shaping Words.  On the other hand, I suspect that such an approach will alienate a good many bloggers.  But I don't know that; perhaps Google has done research and is willing to risk it.

To continue: I downloaded Chrome and that is how I have been able to post recently.  But I'm kind of bummed out about being forced to do so.  I started looking at other blog sites, but I wouldn't want to change to another site unless I could take the past posts with me.  Maybe I can, but I don't know how to do it.

At least one fellow blogger I have email contact with is taking concrete steps to move his blog to another blog site because of these difficulties.  So it is a possibility.

I'm not coming to any conclusions as yet.  Just letting the readers of Shaping Words know what's going on.  I'm sure it will all work out.

Best wishes,


Modes of Communication

Are rarer
Than they were before
They require a slower pace
Than hurling thoughtless words into cyberspace

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Mountains in the sky --
The path that begins with grace
Continues when I die

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Watching You -- A Review

Watching You
A Collection of Tetractys Poems
By Leonard Dabydeen

Published by Xlibris
ISBN: 9781469148021

English syllabic poetry has been marked by the appearance of many new forms.  Ever since Adelaide Crapsey created her 'Cinquain' in the early 20th century other syllabic forms have emerged.  I am referring here to forms created by native English speakers as opposed to syllabic forms borrowed from other countries like Haiku or Sijo.

One of these new forms of syllabic poetry is the Tetractys.  It is a five line form with the syllable count as follows: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 10.  It was created by the British poet Ray Stebbing in either the 1980's or 1990's; I'm not sure of the exact date.  I have noticed the Tetractys form appearing in recent anthologies of modern poetry and in works by a single author centered on a variety of syllabic forms.

'Watching You', however, is the first collection I know of devoted exclusively to the Tetractys.  (This blog, incidentally, is quoted in the 'Introduction' which makes this book of poetry a nice acknowledgement that some people really are reading this blog.)  At 126 pages with 110 Tetractys poems it is a substantial collection.

The challenge of the Tetractys lies in the first four lines.  I think of any line under five syllables as a 'very short line'.  There are a number of forms that start with very short lines: Fibonacci, Etheree, Lanterne, and Tetractys are four such forms.  There seems to be an attraction to the very short line among English syllabic poets.

My own approach to the very short line is to adopt a 'list' approach to these lines.  I think of the way a shopping list works and then adapt that to the very short lines.  For this reason most of my very short lines consist of nouns, with an occasional modifier like 'dark' or 'cold'.

Dabydeen takes a different approach to the very short line and I found this difference attractive.  Many of Dabydeen's Tetractys start with a pronoun such as We, I, His, My, You, etc.  I believe that this is Dabydeen's most common way to approach the first line of one syllable.  What Dabydeen does is to use grammar to support lineation.  Here's an example:

Music Playing

to the sound
of falling rain
music playing on the top of my van.

(Page 27)

Line 1 is the subject, line 2 is the verb, line 3 is the direct object, line 4 is a prepositional phrase, and line 5 is a metaphor summing up the first four lines.  I think this kind of construction is neat; it's almost like diagramming a sentence, except that line 5 takes us off into more poetic regions.

So Dabydeen doesn't use the list approach that I have cultivated.  And one of the reasons I enjoyed this collection is that Dabydeen offers a different solution to the very short line than the one I am used to, and does it very well.

Not all of Dabydeen's Tetractys begin with a pronoun:

Like Endless Tears

like endless tears
I watch the raindrops coming to my home.

(Page 26)

Notice that same structural pattern.  Line 1 is the subject, line 2 is the verb, line 3 the direct object, line 4 a metaphor expanding on line three, and line 5 takes an introspective turn.  In both of the quoted Tetractys line 5 is a turn in a different direction.  The ten syllables of the last line are expansive enough to do that while at the same time remaining connected to the first four lines.

Many of Dabydeen's poems are Double Tetractys:

Smoke (1)

swirl upward
towards the sky
making shapes like a lonely artist.

I watch the embers of fire in silence
poking my mind
making faces
just like

(Page 103)

Notice that line 8 is four syllables, where strict adherence would require a three-syallble line.  Dabydeen is confident enough in his approach, and has internalized the form enough, that he will, in rare instances, change the line count by a syllable.  When reading this I didn't even notice the discrepancy until I actually began counting lines of poems.  The overall effect of the tetractys is maintained.

The double Tetractys has a strong sense of closure, while the original five-line Tetractys has a feeling of a suddenly opened door.  Dabydeen is at ease with the different effects the two forms have.

Dabydeen titles all of his poems; usually the titles are taken from the poem itself, highlighting what Dabydeen considers central.

In the 'Introduction' Dabydeen writes (referring to himself in the third person), "With free verse predominant in his creative spirit, Leonard Dabydeen strutted along the poetry path with commentaries and discussions among many top-ranking internet poets, including members of the Indian Poetry Society on Facebook.  However, it was the mathematical framework of the tetractys poem that enthused his creative mind to build a collection for readers of any genre:

I Indulge

in deep thoughts
flowering plants
shaping beauty and sculptured happiness

And so in this debut collection of tetractys poems, 'Watching You', the author shares his indulgence with utmost intensity in a creative world."

I'm happy to see that the tetractys has generated such enthusiasm.  I look forward to more from Dabydeen, hopefully soon.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


I don't know the name
(It isn't apple or plum)
Of those white blossoms

On the tree across the creek
At the State Park where I hike

Two blackbirds keep watch,
You cannot be too careful,
You just never know

What is around the corner;
Perhaps a summer romance

But he is thinking
Of something more enduring
Maybe she'll agree

A seed falls upon the ground
Waiting for the rain to fall

After the clouds clear
And after the sun has set
The October moon

Permeates the business park
When the cleaning crews depart

The raccoons come out;
There are lots of discarded,
Half-eaten lunches

Time to clear out the closet
Of things she will never use

In the Museum
Of Natural History
Stacked trays of fossils

Mom's sweater, knit years before,
Still keeps him warm in the snow

Monday, February 13, 2012

Etheree Day 2012

Etheree Day 2012

Today is February 13th. That makes it Etheree Day, a day set aside to celebrate the Etheree form. I think most of the people reading this blog will know by now the design of the Etheree. But for those who do not, it is a ten line form with the first line consisting of one syllable, the second line consisting of two syllables, the third of three, on up to the tenth line which consists of ten syllables. In other words, a ten line poem with the syllable count as follows: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. The total count is 55 syllables.

I have developed a lasting fondness for this form. I like the simplicity of it and the overall feel of the form. The Etheree resembles a bud slowly opening. Or the way an acquaintance develops into a friend; first there is a kind of hesitant getting to know the other person, then the conversation and feeling, after a time, flows more freely.

This year I have discovered that at times the energy of an Etheree I am working on propels me to continue composing past the tenth line. I’ve written a number of eleven-line Etheree as well as twelve-line Etheree. I still consider them to be Etheree; they are variations on the form like an eight or twelve syllable per line sonnet.

A friend of mine who sometimes composes Etheree told me she prefers the reverse Etheree which is also ten lines, but reverses the syllable count as follows: 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. She likes the way the reverse Etheree gradually comes to a close.

Because the Etheree is so new (I believe it was launched either in the late 80’s or early 90’s) the Etheree lacks the weight of tradition behind it. This allows people to experiment with the form rather freely without feeling that they are challenging some kind of Etheree heritage. I know that for me I quickly became aware of that sense of esthetic freedom with the Etheree form. I mean that there is not at this time any great Etheree Master that looms over the form. And there is no American Etheree Association advocating for a specific approach to the form. The Etheree is still too new for that.

I’ve discovered several things writing Etheree. The first is how endrhyme in Etheree has a unique effect. Because each line is one syllable longer than the previous line, end rhyme in Etheree don’t fall quite where the listener would routinely expect it, yet the endrhyme is close enough to be effective and to feel strongly like a traditional endrhyme. A series of 3, 4, or 5 lines with a common endrhyme really pulls the Etheree along and gives the reader/listener a strong sonic clue as to the shape of the form.

I’ve also learned more about how the Etheree is an excellent form for painting a picture. The early lines of an Etheree are like single brush strokes on a canvas. The later lines are long enough to add more complete detail. The incompleteness of the early lines draws the reader into the poem and as the lines become longer and the picture more complete there is a kind of satisfaction at having the complete image finally revealed.

I think what I would like to focus more on is how the Etheree might incorporate a pivot line, or a shift, or juxtaposition. These are commonly used in Haiku and Tanka, but I notice that I have only rarely used them in Etheree. I suspect that they could find a place in the Etheree form.

In honor of Etheree day take some time to compose your own Etheree. I think you will enjoy it. Here’s a recent Etheree of mine:


Late breakfast
At the café
I sit by myself
Looking out the window
At the busy parking lot
While old songs from the seventies
Bring to my mind a forgotten past –

A crow from the future lands on a fence

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Gift River

Received from the source
It is the end of all remorse
Like the plum that is blossoming in the winter snow
The heart slowly opens though surrounded by sin in the presence of this endless flow

Friday, February 10, 2012

Long Night

Suddenly quiet
But for one schizophrenic --
The winter shelter

Winter Dawn

There's not a cloud in the sky
The first frost is on the ground
Two crows are exchanging cries
Otherwise there's not a sound

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Latest

"Inside the Scandel!" --
A discarded magazine
By the winter creek

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hermit Song

Solitude is beautiful
Silence is a rare flower
Blossoms of eternity
Manifesting at each hour

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mirages Everywhere

The two
Or neither
The inbetween land
Like shapes briefly seen in the sand

Monday, February 6, 2012

Renga Ramblings 3

Renga Ramblings 3

The Seven Topics of Renga

The second step in composing a solo renga is to know where to place the required seven topics. This, in turn, means being familiar with these topics. The renga poet needs to have these seven topics internalized; that is to say the renga poet needs to study them, how other poets use these topics, images that are associated with these topics, etc.

The seven topics of renga are: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter (the four seasons), the Moon, Love, and Blossoms.

Every renga has these seven topics mentioned at least once (well, almost every renga; there are always exceptions, but stay with me here). When I say ‘mentioned’ I mean that at least one verse in a renga is devoted to each of these seven topics.

Why these seven? Part of the reason is historical. The early anthologies of Waka, now known as Tanka, were arranged by topic. All of the topics in renga are found in these anthologies. Each of the four seasons constitute chapters in these anthologies, as do Tanka on love. Moon verses feature prominently in these collections as well. And in the spring section there is extensive treatment of Waka focused on the blossoming of fruit trees; usually plum or cherry.

There is another reason and that has to do with ‘essence’. The four seasons (representing five required verses including the blossom verse), the unfolding of love, and the phases of the moon all have an underlying similarity of process. They all wax and wane and exhibit features found in all the other categories. There is, in other words, an underlying unity in these seemingly disparate topics.

The seven required topics collectively form a cosmology. The moon is a celestial appearance. The seasons are a manifestation of the earth. And love is, in many respects, the central human concern and preoccupation. Together, these seven topics embrace heaven, earth, and humanity. When these seven topics are included in a renga a full cosmology is displayed.

When I say that renga is a kind of cosmology I mean by that a poetic cosmology. Scientific cosmologies are analytical and in order to understand them you have to enter into abstractions. Philosophical cosmologies (say Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’) are also highly abstract and require knowledge of specialized vocabulary and how to follow inferential structures. Religious cosmologies are not as abstract as scientific or philosophical cosmologies and they are closer to a poetic cosmology. However, they tend to be embedded in a particular narrative and appeal to a specific set of believers (I say this as a believer myself, so that’s not a criticism).

A poetic cosmology is based on images rather than abstractions or narratives. Renga is a cosmology of images. The absence of a narrative structure in renga is one of its singular features. Such absence assists in entering into its cosmological nature. When I say renga is a poetic cosmology I mean that renga displays a cosmology rather than discussing a cosmology, or inferring a cosmology. Renga says ‘Look, the cosmos is like this’, and then gives us examples of the ‘like this’.

The seven topics of renga are the way that renga presents its cosmology and that is why they are so significant. To compose renga is to learn to see the world from the perspective of this understanding.

Different renga forms are distinguished by exactly where the specific topics are placed. For example, there are three 12-verse forms I know of and though the overall count of their verses is the same (12), the placement of the seven topics differs. Those beginning renga need to learn where the form they are interested in places these topics in order to construct a renga correctly. It is as necessary for the renga poet to know these placements as it is for the sonneteer to know the various rhyme schemes of the sonnet.

Fortunately, this information is readily available online. You can go to various sites devoted to renga (or renku, as it is often called), and find the form you are interested in. There you will find templates that detail where specific topics are placed for specific renga forms.

The variations in topic placement among different forms at first can be confusing. That’s why I think it is a good idea for the beginning solo renga poet to learn one of the 12-verse forms first. The 12-verse forms are a good way of learning how a form distributes the seven topics. Once you have got that settled, you can move on to other forms easily.

There is another way of distributing the topics and that is to use chance. Once again, the reader should note that this is eccentric and atypical. If you join in with a communal renga, this method will not be used. But if you are writing a solo renga it is an option. I have found it fruitful as the chance distribution of the topics creates placements that are challenging and sometimes illuminating as to the underlying essence of these topics.

If you are adventurous and want to use such an approach, I recommend using dice. Say you decide to write a 20 verse renga. Get a 20-sided die. Write down the seven topics on paper. The opening verse of every renga should reflect the season that one is in. Right now it is winter. So by ‘winter’ put ‘verse 1’. Now you have six topics left: spring, summer, fall, moon, love, and blossom. If you want to stay with most traditional layouts, the blossom verse will be the penultimate verse. So by ‘blossom’ put ‘verse 19’. Now you have five topics left: spring, summer, fall, moon, and love.

Take your 20-sided die and roll it. Say you come up with 16. Place by ‘spring’, ‘verse 16’. And continue on in this fashion.

Sometimes it is the case that you will get awkward juxtapositions or duplicates. If verse 16 is ‘spring’ and then when you roll for fall and get ‘16’ again, that won’t work. You can roll again. Or, I usually just move it two to five verses away; designating verse 11, for example, as the ‘fall’ verse.

Other duplicates, though, represent a challenge and should not necessarily be avoided. For example, if verse 16 is ‘spring’, and then when you roll the die for the ‘love’ verse you also get 16, I would keep that. When I reach verse 16 I will attempt a verse that is both a spring and a love verse. Or, again, I can move the love verse away, placing it elsewhere. Whichever you prefer.

Reading this I suspect it sounds complicated. But it isn’t any more complicated than, for example, laying out the repetitions and refrains for a villanelle or sestina. At the beginning I don’t recommend using dice as I described above. For beginners composing solo renga I recommend the 12-verse Shisan or Junicho. The topic placement is natural and comprehensible. It is an excellent place for the solo renga poet to start.

The first step for composing solo renga is to choose the length of the renga, the number of verses that the renga will contain. The second step is to distribute the seven topics (spring, summer, fall, winter, moon, love, and blossom) through the renga. For both aspects get to know the classic templates and proceeding will be easier. Once you have the length of the renga and the topic placement down you now have the scaffolding in place. Just like with a sestina or villanelle, which also require knowing the scaffolding of the form, this blueprint is there to mark your way. Think of it as a map you will you use as you work your way through the renga.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Renga Ramblings 2: The First Step

Renga Ramblings 2

The First Step

When writing a solo renga the first step is to decide how long it should be, how many verses the renga should have. In the past this was not an issue. In Sogi’s day renga were almost always 100 verses long. Basho wrote 36 verse renga (as far as I know his renga are exclusively in this form; at least I haven’t heard of Basho engaging in any other lengths). The number of verses also is not usually an issue if you are composing communal renga; renga involving a group which is the usual way of composing renga. If you receive an invitation to join a renga group, the invitation almost always comes with the type of renga specified so that you know in advance how many verses the renga will be. If you are sending out invitations you will usually tell people you are looking for partners to compose a 12 verse, or 22 verse, or 36 verse form. But for solo renga the length is up to you and the length of the renga becomes your first decision.

These days there are numerous renga forms. The 12 verse forms are popular; there are at least three versions of 12 verse renga. Then there are 20 verse, 22 verse, 36 verse, and many others besides.

Partly I decide on the length based on how much time I want to spend on the renga. For example, it is possible for someone familiar with renga to compose a 12 verse renga in an hour or two. On the other hand, a 100 verse renga can take months. Sogi’s famous 100 verse renga, ‘Sogi Alone’, took four months to compose. When I decided to do a solo 100 verse renga, ‘100 Verses at Sebastopol’, it took me about four months as well. A 100 verse renga is a big commitment, but it is also highly rewarding. However, I don’t recommend it for those first starting out with renga.

For those new to renga and wanting to try their hand at solo renga, I recommend beginning with one of the 12 verse forms. The compactness of the form allows the poet to keep track of requirements like topical placement and repetition exclusions more easily than with longer forms. And like I said, once you are familiar with the overall renga form, a 12 verse version of renga can be done in a few hours.

Often I decide on the length by throwing dice or using an online random number generator. I know this will strike some as eccentric and it is. But using such an approach has given me an opportunity to compose renga of unfamiliar lengths; such as 13 or 19 verses. So if you feel adventurous, you can use such an approach as well. The big disadvantage of using this approach is that you won’t have templates to follow. I mean that if you are writing a 12 verse renga form you can go online and follow a template for a 12 verse form. In addition, you can read renga composed by others in this form which is a good way of learning how a particular form works. If you roll the dice and come up with 18 verses or 33 verses, this will mean being flexible and allowing yourself to adapt and incorporate renga structures from other more widely used forms. On the other hand, I have found using dice, or other random number mechanisms, offers an opportunity to create unique patterns of flow and connection. It’s up to you.

What has become apparent to me, after years of renga composition, is that renga can be any number of verses long. Practically speaking 12 verses seems to be the lower limit. (As a challenge to myself I once wrote an 8 verse renga, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s theoretically possible, but it is also crowded.) The 12 verse renga form is the practical lower limit because renga requires seven topics be distributed through the renga. And if one includes intervening verses between the required topical verses, 12 seems to be what is minimally necessary. (I’ll have more to say about these required topics in a future post.)

So, again, the first step in solo renga composition is to decide how many verses for this particular renga. The range is great: from 12 verses to 100. I suggest trying several different lengths. Start with a 12 verse form. Then try the 20 verse form. The 22 verse form is also excellent and it is surprising how just adding the two extra verses changes the flow of the renga from the 20 verse form. And there is the classic 36 verse form which Basho loved.

What I have observed is that after some familiarity with different verse lengths, people often feel attracted to a particular length-type. The 12 verse form has many virtues: conciseness, steady pace, and simplicity. I have a fondness for the 20 verse form: it allows for more development and its pace feels more leisurely to me. The 36 verse form also has the virtues of more time for development and more leisure.

So explore the various lengths. Eventually as a solo renga poet you will find the verse length which attracts you the most.


The dawn breaks swiftly,
Sunlight upon the cold ground,
After the long night

The first crew of the morning
At the insurance office

He makes three quick calls
To the girls he's been dating --
Saturday night plans

Strolling the paths of the park
Even in the steady heat

She waves to a friend
She hasn't seen since college,
They both have kids now

At the congested airport
Crowds are coming and going

Unnoticed fall leaves
Caught in the backpack straps
And the coat collar

Hiking in the wilderness
Under the November sky

Swiftly moving clouds
Casting shadows on the pond
A cautious deer drinks

The waxing first quarter moon
With Jupiter by its side

Seen through the branches
Of the blossoming plum tree
A neighbor's porch light

Traffic on the city streets
Slowly fades into silence