Monday, May 28, 2012

Found Prayer

After the sunset
The first stars in the May sky --
Deo Gratias

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sky River

A steady headache
It must be the endless heat
Day after long day

The Perfection of Patience
Is difficult to achieve

Dust from the mountain
Settles on the valley floor
And the constant wind

With the setting of the sun
The Rabbi reads Tehillum

The full moon rises
Above the city skyscape
Angels are watching

Tides of time upon the earth
Species appear and disappear

The temperature falls
Ice thick upon the window,
The silent T.V.

On the couch an open book
In your eyes a memory

They are holding hands
Just like thirty years ago
When they first dated

Plum and crocus are blooming
As shifting winds melt the snow

"Let's all take a break,"
Says the English Professor,
"Just a few minutes."

A heron watches the sky
On the surface of a stream

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Haiku Commentary 1 -- Richard Wright's Opening Haiku

Haiku Commentary: Richard Wright Haiku 1

Richard Wright’s collection opens with this Haiku:

I am nobody:
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away.

This type of Haiku is both introspective and objective/descriptive.  I think of this type of Haiku as porous.  By ‘porous’ I mean that the interior awareness and the awareness of one’s surroundings are depicted as flowing through each other, rather than separated one from the other.  In such a Haiku the poet is not simply observing and reporting the world of nature.  Nor is the poet simply indulging in subjective mental states.  In a way subjective experience becomes a part of the landscape and assumes a status equal with the natural world.

The Haiku is divided into two parts.  The first part is Line 1: “I am nobody”, a simple declarative sentence.  Though L1 is a sentence, Wright concludes it with a colon which allows the reader to connect the following lines to L1. 

The second part consists of lines 2 and 3: A red sinking autumn sun/Took my name away.  This is also a complete sentence, which Wright ends with an actual period, as he does with most of his Haiku.  I think of the part 2 as a kind of explanation, or elaboration, for the statement of L1.

In terms of structure this Haiku is fairly traditional.  The two-part structure is often viewed as the norm for traditional Haiku.  In addition, the use of a colon at the end of L1 serves a function similar to a classic kireji in Japanese.  Also, there is the explicit seasonal reference of ‘autumn’.  The subjectivity and expression of feeling in the opening line is somewhat unusual; but there are precedents.  And the personification of nature, of having a sunset ‘take away’, also has precedents.  And finally, this Haiku follows the traditional syllabic structure of 5-7-5.  On the whole, then, I think of this Haiku as fairly ‘classical’ in that it sticks with most of the traditional markers of Haiku poetry.

The Haiku has many resonances with each part re-enforcing and reinterpreting the other parts.  The ‘nobody’ of L1 resonates with the ‘sinking sun’, which will soon disappear from view, just as a ‘nobody’ is gone from view.  The season is autumn and autumn is the time of withering, growing colder, of plants withdrawing and disappearing into the earth, of insects being silenced by the cold, of birds migrating elsewhere.  ‘Nobody’, ‘sinking’, ‘autumn’ are all of a common ‘scent’; I’m using ‘scent’ in the way Basho described.  I mean that all these words have a kind of common essence.  This is furthered in L3 with the verb ‘took away’; another type of ‘sinking’, or being ‘nobody’.  In L3 a name is taken away while in L2 the autumn season is taking away the plant and animal worlds and the sun is also disappearing from view.  The whole world, in a sense, is becoming ‘nobody’, or returning to a more primal, unformed, state; a state prior to name and form.

On the level of feeling and emotion, I think it possible to think of L2 and 3 as metaphors describing what it feels like to be nobody.  Or, one can reverse this and think of the view of a setting autumn sun as giving rise to the feeling that I am ‘nobody’. 

From another perspective, this Haiku reminds me of what it is like, at times, when in the presence of nature I realize my own smallness, my own insignificance.  Most people have had this kind of experience in nature at one time or another.  It is a sense of being but a spark in the vastness of space and time.  This experience is often not negative.  Often there is a sense of falling away of individual identity and a greater identification with the vastness of the cosmos instead.  Such an experience of being ‘nobody’ can be a kind of exaltation.  It can be a step towards the Divine.

On a personal level, I wonder when I read this if these images of being ‘nobody’, of ‘setting suns’, of ‘autumn’, of ‘taking away’ might relate to the time of Wright’s life.  Wright composed Haiku during the last eighteen months of his life.  He was often sick during these last years.  He had lost a great deal; his mother had died, friends had passed, he was in self-imposed exile in France and had, in a profound sense, lost his country.  Was he sensing in this first Haiku his own mortality in an intimate way? 

I think Line 3 perhaps suggests this.  One’s name is taken away at one’s passing.  Even if some people remember you for a time, you won’t be able to respond.  And eventually everyone is forgotten; one’s name is taken away.

Again, though, I sense an uplifting aspect to this loss of name.  Notice how it is the ‘red sinking autumn sun’ which has taken his name away.  It isn’t someone in his life that is taking away his name; it is Wright’s experience with this vista.  I think this is what Wright meant by Haiku being ‘This Other World’, the subtitle of his collection.  In this other world, this world of seasons and sunsets, one does not have a name.  One’s name is a human artifact.  But the human world is not the cosmos.  When we shift our attention from the human realm to the cosmos at large we lose our name because the human world sinks into the background.

When I go on a solo retreat I sometimes have this experience.  This sense of opening up to the cosmos, to its presence and its beauty, is difficult to achieve in society because I become wrapped up in the everyday tasks of being a human being.  Consequently I forget about the vastness of the cosmos as a whole.  When I am on a solo retreat, and I have removed myself from constant interaction with other human beings, I can remember this larger dimension of existence.  I, and many others, find this experience to be deeply healing.  I think something similar is going on in this Haiku; a release of self-concern, a release of human-centeredness, and a simultaneous turning to the rhythms and beauty of the cosmos, an awakening to ‘This Other World’.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Shaping Forms

Shaping Forms

A feature of modern syllabic poetry in the English speaking world is the unfolding of new syllabic forms.  I enjoy hearing about these new forms and watching how they spread.  In the past, in that ancient time before the internet, new forms would be offered by a poet, shared with some friends, published in some small journals, and the spread would be rather slow and tentative.  A good example of this is the Crapsey Cinquain, which is also the first syllabic form offered for English language poetry.  Interestingly, Crapsey never seems to have written a prosodic presentation of her new form.  Rather, she wrote effectively in this form and others simply picked it up.  This is also true of the Etheree which was created by Etheree Armstrong Taylor; but I have not run across any essay that one could call a presentation of Etheree prosody.  This absence of a formal prosodic presentation in some cases of new syllabic forms would seem to indicate that there is at the beginning still a kind of informal sharing and verbal exchange among friends.  In such a context a formal presentation isn’t really necessary.  Only when it goes beyond such a small circle does such a need arise.

On the other hand, Ray Stebbing presented his Tetractys form to the world and had a very well written essay on its prosody right from the beginning.  I don’t know very much about Stebbing or the poetic culture he moved in, but from the essay he wrote it strikes me that he was speaking to people fairly knowledgeable about prosody, people who would likely want something specific.  Hence, the essay as an introduction to the form.

The offering of new syllabic forms comes at a time when a syllabic approach to English language poetry is starting to make headway.  I think of it as a sign of the potential for syllabic verse in English.  Here I’d like to present three new forms as examples of this trend.  I could have chosen from a wide range of possibilities.  But I have settled on the Rictameter, the  Monchielle, and a form called 100 Friends.

The Rictameter

The Rictameter is a very recent form.  It is a nine-line form with the syllables distributed as follows: 2 -4 -6-8-10-8-6-4-2.  One more thing; the first and last lines are the same.

Fortunately, its creators have posted online the story of its beginning.  The Rictameter was created by Jason Wilkins and his cousin Richard Lunsford who had formed a ‘secret poetry society’ called The Brotherhood of the Amarantos Mistery; a kind of humorous takeoff on the ‘Dead Poets Society’.  According to Wilkins it was Lunsford who came up with the syllable structure and it was Wilkins who suggested that the first and last lines be the same.  

The first published Rictameter appeared in 2000 online at; at that time a relatively unknown site.  This is a good example of how a new poetry form can spread beyond the initial creator’s, or in this case creators’, circle via the internet.  This is 2012 so the form is only twelve years old.  Already there have appeared several small books of poetry in the Rictameter form.  One is ‘Elder Expectations: My Life in Rictameters’ by Marlys Styne.  Another is ‘Rictameter Ramblings’ by Lawrence Seeger.  Both Styne and Seeger have no formal background in poetry, but somehow heard about the form and found it attractive and congenial to what they wanted to express.

One of the things that interests me about this story is how the emergence of the Rictameter completely bypasses institutions and settings where one would think of looking for creative poetic investigations.  Wilkins is a fireman.  Lawrence Seeger, author of ‘Ractameter Ramblings’ is a retired policeman.  Marlys Styne was an English Professor for many years but only encountered the Rictameter after retiring.  In other words, this is very much a ‘from the ground up’ story.  None of this was done via a university or through some kind of official poetry publication. 

This reminds me of the origins of some of our more celebrated poetic forms.  The sonnet’s origin was a popular song form from Italy called the ‘sonetto’, which means ‘little song’.  The Villanelle has similar origins in popular song.  Both of them are earlier examples of ‘from the ground up’.

Here’s an example of a Rictameter from ‘Elder Expectations’:

The Joys of Walking

Challenge now, with
Creaky knees, stiff movement,
Yet on good days what a joy to
Move, explore, observe the city, see life!
Memories all around me as
I amble on, ponder
All I see while

I find the effect of having the first and last lines the same notable.  There is a strong sense of cadence and closure.  Wilkins wrote that the Rictameter has a seasonal, cyclical feel to it.  And I have noticed that some who compose Rictameter pick up on that cyclical feel by composing double, or triple or more, Rictameter.  In this extrapolation of the form the last line of the opening Rictameter becomes the first line of the second Rictameter; and this can be continued indefinitely. 

The even-numbered syllable counts for the lines give the Rictameter a sense of easy flow.  In addition, if one is interested in traditional metrical poetry, I think one could fairly easily map traditional metrics onto the Rictameter.  There is a sense of gracefulness to the form and I can see why it has caught on with a number of people.

The Rictameter is open as to subject matter and I have read Rictameter on love, the seasons, ordinary life, as well as introspective Rictameter.  There is no requirement to rhyme, though rhyme is not forbidden.  For such a brief history the response to this form is impressive.  I wish the form well and want to thank Jason and Richard for so freely sharing it.

The Monchielle

This is a form I only became aware of this year.  I think it is only a few years old.  It is the creation of the Norwegian poet Jim T. Henriksen, but its presence online seems to be mostly in English.  Hendriksen also writes a lot of his poetry in English so he seems to straddle two language communities.  Henriksen writes that one day he wrote a poem called “You know you have found love” which he liked.  Upon rereading it he realized that the poem had a form and that the form itself was attractive.  Henriksen named the form ‘Monchielle’ with the Monchi for his ex-wife, and the ‘elle’ part because he saw similarities between his form and the Kyrielle; they both use rhyme and repetition.  The prosody of the form is as follows:

1.         It consists of four stanzas.
2.         Each stanza consists of five lines.
3.         Each line consists of six syllables.
4.         The first line repeats in each stanza.
5.         Lines three and five rhyme.

Henriksen cleverly put the rules into his form:

"To Write A Monchielle"
Copyright: November 7th, 2005
By Jim T. Henriksen
To write a Monchielle
you start each verse alike,
third line and fifth must rhyme.
Line two and four is free
for messages sublime.

To write a Monchielle
you must abide by rules
to be the perfect bard.
Each line six syllables,
it is not very hard.

To write a Monchielle
four stanzas you must write
to get your message through.
I know it may be tough,
but something you must do.

To write a Monchielle
is fun and challenging,
it spreads like raging fire.
Although it is my style,
use it as you desire.

Henriksen wrote this in 2005, so I suspect that the Monchielle is a little younger than the Rictameter.  Although it is difficult to keep up with all the new syllabic forms being offered, this is the first form I’ve run into that has a rhyme requirement.  As readers of this blog know, I’m a huge fan of rhyme and have wondered if and when someone would offer a syllabic form with rhyme requirements.  Now I have the answer in the Monchielle.

As with most new forms, people quickly develop variations on the form.  An interesting variation on the Monchielle is the Monchielle Quintain.  The Monchielle Quintain consists of only a single verse of the standard Monchielle.  In other words it is a five-line poem, six syllables per line, with lines 3 and 5 rhyming.  For an example of the Monchielle Quintain see the blog and look for the April 12 post.

This form has been picked up by a lot of people.  I haven’t, as yet, run into a book specifically devoted to the Monchielle; but it wouldn’t surprise me to see one in the near future.

The Monchielle strikes me as particularly song-like.  In some ways it reminds me of the Chinese Quatrain forms where all the lines have the same syllable count.  When a form has lines that have all the same count the effect is one of steady pacing and a musical meter naturally suggests itself. 

The 100 Friends Form

The last form I’ll deal with is called ‘100 Friends’; it was created by yours truly.  It is a fifteen line form with the syllable count as follows: 2-4-2-4-6-4-6-8-6-8-10-8-10-12-10, for a total syllable count of 100.  Hence the name ‘100 Friends’.  I created this two or three years ago.  I remember wanting a longer syllabic form than what I had been writing, such as the Crapsey Cinquain, the syllabic Tanka or Haiku, or the Tetractys.  I love those forms, but sometimes I wanted more time to develop a theme. 

I also wanted the form to have the wave-like effect of the Tanka, which is a feature of syllabic Tanka I find very attractive.  The 5-7-5-7-7, especially when extended in Renga, has a rocking effect and rhythm that is part of its beauty.  I was sitting in a coffee house thinking about these things again (I’d been mulling them over for weeks) and the pattern came to me.  I didn’t realize until after writing it down that it consisted of 100 syllables; but that nice round number somehow felt auspicious to me. 

There are no additional requirements for the 100 Friends form.  Rhyme may or may not be used.  The poem may titled or untitled. 

100 Friends is only about three years old and I have not made efforts to publicize it on online sites.  I am not aware of anyone else using this form, so perhaps it is simply an individual expression; that is to say an expression of my own poetic sensibilities.  It isn’t an easy form to internalize; but once I start writing in the form it becomes comfortable.  In terms of complexity I think 100 Friends is less complex than the sonnet, but more complex than the Tetractys or Rictameter. 

Here is a recent example of this form:

In the Distance

Warm afternoons
No clouds
A gentle breeze
Spring is almost over
The fresh green leaves
Like the sound of wind chimes
Like incense wafting from somewhere
Like a cloud of starlings
Turning and dancing in the air
Like pebbles observed in a stream of light
And the peace of mind we all seek,
A mind without fear, a mind without fright –

I catch a brief glimpse of a far off mountain peak
As I walk the banks of a dried-up creek


These are just three examples of new syllabic forms of poetry.  One thing that all three of these forms have in common is that even syllable count of the lines.  This isn’t new; the Crapsey Cinquain also uses even count lines as follows: 2-4-6-8-2.  This differs from East Asian forms where odd-numbered lines seem to be favored.  Perhaps this is a reflection of a differences in the languages, though I’m only guessing here.

My sense is that all these new forms that are being offered is a kind of tilling of the field of English syllabic poetry, followed by the planting of seeds.  In this case the seeds are the various forms; under the right conditions they will grow.  Syllabic poetry in English is so new that all we can see in its garden right now are fresh sprouts, full of potential.  It will be rewarding to watch and see which forms flourish in the future.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Sunlit Rose

Late in the evening
Lovers walking, holding hands
Through the mist of spring

Like a whisper from the void
The new leaves of the oak tree

And the strands of grass
Swaying in the steady wind
Rippling the water

Fracturing the full moon's light
The first frost on the window

Of the small tea shop,
It's been at that location
For over ten years

Her morning ritual
Always includes toast and jam

The edges are chipped,
China from the Goodwill Store
Costs very little

Pleasant daydreams surfacing
A smile upon his face

Passing a sunlit red rose
A butterfly leaves no trace