Friday, September 28, 2012

After Sunset

Night flight
Sky without clouds
Flying among the stars
Watching the earth turning below
Deep pools of dense darkness made from shadows
Out of a cave the sound of wings
Crossing the moon's full face
A cloud of bats --
Night flight

Thursday, September 27, 2012


In a land without time
Flowers blossom and leaves fall
On the field of sky

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Free Verse Mind: Part 2

Free Verse Mind: Part 2

To place this group of posts in context, what I am exploring, or trying to uncover, is a certain type of free verse mind.  I’m not trying to make free verse wrong, or less than formal verse.  But there is a type of free verse poet who, in my opinion, is simply blind to the beauty of form.  When I say ‘beauty of form’ I mean that the form itself, independent of any particular instance, has an attractiveness to it.  And my sense is that some free verse advocates are simply deaf to this kind of beauty.

After a lot of thinking about this, the one word I would use to describe this approach is the word ‘disembodied’.  It is a word that free verse poets sometimes use to describe their own approach: see, for example, the ‘Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics’.  In other words, there is a certain type of free verse poet who strives to be disembodied; it is an esthetic ideal.  And I believe there is a connection to being disembodied and being unable to appreciate the transcendental beauty of form.

Formal verse, whether metrical or syllabic, is embodied poetry.  It is embodied because it is shaped by counting.  In metrical verse what is counted are poetic feet.  In syllabic verse what is counted are syllables.  But both types of formal poetry rely on counting.

My view here is that counting is of the body and that therefore formal verse is embodied in a basic, almost biological, way.  People count on their fingers, tap the beat of the music with their feet.  Musicians count the pulse of the piece they are playing.  In Japan, when Japanese poets compose Haiku or Tanka, they count on their fingers.  Counting is intimately embedded, embodied, in our biology; our heartbeat, our walk, our sense of time.  Because of this kind of connection formal verse is never very far from the body of the poet, even if the subject matter appears to be ethereal. 

In contrast, free verse has a tendency towards the disembodied.  The word ‘tendency’ is crucial here.  The Psalms in their reformation translation versions, the best of Whitman, and many other examples, are embodied.  They have a kind of rhythm.  I believe in these cases the rhythmic embodiment emerges often from the use of parallel structures, which creates a kind of pulse even with highly irregular line counts.

But once poetry is cut loose from counting, it is easy to slip into a disembodied poetic state.  A disembodied poem is one that has no sense of pulse, no rhythm.  It not only is created without counting, in a sense it is uncountable; in the sense that the listener does not get a feel in their body of units to count.  This type of poetry is more akin to the essay or the diary in its impact.  The essay is trying to communicate an idea; it is primarily mental.  I often get the same feeling from much of contemporary free verse; it strikes me as highly mental, abstract.  This may, at first, be unclear as the ideal from which this kind of free verse emerges is often one of self-expression.  The result is a kind of revelation of the poet’s feelings, likes and dislikes, opinions, and free associations.  I would suggest, though, that this is also primarily mental, primarily centered on the mind and represents a kind of self-fascination as an ideal to be pursued.

There is another aspect to the sometimes disembodied nature of free verse: it is disembodied, i.e. disconnected, from history and community.  When I say disembodied from history I mean that free verse poetry, as I mentioned in my previous post, does not relate to its past as a resource for its own expression.  In contrast, formal verse is embedded in a relationship with past poets who have written in the same form. 

How does this impact the emerging field of English syllabic verse?  The primary impact is that a disembodied approach to poetry will ignore the formal parameters of a verse form, even when the history of that form is clear to all and historically established beyond question.  A good example of this is the way Tanka has been treated in the U.S.  Tanka is a formal verse tradition.  It has a written history of about 1400 years.  During all this time the syllabic pattern has remained the same: a five line poem of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, for a total of 31.  Yet all Tanka organizations, and journals, I am aware of in the U.S. have abandoned these formal parameters.  It is very easy to see that modern American Tanka Journals are simply free verse journals and that any relationship they have to the Japanese form has been severed.  At first this is a startling.  Yet it makes sense that if you are form deaf, if you are cut off from a living sense of the poetic past, then the pretense of ignoring the formal parameters of a tradition, and yet adopting its name and claiming its heritage, would not generate a sense of incoherence.  It resembles someone who is tone deaf trying to sing a song; it just isn’t going to resemble the song as actually written, but if the person singing is not aware of their own tone-deafness they won’t see this as a problem or hindrance.

At another level, I am aware, as I mentioned before, that many younger poets have never encountered formal verse.  They may have a vague awareness that people counted something-or-other in the past to write their poems.  But they have not actually done so themselves and no one has encouraged them to do so.  For this group the idea of Tanka as free verse would be an almost default position.  The sad thing is that it should be Tanka Journals and Tanka organizations job to introduce people to the formal nature of Tanka; yet they have not assumed that obligation.  In fact the opposite has occurred and they have often taken an antagonistic stance toward formal Tanka.

Yet, it is intriguing to me, that syllabic Tanka has taken on a life of its own; in a way that is similar to syllabic Haiku.  That is to say I have noticed publications, almost always done through print-on-demand technologies, and some blogs, which are rooted in Tanka as formal verse; that is to say they are connected to the actual Tanka tradition.  And here I suspect the reason is that embodied poetry is inherently attractive.  Counting syllables, shaping lines, to a shared formal structure embodies the poem, connects it to our breath, our walking, the beat of a melody, the rhythm of our days.  There is no formal organization or Journal advocating for a formal approach to Tanka, which is also true for syllabic Haiku.  Yet a formal approach to these two forms in English continues to attract a variety of poets.  At first I was puzzled by this because I thought that the free verse advocacy by official organizations and journals would simply overwhelm a syllabic, formal, approach to these borrowed forms.  But I think the key here is that the embodied nature of formal verse is its own reward.  Just as we enjoy singing a song in the shower, or humming a tune while engaged in chores, so also formal syllabic verse is inherently something human beings do.  You can hear it on playgrounds and while listening to people in every-day conversations.  Basho wrote a haiku about this where he points to the root of poetry as found in the rice-planting songs of rice farmers:

Roots of elegance
On this trip to the far north
Rice-planting song

(Basho: The Complete Haiku, Jane Reichhold translation, page 136)

Here Basho is connecting the rhythmic, embodied, work of planting rice, the song sung during this work, and the nature of elegance and of poetry.  In some translations of this hokku (it was an opening verse to a Renga), the translator says “The root of poetry”.  But regardless of whether or not Basho meant poetry in particular, or elegance in general, what Basho is pointing to is the embodied nature of his own work; that Basho never lost sight of how this embodiment is the root that nourishes art.  This is a teaching which, I think, is foundational for a syllabic approach to English language poetry, one that will bear rich rewards.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Six blackbirds watching
As I take my morning walk --
The shifting dirt road

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Staccato starlight
Cold wind through the winter pines
An empty highway

Monday, September 10, 2012

Why Friends Stay in Touch

Why Friends Stay in Touch

After the sun’s set
After the week’s work has ended
While reading another chatty letter from a friend
Who moved away, how many years ago? (now that I think about it, it’s more than ten);
We keep meaning to get together but life’s complicated and our schedules don’t seem to match up for a shared time and place or a shared when,
Which is completely understandable since after receiving a truly superb job offer in his field (the rise and fall of large mammals during and following the most recent ice age) he packed up and moved to England;
But I have an affection for our correspondence via the ancient practice of letters which I read and re-read on Saturday nights with my cup of tea to keep me company as I carefully reply to his observations while adding my own along with highlights from the days of my life, which I sign with my favorite pen, fold with care, stamp, and send.


The sky rips open
And the void that lies beyond
The fiend of sunrise

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Cinquain Day 2012

Cinquain Day 2012

Good Morning:

Today is Cinquain Day; a day set aside to express our appreciation for the Cinquain.  This form is also known as the Crapsey Cinquain or the American Cinquain.  It is the creation of the poet Adelaide Crapsey, 1878 – 1914.

The Cinquain is a five-line form: 2-4-6-8-2, for a total of 22 syllables.  It is the first syllabic form that I know of created in an English language context.  My own experience with the form is that it is a difficult form to master.  It is the final 2-syllable line that often vexes the poet.  It is crucial to get that last line just right.  But when it is done right the Cinquain has a strong sense of closure and cadence; that 2-syllable ending can feel like a perfect frame around a picture, or the final brushstroke of a painting.

The Cinquain has developed a small, but loyal, following.  There are forums for this form, poets who specialize in it, and it seems to have found its way into the school curriculum.  Some teachers I know have told me that in grade school when they teach a poetry unit to young students the Cinquain is one of the forms that they use.

So on this day let’s acknowledge our appreciation for this jewel of a form.  You might read some Cinquain, or perhaps compose one of your own.  Give it a try; you’ll find it is a challenge and a delight.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Dear Friends:

This past May I posted regarding three new syllabic forms that have recently appeared.  One of the three is the Monchielle.  In the post I said the creator of the Monchielle was Jim T. Hendrikson.  I inadvertently misspelled his last name.

The correct spelling is:

Jim T. Henrikson

Also, please note that the poem I quoted in the post has the title "To Write A Monchielle" and it is copyrighted, November 7th, 2005, by Jim T. Henriksen.

My apologies to the readers here at Shaping Words and to Mr. Henrikson.  And a special thanks to Mr. Henriksen for his generosity.

Best wishes,


Friday, September 7, 2012


Ev'ry four years
We get agitated.
The well of time is very deep --
Found in a field
That once was a mountain
That overlooked a fern forest
Now sand

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Syllabic Haiku Day 2012

Syllabic Haiku Day!!!

It’s September 4th and that it makes it Syllabic Haiku Day.  What?  You didn’t know?

Well, it’s true.  Today is set aside to honor and express our appreciation for all those English language Haijin who have written, and continue to write, Haiku in 5-7-5. 

Things to do on this day:

Read some new collection of syllabic haiku.

Read an old standard, say Richard Wright or James Hackett or Edith Shiffert or the old anthology ‘Borrowed Water’.

Compose some syllabic Haiku of your own; what better way to express our appreciation?

If you have friends and want to celebrate, how about baking a Syllabic Haiku Cake?  What is a Syllabic Haiku Cake?  Glad you asked.  It works like this:  a cake of your choosing with seventeen candles.  The candles are arranged in three rows, mimicking the 5-7-5 of the syllabic count.  So each syllable becomes a candle on the cake.  Corny, I know.  But it could be fun.  Try it.

And then you can all sing:  “Happy Birthday Haiku . . .”  OK, that’s probably too much.

Enjoy the day.

Monday, September 3, 2012


The sound of boulders
Next to the burning incense
Shifting desert sands

Sunday, September 2, 2012


This unstable world --
All things are falling away,
But there is one thing
Which never passes away
Even at the end of time.