Friday, November 30, 2012


The just mopped floor
Glistens in the morning sun --
A janitor's vision

Thursday, November 29, 2012


While having breakfast
The sound of the first raindrops
And the warm furnace

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Richard Wright Day -- 2012

Richard Wright Day, 2012

Today is the day to celebrate the life of Richard Wright, September 4, 1908 to November 28, 1960.  And I think of this day as a day to specifically focus on Wright’s contribution to English language Haiku and from there to English syllabic verse in general.

Wright’s accomplishments cannot be overstated.  In his collection of 817 Haiku, selected from over 4,000 he wrote in the last 18 months of his life, published posthumously in 1998, Wright singlehandedly affirmed and established the efficacy of a syllabic approach to Haiku.  Wright accomplished this not by writing theoretical essays about the nature of the English and Japanese languages, or by issuing prosodic guidelines.  Wright accomplished this simply by composing a body of haiku that are so excellent that they make their own case.

What Wright accomplished was to compose Haiku in such a manner that they read as if Haiku were native to the English language instead of a borrowed form.  Instead of subjecting English to odd and uncomfortable rules of syntactic deletion (the approach of Haiku minimalism), Wright’s Haiku are full-bodied English; a flowing natural English. 

Here is #495 from his collection:

Through the church window,
Into the holy water,
A dry leaf flutters.

Notice the naturalness of the phrasing.  The Haiku consists of a single sentence, broken into three, grammatically succinct, parts.  The setting is a church.  At first we are looking at (up at?) a window, perhaps a stained glass window.  Then there is the added detail of the place of the holy water, probably somewhere near the altar.  The season is depicted by the phrase ‘dry leaf’.  The only motion in the Haiku is the drifting, or fluttering of the leaf from the open window into the water.  Did the leaf make a sound?  Is there the sound of wind coming through the window?  Is there anyone in the church?  The motion of the leaf leaves me with an impression of background stillness which is implied rather than stated, and, perhaps, prayer.  This is a quiet, contemplative, Haiku.  There is a sense of holiness permeating the moment and a sense of unity is suggested between the human and natural worlds; a kind of benediction.

The Haiku follows the 5-7-5 syllabic contours of classic Haiku.  Notice also the understated rhyme between lines 2 and 3; water/flutters.  Wright doesn’t often use rhyme.  On the other hand Wright doesn’t exclude rhyme when it appears naturally as in this Haiku.

There is another aspect of this Haiku which I think gives it a sense of unity: each line contains four words.  And these four words are distributed such that each line contains a single article; lines 1 and 2 use ‘the’, and line 3 uses ‘a’.  Notice also how each line ends with a two syllable word and that all of these words are trochees, giving an overall rhythmic unity to the poem.

Lines 1 and 2 each begin with a preposition of motion; ‘through’ and ‘into’.  And line 3 concludes with a verb, ‘flutters’.  This gives the Haiku the sense of drift, motion, against the background of the still church. 

It is this kind of crafting that I find so admirable in Wright’s Haiku.  Fine craftsmanship united with focused imagery are what makes Wright’s Haiku so attractive and memorable.  I have learned so much from Wright’s work.  Wright has shown us all the way to a truly English language Haiku; an approach which is completely at home with the English language.  

It is a pleasure to set aside this day to offer my gratitude and thanks.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Fibonacci Day -- Hooray!

This will have to be a short post because I've been out of town visiting my brother and his family.  But I couldn't let the day pass without reminding all of us that today is Fibonacci Day.  November 23rd is 11/23; the first four syllable counts of the first four lines of the Fibonacci.  The six line form is: 1 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 5 - 8.  The seven line form is 1 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 5 - 8 - 13.  It is an opended form, but the six line and seven line forms are the most frequent.

Fib's, as they are affectionately called, are great fun.  Write a Fib today.  Visit the Fib Review (listed at the side of this blog).  Tell friends about Fibs; they will appreciate it.

Hooray for the fascinating Fibonacci!!!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


The mind in stillness
On the other side of time
Luminous darkness

Monday, November 19, 2012


I like the cold nights,
The more so when there's no moon,
No clouds in the sky.
The whole planet seems to drift,
Floating on galactic tides.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Current Events

The election is over. Some people
Are sad and some people are ecstatic.
These feelings resemble a church steeple
That will quickly vanish in some tragic
War that grew out of sectarian strife,
A forgotten cause no one remembers.

All things vanish in the river of life,
All things are like a fire's dying ember.

Earthly things do not last or give shelter;
Impermanence is like a well-honed knife
That the fates use to slowly dismember
Things into their aggregates; a dream rife
With seeming meaning.  Beyond this nightmare
There's a formless refuge beyond despair.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


The oboe of fall --
Warm sunlight on a cold day,
The ebbing of fear

Friday, November 16, 2012

Formal Feeling

When I write a formal poem
Though I do it all alone
There is a sense of sharing,
Like caring for someone's home

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


After the sunset
Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge
Dark blue horizon

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Richard Wilbur's Haiku Stanzas

Haiku Stanzas

Haiku is the most successful syllabic form in English today.  It is written by a diverse population ranging from ordinary people without any background in poetry to professional poets who earn their living teaching literature and English.  It has developed a broad appeal.

One development from this broad interest is the emergence of the ‘Haiku Stanza Poem’.  By ‘Haiku Stanza’ I mean a poem of more than one verse, in which each verse follows the standard syllabic form of Haiku: 5-7-5.  This is an interesting development.  It opens up the possibility for longer poems that still use the Haiku rhythm of 5-7-5.

Three-line stanzas are already a part of English poetry; take, for example, the Terza Rima.  So using the three-line Haiku form as the basis for stanza construction isn’t that big a step.  From the perspective of traditional Haiku, though, it is an interesting question as to whether or not the use of the form to construct a longer, stanza-based poem, still falls into the category of Haiku.  From a syllabic perspective, that is to say if you define Haiku according to its syllabics, the answer would be yes; because it follows the syllabic contours which, again from a syllabic perspective, define Haiku.  From the perspective of free verse Haiku, not so much.  It would be more difficult for free verse Haiku practitioners to incorporate a longer, stanza-based, extrapolation of Haiku into their esthetic.  Not so much because of the syllable count, although that is relevant.  More important would be the minimalist esthetic which free verse Haijin have adopted; this would raise a barrier to lengthier types of Haiku. 

The Haiku stanza construction is found in the poetry of Richard Wilbur.  Wilbur is a metrical poet of great skill, widely admired.  But Wilbur does venture into syllabic construction, though not often.  Wilbur has, for example, composed a number of Tanka following the traditional syllabics of 5-7-5-7-7.

Wilbur has written a number poems using Haiku stanza construction.  They are ‘Alatus’,  ‘Thyme Flowering Among Rocks’, ‘Zea’, and ‘Signatures.  Wilbur uses rhyme in his stanzaic constructions.  The first and third lines of each stanza rhyme.  ‘Alatus’ is, according to Wikipedia, a shrub native to East Asia which is very colorful in autumn.  It is used in many gardens.  ‘Alatus’ is Latin for ‘wings’.  Here is a portion from Wilbur’s ‘Alatus’:

The supply-lines cut,
The leaves go down to defeat,
Turning, flying, but

Bravely so, the ash
Shaking from blade and pennon
May light’s citron flash;

And rock maple, though
Its globed array be shivered,
Strews its fallen so

As to mock the cold,
Blanketing earth with earnest
Of a summer’s gold.

Interestingly, Wilbur’s poem is a poem about nature and I wonder if the nature centered, or seasonal centered haiku esthetic perhaps had an influence on Wilbur’s topic or even his choice to compose in Haiku stanzas.  The poem is a scene from nature, but more extended than what a traditional Haiku, consisting of a single stanza, would allow for.  The use of rhyme is typical of Wilbur’s skill.  Sometimes the rhyme is used to define a run-on line (Line 3 to 4, Lines 7 to 8), at other times the rhyme matches grammatical construction (Lines 6 and 12).  The skillful balance of rhyme defined run-on lines with rhyme that is matched by grammatical construction keeps the reader/listener aware of the overall shape of the stanzas without the effect becoming too predictable or tiresome. 

In ‘Thyme Flowering Among Rocks’ Wilbur gives us another example of his use of the Haiku stanza.  In ‘Alatus’ the East Asian connection is implicit because of the East Asian origins of the plant.  In ‘Thyme’, Wilbur opens with an explicit reference:

This, if Japanese,
Would represent grey boulders
Walloped by rough seas

So that, here or there,
The balked water tossed its froth
Straight into the air.

Again, notice how this is a seasonal poem.  What Wilbur is offering the Haiku practitioner is the possibility of keeping within the parameters of classical Haiku esthetics, yet at the same time extending the form into a stanza based construction.  I think this is a fruitful possibility.  Again, Wilbur balances his use of rhyme between rhyme defined run-on lines and rhymed lines that are grammatically in sync.  Here is an example of the use of rhyme-defined run-on:

One branch, in ending,
Lifts a little and begets
A straight-ascending

Spike, whorled with fine blue
Or purple trumpets, banked in
The leaf-axils.  You

Are lost now in dense
Fact, fact which one might have thought
Hidden from the sense,

Run-ons include ‘straight-ascending/Spike’ and You/Are.  The last quoted line ending in ‘sense’, brings the reader back to having the grammatical structure and end-rhyme as synchronous.

‘Alatus’, ‘Signatures’, ‘Zea’, and ‘Thyme’ are rich with detail.  They are all seasonal nature poems, all centered on plants.  They have imbibed the Haiku esthetic to the full.  Here is the closing of ‘Thyme’ where, once again Wilbur makes the East Asian connection explicit:

It makes the craned head
Spin.  Unfathomed thyme!  The world’s
A dream, Basho said,

Not because that dream’s
A falsehood, but because it’s
Truer than it seems.

These are really beautiful poems.  I find ‘Thyme’ exquisite.  Out of a meticulous observation of nature, in each case a specific type of plant, they point to larger contexts and our placement in the cosmos.  Wilbur’s Haiku stanza poems have opened the possibility to English language Haijin of longer poems that are still rooted in the sense of season so important to traditional Haiku.  I think the Haiku genre is immensely enriched by this possibility.

(Note:  The quotes of Wilbur’s poems are from “Collected Poems: 1943 – 2004”, Harcourt Books, Orlando, Florida, 2004.  ‘Alatus’ is on Page 81.  ‘Thyme Flowering Among Rocks’ is found on Page 219, ‘Zea’ is on page 31, and ‘Signature’ is found on Page 40.)

Monday, November 12, 2012

An Apology for Parting

Please don't be distressed,
It's become a tangled mess.
You don't want me here.
Ev'ry meeting has its end,
Perhaps someday we'll be friends.

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.

Still Life

Loafers on the floor
Cool clouds, gray dawn light, no breeze
Books on the nightstand

Thursday, November 8, 2012

At the Memorial

A white carnation
(Will the Circle Be Unbroken)
And her photograph

Sunday, November 4, 2012


Standing on a cloud
Next to the November moon
Above the sad world

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Neal Henry Lawrence Day 2012

Neal Henry Lawrence Day 2012

Today is November 3rd, Neal Henry Lawrence Day.  Lawrence (January 22, 1908 to November 3, 2004), in the last phase of his long and varied life, lived in Japan as a member, a Priest, in the Order of Saint Benedict.  He lived in Tokyo during this period and that is where Father Lawrence learned about Tanka.

Father Lawrence was the first to produce a significant body of English language Tanka following the traditional syllabic construction of five lines in 5-7-5-7-7.  His work is, therefore, groundbreaking.  It is also well crafted.  English language Tanka poets can learn much from reading his works.

I think of Neal Henry Lawrence as the Patron Saint of English Language Tanka.  Here is one from his second book, ‘Rushing Amid Tears’:

Yellow as old lace
On my grandmother’s treasured
Wedding dress of silk.
The aging gardenia
Floated in the dark blue bowl.

Today would be a good day to compose a formal Tanka, using the Tanka recipe of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables; a recipe which has been used for over 1400 years. 

For those interested in reading a little about Brother Lawrence, Saint John’s Abby has a page about him:

Friday, November 2, 2012


Dusk mist comes in from the sea
Hovering above the trees
Sometimes I can see faces,
Faint traces from last night's dream