Sunday, March 31, 2013

Ascetic Theology

Renunciation --
The most beautiful blossoms
Will soon disappear

Friday, March 29, 2013

Poetry Reading

Poetry Reading

I gave a poetry reading last night at the bookstore where I work.  I don’t give poetry readings very often; maybe once or twice a year. 

This reading was called ‘Sebastopol Sonnets’.  It consisted primarily of sonnets composed by poets who live in my hometown of Sebastopol.  I had become aware that some local poets were composing sonnets and I found some of them to be remarkably well done.  So I got the idea of putting them together and making an evening of it.

I first got the idea of reading other poets' poems from Dana Gioia.  As I remember, he made this suggestion in his essay ‘Can Poetry Matter’.  He suggested that when poets give a reading that they include poems from other authors as well as their own work.  This struck me as a great suggestion and I have followed up on it ever since.  In fact, the majority of the poems I read will be by other authors.  One advantage of this is that it allows me to carefully select from my own work poems that I think are really good.  And it also allows me to include poems by authors I like and have proven influential in my own development.  I like that sense of transparency; it allows the audience to see where some of my approaches have come from.

But last night was a celebration of the sonnet as it has manifested in the small town of Sebastopol.  I started out with one Sonnet by Wyatt and one by Michael Drayton; just to set the historical context.  Then I leaped forward in time to contemporary Sebastopol.  I read from seven Sebastopol poets, including myself.  It was fascinating to see how each poet shaped the form by their own interests and personalities.  Some of the poets are well known, such as Dana Gioia; I read a sonnet from his latest collection Pity the Beautiful; but most us are known only locally.

I also included some sonnets by Lee Slonimsky.  I read one sonnet each from Logician of the Wind and Pythagoras in Love.  Slonimsky is a New York poet, but he has had a surprisingly strong presence here in Sebastopol because Slonimisky leads workshops in the area, regularly gives readings, and he has developed an almost mentor-like relationship to some of the local sonneteers.  It therefore felt appropriate, comfortable, to include Slonimsky in the mix.

The highlight of the evening for me consisted of local poet Sandy Eastoak’s four collections of sonnets.  Each of the four collections is a Crown of Sonnets.  A ‘Crown of Sonnets’ consists of fifteen sonnets that are woven structurally together.  The last line of the first sonnet becomes the first line of the second; then the last line of the second becomes the first line of the third, etc.  In addition, the last sonnet, the fifteenth, consists of the first lines of all the previous fourteen sonnets in order.  That is to say, the first line of the first sonnet is the first line of the last sonnet; and the first line of the second sonnet is the second line of the last sonnet, etc. 

What is remarkable is how smoothly Eastoak accomplishes this, and how the sonnets build to the final sonnet in the Crown.  Eastoak has four Crowns: Corona Flora, Corona Fauna, Corona Gaia, Corona Rhea.  All four Crowns are nature centered and deeply embedded in the locale around Sebastopol.  They are deeply rooted in place.

Here is one from Corona Flora


within the drifting clouds her high leaves doze,
await the yellow catalyst of sun.
in fragrant dirt, among the pebbles, run
the eager roots.  each tip explores & grows
through stones, around the pipes & under brick.
from fingered net of nourishment the trunk
arises dark & silent as a monk.
its meditation flows through branches thick
& gnarled.  the younger limbs twist round the air
& lift the glossy green & pointed lobes.
below, a woman steps into the shade
against the bark she leans her cheek & hair.
the oak along her flow lines gently probes,
then balance is restored through soft cascade.

The rhyme scheme is a-b-b-a/c-d-d-c/e-f-g-e-f-g; which Eastoak uses consistently in the Crowns.  In 'oak' the rhyme scheme feels tighter because the vowel sound of the pairs sun/run and trunk/monk are strongly linked.  

At first this rhyme scheme sounds Petrarchan, but a traditional Petrarchan Sonnet has only five rhymes.  Eastoak’s modification has the same number of rhymes as a Shakespearean sonnet; seven.  This makes it somewhat easier for the English language.  Clearly Eastoak is at home with this rhyme scheme.  Perhaps we can call it the Eastoakian rhyme scheme?  Just kidding: still the regular use of this rhyme scheme as one reads through the Crown is a profoundly unifying element and helps hold all the sonnets together.  Since the last line of Sonnet X becomes the first line of Sonnet X + 1, that also means that the concluding rhyme of Sonnet X becomes the opening rhyme of Sonnet X + 1, which makes for a sonically smooth flow as one moves forward through the Crown series.

One of the things I find attractive about Eastoak is that she is equally at home in both free and formal verse.  That is also true of Slonimsky, who has been a significant presence for Eastoak.  I closed the evening with the sonnet Mystery from Slonimisky’s ‘Pythagoras in Love’.  It feels appropriate to conclude this post with that same sonnet:


These shadows spell a word, while roses dance
around late sunlight’s edges in the merge
of day and dusk, before the night’s black surge
brings on moon’s scimitar, starlight’s white trance.
He wonders if the word’s been spelled by chance,
if roses’ revelry emerges from
the chaos of a void, if death’s black fruit
is all that will reward his long pursuit
of sensate harmony, math-ordered form,
if nothingness now looms, the last theorem.
“Aglow” is softly blurred by slow twilight,
as chilly breezes hint eternity;
but roses still excite and soothe his sight,
as evening conjures scarlet mysteries.


Pythagoras in Love
Lee Slonimsky
ISBN: 9781932535136

You can contact Sandy Eastoak at:

Unexceptional: Part 2

Unexceptional: Part 2

What Are We Counting?

Last year I visited some friends in Portland.  I was delighted by the prevalence of rose gardens in the city.  The roses in Portland are astonishingly beautiful; in fact I’ve never seen such well-kept and cultivated roses. 

Suppose one of my friends from Portland visited me here in Sonoma County, California.  I decide to take my friend to some local gardens.  We visit a well planted and cared for garden in the neighborhood.  My friend says, “This isn’t a garden.  Where are the roses?”

You see, this particular garden doesn’t have any roses.  At first I think my friend is joking; perhaps he’s contrasting this garden with the abundant rose gardens in Portland.  But in follow-up questions I discover that my friend is serious.  My friend asserts that since there are no roses it is not a garden.  I respond, “If this isn’t a garden, what is it?”  My friend says, “This is a plant cultivation center.”  For my friend, if there aren’t any roses then it’s not a garden; it’s something else.

My feeling is that something similar has happened to the concept ‘syllable’ in discussions among English Language Haiku practitioners.  As English speakers we are used to syllables appearing in a certain way; that is to say English syllables have certain sonic contours.  When English speakers visit the world of the Japanese language, and wander in its garden, many of the specific sounds that English counts as syllables do not appear in the Japanese language.  In addition, there are sounds, such as a concluding ‘n’, that the Japanese count that are not counted in English. 

The response by some ELH practitioners has been to conclude that what the Japanese are counting and what English speakers are counting are so different that we need a whole new conceptual apparatus to designate what it is that Japanese count.  Like my fictitious friend who refuses to put into the category ‘garden’ a yard of flowers if among those flowers one cannot find roses, so also ELH practitioners have decided that because the specific sonic contours of English and Japanese differ, that therefore what Japanese count must not be syllables, it must be something else.

The ‘something else’ has been called by many names; among the candidates over the decades has been ‘onji’, ‘jion’, ‘moira’, and ‘sound unit’.  I think there are a few others that have made a brief appearance, but you get the idea; it’s a kind of endless hunt for some other word, or term, than syllable.

What has happened here is that ELH practitioners have taken the English language as a standard for what constitutes a syllable.  But, and this is important, the concept ‘syllable’ is not a language specific concept.  That is to say, the word ‘syllable’ is not defined by any specific features of a single language.  The sonic structure of English does not define the meaning of syllable. It is, therefore, a misapplication of the concept to apply the specific features of one language, such as English, and use them as a standard, a yardstick, to determine if other languages measure up to the meaning of the word ‘syllable’.

One way of looking at this is to note some examples of syllable presence in a non-English language that English would not recognize as a syllable, and are non-Japanese as well.  An excellent example of this is how in French poetry a silent ‘e’, in some linguistic contexts, will be counted as a syllable.  Now it is ‘silent’ from an English language perspective.  That is to say this kind of ‘e’ does not carry enough weight for an English speaker to count as a syllable.  In this way it is similar to a concluding ‘n’ in Japanese which, again from an English speaker’s perspective, does not carry enough weight to count as a syllable.

In spite of this well-known feature of French prosody, no one has ever suggested that the French don’t count syllables.  Nor has anyone suggested that the French language is so utterly different from English that ‘you can’t compare the two’.  I think there is a general lesson to be learned from this comparison.  The lesson is this:  just as we English speakers find the French language and its poetry comparable, so also we, as English speakers, should be able to find the Japanese language and its poetry comparable.

Continuing with the metaphor of the garden; suppose I ask two people to count the types of flowers found in my garden.  Person X comes back and says there are six kinds of flowers: tulips, marigolds, calalilies, geraniums, daffodils, and roses.  Person Y says there are eight: tulips, marigolds,  calalilies, geraniums, daffodils, tea roses, climbing roses, hawthorn.  Person X complains; tea roses and climbing roses are both roses, therefore they should count as one.  And the hawthorn is a tree, and a blossoming tree is not really a flower.  Person Y counters; tea roses and climbing roses look very different and it is the appearance that counts in a garden.  The blossoms of the hawthorn are the flower of the tree and therefore should be included in a full count.

Here is an example of how our subjectivity intrudes on what might seem, at first, to be a simple and matter-of-fact procedure.  Both people are counting the same garden, but they are coming up with different counts.  And both X and Y have reasons for their different results.

Applying this to the question of Japanese and English ‘syllables’, I believe this metaphor offers a resolution regarding how Japanese and English speakers can come up with different counts when listening to the same word.  For example, the Japanese word ‘Manyooshuu’ receives six counts, is heard as six syllables, in Japanese: ma-n-yo-o-shu-u.  In English the same word is given three counts: man-yo-shu. 

What I am getting at here is that just because the two language groups count the same word differently (meaning the two language groups parse the sounds differently), that does not mean that they are not both counting syllables.  Just as the two people counting the flowers in a garden came up with different results, so also an English speaker and a Japanese speaker will come up with different results as to how to parse some words into their constituent sound groupings; i.e. syllables. 

But this is not a problem and it does not mean that Japanese are counting something different from what English speakers count when they count syllables.

The thing is that the kind of discrepancies regarding syllables and syllable counts appear when you compare any two languages.  For example, in Russian the word ‘kto’, which means ‘who’, is one syllable.  It is very difficult for an English speaker to either hear the word as a single syllable, or to pronounce it correctly as one syllable.  Almost always an English speaker will insert a vowel between the ‘k’ and the ‘t’; something like ‘keeto’, or ‘kito’.  In listening, most English speakers will hear it as two syllables, even when pronounced by a Russian.  Russians hear it as clearly one syllable.

Again, when comparing any two languages one finds these differences.  And Japanese is not an exception; it is unexceptional in this regard. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Sunrise and sunset,
Years and decades pass away --
Other stars and worlds

Monday, March 25, 2013

Book Report

Book Report

I have a tendency to accumulate books.
It’s not that I set out to overstuff my shelves
Anymore than a rain-fed, overflowing brook
Decides to spread itself over the whole landscape.

At times all those volumes are difficult to look
At.  But it’s really no worse than someone who collects seashells,
Scattering them around the rooms of their house for beauty’s sake,
Somehow their benign presence makes us feel that all is well.

I do not live up to the ideal of a life without possessions;
But a garden of many flowers is worthy of our attention,
And on a clear, moonless night the stars are a numberless profusion,
And drops of rain are a cloud of sound that feels like a resolution to the difficulties of our lives.

So for now I’ll keep all those books and continue contemplating every page;
Perhaps at some point in the future I will be able to disengage.


Sunday, March 24, 2013


The turtle of space --
Between turning galaxies
The void's filled with grace

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Celestial Visitor

A bear wanders down the road into town,
Onto ground he wanders;
While in the stars he pondered
Why humanity flounders

Friday, March 22, 2013


The rushing stream is full from last night's storm,
Bright forms, sun-sparked, are cast
So quickly they can't be grasped --
Questions asked behind a mask

Thursday, March 21, 2013


As the dawn touches the sky
And the stars all fade from sight
The presence of friends long gone
From my dreams they all take flight

Monday, March 18, 2013



Darkness slowly fades
The crisp air of the morning
Daylight Savings Time

A few plum blossoms remain
After many days of rain

The fields of sown grain
A gift from heaven and earth
In the setting sun

After all the work is done
The harvest festival dance

A child's furtive glance
From underneath the table
He should be in bed

"I have decided instead
To look for another job."

She grabs the doorknob
But quickly changes her mind
And decides to stay

It seems there are many ways
Alternatives are not clear

The fresh snow adheres
To the kitchen window panes
While drying dishes

His mind wanders, he wishes
That their life was more secure

No one knows for sure
What tomorrow has in store --
Sounds on a warm night

The room, drenched in full moon light,
Windows open to the wind

Unexceptional: Part 1

Unexceptional: Part 1

I’m going to take a few posts to talk about the Japanese language.  My comments in this post, Part 1, are going to be preliminary.

I hesitate to get into this subject.  It has been my experience on other online forums that the nature of the Japanese language, how it is viewed, and its relationship to other languages, particularly English, give rise to a lot of less than considerate interaction.  Perhaps I should forget about it; perhaps that would be wiser.  But here I go.

My main reason for posting these remarks is that there is a line of argument that asserts that Japanese and English are so different that one cannot really compare the two.  Therefore it is wrong to mimic the Japanese counting in English because what the Japanese count, when they are counting in order to compose Haiku and Tanka, is quite different from what English speakers are counting when English speakers count English syllables to compose English Language Haiku or Tanka.  The consequence of this kind of analysis is that the conclusion is drawn that mapping the counting procedure which is foundational for Japanese poetry forms, such as Haiku and Tanka, onto English is at best a misunderstanding, and shouldn’t be adopted by those with a deeper insight into the Japanese language.

The therefore is crucial here.  The argument is that because English and Japanese are so different, that therefore one should not compose syllabic Haiku or Tanka.  The argument is that a syllabic approach to Haiku is based on a misunderstanding of the Japanese language.  In other words, the view that Japanese is essentially different and unique is used as a foundation for a critique of a syllabic approach to English Language Haiku and Tanka.

This idea has a lot of traction; it appears in a significant number of Haiku manuals.  In addition, one runs into it on the web here and there, and not infrequently at poetry forums where someone, commenting on an English Haiku, written syllabically, will say something like, “You cannot compare the two languages.”

Let me be upfront: I have a different view.  My view is that the Japanese language is unexceptional.  My view is that Japanese count syllables just like English speakers count syllables.  My view is that the Japanese language is an ordinary language spoken by ordinary people in an ordinary culture.  My view is that not only can you compare the two languages, but also it is easy to do so.  I do it all the time.  A lot of people do.

However, and I want to emphasize this, I do not conclude from my view, I do not construct a therefore, that people should not compose free verse Haiku.  In other words, these comments I am making are not meant to undermine a free verse approach to Haiku.  There are excellent reasons to take a free verse approach to Haiku; there are examples of Japanese who take such an approach (not many, but there are some).  For example, free verse Haiku gives a poet the option of a more concise, focused, presentation.  At its best, free verse Haiku has a snap and energy that can be amazing. Free verse haiku also allows for flexibility of expression in response to what is being written about.  These virtues, when used by a good poet, do not depend on the nature of the Japanese language; they are sufficient unto themselves. 

In other words, I am not saying that because I believe that it is easy to compare Japanese and English, and because I believe that both languages count syllables, that therefore people should not compose free verse haiku.  That’s not my purpose.

My purpose is apologetic.  My purpose is to argue that it is legitimate to adopt a syllabic approach to English Language Haiku (ELH), that a syllabic approach is not based on a misunderstanding of the Japanese language, that it is not misguided and/or na├»ve.

My overall view is that the idea that the Japanese language is somehow deeply alien to English is rooted in the view that Japanese culture is unique.  Now, every culture is unique.  But when Japanese assert the uniqueness of their culture, and when westerners buy into this assertion, they are asserting that Japanese culture, and its language, is uniquely unique, that Japanese culture is incomparable.  In the case of language this view means that the Japanese language is literally not comparable to other languages such as English.

There is a large body of literature which discusses this view.  It is referred to in Japanese as nihonjinron; and, again, there is a large body of literature both in Japan and in the U.S. that discusses the widely held Japanese view that as a people they are utterly unique, or uniquely unique.  The most entertaining book I have read on this subject is by Robin D. Gill, an American who speaks fluent Japanese and lived and taught in Japan for many years.  He has also done a lot of translation; both from English into Japanese and from Japanese into English, including numerous translations of Japanese poetry.  His book on this topic is Orientalism and Occidentalism; and it is written with good humor and, at the same time, deep insight.  If you are interested in this topic I highly recommend it.

Let me say at once that this view of one’s own culture as uniquely unique is, paradoxically, unexceptional; it is not unique to Japan.  As an American I am well aware of how my own culture configures itself as uniquely superlative.  In the U.S. this doctrine is known as American Exceptionalism; it is the view that the U.S. is the best, most advanced, greatest nation that has ever existed on earth.  President Obama has publicly stated that he is in agreement with the view of American Exceptionalism.  It is a very widely held view in the U.S. with deep roots in doctrines such as Manifest Destiny.  So I am able to sympathize with the Japanese culture when it makes assertions about its culture being superlative and incomparable.  I get it. 

However, I don’t think either view is true.  From my perspective both Japan and the U.S. are just ordinary.  Both countries have done some wonderful things and some horrific things; just what you would expect of any culture that you are not identified with or defensive about.

My first experience with the linguistic aspects of nihonjinron go back about forty years.  In the seventies I was the Abbot of a Buddhist Temple in New York City.  My teacher was Korean.  At that time a Japanese Zen Master had set up a Zen Temple in New York.  At the morning and evening services they chanted a short Buddhist work known as The Heart Sutra; in Japanese.  The Zen Master’s American students wanted to chant in English.  I was drawn into these discussions because of my role as Abbot, because I was a white guy, and because my teacher was Korean and therefore not part of the Japanese Zen hierarchy.  The Zen Master was adamant about sticking with the Japanese.  When his students pointed out that Chinese chant in Chinese, Tibetans in Tibetan, etc., this did not persuade him.  The Zen Master was quite blunt; his view was that English was ‘primitive’, ‘combative’, and ‘incapable’ of communicating the subtleties of something like the Heart Sutra.  It happened that I knew that the Zen Master was fond of Shakespeare (many Japanese are).  So during the discussions I mentioned Shakespeare in passing, and that Shakespeare wrote in English.  Interestingly, this seemed to have an effect.  I am not sure, but I like to think that my little contribution softened the Zen Master’s stance and allowed for the chanting of the Heart Sutra in English, which eventually happened.

I tell this story because I believe that when Americans take a stance on the idea of Japanese linguistic uniqueness, they have absorbed some of the linguistic views of Japanese nihonjinron.  I believe this has been done unknowingly.  I say ‘unknowingly’ because I suspect that most Americans studying Japanese arts are not aware of how widespread the negative stereotypes of foreigners in general and Americans in particular found in nihonjinron are.  It resembles someone studying in the U.S. who is unaware of how pervasive the idea of American Exceptionalism is and how deeply embedded the history of this idea is in aspects such as manifest destiny.  A foreigner resident in the U.S. who might be studying aspects of U.S. business and finance, might uncritically absorb some aspects of American Exceptionalism; like the idea that American Democracy is the purest and most advanced form of Democracy that has ever appeared in the world.  In an analogous way, I think some Americans who have studied Japanese poetry have uncritically absorbed the idea of Japanese linguistic uniqueness.

In a strange way, Americans are primed for such misunderstanding because the idea of American Exceptionalism creates a psychology that is sympathetic to the world view of nihonjinron.  Particularly if an American has not critically examined Exceptionalism, then the idea of Japanese being uniquely unique will seem oddly familiar.  And the linguistic aspects of nihonjinron do not threaten an American’s view of American Exceptionalism because American Exceptionalism is not linguistically based.  That is to say the English language is not a specific cultural artifact of America; it came from England and is used by millions of non-Americans throughout the world.  In contrast, Japanese language usage maps almost perfectly onto the Japanese nation.  In a way, Japanese linguistic exceptionalism actually re-enforces American Exceptionalism by encouraging the view that different peoples are essentially different and estranged from each other.

In future posts I want to discuss specific aspects of this idea of Japanese linguistic uniqueness.  Part of this will be an open-ended inquiry into the idea of ‘syllable’.  And another part will be centered on the speed of Japanese and how that measures up to other languages.

In closing these introductory remarks, I want to restate that my purpose is not prescriptive.  I mean that I am not arguing for a particular approach to English Language Haiku or Tanka.  But what has happened is that a particular view of the Japanese language has been consistently used, and is still being used, to marginalize a syllabic approach to Haiku and Tanka in English.  I believe that this argument, this line of reasoning, is misguided.  Putting aside uniqueness, putting aside exceptionalism, I believe we have much more in common than is often acknowledged.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


Belligerent headlines --
In contrast with the above
Holding hands in love

Saturday, March 16, 2013


Offer us a promise
Of an always better future --
Bombs fall

Friday, March 15, 2013

Qualities of Time

The tide of dusk
He starts his devotions
Opening to a silent Psalm
Planets moving like waves in slow motion
A wind rustles the oak tree leaves
Paths that we have chosen
Space moves like an

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Etheree Taylor Armstrong Day: 2013, and an Announcement

This is the anniversary of the passing of Etheree Taylor Armstrong; February 13, 1918 to March 14, 1994.  It's a good day to write an Etheree.

And I am taking the day to announce my first published poetry collection.  Here at Shapign Words I have reviewed print-on-demand poetry publications because that is the arena where most of the syllabic poetry is being published these days. I have noted how print-on-demand has changed the dynamics of poetry publishing and how many poets have taken advantage of this.

I myself have refrained from this approach; mostly, I think, because I am kind of a techno-peasant.  I am easily intimidated by techno-demands.  But I have managed to overcome this and use the Create Space print-on-demand service to publish this first collection.

It is called Safe Harbor.  It contains three collections:

'Cathedrals' is a collection of my Etheree, which is the reason I have chosen to make the announcement today.

'Scones' is a collection of my Fibonacci.

'Safe Harbor', the last collection, brings together poems written in a form I created called '100 Friends'.

I brought these three forms together because all three of them have a similar way of unfolding.  All three of them start with very short lines and then slowly build to longer lines.  The pace of expansion differs, but the general contours are similar.  And so it felt fitting to bring them together under one volume.

You can purchase Safe Harbor from Amazon; the cost is $12.00.

This is a new phase for me.  Before I have put together small chapbooks; but I found towards the end of last year that I wanted to create larger works than the chapbook format would allow for.  This pushed me into using the print-on-demand technology.  I explored several options, but finally settled on Create Space.

Safe Harbor
By Jim Wilson
ISBN: 9781482551983


Colors in the sky
Blossoms from the tree of space
Scattered by dragons

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Close Call

Driving in the fog
The raccoon in the headlights
Is almost roadkill

Monday, March 11, 2013


The sweet coffee cake
Dissolving in hot coffee --
Better than Proust's tea!

Sunday, March 10, 2013


First Day
Sunday morning
Pray'r slips into silence
Another world, another way --
Dawn song

Saturday, March 9, 2013


Warm winds
Melting the snow
On the plum tree branches
At the south end of the small park
A squirrel jumps from one branch to another
Then onto the gazebo's roof
Taking a quick left turn
Into the first
Warm winds

Friday, March 8, 2013


Our last words
At the graveside
While apple trees are in bloom --
Where do all of our friends and relatives go?
Under the warm cloudless afternoon sky there's no trace of last winter's snow.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Getting Started in Renga/Renku: An Online Resource


I don't know why I haven't thought of this before.  It's one of those obvious things that for some reason, perhaps  because it is so obvious, doesn't come into focus.

There is an excellent online resource for those interested in Renga.  It is run by two long-term practitioners of the art.  One is Norman Darlington, from Ireland, and the other goes by the Moniker "Moi", from South Africa.  Both of them are dedicated Renkujin.  (Renku is the preferred name at their online location; it is the name more widely used these days.)

This is an online Renku Group and at this site there are Renga/Renku of various kinds being composed online, posts about theory, and notes about the latest goings on in English Language Renku.

I have composed a Renku with Norman in the past and found Norman to be a sure and wise guide.  Any questions you have can be asked at this site and Norman, and other members, will be very helpful.  My own abilities as a teacher are limited (that's generous).  Norman, and several other people involved, in contrast, are excellent at cultivating a beginner's understanding of the form.

The site can be found at:

If you have even a passing interest in this form, this is the place to go.

Conversing with the Rules

Conversing with the Rules

Here is a Haiku by James Hackett:

Old shadowy snow
melting in a shallow pond . . .
the summit beyond!

(Haiku Poetry, Volume Two, James Hackett, page 62)

I happened to turn to this Haiku in a random way after re-reading Hackett’s ‘Suggestions for Writing Haiku in English’.  The ‘Suggestions’ are appended to his Haiku at the end of the volume.  There are seventeen ‘Suggestions’.  They are a model of clarity and offer the reader insight into Hackett’s views of how Haiku should be written and shaped.  Suggestion 12 is, “Avoid end rhyme in haiku.  Read each verse aloud to make sure that it sounds natural.”

I have to admit, I got a kick out of the association.  It also demonstrated to me that Hackett doesn’t feel bound by his own ‘suggestions’; meaning, I think, that the suggestions are not rules.  I mean they are not rules in the sense that the rules for chess are rules; in the sense that if you break a rule in chess it means that you are cheating.  The rules for chess are not ‘suggestions’.

This got me to thinking about the function of rules in poetry in general.  Jane Reichhold has a very funny list of rules “that have come and gone” for the diminutive haiku.  There are 65 (yikes!) such rules.  (Writing and Enjoying Haiku, Jane Reichhold, pages 75 – 79).  It is sobering to read this list; it is also very funny.

Thinking about rules lead me to thinking about the rules for Renga; because Renga is a highly rule-bound form (I think it is in the running for the most rule-bound form of poetry evah!).  There is a significant, in the sense of highly influential, manual for Renga poets translated by Steven Carter in his book “The Road to Komatsubara”.  It is Shohaku’s Renga Rulebook, with the unassuming title, ‘The New Rules of Linked Verse, with Kanera’s New Ideas on the New Rules and Additional Comments by Shohaku’.  Phew!  Let’s just call it Shohaku’s Renga Rulebook

The interesting thing about this Renga Rulebook, written in 1501, is that it is based on previous Renga Rulebooks; but it preserves what the previous authors had to say, even when Shohaku disagrees.  Carter writes,

“One might expect of Shohaku, after his many years of study and compilation, a thorough revision of the rules; but . . . a different approach to the task of emendation was taken.  Rather than an open revision, Shohaku’s work is an interlinear commentary – sometimes a critical commentary – on the rules of Yohsimoto and Kanera. [Yoshimoto and Kanera each wrote early Renga Rulebooks.]  To read the rulebook of 1501 is to read Yoshimoto, Kanera, and Shohaku, along with some anonymous voices, in a kind of running discussion or argument.  Preserving the rules in both their original and emended forms {Shohaku’s Rulebook} is thus a complex and at times confusing text . . . But the work’s greatest fault is also its greatest virtue, for it allows the reader a chance to see exactly what kind of changes had taken place during the first century and a half of the rule’s existence.” (The Road to Komatsubara, pages 36 and 37)

And sure enough, starting right off with Rule 1, we enter into this kind of conversation:

I.  Rhyme

Yoshimoto:  Verses ending with the names of things, as well as those ending with compounds such as “morn and eve,” do not clash with verses that end with inflective words.  But verses ending with the names of things should be separated from each other by more than one verse.

Shohaku:  Words such as shigure, “showers,” or yugure, “nightfall,” do not clash according to current thinking.

Yoshimoto: The final inflections tsutsu, keri, kana, ramu, shite, and all others of the same sort should be separated from each other by more than one verse.

Kanera:  In modern times, kana is allowed in the first verse of a sequence, while its variant form, the “request” gana; may also be used once. No other uses are permitted.

Shohaku:  The “request” gana, if used at all, should appear only after the end of the first sheet.

(The Road to Komatsubara, page 41)

So there you have it.  Right out in the open the varying opinions and views of three Renga Masters.  Yoshimoto would not allow for an end-rhyme of shigure and yugure but Shohaku says they ‘do not clash according to current thinking’.  (As an aside, some of Basho’s haiku use this kind of rhyme.) 

I find Shohaku’s approach highly admirable and highly entertaining.  For one thing, it humanizes the rule-givers.  For another, this kind of transparency, to my way of thinking, actually invites us to enter into the conversation. 

What if we had such transparency today in English Language Haiku?  Wouldn’t it be just the coolest thing if we had something similar for ELH?  I mean we could take Hackett’s seventeen ‘Suggestions’ and publish the kind of conversation that Shohaku used in his Renga Rulebook.  For example, here is Suggestion 8:

Hackett:  Use verbs in present tense.
Wilson:  In modern times haiku poets use the full range of English language tenses.

Or how about Suggestion 11:

Hackett: Write in three lines which total approximately 17 syllables.
Higginson: For haiku in English an overall form consisting of seven accented syllables, plus unaccented syllables up to a total of about twelve, would yield a rhythmical structure native to English . . .
Coomler: We make no attempt to adopt this 5-7-5 form.  Instead we simply keep hokku brief, with no superfluous words . . .
Gurga:  The great majority of haiku now published in English do not follow a set syllabic form.
Strand:  The place to begin is counting syllables – five-seven-five. . . When you count the syllables for a haiku on your fingers and select a season word, already you have touched the mind of Basho and all the other haiku poets of the past.
Reichhold: Whether you fill the lines of your own haiku with seventeen syllables, or make your lines short, long, short, is a decision which you as writer will have to make.
Wilson:  In modern times, counting syllables, 5-7-5, has proven to be efficacious for a large number of haiku poets.

You can add your own; of course.  But the significant thing to me is to enter into the conversation, to feel free to comment, emend, adjudicate, etc.  Poetry forms change over time; they evolve.  By ‘evolve’ I do not mean ‘get better and better’.  I mean that they are transformed, that each of us that enters into the creation of a specific form, like Haiku or Renga or Cinquain or Sonnet, etc., both inherits the precedents of the past, and contributes our own understanding in the present.  And this combination is handed on as a gift to future practitioners of the form.

If you are inclined to formal syllabic verse my suggestion is to follow Shohaku’s example.  Respect the past because past practitioners have a lot to teach us.  And like Shohaku, be transparent about one’s interactions with the past; this transparency will be invaluable to anyone who follows after you.


The Road to Komatsubara, Steven D. Carter, Harvard University, 1987
Haiku Poetry, Volume Two, James Hackett, Japan Publications, 1968
Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide, Jane Reichhold, Kodansha, 2002 (see page 31)
Hokku: Writing Traditional Haiku in English, David Coomler, Octavo Press, 2001 (see page 35)
The Haiku Handbook, William J. Higginson, Kodansha, 1985 (see page 105)
The Other World of Richard Wright, edited by Jianqing Zheng, University of Mississippi Press, 2011 (the Gurga quote comes from page 170)
Seeds from a Birch Tree, Clark Strand, Hyperion, 1997 (see pages 24 and 87)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What We Take For Granted

Water from a tap
A shelter when it's raining
Other people's dreams

Monday, March 4, 2013

Getting Started in Renga: First Steps

Getting Started in Renga: Part 1

Dan, who is a regular here at Shaping Words, asked me how to get started in Renga.  I’ve been thinking about that for a long time and Dan’s question has given me an opportunity to offer a suggestion.

I suggest starting out with the simplest type of Renga; a two-verse sequence sometimes referred to as a ‘tan-renga’.  The tan-renga developed from the tanka form.  Often tanka are written in two parts: the first part is in 5-7-5 and the closing part is 7-7.  In tanka the two parts are written by a single poet.  In tan-renga the two parts are written by two different people.  This composing a 7-7 response to the 5-7-5 part is sometimes referred to as ‘capping’ the opening verse.

So here is my suggestion: use some of your favorite haiku and then compose a closing part.  I recommend using a haiku poet who composes in 5-7-5, such as Richard Wright or Susan August or James Hackett.  When you find a haiku that attracts you, add a 7-7 closing verse.

The purpose of this approach is to give you practice in linking.  At the beginning don’t worry too much about renga categories or esthetics, just respond to the haiku with a two-line, 7-7, verse.

I have often engaged in this exercise.  I find it fruitful which is why I still engage in it now and then.  Here is an example where I used haiku #145 by Richard Wright:

A bright glowing moon
Pouring out its radiance
Upon tall tombstones

Five petals slowly falling
From the blooming cherry tree

My response turns the image into a Spring, seasonal, poem.  Here is the response I wrote to #202:

A cock’s shrill crow
Is driving the spring dawn stars
From out of the sky

The stuff that dreams are made of
And the songs of hope and love

In my response I introduce the theme of love.

It is possible to have more than one response to a haiku and if you find several different responses emerging, I recommend jotting both, or all, of them down.

This kind of practice in responding to a haiku will develop one’s talents in linking.  The idea is to create a unified image.  There are various ways of doing this: you can add a detail, you can shift focus by placing the haiku into a larger context, you can respond to the emotional tone of the haiku, you can place the image in a seasonal or temporal context, you can also link through word-play such as puns or homonyms, etc.  I would recommend avoiding strongly disjunctive images; that is to say sharp contrasts.  The reason is this: in renga each pair of verses, any two consecutive verses, should form a unity; that is to say that the reader should be able to grasp them as a complete image in themselves.  That is what we are striving for in linking. 

After doing this for a while the next step is to cap a haiku with a verse that deliberately includes one of the seven required topics of renga.  The seven required topics are the four seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter), the moon, love, and the ‘blossom’ verse.  The blossom verse is almost always a spring verse, so it is seasonal as well; but it has its own special status in the renga form.  ‘Blossom’ in the context of renga refers to blossoming trees, particularly blossoming fruit trees.  By far the most popular blossom verse is centered on the cherry tree, followed by the plum.  In the west people have also used apple and other fruit trees for this topic.

What I am suggesting is to take a haiku and then deliberately respond to the haiku with a 7-7 verse that is on one of the standard topics.  For example, my response to Wright’s #202 introduced the theme of love, and would be considered a love verse.  My response to #105 was a spring verse.

Doing this you will develop the facility to write a verse on a standard renga topic when that kind of verse is called for in a renga form.  Renga forms have required topics at set places in their schemes; so in order to compose renga you need to develop the ability to compose on those themes when the need arises.

This kind of exercise is a lot of fun.  I have found that capping a haiku with my own 7-7 response is a fruitful way of engaging with a haiku poet.  One of the benefits of such practice is that you develop a deep feeling for the poet you are responding to; you become more intimately acquainted with how they write and communicate. 

Another benefit from this kind of practice is that it carries you through dry periods.  Most poets have periods when the creative impulses seem to dry up.  Nothing appears and the mind just seems unable to engage with the poetic craft.  When I have fallen into that kind of dryness, I will engage with a haiku poet in this manner of capping.  I sometimes refer to them as ‘haiku dialogs’.  Because I do not have to rely on my own inspiration to start the process, because I can lean on someone else’s poetry, it allows me to continue poetic composition even though original work might not be emerging. The result of this approach is that soon enough I slip out of the dry spell and back into a more consistent engagement with my own muse.

But back to renga: I think this is the simplest way to begin learning about renga.  It will give you a feel for the flow between two verses.  It also has the advantage of including another person, the haiku poet, in your creative process.  Although I compose solo renga, solo renga are unusual.  Most renga is written by a group of poets.  Responding to another poet’s haiku is the first step in placing your renga verses into a communal context and this will make it easier for you to join other renga poets when the time comes.

Open Door

Sunday is restful
Among the new leaves birds are
Greeting the sunrise

There's not a cloud in the sky,
But a gentle, steady wind

As the snowflakes fall
The mailman drops some letters
While crossing the street

The cell phone's incessant ring
Interrupts concentration

"Let's do lunch today,"
She say to a new client,
"That new restaurant?"

The magnolia blossoms,
Luxurious and long days

He checks his email --
Why isn't there a response?
Why is she silent?

She likes him, she really does;
But she needs some time alone

Hiking in the woods
On a two-week vacation
The first in five years

 Night is quickly gathering
The shadows into darkness

There's no moon tonight
Only the string of street lights
When leaves start to fall

He slowly opens the door,
An abandoned cat walks in

Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Contemplation

Mountain ranges
Lightning strikes the forest
I've heard that ev'rything changes

Saturday, March 2, 2013

On Not Knowing

Once I believed in reincarnation.
I still think it's a possibility,
But in spite of my endless devotions
I have to admit, it's a mystery
As to what happens when we pass away.
I don't know what will happen tomorrow,
Or what is in store for later today,
And the next hour may be filled with sorrow
Or perhaps filled with laughter, who can say?
I don't know what my nightly dreams will bring
Or if a friend will call from far away
Or what melody my neighbor on her walk will sing . . .

So why should I know what will happen when I die
If an unexpected wind can catch me by surprise?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Anterooms by Richard Wilbur -- A Review

Anterooms by Richard Wilbur – A Review

It’s Richard Wilbur’s birthday today; born March 1, 1921.  He’s in his 90’s and still writing poetry. 

Wilbur’s latest book is “Anterooms”, published in 2010.  I have commented on Richard Wilbur’s poetry before.  I am particularly intrigued by Wilbur’s development of what I call the “haiku stanza poem”.  In my previous post on Wilbur I spoke of such poems as ‘Thyme Flowering Among Boulders’.  It was, therefore, a great pleasure for me that when I recently got around to reading “Anterooms”, to discover that there are six haiku stanza poems in the collection.  That’s more haiku stanza poems than in his “Collected Poems: 1943 – 2004”.  For haiku poets, and syllabic poets in general, this is a wonderful gift. 

Three of the six haiku stanza poems continue the nature-centered focus of Wilbur’s previous haiku stanzas: “A Measuring Worm”, “Pasture Poem”, and “Young Orchard”.  “Measuring Worm” is about a caterpillar climbing up a window screen.  Wilbur extracts from this observation a truth about the human condition:

Although he doesn’t know it,
He will soon have wings,

And I too don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.

In “Young Orchard” Wilbur writes of orchard trees in the wind:

Nodding one and all
To one another, as they
Rise again and fall,

Swept by fluttering
So that they appear a great
Consort of sweet strings.

And “A Pasture Poem” is about the humble thistle:

This upstart thistle
Is young and touchy; it is
All barb and bristle

These three haiku stanza poems continue with the traditional nature-centered and seasonal focus of Wilbur’s previous haiku stanzas.

In the other three stanza poems, Wilbur brings the haiku stanza form to other topics.  There is a meditation on Ecclesiastes 11.1, “Cast thy bread upon the waters”, and a beautiful “Psalm”.  The “Psalm” opens with a celebratory feeling:

Give thanks for all things
On the plucked lute, and likewise
The harp of ten strings

And then at the conclusion there is a turn:

Then, in grave relief,
Praise too our sorrows on the
Cello of shared grief.

My favorite is ‘Anterooms’, the title poem for the collection.  It is a contemplation on time:

Out of the snowdrift
Which covered it, this pillared
Sundial starts to lift,

Able now at last
To let its frozen hours
Melt into the past

The middle verses talk about the strange way that time can ‘dilate’; how instants can seem to take a long time while entire years feel like a moment.  Then Wilbur concludes with a shift to dream time:

Dreams, which interweave
All our times and tenses, are
What we can believe:

Dark they are, yet plain,
Coming to us now as if
Through a cobwebbed pane

Where, before our eyes,
All the living and the dead
Meet without surprise.

These are beautifully crafted poems.  Wilbur continues with his expert use of rhyme and the careful balance of rhyme defined run-on lines with lines where the rhyme and the grammar come together to produce a strong sense of cadence and closure.

In searching online, I came across an interview with Wilbur where he discusses how he came to compose in haiku stanzas:

Interviewer:  Regarding your later poems, the ones that have been appearing recently in The New Yorker, I would think a lot of people would say this poetry ranks with the very best of your work, because it is distilled, almost haiku-like.  I don’t know if that’s the right term, but there’s a brevity; it is more spare and yet it’s evocative.

Wilbur:  It is sparer than my poetry used to be, and I think part of it is that though I can’t explain why, I’ve taken to using the haiku as a paragraph or a stanza in poetry.  Well – I do know how it happened.  A number of years ago I wanted to write a poem about my herb garden and the behavior of thyme and rocks in it, and I started out the poem by saying, “This, if Japanese, would . . .”, and I had a couple of lines talking about how Japanese gardens often represent mountain ranges and natural phenomena in miniature, and I found myself writing this about Japanese gardens in an adaptation of haiku poem rhyming the first and third lines. [The poem is “Thyme Flowering Among Rocks,” from the 1969 collection, Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translation.]  And I rather liked the enforced sparseness of that.

[The full interview can be found at]

It is intriguing to me how Wilbur’s adaptation of syllabic haiku led to a more focused, more spare, presentation.  The results are immensely attractive.  It is my feeling that Wilbur’s haiku stanzas have made a significant contribution to English Language Haiku.  Wilbur has shown how the Haiku form and esthetic can be expanded into a longer presentation.  Wilbur’s haiku stanzas differ from haiku sequences in that the stanzas constitute a single poem.  A haiku sequence is an arrangement of individual haiku each of which can be read on its own.  But because Wilbur uses run-on lines, and because there is a thematic unity, and because there is an arc to the poem from the opening stanza to its conclusion, the individual stanzas do not stand on their own; rather each stanza is a part of the whole.  I believe that this has great potential for English Language Haiku.

“Anterooms” also contains beautiful lyrics and a number of translations from the French, Latin, and Russian.  Wilbur is well-known for his superb translations.  This is a beautiful volume of poetry from a mature poet whose mastery of poetic craft is simply unsurpassed.  For haiku poets, “Anterooms” offers new vistas of possibilities for their craft.

Richard Wilbur
ISBN: 9780547358116