Friday, August 30, 2013

August Poetry Reading

August Poetry Reading

I gave a poetry reading last night.  It was an enjoyable evening.  As I have previously posted, I don’t give many readings; only two or three in a year.  This reading happened because a scheduled speaker had to cancel at the last minute and the people who scheduled the event asked if I would step in and cover the evening.  Since the cancellation was last minute, there was no publicity for my appearance and the audience was small.  Not a problem; we got to talk more closely and share more comments and give and take.

I started out reading some Villanelles, beginning with the one by A. E. Stallings in her volume ‘Olives’.  Her Villanelle is called ‘Burned’.  The audience really loved it.  It is a powerful poem.  It was gratifying to start with a poem that the audience immediately took to; it set a good tone for the rest of the evening.

I chose the Villanelle as the opening form because a local poet, Sandy Eastoak, has written an elegant and contemplative Villanelle, and this was a way of introducing it.  Sandy’s Villanelle is nature centered and in mood strongly contrasted with the one by Stallings, showing how flexible the form is.  I concluded the Villanelle section of the reading with one by Anthony Hecht called ‘Prospects’, which is more philosophical than the others I read. 

I followed this opening with readings from four other local poets, as well as a reading from my Haiku collection, ‘White Roses’ and from my ‘Lanterne Light’.  Interestingly, people seemed to like the Lanterne form poems the best; which was unexpected, but good to know.

When I do poetry readings most of the poems I will read are by other authors.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I got this idea from an essay by Dana Gioia, and when I read it I found it immediately appealing.  The tendency in poetry readings, the dominant procedure, is for poets to read only from their own work.  But if you are a poet and engage in readings, I would like to suggest that you try reading from other poets as well.  I think you will find this approach very satisfying.  It opens a number of doors.  First, it allows the reader to comment about why they have chosen this particular poem.  Second, it allows the reader to introduce a contemporary who you might feel could use some wider recognition.  Third, the audience gets a broader experience of poetry, which I think is a good thing.  This is particularly true if you include poems that stylistically diverge from one’s own personal preferences.  Reading other people’s poetry, along with your own, has many virtues and no drawbacks that I have noticed.  Think about it; give it a try and see if it works for you.  I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Brief Pause

Just a quick note, I've been concentrating on some writing projects that are time consuming; rewarding, but they require my focus.  For that reason I have been somewhat absent.  I hope to return to regular posting by the end of this week.



Saturday, August 17, 2013


The summer morning heat and a clear sky,
Starlings fly, I retreat
To a dream that's incomplete --
Old age makes me obsolete

Friday, August 16, 2013

Awake at Night

Granite cliffs flutter,
A stream's flowing in stasis,
Dream words have uttered
Clues that must be recovered --
Moonlight as an oasis

Thursday, August 15, 2013


August days
The morning haze,
Drifting in from the sea, stays
Until about eight or nine when the sun's rays
Evaporate the last traces of cool creating distinct pools of shade
Cast by scattered old oak trees in my neighbor's dry field while in the sky a few swift-moving clouds are in beauty arrayed

Friday, August 9, 2013


A one-lane dirt road
Winding through the brown-grass fields
A long-ago friend

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Poetry's Audience

Writing for Others or the Audience for Poetry

There is a recent two-part blogpost by Tasha Golden at Plougshares that focuses on cultivating an audience for poetry.  I found the series thoughtful.  The first part can be found here:

The second part can be found here:

The basic view of the posts is that modern poetry could learn a lot from pop music in seeking an audience.  Golden takes for granted that poetry has lost its audience, but she suggests that this audience can be regained by following the lead of popular music.  In many ways this makes sense to me.  But I have a somewhat different take on the situation.  What follows are a few comments stimulated by Golden’s posts.

First, the sense that modern poetry has lost its audience is widespread and is, I think, in some ways accurate.  In the not-so-distant past poets commanded large followings and a significant audience when they spoke.  Poets like Poe and Tennyson and Longfellow had huge followings and their readings were major cultural events.  As recently as Edna St. Vincent Millay a poet could generate huge sales and be regularly interviewed and commented upon in the mass media.

All that is gone.  There are popular poets: I am thinking of someone like Mary Oliver.  When she does a reading it is very well attended.  But there is a difference in the make-up of such an audience from that of the past.  It is this:  in the past the audience for poetry readings and events contained large numbers of non-poets.  This is true today for music, whether classical, jazz, or rock ‘n roll.  At music concerts the majority of people in the audience will be non-musicians who are attracted to the concert.  (This is also true of things like sporting events; most of the people who go to a baseball or football game are not themselves players of that game.)  That also used to be the case with poetry.  That is to say when Poe gave a reading of The Raven the majority of people in attendance were not poets themselves but were attracted to the reading in the same way that concert goers are attracted to a performance of music that interests them.  Today, the audience for poetry consists almost entirely of other poets.

This has been noted for a number of decades.  Dana Gioia wrote about it in his justly famous essay Can Poetry Matter?  Gioia pointed out in his essay that the number of poets, and their friends, is large enough so that this culture of poetry readings attended mostly by other poets can sustain itself.  I don’t think it is in danger of disappearing.  But precisely because poetry events are attended almost exclusively by poets there is a sense of isolation.  Golden’s posts seek to address this, and remedy it, by adopting some of the strategies of pop music.  The hope is that poetry will become, once again, appealing to a wider audience; that is to say to those who are not themselves poets.

There is one aspect of this that I think Golden, and others, miss.  What I want to suggest is that the audience for popular music is the audience for modern poetry.  What I am suggesting is that pop music is a conveyor of modern poetry.  What I am suggesting is that the lyrics of popular music are where much of modern poetry can be found.

I am not the only one who has this view.  In the Library of America series on American Poetry, the lyrics of songwriters are included.  Volume Two of the Twentieth Century includes Bessie Smith, Oscar Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart and Blind Melon Jefferson.  In the Volume Two of the Nineteenth Century there is an entire section devoted to Folks Songs and Spirituals

In the anthology The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, they have included, under ‘Anonymous’, lyrics of a number of songs including such classics as The Streets of Laredo.

And finally, the Norton Anthology of Poetry, fifth edition, contains a selection from the hymns of Charles Wesley; probably the most influential composer of hymns in history.

So the idea that the lyrics of popular song are poetry is not eccentric on my part.  I simply would like to extend it to include people like Bob Dylan and a multitude of other rock, country/western, and other pop genres.  Mr. Tambourine Man deserves a place in our anthologies.

Here’s the thing: if you look at song as a conveyor of poetry it shifts your view of what was going on with poetry in the 20th century.  It rewrites your narrative of that history.  If you include popular song lyrics as poetry the major shift in one’s view is that the impact of free verse on the history of poetry becomes much more restrained.  Hardly any song lyrics are free verse; in fact, I can’t think of one, though if you really hunt I suppose you can find one.  But the point is that if you include song lyrics, if you bring such lyrics into the realm of poetry, then the impact of free verse on English language poetry becomes a much more muted; not insignificant, but of diminished significance. 

And here is where my view of what is going on with audiences for poetry differs somewhat from Golden.  The diminished audience is a diminished audience for free verse.  Just as classical music concert-goers tend to have rejected the avant-garde and simply do not show up for such concerts, in a similar way audiences have simply stayed away from free verse.  Not totally; free verse poets do have a following.  But in the sense of the kind of audience that Tennyson could generate, modern poetry’s audience is highly specialized and lacks widespread appeal – except for the lyrics of popular songs.

There is an alternative way of looking at this.  Where I live there is a local bonsai society.  It has been going for many years.  The Bonsai Society puts on monthly events, yearly shows; the kind of thing you would expect from such a group.  The audience for events at the Bonsai Society is almost exclusively made up of people who maintain Bonsai themselves, plus a few friends, and perhaps a few people who are interested in Japanese culture in general.

I would like to suggest that the audience for free verse is similar to this.  That is to say the audience for Free Verse resembles the audience of the Bonsai Society.  In both cases the audience is a specialized group.

Is that a bad thing for free verse?  Well, it depends on how you look at it.  It is expected that the Bonsai Society will consist primarily of people who themselves cultivate Bonsai.  But because in the past poetry has generated huge followings and has been felt to have larger cultural significance, the absence of a broad audience, the absence of widespread cultural interest, appears as a lack.

There is also the matter of ego here.  Cultivators of Bonsai do not expect to generate a big cultural impact.  They are content with their craft and sharing their craft with others.  Because of the heritage of poetry, and the significance it has played, there is a feeling among poets that poetry should be considered of greater significance than cultivating bonsai, or baking bread, or pottery. 

In my view, though, poetry is simply a craft and very much like Bonsai or pottery.  If looked at in this way, there is nothing wrong with how free verse has evolved.  Like numerous human activities, free verse has its groups, magazines, societies, and those who are interested in it.  That is not a bad thing.  But it is a shift as to where poetry is located in the culture.

So, in a sense, I am saying two things.  The first observation is about where to find poetry: and that observation is that if you want to find poetry that has a large cultural impact, an impact that resembles the impact that poetry in the past had, then look to popular music.  That is where the dominant culture of poetry can be found.

My second observation is that if you want to locate other types of poetry, such as free verse, the best way to locate such activity is by comparing it to other interests such as gardening, or pottery, or quilting, or baking.  Free verse has a vital audience; even the most severe critics of free verse have acknowledged that the audience for free verse is large enough to be self-sustaining.  But it is not the same audience that poetry had in the past or that the lyrics of popular song currently has.  My view is that there is nothing wrong with that; it’s just how the situation has evolved.

And this observation about audience also applies to syllabic forms such as Haiku, Fibonacci, etc.  In Japan there are numerous Haiku Societies and they function very much like societies devoted to Bonsai, Karate, Tea Ceremony, etc.  My observation is that form-centered poetry societies in the U.S. are also developing along these lines.  It is a specialized audience that resembles those who are devoted to baking, or quilting.  All of these kinds of activities make life enjoyable for the participants at many levels.  From my perspective that is all the justification they need.

In closing, part of what I am getting at is that there is no single, overall, audience for poetry.  Perhaps there was in the past; I’m not sure.  But today the audience for poetry has become a number of different, sometimes overlapping, sometimes mutually antagonistic, audiences.  There is an audience for free verse, there is an audience for popular song lyrics, there is an audience for Haiku, for Fibonacci, for traditional metrical verse, etc.  This resembles gardening where you have Rose Societies, Geranium Societies, African Violet groups, Bonsai Associations, etc.  Again, there will be some overlap among the participants, and at times some antagonisms, but one can still see the specific focus involved.

Society has changed.  The conditions in which poetry has a presence have changed.  Poetry has adapted to these changing conditions and that is, I think, all to the good.

Late Summer

In the month of August the first leaves fall
From tall trees to the dust
Touched by the color of rust,
Sunset dims the day to dusk

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

With Friends

Mondy morning pancakes at the cafe,
Good friends stay for the sake
Of conversing's give and take;
Refreshing, like a cool lake

Monday, August 5, 2013


Surprisingly warm
Walking in the sunrise sky
And a choir of clouds

Saturday, August 3, 2013


A summer gray sky
Even in a noisy bar
The silence of God

Friday, August 2, 2013

Spring Morning Sun: A Review of the Haiku of Tom Tico

Spring Morning Sun: A Review of the Haiku of Tom Tico

Tom Tico has been writing Haiku since the 60’s.  His work appears in a number of anthologies, e.g. Cor van den Heuvel’s “The Haiku Anthology”, and Bruce Ross’s “Haiku Moment”, and the “San Francisco Haiku Anthology”.  He has also been widely published in various Haiku journals.

His only book that I am aware of is Spring Morning Sun, which was published in 1998.  I recently purchased a copy and found myself enjoying his Haiku and his view of the world he expresses through his Haiku.

One of the things that intrigues me about Haiku is that in spite of its brevity, the specific personality of the Haiku poet comes through.  Intellectually, one would think that with all the restrictions placed on the form, including its briefness, the season word, lineation requirements, etc., that the form would generate a kind of impersonal, almost abstract, type of poetry.  But that doesn’t happen.  Buson and Issa, to contrast some classic examples, have very different personalities and these personalities are evident in their Haiku.

Partly this is due to the life experiences of the poet.  These experiences shape our perceptions, what we tend to focus on.  Tom Tico’s life comes through in his Haiku.  He writes in the ‘Introduction’, “From 1985 through 1995 I spent over seven years in a state of homelessness, sleeping in a redwood forest in Golden Gate Park.”  This experience shapes his Haiku in significant ways.  For example:

At the soup kitchen,
a faded reproduction
of The Last Supper

This is one of my favorite of Tico’s Haiku.  I worked for a few years as a janitor for a homeless shelter.  I was not homeless myself, but because of my job I became acquainted with such a life; not in the abstract, but through personal contact.  This Haiku is deeply expressive in many dimensions of the situation the homeless often face.  The reference to the last supper has many echoes, including the injunction of Jesus that his disciples care for the poor.  The allusion to the famous painting is rewarding on many levels.

Allusion is present in a number of Tico’s Haiku.  Here is another example of a biblical allusion:

In the color and taste
of the pomegranate seeds:
the Old Testament

I found this intriguing; it might be referring to the antiquity of pomegranates, or it might be referring to a specific biblical passage, or simply that the author made this association.  I like the way the concrete taste is linked to the allusive context.

Tico’s approach is primarily syllabic, but not rigidly so.  That is to say Tico’s Haiku range widely in terms of their count while at the same time the center is the standard 5-7-5.  I take it that Tico feels free to deviate from the count if the Haiku demands it.  Interestingly, as many of his Haiku are long count as are short count.  This is a signal to me that Tico is not a minimalist. 

In terms of structure, again Tico seems comfortable with a variety of structural approaches.  But most of his Haiku are single sentence Haiku:

After the earthquake
the shaking continues
in my girlfriend’s voice

Notice the lineation here is clear in the sense that each line is a grammatical phrase.  The structure of the Haiku is a movement from a general, wide angle, observation to a specific; how his girlfriend is reacting.  It is, I think, a fine example of this kind of narrowing focus.

The seasonal element is used intermittently.  Here is a good example of a seasonal Haiku:

Beside the tenement
a box of broken glass
filled with autumn sun

Each line shifts the focus a little.  Line 1 is a general focus, then line 2 brings a specific object into sharp relief, the concluding line 3 moves to a broad seasonal context.  There is a unity among the elements; the tenement, the broken glass, and autumn all have an essential, underlying, similarity of tone.  This ties all the elements of the Haiku together, giving the variety an overall unity.  Notice how the ‘earthquake’ Haiku moved from the general to the specific, while his Haiku moves from the specific to the general.  Both are done elegantly.

A few of Tico’s Haiku engage in what I call ‘time shift’, which is my favorite type of Haiku.  Here’s an example:

The old carving tree . . .
a new pair of initials
and the first young leaves

I enjoyed the way Tico plays with the sense of time in this Haiku, weaving together the old and the new.  There is an expansive sense of time in this Haiku which I found satisfying.

Here is one I particularly liked:

Etched in the sidewalk,
the peace symbol encompasses
a few fallen leaves

A thoughtful contemplation on the relationship between human affairs and the seasons.

Many of Tico’s Haiku are personal.  For example:

In my sleeping bag
in a fetal position;
this cold autumn night

In Tico’s Haiku the world of nature and the human world, and how they intersect appears to be a major focus.  In classical Haiku esthetics from Japan, though, what counts as nature is carefully selected.  Haiku about homelessness, earthquakes,  plagues,  etc., are discouraged.  But how we view nature changes with our life circumstances.  For someone who is homeless autumn is primarily about getting cold and trying to cope with falling temperatures.  For someone who has their own home autumn is primarily about the brilliance of the autumn foliage.  Both views are true.  This is what Tico, through his life experience, understands and communicates elegantly to the reader:

After homelessness . . .
how different the rain looks
from a cozy room


Spring Morning Sun
Haiku by Tom Tico
ISBN: 9781575027111

Price varies; available as a used book from Amazon

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Out of the Mist: Modern Haiku's Essay on O. Mabson Southard

I'd like to bring reader's attention to a really well-written essay on the Haiku of O. Mabson Southard published by Modern Haiku in 2012.  It can be found here:

It is written by Paul Russel Miller.  It is the kind of analysis I really enjoy reading and it is a good example of an overview of an early American Haijin who composed Haiku syllabically.

The essay raises an interesting question; how the change in formal structure among American Haijin, and in particular among American Haiku Organizations, what I often refer to as 'Official Haiku', should be understood.  The narrative that is often put forth from official haiku is that American Haiku has progressed, that early American Haiku that followed a syllabic approach was simplistic, and that we now have a more sophisticated understanding and approach which pans out into a free verse, short count, structure.

My personal view of this kind of narrative is that it arises out of a cultural understanding of 'progress'; it is a specific application of a view which comprehends history as progressing.  'Progressing' here means getting better and better.  The template for this is the onward march of science and technology.  Since science and technology have clearly made great advances, and since science and technology determine much of our world view, it is not surprising that poetry takes on this way of looking at itself.  That is to say, in chemistry we can definitely say that we know more about the elements today than we did 300 or 500 years ago.  And we continue to uncover more and more through the application of scientific investigation.

Does poetry fit into this kind of narrative?  I am skeptical that it does.  Think of a form like the sonnet.  Those who compose sonnets do not argue that their craft has progressed; it has changed, of course, but it has not become better and better.  Shakespeare's sonnets are still studied to be learned from; there is not a feeling that they should be left behind for better procedures.

I think the same applies to English language Haiku.  Tastes change and subject matter varies.  But the idea that today's Haiku are more sophisticated, more true to Haiku, than the early efforts of poets like Mabson, Hackett, Wright, is, I think, simply a story some Haijin tell themselves to make them feel advanced.  I refer to this kind of thinking as 'chronocentrism'; it is the idea that one's own time is somehow inherently better, more insightful, and in general more admirable than times past.  I think of it as a kind of cultural blindness.

There are many areas of human life where the idea of progress does not apply.  I would argue that for art in general this is the case.  I would argue that this also applies to a discipline like metaphysics (and here I am referring to the classical, Aristotelian, tradition; not the new age usage of the word 'metaphysics').  A work like Whitehead's Process and Reality (my candidate for the greatest work of 20th century philosophy) is a restatement of insights, but I do not believe that metaphysics progresses.   To the degree that metaphysics deals with eternal truths it does not progress precisely because it is embedded in the eternal.

But to return to Haiku.  What I would enjoy seeing among American Haijin is a relationship to their own past similar to the relationship that sonneteers have with their past.  That is to say a relationship which views their past as something to be admired, something to learn from, rather than something to be dismissed and surpassed.  It is the idea that the past is something to lived up to rather than trivialized.

Practically, I think this would mean making available the works of some of these early Haijin.  Wright is in a unique position because of his fame as a writer of novels and essays; for this reason his Haiku have remained in print and are available.  But I have noticed that Hackett's work has fallen out of print; except for its presence in anthologies.  I think that is unfortunate.  And many of Edith Shiffert's works seem to be available now only in used copies.  And an early anthology like 'Borrowed Water' is also only available in used copies. Sonneteers do not have this problem; early sonnets are readily available and often read, commented on, and studied.  I would like to see the same happen with English Language Haiku.  Print on demand technology makes this easier to accomplish.  Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but I sense a growing interest in some of these early Haijin.  The article on Southard is, I believe, an indication of this trend.