Friday, February 28, 2014

Same or Different?

Same or Different?

I think a lot about how haiku in the English speaking world has blossomed into a number of forms.  Regular readers of the blog know that my view is that the word ‘haiku’, in English, now refers to at least three, possibly as many as five, different poetic forms.  I have been wondering if there is some kind of analogy, or some precedent, that would illustrate how this process has unfolded.  And a precedent that I think is helpful in this context is the guitar.

Compare the classical guitar to the electric guitar used in popular music today.  Are they the same instrument, or are they different instruments?  Similarities between the two are fairly easy to observe.  For the most part, they share the same number of strings.  Both the electric and the classical guitar are held in the same way, with the left hand on the neck, and the right hand plucking the strings. 

But the dissimilarities are striking as well.  For one thing, the sound of the two instruments is different in a way that is easily recognizable by the ordinary listener.  The classical guitar string, when plucked, has a short duration that rapidly fades.  For the classical guitar there is no way to sustain the note for very long.  This leads to a style of performance that relies on frequent plucking of the strings.  It is true that the sound box of the classical guitar provides some resonance; but compared to an instrument like the violin or organ, the duration of the pitch, once plucked, for the classical guitar is brief.

In contrast the electric guitar, relying on technological transformations, can sustain a pitch for a very long time; especially when compared to the classical guitar.  Thus it is not unusual for a performance of the electric guitar to have relatively sustained notes.

The tone color of the instruments is also different.  And the volume differs as well; the classical guitar is fairly soft; when recorded the classical guitar is often miced very close for this reason.  In contrast, the electric guitar can be literally deafening.

My tendency is to think of the electric guitar and the classical guitar as two different instruments.  They are historically related and they show a common origin in their shape and playing technique.  But the effect upon the listener is so different that I think it is useful to consider them as now simply different musical instruments.

The guitar family of instruments covers a number of variants beyond the two I just discussed.  The steel acoustic steel string guitar differs from the classical in that the strings of the steel string guitar are closer together, making it a better suited instrument for using a pick and for strumming chords.  The bass guitar often has only four, instead of six, strings and its range differs from the classical, acoustic steel string, and the electric guitar.  And there are other types which are even further removed from the classical ancestor.

When looking at these different instruments you can see, and hear, the connection.  You can understand why they are all called ‘guitar’.  But they are different instruments and they lend themselves to different types of music.

In a similar way, I think that the different approaches to haiku found today among English language haiku poets lend themselves to different types of expression.  Like the different types of guitar, you can see in the different types of haiku that they share certain features.  But they differ in their modes of expression, in the way they communicate, in their esthetic ideals, and effects they aim to impart.

This is not a judgment about one type being superior to another.  Just as excellent music is to found in the acoustic and electric guitars, so also excellent poetry is to be found in the variety of haiku approaches.  But over time they have drifted farther and farther apart, just as the music played on the classical and electric guitars has become more and more distinct.  This is not a bad thing.  It is just a process of unfolding and differentiation that happens in many areas of human life.  And I think it is helpful to simply acknowledge that ‘haiku’, in English, has blossomed into a number of distinct forms.

Saturday, February 15, 2014



I keep thinking of things that I should do
After work is done and the day is through,
But my mind works better in the morning.
My mind seems to shut down with the sunset.
I used to stay up all night with the owls.
Now I greet the dawn along with the larks.

The stark winterscape, the absence of larks,
Thinking about debt and bills that are due,
From the oak outside the hoot of an owl
Which lasted for hours is finally through,
Like the darkness at the edge of sunset
When the world pauses, a kind of mourning.

The stars pale, a warning of morning,
In summer the dawn is welcomed by larks,
A new day forgets yesterday’s sunset,
I check my new phone for things I should do,
I’ll stop for some gas as I’m passing through –
Overhead, silently gliding, an owl.

Athena is often seen with an owl,
Because dream wisdom flees in the morning
Unless with the dawn we have a breakthrough;
A new insight, or song, like the light-greeting lark,
Dispeller of dark, welcome of dew,
Whose hours are few, long gone by sunset.

Watching Dad build a campfire, his son’s set
On growing up fast.  The sound of an owl
Sounds like music. There is nothing to do
On a bridge of dreams until the morning
When they wake up to the song of a lark
As the stark rays of the sun cut the fog through.

I had a thought – it was a through and through.
It disappeared like the light of sunset.
There was a mountain – it’s gone like a lark
That is replaced by the night by the owl
Who in turn is gone at dawn, at morning,
When starlight can still be seen in the dew.

Life has obligations, things we must do;
Starting with morning on through to sunset,

From the song of the lark to the call of the owl.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Street Poet

Street Poet

A few weeks ago I was taking my lunch break.  I decided to walk over to Whole Foods to get something from their hot food bar.  Whole Foods is about three blocks from where I work.  As I was walking I spotted a young man standing in front of a store.  As I passed he asked me, “Do you like poetry?”  I responded, “I’m totally poetry.”  He said, “Would you like to hear one of my poems?”  “Sure,” I replied.  This sounded good.

He then asked me what topic I would like for my poem?  I hesitated, and he jumped in with a list: nature, work, politics, religion . . .  I said, “God.  I want a poem about God.  I’m a Quaker.”  I added the ‘Quaker’ bit to let him know where I’m coming from.  On the spot he recited:

the strongest force
i can think of is love
and I believe that it’s not
from a heaven above
it resides in each
& all of our hearts
i’m saying that god’s
not separate or apart.
mispelt god
is good within us all
add an ‘o’ to god
& deities fall
seein something beautiful’s
like lookin into a mirror
cause within you is a love
that’s radiantly pure
i once learned, now believe,
that evil has momentum
please embrace all you can
our good that i mention
you can help somebody out
create some righteous art
knowin god’s within
not distant or apart.

Tim Hale

Not bad, not bad at all. 

It turns out Tim is a street poet who has been on his own for some years now.  I’m not sure, but I think he’s in his 30’s.  He handed me a chapbook of his poems with the poem he recited in it.  And I gave him some money in return.

I love running into street poets, but it’s been a long time since I encountered one.  The last time I had a real encounter that included interaction, conversation, and some poems, was Julia Vinograd in Berkeley.  Love her work.  In some ways, Tim and Julia are cut from the same cloth.  Living on the fringes, unconnected with any poetry establishment, lacking MFA credentials or other tokens that get you published in the right journals or invitations to the right conferences.

Tim and Julia have very different styles.  Julia composes free verse, but with a deft touch to her lineation and a distinctive voice that is unmistakable.  Tim writes metrical verse; it appears to me from reading his chapbook that his poetry is strongly influenced by popular song; always a good sign. 

At another level, though, Tim and Julia are birds of a feather.  They both write from their encounters with life and express a point of view which is largely absent from more established poets. 

Here’s one more of Tim Hale’s poems:

The Kinship of Homeless

I slept between boats
Made money off poems
That summer in Seattle
I never was alone
I hung with the homeless
Took care of each other
I was closer to them
Than I am my own brother.
We dumpstered some steaks
Some forty-plus dollars
And fed them to dogs
Who roamed without collars
We gathered and shared
Meals every night
Round fires we’d rambled
‘till dawn brought us light.
There were dreamers and lovers
Addicts and thieves
We share with each other
Our deepest beliefs
About pain from the past
How life had been tainted
Or how life’s just a canvas
Waiting to be painted.
We talked of possibilities
That never really end
How the heart that’s broke the most
Would eventually mend
While some work for power
For gain and for gold
Our possessions were little
But rich was our soul.
Know moments our choices
‘tween love and ‘tween fear
If you open yourself
There’s family near
We weren’t each other’s siblings
Father or mother
Though all of us were family
In Seattle that summer.

I just went over to youtube and found a number of posts about Tim.  If you are interested you can take a look.

So there is poetry everywhere, and good poetry too. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Rhymes with Pillow by Sandy Eastoak: A Review

Rhymes with Pillow by Sandy Eastoak
A Review

I attended a reading on Thursday, February 6th.  It was one of the ongoing series of talks that the store I work at holds every Thursday.  This event was the premier reading for a new book by poet and artist, Sandy Eastoak.  The book is called Rhymes with Pillow and I think it will be of particular interest to readers of this blog.

Rhymes is a collection of poems all on the subject of Willow Trees.  That is to say that each poem has as its topic the Willow.  In addition, each poem is in a form, meaning that all but a few of the poems are formal verse.  And among those formal verse poems a significant number are in some type of syllabic form.

In other words, Rhymes is a tour de force of poetic form.  Among the forms are Sestina, Villanelle, Triolet, and Sonnet.  Among the syllabic forms you will find Cinquain, Etheree, Lanterne, Quinzaine, and Tetractys.  Eastoak’s Haiku are non-syllabic in construction.

The book sparkles.  The book also reveals how different forms, simply by the nature of the form, draw the poet into certain types of expression.  I have, at times, noted that some free verse poets are what I think of as ‘form deaf’.  I mean by this that they are unable to comprehend, or to perceive, that form itself is a conveyer of meaning.  During the reading Eastoak talked a little about her relationship to the formal structures and how the forms themselves lead her to certain understandings and observations about Willows.  She said that writing in a particular form was like putting a pipe in the ground and having pure spring water gush forth as a result.  I really liked that image.  And it is also what I have found with formal structures.  Looked at in this way, formal structures are not hindrances; rather formal structures are tools that allow us to access sources that nourish our creativity.  They are both tools that we can use and sources of wisdom that guide us in the craft of shaping words into significant forms.

The idea of writing in numerous forms all on the same topic is an excellent way to clarify the way that a formal structure will, in itself, open us up to certain kinds of understandings.  The beauty of the Willow is reflected upon from numerous formal perspectives in this collection and, as a teaching device, this collection has great merit.

The poems themselves are well-crafted, engaging, and have a wide range of emotional content.  The audience was clearly charmed by the poetry and the careful craftsmanship displayed in the numerous forms.  The book is an effective demonstration of the efficacy of poetic form.  It is also a treat to read; highly recommended.

Rhymes with Pillow
Sandy Eastoak
ISBN: 9781495227110

Friday, February 7, 2014


Good Morning:

This is my first post for 2014.  So a belated Happy New Year to those reading this blog.

My absence is due to my focusing on a book project which has turned out to be huge.  It is over 500 pages and keeps changing its shape, morphing into configurations I hadn't intended, and in general soaking up my attention and time.  Not that I mind.  But it is one of those projects that you thought would be straightforward, and then suddenly becomes immensely complex.

But focus seems to have returned and I hope to post more regularly here at Shaping Words in the near future.

Thanks, everyone, for your patience.

Best wishes,