Monday, October 27, 2014

Police Blotter Haiku: A Review

Police Blotter Haiku: A Review

I am fascinated by popular haiku and how widespread it has become.  From my perspective, as focused as I am on the possibilities for syllabic verse in English, the widespread acceptance of a poetic form that is defined by its syllable count is a very encouraging sign.  It means that the cultural ground is being tilled for a broader acceptance of syllabic verse in English. 

Some of the best examples of this acceptance are to be found in humorous collections of haiku in the 5-7-5 format.  Many people are aware of Haikus for Jews and Redneck Haiku: The Double-Wide Edition.  These two have had a wide appeal and are still in print.

Recently I have come across another collection which, I think, deserves to be added to its illustrious predecessors.  It is titled Police Blotter Haiku, by Jim Jones.  PBH has the same wry sense of humor as Haiku for Jews and Redneck Haiku; the same kind of commentary on the foibles of human life and its difficulties.

A tree collided
with a drunken motorist.
The tree was not hurt.

Jones writes, “A couple of years ago I spent the weekend in a small town of no great significance.  Out of boredom I picked up a copy of the local paper.  And discovered the Police Blotter column.  The stories were so short and pithy and human that they read like haiku.  Before long, I began converting them into actual haiku.  This seemed appropriate.”

Aflame with anger,
he set fire to the carport
of her new lover.

The collection is divided into 17 topics like ‘Men, Women and Wretched Exes’, ‘Bad Behavior’, ‘Much Outrage About Nothing’, etc.  Each section is roughly 6 to 10 pages long.  Included are really great illustrations of the suspect behavior, which add to the charm of the book.

Just to pass the time
he walked into traffic and
dared cars to hit him.

Most of the haiku are humorous, but now and then Jones observes some of the more poignant tales from the Police Blotter:

In her high-end home,
in the finest neighborhood,
she still died alone.

I am impressed by the ability Jones shows to distill a short news item down to 17 syllables.  That is not as easy as he makes it look.  Like RNH and HFJ, PBH explores areas of life normally not touched on by haiku poets.  Yet this is also a part of life and these aspects of life are all around us and, I think, are a rich source for haiku material if we will turn our attention to them.

Dew catches the sun
and floods the windshield with light.
Two-car accident.

Stylistically, the haiku in this collection are either single sentence haiku or in two parts; kind of like a juxtaposition, but not so self-consciously artful.  I don’t recall reading a list haiku.  The seasonal element is, for the most part, absent; I doubt that Jones considered it.  But there are a lot of non-seasonal haiku written these days even among the denizens of official haiku. 

Night of the Taggers.
Come the dawn, call after call
about defaced walls.

From my perspective, popular haiku accomplishes two things.  First, it broadens the subjects that are acceptable for haiku poets.  And second, popular haiku affirms the possibility of a syllabic approach to English language poetry slowly emerging. 

Get yourself a copy of Police Blotter Haiku.  I think you will enjoy it as much as I did.

Parolee Rule 1:
Put down your meth pipe BEFORE
answering the door.


Police Blotter Haiku
Jim Jones
ISBN: 9781500471163


Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Short Essay on Syllabics by Elizabeth Daryush: Part 2

A Short Essay on Syllabics: Part 2

Continuing with the short essay that Daryush wrote about a syllabic approach to English language poetry, in the next paragraph Daryush focuses on lineation.  Daryush writes,

“First, . . . the line-ending, the highest point of emphasis and tension, being no longer led up to by steps of regular stress, must be established and maintained by other means.”

In metrical verse there are three means for indicating a line break: 1) the metrical beat, 2) grammar, and 3) rhyme.  Daryush points out that in a syllabic approach we cannot rely on ‘steps of regular stress’ to indicate a line break.  Therefore, the other two must carry the weight and be relied upon to tell us that there is a line break.

Here I would like to point out that the meaning of a line break is that there is a caesura, a pause, in the flow of words.  Often it is where one would take a brief breath before continuing.  It is this caesura which gives the reader/listener a sense of the shape of the poem. 

This is also why, I think, in traditional English poetry a line begins with a capital letter.  The capital letter functions in the way that a bar line in music functions.  Technically music does not need bar lines and there are forms of notation that do not use them.  When I briefly studied Japanese music I discovered that their traditional notational systems do not use them.  But the bar line assists the musician by letting the musician know where the beat will fall, it is an explicit assist.  Similarly, the beginning capital letter of a line of poetry reminds the reader that this is the beginning of a poetic unit; in the case of syllabics it signals the reader that this is the beginning of a group of syllables.  It is simply helpful and considerate of the reader to offer this kind of assistance.

Returning to the essay, Daryush continues,

“The first few lines of a syllabic poem should when possible be complete sentences or phrases.”

The reason for this is that when grammatical structure and syllable count are coordinated the reader/listener is assisted in accessing the shape of the poem.  When the two are divergent, it is difficult for the reader or listener to perceive a shape with any clarity.  The effect of this is that the work drifts into ordinary speech, the essay, the diary, etc.; and the poetic effect is simply lost.

Daryush seems, as mentioned in part 1, to have in mind syllabic poetry where all the lines are the same length.  And her observation about grammar and line would apply strongly to that kind of poetry; say the syllabic sonnet.  Daryush, as far as I know, never wrote in forms that use a very short line.  I define a very short line as four syllables or less.  A remarkable number of popular syllabic forms use very short lines, including the lanterne, the tetractys, the fibonacci, and the cinquain.  How would Daryush’s advice function for a very short line?

Personally, I have taken the approach of writing a list, usually of nouns, when writing very short lines.  I believe this is consistent with the overall advice given by Daryush, though she does not mention it.  Each item on a list has its own integrity, a wholeness; but when combined with the other items creates an overall collage of meaning.  I found this especially helpful with the opening lines of the fibonacci (1-1-2-3 . . .).  I have, in general, found it unsatisfying when a sentence is chopped up and distributed among very short lines.  It feels forced and the specific shape of the form feels lost.  There are exceptions.  Dabydeen’s approach to the tetractys often takes a sentence and chops it up.  But Dabydeen is careful to distribute the sentence so that it falls into clear grammatical units or phrases, so that one can still feel the sense of the shape of the tetractys.  However, when, for example, a prepositional phrase is split among lines, this undermines the shape of the specific form and it is difficult for the listener/reader to comprehend what form the poem is in.  I have often observed this kind of writing in short syllabic forms and in general I think poets attracted to these forms might consider adhering more closely to Daryush's advice in this matter.  

“Rhyme is almost indispensable . . . “

Rhyme is the most powerful marker for communicating a line break in the English language.  I think that Daryush makes an excellent point here.  Personally, it was my study of Emily Dickinson that opened my understanding to the power and scope of rhyme.  For the syllabic poet rhyme is an indispensable tool.  A consistent use of rhyme will communicate to the reader/listener that shape of a poem.  In addition, rhyme is pleasing to the ear, people enjoy its presence, and it gives the poem a musical feeling.  Finally, rhyme makes the poem more memorable.

I wish I had read Darrush’s essay years ago.  Perhaps the long route I took to some of these same conclusions would have been shortened.  On the other hand, it is pleasing to discover that similar conclusions are reached regarding lineation when pursued independently.  My own journey started out in free verse and it was a slow process to a syllabic approach.  And that slow process was a gradual discovery that in order to write syllabic poetry it was necessary to put aside the norms of today’s free verse lineation. 

Modern free verse typically ignores grammar in a process that is referred to as radical enjambment.  This means that there is no coordination between grammatical structure and line breaks.  This is not an inherent quality of free verse.  For example, Whitman almost always breaks a line at a grammatical unit.  But it is a very widespread usage among today’s free verse poets.  I find it puzzling; it strikes me as fickle and arbitrary.  In addition, it seems to be thumbing its nose at the reader, refusing to offer even minimal assistance in the communication of meaning.  I’m not sure why radical enjambment is so widespread or how it started.  But I have become convinced that in order to write effective syllabic verse such an approach needs to be put aside.

This short little essay by Daryush reveals a very thoughtful poet who must have spent a lot of time pondering the subtleties of English language prosody.  It is filled with insight and tips which syllabic poets can apply to their own work.  It is my hope that Daryush’s poetry will be reprinted and that syllabic poets will find in her work both fine poetry and a rich resource for their own efforts.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Elizabeth Daryush on Syllabics: Part 1

A Short Essay on Syllabics by Elizabeth Darush

I have had a fondness for the poetry of Elizabeth Daryush for a long time.  However, my reading of her poetry has been from anthologies and the occasional poem I found on the web.  My interest in Daryush was first stimulated by coming across some of her syllabic sonnets.  I found them very attractive.  So, now and then, I would do a web search for her poems and was never disappointed with what I found.

Most of the poetry of Daryush is currently available only in used editions.  Recently I decided to buy her Collected Poems which was published in 1976.  It is a surprisingly slim volume; only 198 pages.  But that has its advantages as the collection gives the reader a good overview of her poetry.  I will have more to say about the poems in a future post, but what I want to highlight here is a short ‘Note on Syllabic Metres’, written by Daryush, found on pages 24 and 25.  I found it to be insightful and one of the clearest presentations of syllabics in an English language context that I have run across.  Here it is:

Note On Syllabic Metres

Some of the poems here re-printed are written on a syllabic system, and I should like to comment on what seems to be a wide-spread misunderstanding and under-estimate of what the principle implies: a strict syllable-count, although of course essential, is, in my view, merely the lifeless shell of its more vital requirements.

Accepting that not only a work of art but every aspect of its medium is intrinsically a contrived relation between the known and the uncomprehended, the fixed and the unpredictable, recalling, too, that in accentual verse, as in barred music, the fixed element is that of time, and the unfixed that of number (of syllables or notes) we can assess what part should be played by these factors in a truly syllabic system.  Here the position is reversed: the fixed element is no longer time but number; the integrity of line and syllable is challenged by the stress-demands of sense or syntax.  The aim of the artist will be so to balance these incommensurables as to reflect his own predicament of thought or feeling, thereby enhancing his consciousness of an imagined relation with the unattainable.  The rules for achieving this are by their very nature unwritten ones, but a few guide-lines can be laid down.

In general, meaning should make the greatest possible use of time-variety without losing sight of the number-pattern.  First, therefore, the line-ending, the highest point of emphasis and tension, being no longer led up to by steps of regular stress, must be established and maintained by other means.  The first few lines of a syllabic poem should when possible be complete sentences or phrases.  Rhyme is almost indispensable, but since it can be unaccented need be neither over-obvious nor monotonous.  The integrity of the syllable must be ensured by the avoidance of all dubious elisions.  Stress-variations are more effective in fairly short lines, and more easily obtained from those with an odd syllable-count, since here there is a choice of two equally accessible stress-counts.  Full advantage should of course be taken of the release from stress-restrictions, with their often unavoidable distortions of the natural speech-rhythm.  Inversions should now be used only for meaningful emphasis.

With these main principles in mind, the writer replaces the usual regular stress-waves by such other currents and cross-currents, such expectations and disappointments, as may further his purpose.  He may, for instance, introduce the same irregularities into the corresponding lines of a lyric’s every stanza; or he may repeat, often with great effect, in the last line of a poem, some startling upheaval in the first; or, again, he may use a similar break in a previously established pattern to express some violent change of mood or thought.  These and many similar devices will with practice become the instinctively chosen instruments of the poet whose ear is attuned to their possibilities.

Without them, there will be no poem.

E. D.


Here are some comments on the essay:

“. . . a strict syllable-count, although of course essential, is, in my view, merely the lifeless shell of its more vital requirements.”

I understand this to mean that Daryush is pointing out that a method of poetic construction does not guarantee attractive, or profound, results.  There is a dialectical dance between the learned constructive elements and the unpredictable elements; both of them are combined in a poem.  This is true for all artistic, or craft, methods: they do not guarantee beauty, insight, or depth.

“ . . . in accentual verse, as in barred music, the fixed element is that of time, and the unfixed that of number (of syllables or notes) we can assess what part should be played by these factors in a truly syllabic system.  Here the position is reversed: the fixed element is no longer time but number; the integrity of line and syllable is challenged by the stress-demands of sense or syntax.”

This is insightful and a useful analog to music.  Daryush is suggesting that accentual verse resembles the regular meter of music.  In a song that is in 4-4 time, the number of notes in a bar of four beats will vary: one bar might contain four notes, the next six notes, the next ten notes, etc.  But each bar will contain four beats.

Similarly, in metrical verse, each line will contain the same number of beats, but the number of syllables can vary.  For example, a poem written with four beats per line might have eight syllables if each beat consists of an iamb, or a combination of iambs and trochees.  If, however, one of the beats contains an anapest, the line will have nine syllables.  If one of the beats is a strong, single-syllable word, the line will contain seven syllables.  Even though the syllable count may vary, the four beats remains constant, just like in a song written in 4-4 time.

Daryush points out that syllabic verse reverses what is constant in a line.  In syllabic verse the number of syllables is constant, or determined, but the number of beats in the line can vary.  Musically, this resembles a melody in which the meter changes.  For example, a melody might have two measures of 4-4 time, followed by a measure of 3-4 time, then conclude with a measure of 6-4 time.  However, each measure would have the same number of notes.  For example, each measure could have three notes as follows: the two measures of 4-4 time would be quarter note, quarter note, half note; the measure of 3-4 time would be three quarter notes; and the 6-4 measure would be three half notes. 

Music like this is not very common.  But a few composers have, and do use, this kind of procedure now and then; Stravinsky and Prokofiev are two examples.  I am not aware of popular songs that use this procedure, but there might be some.  Musically you do hear this kind of flow, sometimes, in improvisational passages, where the musician is left to riff on a theme.

It should be pointed out that this analysis by Daryush only applies to syllabic forms that have lines that all share the same count.  Her analysis would apply to my quatrain poems, the ones were the syllable count is the same for all four lines.  But her analysis does not apply as well to those syllabic forms where the line count varies.  In my reading of Daryush’s poetry, I have come across few poems with varied syllable count.  As far as I know she did not write any cinquain or syllabic haiku; both of these forms vary the syllable count and the application of Daryush’s perspective here is more complicated.

Take, for example, the cinquain; a five-line form with a syllable count of 2-4-6-8-2.  It would be possible to compose a syllabic cinquain in which the first three lines all had the same number of beats.  You could do this by varying the metrics: line 1 would have two strong single syllables (something like ‘Stop!  Look!’), line two could be two iambs, and line three could be two anapests.  In this way you would have a steady rhythm moving from line to line, but it would apply to a varying syllabic count.  This is a possibility that syllabic verse can nourish or account for, one that would not be available to a cinquain understood as a metrical form with a gradually ascending number of beats (1 beat, 2 beats, 3 beats, 4 beats, 1 beat).

I have seen examples in the haiku of Hackett and Wright where the three lines all share the same number of beats, three beats, but I don’t know if this is conscious or simply a result of intuitive skill.  But again, there are examples found in a syllabic form, where the line count varies, in which the beats remain constant but the syllable count changes.

In spite of these limitations, I find the analysis Daryush offers to be useful and insightful.  It directly applies to syllabic forms in which the count of syllables is the same for each line.  This would mean forms like some syllabic quatrain forms (but not the Englyn Unodl Union, one of my favorite quatrain forms from Wales) and the syllabic sonnet.  Her analysis also applies to sequences of any syllabic form; and here I think the analysis is worth pondering.

When I read a syllabic form I prefer reading a group of them, rather than a single example.  My experience has been that there is a rhythm generated by the count that begins to emerge when reading a sequence of cinquain, or tetractys, or syllabic haiku, or syllabic tanka.  It is a kind of pulse that is unique to each syllabic form.

Yet there is also variety to the pulse; it isn’t always a simple repetition.  And Daryush’s analysis explains why that variation occurs.  If you read a sequence of cinquain, the syllabic count will be the same as you read one after the other, but the number of beats will change as one moves from one cinquain to another.  What I mean is, if you take line 3 of a cinquain, you will always have six syllables in the line.  One cinquain might have three beats (say 3 iambs), and the next cinquain might have two beats (say 2 anapests), and other variations are possible.  Thus when reading a sequence of cinquain (or syllabic haiku, syllabic tanka, or etc.) there is a constant in the number of syllables, but variation in the number of beats as one moves from poem to poem in the sequence. 

The effect of this, to my mind, mimics certain natural experiences.  I am thinking of watching the flow of a river as one example, where certain pulses in the stream reappear but with intriguing variations.  A sequence of syllabic verse offers the listener this opportunity to experience a kind of contrapuntal effect, where variation is experienced above the constant of the syllabic count.  I think this is a pleasing aspect of short syllabic forms when they are spoken aloud to an audience in sequence.  I first experienced this by reading such sequences myself in collections such as the old ‘Amaze’ journal devoted to the cinquain.  I also found it one of the more pleasing features of the haiku of Wright and Hackett.  And, of course, syllabic tanka also has this effect.  It was syllabic tanka, in translation, that really opened up this aspect of syllabic verse to me.  I think that is one reason why the classic anthologies of Japanese tanka have proven so durable.

More to follow in Part 2.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Adelaide Crapsey Day -- 100 Years

Today is the 100th anniversary of the death of Adelaide Crapsey.  She passed away on October 8, 1914.  Crapsey is the poet who created that sparkling form, the Cinquain.  The Cinquain has become a widely taught and practiced syllabic form in the English language.  To celebrate this anniversary I am posting a piece I wrote for a local online community forum.  This forum contains an active poetry section and I have, at times, posted poems there, as well as contributing to discussions.  The post is an overall appreciation of syllabic forms in English poetry; Crapsey is highlighted as having a significance in the slow dissemination of that approach among English language poets.  

Syllabics: An Appreciation

The 20th century saw many experiments in the world of English language poetry.  Free verse took off, while at the same time the traditional, metric, approach to poetry continued among a large number of poets and especially song-writers.  Another, much smaller, approach to English language poetry also emerged in the 20th century: the use of a syllabic approach and the emergence of short syllabic forms.

Traditional English poetry is metric, counting the stresses of a line.  This is the approach used by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Browning, Millay, Frost, countless poets and songwriters down through the centuries.  The free verse approach does not use counting as a method for constructing a line: I see the ‘free’ of ‘free verse’ as referring to ‘free from counting’. 

The syllabic approach ignores stress and poetic feet.  Instead, the syllabic approach counts only the syllables of a line.  The difference can feel subtle, but there is a qualitative difference in the two approaches which the ear can hear.  The syllabic approach is the standard poetic practice in a number of cultures such as France, Japan, China, and Wales.  But it is new for English language poetry.  I think of the syllabic approach as dating to the early 20th century.  In particular, I think Adelaide Crapsey played a significant role in its emergence because she was the first poet to create a form, the Cinquain, which relied on counting syllables.  Crapsey’s Cinquain is shaped by counting the syllables of each line: 2-4-6-8-2, for a total of 22 syllables.  It is interesting to observe the development of the form in Crapsey’s own thought.  It appears that at first she thought of the Cinquain as a metric form with the lines defined as 1 beat, 2 beats, 3 beats, 4 beats, and one beat.  But she soon shifted to a syllabic presentation and today it is taught as a syllabic form.  For this reason I think of Crapsey as marking a transition to a possible syllabic approach to English language verse.  If I had to choose a date for syllabics entering English language poetry I would choose 1915, the date her small collection of poetry was posthumously published which included a significant number of Cinqauin.  That makes syllabics in English just 100 years old.

Also influential in the emergence of a syllabic approach was the adoption of haiku as a form for English language poets.  In the transmission of haiku from Japan to the U.S. different schemes were used to map the haiku form onto the English language.  For this reason you will find different approaches used by different haiku poets and organizations.  One group chose to map the Japanese count of 5-7-5 onto the English syllable so that to construct an English haiku you have three lines of 5-7-5 syllables.  This is the approach used by Richard Wright, Mary Joe Salter, Haydn Carruth, James Hackett, Edith Shiffert, Richard Wilbur and many others; it is the approach also used by what I call ‘popular haiku’.  The widespread absorption of a 5-7-5 form has done a great deal to implant the legitimacy of a syllabic approach to English language poetry.

Elizabeth Daryush (who, in my opinion, is unjustly neglected these days) also took a syllabic approach to English language poetry.  She was influenced by her father, Robert Bridges, an English poet laureate who preferred syllabic construction, and by Persian poetry, especially Hafez.  Daryush was the first to apply syllabics to traditional English forms such as the sonnet.

Today a syllabic approach to poetry still remains a small, but growing, approach to English language verse.  In the late 20th century a number of poets created syllabic forms that have developed followings.  These include the Fibonacci, based on the mathematical Fibonacci Sequence; the Tetractys, a five line form of 1-2-3-4-10; the Lanterne, another five-line form of 1-2-3-4-1; the Rictameter, a nine-line form of 2-4-6-8-10-8-6-4-2; and many others.  I really enjoy watching how these forms are being presented and picked up by others.  Online poetry forums have facilitated the presentation and spread of these forms.  Some of these forms are ephemeral; but some have developed significant followings.  A few, like the Fibonacci and the Syllabic Haiku, have their own journals and forums.

I have become fond of these forms.  I think what I like about these forms is that it brings out a craft approach to poetry.  The basic idea is that you shape words to a pre-existing template, which in the case of syllabic poetry is the syllable and line count of the form.  I think it resembles a potter making a cup.  All cups have a similar form, a shape that allows them to hold liquid.  But within that common shape infinite variation is possible.  Similarly, all Cinquain share a common syllabic shape, but within that shape infinite variation is possible.

I also like the sense of being part of a poetic community; that is to say when I compose in a syllabic form I feel that I am connecting with others who have written in the same form.  I like that sense of connection

I think of a syllabic approach to English language poetry as a ‘third way’; I mean that it is neither free verse nor metrical verse.  Because syllabic poetry does not count stresses it is non-traditional.  The result is that syllabic poetry often has a more conversational quality to it than traditional verse.  Because syllabic poetry is shaped by counting, it differs from free verse.  Syllabic poetry in English is ‘formal’, but it is non-traditional in its approach to form: hence I think of syllabics as a ‘third way’.

Personally, I started out writing free verse.  But I’m the kind of person who needs a formal structure in order to maintain focus.  I find that when I write free verse my poetry tends to wander and quickly become obscure.  This isn’t true for everyone, but it is an aspect of my own personality.  An imposed frame helps me in being more articulate and communicative.  For this reason I have, over the years, become more and more immersed in the syllabic forms that have so recently emerged in English language poetry.  I find that each form has its own tone, or ‘meaning’ (‘meaning’ isn’t exactly the right word, but it is in that direction).  The form itself embodies a certain feeling.  The Cinquain, for example, with its closing 2-syllable line, has a strong sense of closure and cadence.  In contrast, the Fibonacci (with a syllable count of 1-1-2-3-5-8, etc.) opens up and has the feeling that it could continue; it doesn’t have that same sense of closure that the Cinquain has.  I have similar observations for the other syllabic forms; these are subjective, but also meaningful.

These syllabic forms are fun and, at the same time, challenging.  Like a potter shaping clay, or a baker shaping flour, or a gardener cultivating plants, the syllabic poet grows poems in the garden of various forms. On this upcoming 100th anniversary of syllabics in English language poetry, I am optimistic for the future of these syllabic forms and the syllabic approach in general.