Monday, December 29, 2014

Goat Rock Beach

Goat Rock Beach

I like to walk on the beach by the sea
Along the coast of Sonoma County
I enjoy feeling the give of the sand
Where the continent ends, gives up on land,
Watching the ebbing and flowing of waves,
Feeling the flow of the wind in my hand.

I can remember walking hand-in-hand
On a summer afternoon by the sea
As dreams of the future rolled in like waves
Along the coast of Sonoma County
The wind has carved strange-shaped cliffs from the land,
The wind steadily shifts the shore-side sand.

The wind slowly turns the cliffs into sand,
Like yesterdays dissolving in one’s hand,
Streams that change course from an earthquake on land,
Displaced landscapes from tsunami tossed seas,
Along the coast of Sonoma County
The lunar tides and the sound of the waves.

The last time I saw you I paused to wave
The way I sometimes will pause on the sand
Along the coast of Sonoma County
A friend of mine needed a helping hand
With the great catch he retrieved from the sea
A long way from the sight of steady land.

Some things feel firm, they feel like steady land;
We can’t see that mountains are tides and waves,
That granite cliffs ebb and flow like the sea,
That even a diamond will become sand,
Like the grains that flow through visitors’ hands
Along the coast of Sonoma County.

Along the coast of Sonoma County
Where sky, cliff, and stream, where ocean and land
Meet each other like two friends clasping hands,
The sound of the wind, the sound of the waves,
The shifting of clouds, the shifting of sand,
The grand full moon’s light brightens the vast sea.

By the seacoast of Sonoma County
The sand is all that is left of the land –

I wave at a whale with my raised right hand.

Monday, December 22, 2014

When an Angel Descends

When an Angel Descends

As I stand on the shore of the river,
Memories and recollections and dreams,
Snatches and patches of songs I once heard
Blend with the glow of the leaves that shimmer
In the wind-tossed fading light of sunset,
A moment I treasure and won’t forget.

As I get older I tend to forget,
My mind resembles a flowing river,
The shifting colors observed at sunset,
The sound of a voice heard in last night’s dream,
The way a desert in mid-day shimmers,
A single verse from a song I once heard.

On the tundra plain a caribou herd,
A scene from my past I will not forget,
Crosses a glacier-fed stream that shimmers,
Sunlight sparkling on the flowing river,
Transforming the tundra into a dream
As the sun slows down for a long sunset.

The musicians start to play a new set,
A striking new melody is now heard,
A melody that’s from the realm of dreams,
A melody not easy to forget,
A melody, a song, from the river,
A melody that makes silence shimmer.

Gabriel descends, wings all a-shimmer,
Many hours after the sun has set,
His wings move like the flow of a river,
The sound of a celestial harp is heard,
A sound, a sight, I will never forget,
A vision I’ll carry into my dreams.

What is the waking world?  What is a dream?
Between them’s a barrier that shimmers;
Something unseen, something I can’t quite get,
Something I can’t grasp, something like sunset,
Something like a melody I once heard
While canoeing on a placid river.

On the river of dreams I once heard
Shimmering choirs during a long sunset –
A gift freely given that I won’t forget.

Monday, December 15, 2014

For Cold Mountain

The Tang Dynasty poet Cold Mountain, Han Shan, is one of my favorite poets.  Cold Mountain has been a companion of mine for decades.  He has been a big influence on my own poetry and continues to be a nourishing presence.  Here is a sestina dedicated to Cold Mountain:

For Cold Mountain

On the river
Always flowing
Silver moonlight
Autumn glowing
In the distance
Mountain stillness

Mountain stillness
By the river
In the distance
Always flowing
Fall leaves glowing
Under moonlight

Under moonlight
Mountain stillness
Fall leaves glowing
By the river
Always flowing
In the distance

In the distance
Under moonlight
Always flowing
Mountain stillness
By the river
Fall leaves glowing

Fall leaves glowing
In the distance
By the river
Silver moonlight
In the stillness
Always flowing

Always flowing
Fall leaves glowing
In the stillness
In the distance
Silver moonlight
On the river

On the river
Always flowing
Silver moonlight
Ever glowing
In the distance
Mountain stillness


Wednesday, December 10, 2014



In the stream a moss-covered log
Can be seen through the morning fog
Deepening pervasive silence
I briefly see a feral dog.

Through the field trots a feral dog
Past the shadow of a huge log,
A door shuts, otherwise silence --
In the distance the coastal fog.

Sometimes my mind is thick with fog
Or distracted, a feral dog,
That's when I return to silence,
Silence like a moss-covered log.

A tree has now become a log
Wrapped in the gentle, swirling fog
Surrounded by fields of silence
Where soundly sleeps a feral dog.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Syllabic Sonnet Day for 2014

Greetings!  Today is Syllabic Sonnet Day; a good day to appreciate the sonnet tradition and how a syllabic approach subtly changes the parameters of the sonnet.

The poet who applied syllabics to the sonnet form in English is Elizabeth Daryush.  I think her work on the sonnet is exemplary. 

It is a matter of interest to me that the original Italian sonnet was a syllabic form because Italian poetry is syllabic.  When the sonnet passed to England the sonnet took on metrical shape.  The metrical shape of the sonnet, particularly iambic pentameter, has been an almost defining characteristic of the sonnet in English since then.  Some would argue that a sonnet not written in iambics is not a sonnet.  Historically, there is some justification for this.

On the other hand, if you cast your historical glance back to the Italian model, then a syllabic approach might not be seen as a radical departure from the tradition of English sonnets.  Rather it could be understood as a return to the first procedures of its construction.

Personally, I have found taking a syllabic approach to the sonnet to be congenial.  I like the way the beat of the line can shift as one moves through the sonnet.  The pulse is maintained by the syllabic count, but above the syllabic count there is an ebb and flow of accented and unaccented syllables.  There is a kind of counterpoint between the two.

Here is one of Elizabeth Daryush’s sonnets; it is from Collected Poems:

Here, where the larks sing, and the sun’s so warm
That gorse-pods click each minute, and the grass
Rustles, as through dry bents the breezes pass,
And butterflies over the heather swarm,
Here I, an ardent lover of all these,
Would build our home – I’d take but the small crest
Of the long hill, and leave untouched the rest,
The coney-shaven turf, the scanty trees.

Here, having marked and worked our cottage-claim,
We’d meet the first shy rays, on summer dawns,
Approaching to unveil our dewy lawns
Of wild-flowers; and when winter evenings came,

We’d watch from our bright room the stealthy dark
Muffling the stunt thorns of our snowy park.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Kaleidoscope: A Few Thoughts about the Sestina

Kaleidoscope: A Few Thoughts about the Sestina


I have been writing a lot of sestinas lately.  I find the form attractive.  The form is a balance between rigor and freedom; I mean that the primary requirement of the form is a pre-determined placement of the endwords as the stanzas unfold.  At the same time, everything else is open to the poet’s creativity.


Part of my attraction to the sestina is that the form occupies a unique place in contemporary poetry.  It is the one place where both formalists and free versers meet.  It is intriguing to me that poets such as Ezra Pound and John Ashberry can write sestinas, while at the same time Auden and Donald Justice can also write sestinas.  In other words, the form of the sestina is open enough to allow for multiple approaches to poetic construction.  If you are a formalist, you can compose a sestina using metrical lines and rhyme.  If you prefer free verse, you can compose a sestina with lines of irregular count and without the use of rhyme.  And both approaches produce sestinas that are recognizable examples of the form.

Since I am attracted to a syllabic approach, I apply syllabics to the sestina form.  Principally, I do this by maintaining a consistent syllable count for all of the lines.  At times I will change count for a particular stanza; but within the stanza all lines have the same count.  And I have found that the sestina is welcoming to a syllabic approach.


I think of the sestina as a kaleidoscope of words.  The endwords cycling through the stanzas resembles, to my mind, the way that elements in a kaleidoscope will shift and cycle through various configurations as one turns the scope.  To my mind the visual effect of the kaleidoscope resembles the sonic effect of the way the endwords in a sestina shift and change position in relationship to each other.


Exploring what other people have done with the sestina, I discovered that some poets have applied to the process of endword rotation to verses with different numbers of lines.  The classic sestina has six line verses, concluding with a three-line envoi.  There are six of these six-line stanzas, and when one adds the closing three lines, that makes for a 39-line poem.

Some poets have adopted the process of the sestina to three-line poems, calling these shorter poems ‘tritina’.  A five-line version will be called a pentina, etc.

I discovered that the founder of the sestina, the troubadour Arnaud Daniel, called the form a ‘cledisat’, in the French dialect of his time.  ‘Cledisat’ means something like ‘interlock’.  The term ‘sestina’ came after the form was adopted by the Italians; the term ‘sestina’ refers to the six-line stanzas.

I like the term ‘interlock’; I think it describes well the way the endwords of the form are interwoven, or ‘locked’ into each other as they turn around each other.  So I began to think of the form as defined by the rotational scheme of the endwords and that this rotational scheme could be applied to a poem of any number of lines.  From this perspective a sestina is a six-line interlock.


Each of the interlocks has unique features.  For example, I discovered that with the four-line interlock the endword for line three retains its position through all of the rotations.  Here is how it works:

1        4        2        1 (envoi)
2        1        4        2
3        3        3        3
4        2        1        4

This gives the endword for line three special significance as the other endwords rotate around it.  I found this particular type of interlock especially attractive.


I wonder if the place that the sestina interlock holds in the world of poetry today tells us something about our poetic culture at this time.  Normally we think of the different approaches to poetry as combative and distinct.  Yet here we have a form that seems to be a common ground.  This indicates that there does exist a place where the conflicting views of how poetry works, and how it should be constructed, do not create a barrier to accessing this particular form.

It is intriguing to me, for example, that many free verse poets are willing to accept the restrictions of the sestina.  Does this tell us something about free verse that, perhaps, we have overlooked?  And the modern revival of the sestina among formalists, and their willingness to engage with this form that also attracts those who compose in a free verse manner, may tell us something about formal verse at this time as well.  It is not clear to me exactly what that is; but perhaps that will become clearer in time.

In the meantime, I am enjoying the exploration of this common ground.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Ordinary Poetry

Over at Andrew Sullivan’s Blog, ‘The Dish’, he recently posted an excerpt from an article by Adam Kirsch that appeared in the New York Times.  I don’t have a subscription to the NYT, so I can’t access Kirsch’s full article; so I’m just going to respond to Sullivan’s excerpt which you can find here:

This is a topic that poets, and some cultural commentators, make fairly frequently.  It is the observation that the place that poetry occupies in our world has changed, that poetry and poets used to occupy a central place both in popular culture and in high culture but that at this time and in our contemporary culture poetry is now marginalized.  As Kirsch notes, poets today, if they are not delusional, realize that what they write will not be widely read and will have almost no impact on the social sphere. 

The last poet I know of who was prominent in popular culture was Edna Saint Vincent Millay.  She had a huge following, considerable sales, and was an object of press adoration and attention.  But she was the last poet to occupy such a position.  And, as far as I know, Millay did not use her position to advocate for political causes. 

My own feelings about this are complex.  First, I think modern poets have a tendency to aggrandize their vocation.  This sense of self-importance is a kind of nostalgia for a past where the poet and poetry were elevated to an almost apotheosized status.  Works like Homer’s ‘Illiad’, or the Confucian ‘Book of Songs/Odes’ had huge and lasting cultural impact.  And in some countries, like Japan, there are actual temples devoted to some poets.  It is easy to see why modern poets would want to retain some of this aura of exalted status.  At times I share this desire for the special place that poetry used to occupy at the center of cultures.

However, I think it is, overall, a good thing that poets now occupy a place at the margins.  First, it offers the opportunity to cultivate humility.  I love poetry; I write it, read it, study it, and do what I can to keep up with trends (a nearly impossible task, by the way).  But I recognize that my love of poetry does not differ from the love that a gardener has for gardening, or the love of a baker for baking, or the love of a quilter for quilting, a knitter for knitting, or the love of baseball, soccer, tennis or chess for those who are devoted to those activities.

I have mentioned before on this blog, but I think it is worth repeating, and it is relevant to Kirsch’s observations, that my own view about poetry is that poetry is the craft of shaping words.  Pottery is the craft of shaping clay.  Composing music is the craft of shaping sound.  Gardening is the craft of shaping plants.  Carpentry is the craft of shaping wood.  Quilting is the craft of shaping cloth.  And so forth.

I don’t think poets are particularly insightful nor do they have some kind of special access to a broader understanding than ordinary people do.  Look at it this way: if gardeners asserted that they had special understanding and that this understanding applied to political and social spheres, I doubt people would go along with this.  A particular gardener, like the agriculturalist Wendell Berry, might have insightful things to say; but as a class, just because someone is a gardener, or cultivator of plants, does not in itself generate insights that are broad in scope.  This is true for pottery, carpentry, and quilting as well.  The thing is, you rarely hear of carpenters or quilters making a claim that their craft gives them a claim on how society should be ordered, or what political and social reforms should be undertaken.  Carpenters and quilters have opinions about these topics, and they might be insightful opinions worth considering; but if they are of worth there is no obvious connection between having these opinions and the specifics of their craft.  In contrast, poets tend to think of themselves as peculiarly insightful, especially visionary, and deeply aware beyond that of ordinary people.  I don’t think that is psychologically healthy for poets; it leads to an overestimation of one’s significance.  It tends to lead the poet to think that their thoughts about social issues are more insightful than those of the carpenter down the street, or the quilter next door, or the baker at the local bread shop.  My own experience is that my own political and social commitments (and like everyone, I have them) are about as well thought out as anyone else’s thoughts on these topics.  Poetry does not give me a means for being more profound in these arenas.

The sense of self-importance that poets often have of themselves and of their craft, to my way of thinking, as I mentioned above, can be unhealthy.  There are extreme and famous examples of this.  The most notorious example I know of is Ezra Pound whose preoccupation with his own significance took him to very dark places.  It is a tragic story; one that most poets are aware of.  But even though poets in general are aware of it, they don’t seem to draw the obvious lesson from this legacy.  And that lesson is that poets are not peculiarly gifted when it comes to insights beyond their vocation of poetry itself (and they might not be insightful about even that).  I realize that this is a tough lesson.  It is simply human to want to think of ourselves as above average and special.  And our culture asserts the significance of our uniqueness in countless ways (New Age teachers are especially adept at this).  I believe the antidote to this is to comprehend poetry as a craft that is like other crafts.

As a craft, poetry can lead to exalted experiences; both for the poet and for the reader of poetry.  But that is also true of carpentry, baking, quilting, and gardening.  The beauty of a well crafted poem, to my mind, resembles the beauty of a well crafted cup by a dedicated potter, or the beauty of a well baked scone offered at the local bakery, or the beauty of a quilt done at the latest quilting bee, or the beauty of a song I just heard someone sing.  To my way of thinking, beauty is a door to the transcendental; it takes us out of ourselves and, in a way, out of this world.  This can happen.  And when it does happen it is a profound and transforming experience.  But poets do not have a monopoly on this; it is, in my opinion, part of the meaning of all the crafts that people engage in.  It is an experience, and a result, that poets share with the baker, the quilter, and the candlestick maker.

Personally, I am content with placing poetry at the level of a craft.  I like thinking of shaping words as the same as shaping clay or shaping sound or shaping wood.  Looking at poetry in this way connects me with the rest of humanity whereas thinking of poetry as peculiarly exalted severs these connections, turning my craft of shaping words into some kind of oracular avocation.  I am not an oracle.  Like everyone else, I am doing the best I can in difficult circumstances.  And when I compose poetry as a craft, I find myself connected with the very human ordinariness of the baker, the gardener, the carpenter, and the quilter.  I find that a good place to be.