Thursday, December 17, 2015

Seven Deer

Seven Deer

Pervasive quiet
A glow in the eastern sky
Before the sunrise

The warmth of the windless air
The warmth of a dusty road

A bird sings in code;
Perhaps we don’t understand
The way of nature

Attending a long lecture
Regarding evolution

Waves by the ocean
Slowly transforming the coast
Transforming a pier

Seagulls suddenly appear
As the sun dissolves the fog

A passive prologue
To a thickly scheduled day
Of obligations

Heart-felt associations
That draw us into the world

Like a flag unfurled
Blowing in a constant wind
Next to the town square

An old car needing repair
Rusting in the parking lot

Something she forgot,
When she was a little girl
How she felt secure

How illness was quickly cured
By the concern of parents

How they paid the rent,
How they cooked and served her meals,
How they bought her clothes,

How they helped though indisposed,
Though they were very busy

Trapped in the city,
Trapped by fate and by karma,
By astrology

As the planets glide slowly
Singing their songs in the sky

Planet earth relies
On the seasons of the sun,
The wheel of the year

The Spring Equinox is here
By the stream are seven deer

The water is clear,
On the bank a well-worn path
Where young students walk

That is where they smile and talk
As they’re strolling hand-in-hand

They think life is grand,
That this will last forever,
That time will stand still,

But for better or for ill,
Though they thought that this would last,

Love becomes the past,
Even grasses do not last,
Even mist dissolves

As the second hand revolves
On the public courthouse clock

It’s time to take stock
At the local statue store
Deities galore

Gods and Goddesses implore
That we put an end to war

Turning to the four
Directions, finding a place
In the stream of space

An angel flies, filled with grace
Above the field of the past

Where our hopes, at last,
Join with dreams and hand-in-hand
Create our future

A dance of many creatures
On the ground and in the air

Where a white-maned mare
Gallops on a field of stars
While the planet mars

Steadily observes the cars
That fill the rush-hour highway

The night of payday
Two friends heading to a bar
Feel the fist of cold

Even though they are not old
They pull their gloves on tighter

The snow looks whiter
Than the snow from last winter,
Maybe that’s because

The snow was thin, it would thaw,
Mixing with exhaust and dirt

Where it would convert
Into shiny slick black ice,
Slippery, like vice,

Slippery, like promises,
Slippery, like last week’s cash

Or the drugs he stashed
Behind his favorite books
Where no-one would look

As the ancient moonlight shook
The foundations of his dreams

All his hopes, it seems,
Did not work out in the way
That he hoped they would

Like some badly knotted wood,
Like a garden that turned dry,

Like a friend whose sly
Words covered a deception
Like a poisoned meal

‘Come on, it’s not a big deal,’
As she turns and walks away

The sky’s touched by gray
By a subtle hint of light,
A prelude to dawn

He wakes in bed, then he yawns,
There’s the first frost on the lawn

As crisp leaves hold on
For another week or two
Prior to a storm

Whose wind totally transforms
The way that the garden looks

The flow of a brook
Carries a discarded chair
Planks of rotting wood

Like words we’ve misunderstood,
Given half a chance we could

Have made it all good,
But that was not meant to be,
Like one lost at sea

Or a cup of bitter tea,
Or a song that’s badly sung,

Or a bell that’s rung
Fading into the warm air
Of the afternoon

With the cherry trees in bloom
Outside of the living room

They’ll soon come to doom
Shaken from their branches,
The simple fact is

Years have passed and now I’m old
Like a moss covered oak tree

That she stops to see
Next to the new masonry
The shadows are long

As the sunrise sings its song
As the new grass grasps the light

Seven larks in flight
Disappear behind the sight
Of the dancing white

Cloud formations, the polite
Children at kindergarten

Watch the new fountain
That was finished yesterday,
That was donated

By a man who was fated
To always feel insecure

To not know for sure
What he should do or should say
And that was the way

That he lived day after day
So he became reclusive,

Someone elusive,
Like a sound that’s barely heard,
An unuttered word,

Like the moon behind a cloud,
Like a letter never sent,

Like a fabric rent,
Like a rock beneath the snow,
Like a dream that I

Can’t understand though I try
To unravel the meaning

It stays unyielding,
The mist of time concealing
What we are dealing

With, like incense dispersing
When the morning Mass is through

And there are a few
People sitting on the pews
Quietly in prayer

‘Times like this in life are rare,’
Two old friends are hand-in-hand

Like the cliffs they stand,
Monuments to endurance
As the seasons change

Like a fluid mountain range,
Like cool fog above a stream,

Things swirl, planets dream,
Things swirl, it’s the first frost’s sheen,
Things swirl, stars careen,

Things swirl, they are inbetween,
Things swirl, the wind stirs the trees,

Things swirl, falling leaves
Skitter past a silent fox
To a fence that blocks

A path to some glacial rocks
Lying at the farm-field’s edge

Near a shaggy hedge
By a new development,
Sixteen new houses

Empty, and the problem is
That no one can afford them

Words from an anthem
No longer seem to inspire
Like an off-key choir

After the divorce she’s mired
And the kids, though grown, require,

Because things are dire,
More assistance, more support,
Than she expected

Life is tough, things neglected
Have a way of coming back

Dark, the road is black,
The swift outline of a bat,
Slowly thunder claps,

Somewhere a twig snaps,
A feral cat eats a scrap,

Time bends, there’s a gap,
An angel looks at a map,
He must arrive at

A cop at a speeding trap,
On the street a missing cap

Like other things that
Disappear without a trace
Cities that vanish,

A conjuration banished,
An ancient sea now deceased,

An apartment leased,
A full eclipse of the sun,
Days of joy and fun

When we used to play and run
On the shore of Elbow Lake

August was a break,
A motorboat left a wake,
On our vacation

We would joke and would mention
How the night was filled with beasts,

They were friendly beasts,
Seven deer and fireflies
And the white-barked birch

Seemed to shimmer and give birth
To stories both new and old,

Stories always told,
Stories that I never heard,
Stories without words,

Stories that seem sometimes blurred,
Stories that the moss will tell,

Stories from a shell
That sails on the stream of time
Past all that is here,

Past all the things that appear
Beyond all that disappears

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Ghazal for Emptiness

A Ghazal for Emptiness

I recall a simple song in the Grove of Emptiness,
The lingering light of dawn in the Grove of Emptiness.

I suspect that you’ll soon leave, autumn colors don’t deceive,
Nothing lasts for very long in the Grove of Emptiness.

Lightning flashes in the sky, I’m waiting for your reply,
There is nothing right or wrong in the Grove of Emptiness.

In the morning you make me some toast and fresh roast coffee,
Gestures of caring are strong in the Grove of Emptiness.

Ecclesiastes said, ‘See, all of this is vanity’,
All our hopes and fears are gone in the Grove of Emptiness.

Notions appear and disappear like flowers from last year,
A mountain does not last long in the Grove of Emptiness.

An ancient stream shifts course, a child, now grown up, feels remorse,
But I feel that I belong in the Grove of Emptiness.

My name is Jim, all is clear, there is nothing that is dim,
I am dancing with a throng in the Grove of Emptiness.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Ghazal for December

A Ghazal for December

The sound of the steady December rain,
Leaves in an eddy and December rain.

The tick-tock of the clock seems to have stopped
While in stillness I remember the rain.

The world’s filled with the cruel and many fools,
But there’s the stochastic sound of the rain.

I read a tweet that I quickly delete
While I’m walking in the wind and the rain.

Awake at night, I turn on my room’s light
And there’s the fantastic sound of the rain.

I heave a sigh for a lover who died
And recall the lullaby of the rain.

My name is Jim, I seek shelter within –
There are so many voices in the rain.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Richard Wright Day -- 2015

Today is Richard Wright Day and this year I don’t have a long post or analysis of his work.  I’ve just been too busy.  Nevertheless I wanted to take a moment to pay my yearly tribute to Wright and to his contributions to English Language Haiku and syllabic verse in general.  It’s a good day to read Wright’s collection of superb haiku poetry, or maybe to compose a haiku tribute to Wright.

I spend time studying Wright’s work; there is a lot to learn from his approach to haiku and syllabics.  I am in the process of building a concordance of Wright’s published haiku.  I am almost finished with the concordance and several things emerge from this project.  First, the vocabulary is accessible by ordinary readers.  There are no high abstractions or obscure words, no made-up words.  The concordance appears to be dominated by nouns that name objects in the world that anyone can relate to. 

Second, the vocabulary is mostly short-count words.  Rarely you will find a word that has 4 counts or higher.  An exception is found in haiku 653:

You can see the wind
Absentmindedly fumbling
With apple blossoms

The word ‘absentmindedly’ is a rare 5 count word; but it works.  It’s an ordinary word, a word one hears in conversation.  So it fits the overall vocabulary.

Haiku 87 is another example that uses a 5 count word:

The cat licks dew-wet cobwebs
From between his toes.

Here the 5 count word holds an entire line.

Again, such words are extremely rare, but when Wright does use them they don’t cause the reader to stumble.  They read smoothly and fit in with the overall sense of the haiku he is writing.

Another aspect of Wright’s haiku that comes through in the concordance is the ordinary syntax that Wright uses.  Articles appear in almost every haiku, as do prepositions.  Unlike many ELH haijin that have been influenced by the cerebral construction of an artificial syntax that is pushed by official haiku (what I refer to as 'Haiku Hybrid English'), Wright’s haiku accept the English language as it is.  From my perspective that is one of the chief virtues of his haiku and it is an ideal that I would like to see many more ELH poets adopt.

I will have more to say about what the concordance shows.  But for now this is enough.  Let’s take a moment of appreciation for Richard Wright and the haiku he has bequeathed us.

Friday, November 27, 2015

A Ghazal for November

A Ghazal for November

The maple leaves are red in November,
I recall what you said in November.

The sky is vast and cold shadows are cast,
Most of the birds have fled in November.

Letter received, she was badly deceived,
Now she rips it to shreds in November.

Solid earth becomes sand, where do I stand?,
When there’s nothing but dread in November.

Incense on the altar, I pause, falter,
I pray for someone dead in November.

The rising sun, the day has just begun,
With those Psalms that I’ve read in November.

I’m alone, I reach my brother by phone,
Holidays are ahead in November.

I completely refuse to read the news,
I’ll do something instead in November.

It is not quite night, at dusk there’s the sight
Of unraveling threads in November.

Somehow I knew, what you said wasn’t true,
I was being misled in November.

I, Wordsmith Jim, find shelter in a hymn,

That’s the place I’ve been led in November.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Haiku of Bill Albert

The Haiku of Bill Albert

One of my ongoing projects is to recover some of the haiku written in the past which have now all but vanished.  Now and then I take time to see what is available from used book sites and then, using my intuition, select what I think might be valuable.  At other times I will notice in an older essay on haiku that the author mentions in passing a haijin or book I have never heard of.  This then sends me on a search.

That is how I discovered a small volume called Haiku by Bill Albert.  It was published in 1991.  As far as I know it was never reissued.  And I am not aware that Albert’s haiku have ever been placed in any anthology that I have read. 

The collection of haiku is truly excellent.  They have a secure basis in the traditional syllabic shape of 5-7-5, they are seasonal, and they are elegant in their use of language.  Most of the haiku are in two parts though the sense of juxtaposition is muted.  I appreciate this.  Using renga parlance, the two parts are ‘close’, which means accessible.  Often the two parts are divided along sensory lines.  Here is an example

The frost-sharp window
shatters the violet dawn –
The garbage truck squeals.

Lines 1 & 2 are visual; they also set both the season and the time.  Line 3 shifts to a sonic sensation that is strident, merging with the verb used in line 2, ‘shatters’.

Here is an example where the two parts focus on two sonic elements:

A sapling’s branches
patter against the window –
a car not starting.

‘Sapling’ is a season word, so line 1 sets the season.  Line 2 introduces the sound of branches against the window; implying a breeze.  Line 3 introduces a sonic element of a car turning over but not starting.  The two sounds are similar and the reader can hear them merge.  This is a nicely contrapuntal soundscape.

Here is one I particularly like:

A full moon tonight . . .
all of the light in my room
comes from a street lamp.

It’s a nice setup.  The ‘full moon’ is a season word indicating autumn.  The reader is set to think of a room flooded with moonlight, and then Albert puts in a little twist.  Instead of moonlight in his room it is a streetlamp’s light that fills the room.  There is a contemplative and lonely mood to this haiku which continues to resonate with the reader long after reading it.

Albert’s approach to lineation interested me because he effectively uses certain means that I often find fault with.  For example, Albert will end a line with a preposition:

Two crows rise from
the hollow of scrub-oak
the northeast wind.

Here the count is 4-6-4.  Line 1 ends in the preposition ‘from’.  Normally I think lines ending in prepositions are careless; but with Albert I found myself seeing how such an approach can work effectively.  In a way this haiku is a list haiku; each line has its own image.  The ‘from’ links two of the images together and I think that is why it works to end line 1 at that point.

Here is another example of line ending usage that surprised me:

Awakened by the
sudden cold of the spring night –
The frogs singing.

Line 1 ends with ‘the’ and, again, normally I think of such usage as sloppy.  Here Albert makes it work by having line 2 be a self-contained image so that the word ‘the’ acts as a kind of link in the same way that the word ‘from’ does in the previous haiku.  I found this to be skillful.

A few times Albert uses a single line approach to his haiku:

Branches lattice the chipped moon.

This is a striking image.  It is one of the very few single line haiku that I have resonated with.  Most single line haiku are infected with obscurantism and self-conscious displays of avant-gardism.  Albert’s single line haiku are, in contrast, accessible and striking.  My sense is that Albert now and then, not often, experiments with the haiku form, but that his overall approach is strongly rooted in the traditional 5-7-5 syllabics and the necessity of a seasonal reference.  For this reason his experiments still retain some connection with the haiku tradition.

According to the ‘Publisher’s Note’ placed at the end of the book, Albert died in 1988 at the age of 37.  The ‘Note’ does not tell us the cause of his early passing.  But I get the impression that it was some kind of degenerative disease.  This is a pattern among haiku poets: think of Shiki and Richard Wright.  Of course not all great haijin were chronically ill; most were not.  But it is still intriguing how, at times, really good haiku comes from those whose lives have been circumscribed by a long illness.

In any case, Albert worked on his haiku and left a modest number of notebooks.  His friends gleaned what they considered to be his best and published the haiku as an offering from their friend on their friend’s behalf.  They had to do this for Albert because Albert seems to have been disinclined to publish on his own behalf.  The ‘Note’ says, “He was without worldly ambition, made no effort to publish or otherwise promote himself.  His ambition, turned inward, was purely aesthetic: he was aiming to write the perfect haiku, and in the best tradition of the form, wanted to write it anonymously.”  Albert seems to have been a modern Emily Dickinson in his distrust for the more worldly aspects of poetry, such as publication and promotion.  What is remarkable, given Albert’s attitude, is how many friends he had who participated in the publication of this work.  The list of people who donated to get the book into publication is over 200.  It seems that Bill Albert made a significant impression on a wide group of people in spite of, or perhaps because of, his reclusiveness.

I am grateful to the friends of Bill Albert for taking the time to publish these haiku.  It is a rich and rewarding collection.  It deserves to be reprinted and more widely known.  Readers may be able to find a used copy on amazon or

Children stop chasing
fireflies to watch shooting stars --
the porch light flickers

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Brief Note of Thanks

This year has been very productive for me.  I’ve published a number of poetry books and read a lot of really well done work.  In the last month I have received emails from people telling me how much they like this blog.  And there have been a number of authors who have noted my blog in their own books, usually on their acknowledgement page.

It is gratifying to have this kind of feedback.  Poetry is such a marginal activity in the world today. Like most poets I don’t make my living through poetry; I have a full time job to pay the bills, and other obligations besides.  Writing poetry and talking about poetry on this blog is the way I spend a lot of my free time.  So it is good to hear from others that this blog has touched them in some way.  I think poets need to take care of each other, support each other, advise each other, and, yes, critique each other.  I see this happening more and more online and it is a good thing to see. 

So, thanks to those of you who have emailed or written, linked or passed on by word of mouth information about this site, encouraging others to look over my essays, poetry, and reviews.  It means a lot.

Best wishes.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Pi Poems, by Becket -- A Reivew

Pi Poems, by Becket – A Review

One of the intriguing things about the emergence of syllabic forms in English language poetry is how often the syllabic shape of these forms is determined by mathematical constructs.  Forms that are based on some kind of maths include the Tetractys, Fibonacci, Etheree, and Lucas.  The Tetractys is based on Pythagorean number theory; the Fibonacci and Lucas are based on related number series; and the Etheree is based on the standard counting sequence of 1 to 10. 

Given that background, it makes sense that someone would use the number Pi as the basis for a syllabic form.  The number Pi is the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle.  It is a mathematical constant.  It is also an irrational number; meaning that the resulting ratio continues without ever coming to a conclusion or repeating.

The poet Becket, who does not give us his first name, has published a collection of poems based on this numerical sequence.  As far as I know this is the first book of Pi poems.  Becket writes in his ‘Introduction’,

Similar to the way each line of a haiku is written according to a set number of syllables, the syllables for each Pi poem line is determined according to the number of Pi – 3.1415926535 . . . and on into infinity.  So the first line of a pi poem would be 3 syllables, according to the first number of Pi; the second line would be 1 syllable . . . and so on until the poem is finished.

The challenge in using an irrational series like Pi is that with the constantly fluctuating numerical count there will be a strong tendency for the poem to read like a free verse poem.  In the Fibonacci there is an overall shape to the poem, a steady increase in line length which the reader can feel as the poem grows.  The same is true of the Etheree.  But with an irrational number the series will fluctuate; there will be no perceived repetition of numerical sequences and no overall shape for the reader to use as a basis for comprehending the shape of the poem. 

Becket’s solution to this is to base the structure of his poems primarily on grammar.  But Becket is not consistent with this approach.  Here is an example where grammar defines the lines:


Do not stop.
Keep going on.
Never surrender
because our lives are journeys from peace
to peace,
between which dwell deserts
of misadventures,
and too much worry.
Fearfulness undermines progress.
So sidestep fear, leap over self-doubt,
push away biting
demons crouching interiorly,
to breathe,
and be kind.

With the exception of the transition from line 14 to 15 (biting/demons) the lineation is grammar based.  Many of the lines end in periods.  Five of the lines are full sentences.  This works well and the reader can enter into the numerical sequence that underlies the lineation.

On the other hand, some of the Pi poems seem to have completely arbitrary lineation:



This is a standard sentence and there is no strong feeling as to why the words have been laid out vertically rather than horizontally; nothing is added by their placement and the reader doesn’t really see anything new.

Sometimes Becket will use rhyme to define a line:


Right now will
away like grass.
wither while sorrows
wilt like meadow heather in autumn
Whether I suffer or
jubilate, my life
keeps going.
So I go.

The pass/grass rhyme is effective, although there will be the tendency to sonically move ‘pass’ to the end of line 1.  And the use of ‘weather’ and ‘Whether’ as initial words for lines 7 & 8 resonates nicely with ‘wither’ at line 5.  Overall this is a good example of lineation which effectively uses a few devices to present to the reader/listener the underlying syllabic shape.

Here is one of Becket’s shortest Pi poems:


The present
the only gift.

Here is another example where this reader feels like the lineation is arbitrary, that nothing is really added to the thought by putting it on three lines.  ‘The present is the only gift’ seems to me to be just as effective.

The subject matter of the Pi poems is almost entirely focused on the poet’s inner feelings.  I think that is its greatest weakness.  Whether the poems are read as free verse or syllabic verse, the subject matter is remarkably self-centered; but oddly, we learn almost nothing about Becket himself and his specific life.  That’s a shame because he has led an interesting life.  Becket is a former monastic and is currently an assistant to Anne Rice; the author of famous vampire novels.  I would like to have read more about his specific biography in his poems. 

What I noticed is that there is almost nothing of the world in the poems: no tulips or oaks, no birds or beasts, no mountains or streams.  And the world of human beings is mostly absent as well: no trucks or bridges, no houses or offices, no specific men, women, or children.  A few times Becket introduces the wider world through metaphor or simile; see the above poem that mentions grass and heather.  But that poem is unusual; it is one of the reasons why it is one of my favorites.  More typical is a poem like this:


Fear never
my yearning to
the sickness in me
that spreads from me whenever I fail
to love.

The world of Pi Poems is about the author’s own fears and psychological, as opposed to sociological, difficulties and his hope of overcoming these limitations.  I believe that his approach to these poems is rooted in the literature of affirmations.  I have to confess that I do not find this type of literature attractive.  I know my limitations; this kind of writing always strikes me as self-absorbed.  On the other hand, I have friends who have benefitted greatly from the use of affirmations; so I recognize that it can have value.  If you are one of the many who find affirmations attractive and helpful (e.g. readers of Louise Hay or Wayne Dyer or the Hazeldon books of affirmations) you will probably be more receptive to the subject matter than I am.

My difficulty with Becket’s Pi poems is their abstractness and their psychological orientation.  The above poem about the interaction between fear and love is not placed in any specific incident; it remains a floating abstraction.  Perhaps it resonates with your own experience, perhaps not; it is not clear what I can do with it or what there is to learn from it. I am intrigued by this collection and its attempt to use a numerical series that never repeats, and wildly fluctuates, as the basis for a poetic form.  At times Beckett meets that challenge effectively; at other times my feeling is that it falls short.  On the other hand, I am not particularly inspired by the subject matter; it is too self-fascinated for me.  So in the end I am ambivalent.  I want to give it four stars for trying out a difficult form and, at times, succeeding with it.  But I have a two stars feeling for the subject matter.  As I said above, other readers might find the subject matter more agreeable.

I wonder if others will follow the lead given by Becket.  My feeling is that there is a yearning among 21st century poets for form.  But that yearning is not met in MFA programs, Universities, official poetry journals, or in the numerous volumes of free verse that are churned out year after year.  But this yearning will find an outlet and one of those outlets is the emergence of various syllabic forms that an individual poet finds attractive.  There have been a lot of these offered since the eighties.  A few, such as the Fibonacci, have developed a following, along with the older Cinquain and syllabic Haiku.  It will be interesting to see if the form that Becket has presented in his Pi Poems generates a following.

Pi Poems – for the one who needs them . . .
By Becket
ISBN: 9781941240182

Available from Amazon.