Monday, March 30, 2015

The Shapes of our Singing: Part 3

The Shapes of our Singing
By Robin Skelton
A Review: Part 3

In Part 3 of this review I am going to touch on a few other chapters from the book that focus on syllabic forms and then follow with some concluding remarks.

In the ‘Korean’ chapter Skelton discusses two forms; the Kasa (which I had not heard of before) and the Sijo.  The Sijo is a syllabic form that has developed a small following in the U.S. (I’m not sure about Europe).  It is a form that I have written in sparingly; I’m not sure why I have not been more attracted to it.  Skelton’s description is fuller than many of his discussions of syllabic forms; but, oddly, he ignores the overall line count, instead focusing on the 3 and 4 count subdivisions of the line.

I found the ‘Welsh’ chapter one of the best.  Skelton covers a large number of Welsh verse forms including various types of Englyn.  I have become very attracted to Welsh forms and have written in two of them.  The transmission of Welsh forms into English (Welsh is a Celtic language) raises some of the same problems that I noted in previous discussions about transmitting Chinese and Japanese forms.  Skelton opens the ‘Welsh’ chapter noting some of these difficulties.  He begins with a discussion of Welsh ‘Cynghanedd’, which are patterns of specific sonic structures; often having to do with the repetition of consonant sequences or the placements of different types of rhyme.  Cynghanedd is a major focus of Welsh poetry, but it is very difficult, almost impossible, to map these techniques onto English.   Skelton notes, “While not utilizing Cynghanedd in the following poems, I have followed the principles upon which it is based and made constant use of internal consonance, rhyme, and alliteration.” (Page 286)

That is the same resolution that I came to in my own approach to Welsh forms in English.  In a way, Cynghanedd remind me of Kireji in Japanese poetry.  Kireji, or ‘cutting words’, and their placement in Japanese forms, is a major topic of Japanese poetry.  However, there is no equivalent in English for kireji.  Some translators use punctuation to translate kireji on the grounds that kireji serve the function of distinguishing grammatical units.  That makes sense.  But kireji also carry emotional weight and it is often difficult to integrate the grammatical with the emotional.  My observation has been that most ELH poets have simply come to accept that kireji do not map onto English and leave it at that.  It is kind of like noting that tonal placement in Chinese is a significant factor of Chinese poetry, and then accepting that you can’t map that factor onto English.

What you can map onto English from the Welsh forms is the syllabic count of the lines and the rhyme scheme.  My experience has been that these two factors find an agreeable environment in English.  And Skelton seems to have taken a similar approach.  Skelton covers a remarkable 27 Welsh forms.  In each case he gives an example he has written in English and then briefly covers the ‘formula’ for the form at the conclusion of the poem.  This chapter is one of the best in the book; the syllabic patterns are clearly stated and the examples are well written.  My one criticism is that Skelton isn’t always as clear as I would like about how, in some Welsh forms, the end rhyme of line A is placed within the following line; not at the end.  Or how a word in line A that is not an end word, becomes the end rhyme for the following line(s).  This is a feature of Welsh poetry which is distinctive and very attractive; it is one of the reasons that I decided to use some of these Welsh forms.  Though Skelton does mention this procedure, he does not offer a schematic of how this interweaving of rhyme happens.  This, I believe, might leave the reader who is new to Welsh forms a little lost.  Still, it is a rich and rewarding chapter to read.

There are others chapters that lay out for the reader many examples of syllabic verse forms.  The chapter on ‘Irish’ forms is, like the chapter on ‘Welsh’, very thorough and rewarding.  And there are some fascinating syllabic forms that Skelton illustrates from ‘Spain’.  If you have an interest in syllabic verse this book has more syllabic forms, and illustrates them with examples, than I have previously found.  You will enjoy exploring this wide world of syllabics and, perhaps, find a form that inspires you personally.

In closing I want to note that in the chapter on ‘English’ verse forms Skelton lists only one syllabic form: the Cinquain.  This makes sense; English poetry is primarily metrical and therefore the forms Skelton discusses in this chapter are metrical forms (the same applies to his chapters on other languages which are primarily metrical).  Interestingly, Skelton divides Cinquain into unrhymed and rhymed.  He gives two examples of the unrhymed approach, which most people follow, and then follows with examples of a rhymed Cinquain form in which the rhyme scheme is A-B-B-B-A.  It works.  Personally, I’m a big fan of the use of rhyme in Cinquain, though I have not used this specific rhyme scheme.  But it was good to see a poet working with rhyme in this syllabic form.

The newness of syllabic forms in English is reflected in the absence of such forms as the Tetractys, the Etheree, the Fibonacci, and other recent examples.  These syllabic forms arose in the 80’s and it is unclear if they will have any staying power.  Skelton died in 1997, and I suspect that the emergence of these new forms was not something that appeared in his reading or among his acquaintances.  I wonder if he would have been interested in or attracted to them?

The Shapes of our Singing is an entertaining romp through the word of formal poetry.  For those of you who might be interested in metrical forms, there is plenty to study.  For those of us who are interested in syllabic forms in English, the book has a rich trove of possibilities.  Though the book, now and then, has its shortcomings, the enthusiasm shown for formal verse is contagious.  It is the delight that Skelton had in verse form, and his willingness to engage in those forms to the extent of actually composing poems in those forms, that makes the book so inspiring.

Shapes was published in 2002 and, as far as I can tell it is only available used.  Fortunately, a lot of used copies are listed at Amazon.  Pick up a copy if you have any interest in the world of poetic form.  Skelton has given all of us a gift, a doorway into the world of poetic forms from around the world that, I feel, will greatly enrich all who pour over its pages.

The Shapes of our Singing
Robin Skelton
ISBN: 0910055769

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Shapes of our Singing: Part 2

The Shapes of our Singing
By Robin Skelton
A Review: Part 2

In Part 1 I gave a general overview and briefly discussed Skelton’s take on the syllabic verse forms of China.  In Part 2 I want to touch on Skelton’s view of another country whose approach to verse is syllabic: Japan.

Skelton’s discussion of Japanese forms runs from page 218 to 226.  It is unusually thorough; he discusses 14 different Japanese forms, most of which are obscure or of historical interest only.  With the single exception of the ‘Iroha Mojigusari’, Skelton gives us an example, which is followed by the number of lines for the form and the syllable count for each line.

Skelton’s discussion of haiku is typical.  First he offers his example:

Gently on my cheek
the light kiss of my lover;
snowflakes in April.

Skelton then describes the haiku form:

“The Haiku is composed of three unrhymed non-metrical lines with the syllable count 5-7-5.  Haiku, traditionally, allude to the season of the year or to nature.” (Page 219)

Notice that Skelton defines haiku syllabically and simply maps the Japanese count onto the English syllable.  Skelton does this in a straightforward way, without alluding to any alleged linguistic differences between Japanese and English which would make such a mapping procedure problematic.  In other words, Skelton views the Japanese syllable and the English syllable as commensurable and comparable.  That is refreshing.  And, in my opinion, this is an accurate assessment of the two languages.  I am aware, though, that many ELH haijin, particularly those affiliated with what I refer to as ‘official haiku’, would find this approach to be deficient.

This is another good example of how a particular poet’s views will shape how that poet handles the transmission of a poetic form from one linguistic context to another.  The majority of haiku written in English follow Skelton’s procedure; they simply map the syllable count of the Japanese onto the English syllable.  A significant minority diverges from this procedure, arguing that the Japanese syllable and the English syllable are too different from each other to make such a direct mapping work.  Instead of the count, this group focuses on brevity and, often, juxtaposition, or the two-part structure of Japanese haiku, as the elements that need to be mapped onto an effective English version of haiku.

Interestingly, Skelton’s haiku is in two parts.  The second part is line 3, ‘snowflakes in April’.  I think it is a nicely ambiguous seasonal reference.  It is rare to have snow in April, but it does happen.  Because ‘April’ is a spring word, and ‘snow’ is a winter word, the third line dances a little bit with the seasonal parameter of traditional haiku.  Line 3 is a mild juxtaposition; it can be read as the seasonal context for lines 1 and 2, or as a metaphor for lines 1 and 2, or both. 

But notice that Skelton does not list the two-part structure as a defining element of haiku; it just happens that his haiku has these two parts.  Skelton defines haiku as having three lines of 5 7 5 with a seasonal reference.  This leaves open the possibility of single sentence haiku and list haiku as embodiments of the form.

Is the two-part structure an essential element for haiku, or is it an element that can be put aside?  It depends on the individual poet’s view.  As in the previous discussion on Chinese syllabics, what an individual poet absorbs and finds attractive will determine the parameters of the form as it appears in the new linguistic context.  Official haiku has focused on the two factors of brevity and juxtaposition, but opted to abandon counting.  Most haiku poets outside of those involved in official haiku organizations, in contrast, have defined haiku syllabically and have no difficulty doing so, but have opted to consider the two-part structure as a non-essential element of the form.

As in the discussion on the monosyllabic nature of Chinese forms, there is no objective way to determine which approach is correct.  And there is no reason why one group should be dismissive of the other group(s). 

For the syllabic poet Skelton’s chapter on Japanese poetry is rewarding.  Skelton discusses forms that are not well known in the west, as well as the more popular forms such as haiku and tanka (which Skelton refers to as waka).  Again, tanka is defined syllabically; as a five-line form with a count of 5-7-5-7-7.  For some reason Skelton’s further observations on waka are a little sketchy, or incoherent.  I’m not sure if that is due to faulty editing or Skelton’s own lack of acquaintance with the form.

But overall, the syllabic poet writing in English will find Skelton’s chapter on Japanese syllabic forms to be a useful addition to the growing body of works on syllabic prosody in English.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Shapes of our Singing by Robin Skelton: A Review

The Shapes of our Singing
By Robin Skelton
A Review: Part 1

There are many books that catalog various poetic forms.  Poets in the 21st century are blessed with an abundance of resources on this topic.  If a poet wants to learn the basics of the sonnet, or sestina, or triolet, or tetractys, the poet has a number of easily accessible books that outline the form, give a brief overview of its history, and often offer examples.  There are also numerous online resources that catalog various forms.  I have used these resources on numerous occasions.

Robin Skelton’s book The Shapes of our Singing is such a book, but I think it is a cut above many of the other resources I have looked at.  First, Skelton (1925 – 1997) is enthusiastic about the subject of poetic form.  He clearly enjoys mining different cultures for the jewels of form they have produced.  Second, Skelton takes the time to absorb the formal elements enough to compose his own poetry in these forms.  Each form in this collection is illustrated by poems written by Skelton that embody the form and its structural elements.  This is very helpful.  And the poems themselves are well crafted in every case.

Shapes is organized by language; that is to say the forms are gathered under the particular language where one primarily finds them.  This leads to some interesting decisions on Skelton’s part.  For example, there is a chapter on Anglo-Saxon verse which is separate from the Chapter on English verse.  That makes sense.  Studying Anglo-Saxon, even though it is the foundation for the English language, is like studying a foreign language.  It is like studying German or Norwegian.  So even though English and Anglo-Saxon are historically intimately related, it makes sense that Skelton would put them in separate chapters.  In addition, the structural elements of Anglo-Saxon poetry, with its strong emphasis on alliteration, is distinctive. 

The choice on Skelton’s part to place forms in their linguistic context leads him to separate the Italian sonnet (in the ‘Italian’ chapter), from the English sonnet (in the ‘English’ chapter).  This is a compromise, and I understand the logic; but it makes it more difficult to see how the form evolved as it moved from language to language.  There is probably no completely satisfactory way to handle this; forms leap from one linguistic context to another and change when they do so.  But Skelton’s focus is on the languages themselves and the forms that the particular languages have engendered.

Shapes is not an encyclopedia of forms.  The forms selected reflect Skelton’s own history and interests.  Skelton was born in England and then, as an adult, emigrated to Canada where he taught for decades.  I believe he eventually became a Canadian citizen.  Shapes reflects a lifelong interest in English, Irish, and Welsh verse in particular.  It looks like Skelton also had a classical education as there is a chapter on ‘Classical Greek and Latin’ forms of verse.  It also appears that Skelton took an interest in East Asian verse as there is coverage of China, Korea, and Japan.  The chapter on Japan is surprisingly thorough.

In short the collection reflects Skelton’s own interests and because of this there are, at times, surprising absences.  There is, for example, no entry for the sestina. (Update: I just found the sestina on page 204 -- sorry about that.)  The book is strong on those cultures where Skelton took a personal interest (Irish, Welsh, and Japanese verse, for example), and relatively weak on those areas that did not so strongly attract Skelton.

For the syllabic poet writing in English this book offers a wealth of material that will assist such a poet.  Let’s start with the chapter on China (pages 18 – 21).  Chinese poetry is syllabic.  The example of Chinese poetry has had a particularly strong influence on my own syllabic poetry, particularly when I write quatrains.  Skelton covers four types of Chinese verse.  He gives an example he has written in the form, followed by the structural elements that include the number of lines, the syllable count for the lines, and the rhyme scheme.  Skelton also discusses the placement of the caesura, an important element of traditional Chinese poetry.

Interestingly, Skelton defines the form as monosyllabic.  For example, in his discussion of the Ch’i-Yen-Shih Metre, Skelton writes, “Each line is composed of monosyllabic words and there is a caesura after the fourth word in each.” (page 18)  Here is the poem


In the rock pool
          a blue sky
pins a white cloud
          on a shell,
or does the shell
          trap the cloud?
Am I the tongue
          or the bell?

It is interesting to me that Skelton regarded the single-syllable usage to be an essential element of the form; that is to say Skelton defines the form as requiring the usage of only single syllable words.  The Chinese language consists entirely of single syllable words.  English has a larger percentage of single syllable words than any other European language.  This is due to the absence of inflections, relatively, in English as compared to other European languages.  Chinese is entirely uninflected.  For this reason, it is possible to map onto English the single syllable structure of the Chinese language.

In my own studies of Chinese poetry, and in my application of the structural elements of the Chinese onto English, I have not chosen to require that an English language poem, inspired by a Chinese form, replicate the single syllable nature of the Chinese language.  At times I have written quatrains where all the words are single syllables; but that has been fortuitous rather than an ideal or a requirement of the form as I see it in English.

This is a good example of how the transmission of a poetic form from one linguistic context to another is mediated by the interests and focus of the individual poet.  For Skelton the single syllable nature of Chinese was a defining element of the form which he then imposed on an English language context.  For myself, the single syllable was seen as an aspect that was natural for the Chinese language, but was not one that I chose to impose upon English as a defining element of the form.  Instead, I focused on the syllable count and the rhyme scheme as the structural elements that, I felt, could be fruitfully planted in the soil of English.  Because I allowed for the use of multisyllabic words in the Chinese forms when written in English, I also took a looser attitude towards the caesura requirements of the original Chinese.  For example, a five syllable line in English might consist of a single word, like ‘animosities’, or ‘possibilities’; and in such a case there would be no caesura for the one word line.  This looser approach to the placement of the caesura is illustrated in this example:

As the day comes to an end
As the month comes to a close
I turn to look at a vase
Blue and gold with one white rose

In this example of mine, all the words are monosyllabic.  The syllable count is the same (7) as the example given by Skelton, and the rhyme scheme is also the same.  But the caesura comes after the third word, instead of following Skelton’s requirement of the caesura after the fourth word: As the day, As the month, I turn to, Blue and gold.  By allowing for a pause after the third word, the closing is able to instantiate an iambic pattern.

Here is another example:

Fossils from a mountain top
Signs of life from ages past
The first gift you gave to me
When I thought our love would last

Here I freely use two syllable words.  The rhyme scheme and syllable count remain the same.  The caesurae are more fluid: Fossils from, Signs of life, The first gift, When I thought.  In line 1 the caesura is after the second syllable; in the other lines after the third syllable.

The divergent ways in which Skelton and I have mapped Chinese poetic forms onto English demonstrates why such a transmission will yield different results, depending on what the particular poet focuses on, what interests them, what they view as essential, and how they regard the form’s potential in English.  In every case some aspects of the form in the original language will make it into the new linguistic context, while other aspects will be filtered out.  For example, neither Skelton nor I have attempted to map tonal placement onto English because English does not use tones, so there is no basis for mapping rules for tonal placement onto English.  This is an important lesson to learn.  Once this is clearly understood, for example, it explains why English language haiku poets often take different approaches to the form; because the different poets are focusing on different aspects of the form in the original Japanese and then mapping these different aspects onto the English language. 

Skelton’s approach is, from one perspective, more rigorous than my own because it incorporates more specific elements of the Chinese form when he writes in English.  From another perspective, though, his approach is more limiting when looked at from the English language side.  English is not a monosyllabic language.  (As an aside, I always get a kick out of the word ‘monosyllabic’ because it is five syllables; I think that is kind of funny.)  You can write a completely monosyllabic poem using the Chinese forms; as both Skelton and I have done.  But because English is not inherently monosyllabic, the stricture to use only one syllable words means that a vast word hoard will be unavailable to the poet.  For me, that was too high a price to pay.  I wanted to be able to use words of more than one count.  For me the price of restricting the form to one count words was too great.  For Skelton it was not.

There is no right or wrong here.  What is going on is a conversation between cultures, across and among various language groups.  As the world becomes more intimately interconnected, forms from a linguistic context become easily available to those in different linguistic contexts.  In addition, English has a long history of borrowing poetic forms and then transforming them; sometimes slightly, sometimes significantly.  The sonnet is the most well known example; but others come to mind such as the sestina and the villanelle.  This process continues with the absorption of East Asian, Welsh, Irish, and Arabic forms (to pick a few examples), yet again enriching the ecology of English language verse.

(Part 2 to follow)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Ghazal for the Stars

A Ghazal for the Stars

A planet’s wandering under the stars,
At night I’m pondering under the stars.

A cup of hot tea puts her mind at ease,
While quietly sitting under the stars.

In the dense dark of night an owl takes flight,
She’s silently winging under the stars.

Main Street’s empty, there’s no cacophony,
And no cars are jostling under the stars.

A dog who’s roamed finds himself a new home,
There’ll be no more hunting under the stars.

There is a stream in life and in our dreams,
It’s peacefully flowing under the stars.

My name’s Wilson, I’m in my last season,
Before dawn I’m walking under the stars.



Wednesday, March 18, 2015

For Philip Sidney

For Philip Sidney
As I mentioned in a previous post, it was Donald Justice who first planted in my mind the idea that I might find the sestina form of interest.  Justice published three sestinas in his New and Selected Poems.  I enjoyed all of them.  One of the sestinas is ‘Sestina on Six Words by Weldon Kees’.  In that sestina Justice takes the six endwords that Kees uses in a sestina written by Kees and then uses them as the basis for his own sestina.  I was intrigued by that idea.  I thought it a good way to approach the sestina form.  So I tried out using the endwords of other poets in the same way that Justice uses the endwords of Kees’s sestina for his own.  It reminds me of composers who write a series of variations on a theme written by another composer.

Philip Sidney (1554 – 1586) wrote one of the earliest sestina in English.  It is titled ‘Ye Goatherd Gods’.  It is written as a dialogue between two people.  Interestingly, it is a double sestina consisting of twelve six-line verses and a three-line envoi.  The cycle of endwords is repeated twice.  It is skillfully done and a pleasure to read.  I decided to compose a sestina using Sidney’s six endwords as a way of expressing my appreciation for the gifted poet.

For Philip Sidney

I like to journey into the mountains
Far above the bustle of the valleys,
Even above the realm of the forests
Where sky, rock, and air share divine music,
Where the sun sings the song of the morning
Where the moon sings the song of the evening.

We retreat to our homes in the evening,
Even when our homes are in the mountains;
Then we will leave our homes in the morning,
We’ll have a busy day in the valleys
With a break or two for songs and music
While we gaze upon the distant forest.

In a dream I wandered through a forest,
In the dream it was a moon-lit evening,
In the dream I heard some distant music,
In the dream the shadows cast by mountains
Completely covered the entire valley,
Then the light dissolved them in slow morning.

I lit incense at my altar, I was mourning.
Crowds of memories were dense like a thick forest.
I decided to stay away from the valley
And held a static vigil for the whole evening,
A vigil that felt to me like climbing mountains
Against a wind that thoroughly drowned all music.

The world is silence, the world is music,
You can hear both of them in the morning.
The world has deserts, the world has forests,
Above them both there’s a range of mountains.
The world has plains and the world has valleys,
Both of them are covered by the evening.

At times I take shelter in the valley
Listening to contrapuntal music.
At times I watch the day become evening,
At times I’ll watch as night becomes morning,
At times I need the solace of the forest,
Sometimes I need the silence of the mountains.

Mountains and valleys resemble music,
Melodies from an ever present forest,
A chorus heard at the turn of morning and at the turn of evening.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Some Resources for the Cinquain

Some Resources for the Cinquain

2015 is the hundredth anniversary of the American Cinquain.  This is the first syllabic form created by a native English speaker.  It was created by the poet Adelaide Crapsey and first appeared in print in 1915 in a posthumously published collection of her poetry.  Since then the Cinquain has slowly spread and there are many poets who have spent time and energy on this form consisting of five lines with the syllable count of 2-4-6-8-2.

From 200 to 2007 there was a magazine devoted to the Cinquain.  It was called ‘Amaze’, which is the title of one of Adelaide’s Cinquain.  There were three people involved in ‘Amaze’.  Deborah Kolodji was a co-founder and editor of the Journal.  Lisa Cohen was another of the co-founders and a regular contributor.  Finally, Denis Garrison was a third co-founder and had the title ‘Editor Emeritus’.  Garrison contributed poems, articles, and reviews.  Garrison was a prolific editor for about a decade.  He also edited and published ‘Modern English Tanka’, a magazine that did a great deal to bring this form to the attention of many poets.

‘Amaze’ was a quarterly journal.  In its last two years, 2006 and 2007, it moved online, giving up the quarterly printed magazine.  At the end of the year Kolodji published all four issues in book format: Amaze: The Cinquain Journal 2006 Annual, and Amaze: The Cinquain Journal 2007 Annual.  Both of these are available from at a reasonable price.

For those who are interested in the Cinquain and how various poets have used the form I highly recommend these two publications.  The bulk of the material consists of Cinquain poems.  Most of the Cinquains are written in the standard form of 2-4-6-8-2.  But there are also variations on the form including Cinquain Sequences, reverse Cinquain (2-8-6-4-2), and other permutations. 

The two volumes contain a wealth of excellent Cinquain by numerous poets.  It is remarkable how consistently high the quality is. 

Both volumes also contain articles about the history of the Cinquain, its esthetic, the influence of Japanese forms on the development of the Cinquain, essays on the prosody of the Cinquain, and reviews of books and poets that are Cinquain centered.  This information is rewarding and adds depth to our understanding of this form.  

It would be a wonderful thing if the other years could also be turned into publications like the 2006 and 2007 Annuals.  I suspect, though, that such a project would be very time consuming.  Fortunately, the earlier issues of Amaze are archived online so that you can access them as well.  You can find them at:

If you have an interest in the Cinquain, in syllabic forms in English, or want to read some really excellent short form poetry, I recommend getting these two annuals.  Go to and search for the following:

Amaze: The Cinquain Journal 2006 Annual
ISSN: 1935-8849

Amaze: The Cinquain Journal 2007 Annual
ISSN: 1935-8849