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)