Monday, June 29, 2015

Unexceptional Part 6

Unexceptional Part 6 – Mongrel Languages

The tendency among ELH practitioners is to focus obsessively on the micro aspects of the Japanese language.  Usually this means a focus at the level of the phoneme.  Because the phonemes of Japanese and English differ it seems plausible, at first, that there is some essential difference between the two languages.

If, however, one shifts focus and looks at English and Japanese from a macro perspective, from a larger context, the similarities between the two languages become evident.  One similarity between the two is that both languages have a large percentage of borrowed words.  Consider the following from Language and Society in Japan:

“No language exists in a vacuum.  All are influenced to varying degrees by others with which they have contact.  We need only think about the number of widely-accepted Americanisms or words and expressions from non-English languages current in Australia today to see this in action.  Any native speaker of English . . . even without detailed knowledge of or contact with Japan, will know what sushi means . . . The two major linguistic influences in the case of Japanese have been Chinese and English.  Around 60% of today’s Japanese vocabulary, or at least of that part of it found in dictionaries, is made up of loanwords from other languages.  Around 6% of these are from western languages, but the vast majority come from Chinese.  Kango, Sino-Japanese words, reflect the long history of language and cultural contact between China and Japan since the fifth century.”

Language and Society in Japan
Nanette Gottlieb
Page 11

The high percentage of loan words in ordinary Japanese resembles the high percentage of loan words in ordinary English used today.  If Anglo-Saxon is taken as the foundational language out of which modern English emerges, thousands of Anglo-Saxon words have fallen away over time. Many of these words have been replaced, and new words added, over the centuries from French, Latin, Scandinavian, other European languages, and more recently non-European languages.  In the U.S., Spanish is making a significant contribution to the spoken English vocabulary.

Some sources suggest that 45% of modern English vocabulary consists of loanwords; this means words that are of non-Anglo Saxon origin.  It is not always clear as to whether or not a loan word came first from French or Latin, or a mixture of the two, but the influence of French on the English language is, in many ways, comparable to the influence of the Chinese language on the Japanese language.

In other words, both Japanese and English are mongrel languages.  By ‘mongrel’ I mean a language whose identity is essentially a mixture.  Like a mongrel dog, a mutt.  Japanese and English are mutt languages.  Neither Japanese nor English are ‘pure breeds’, to continue with the analogy.  Both Japanese and English are essentially a mixture of numerous linguistic influence that have become so thoroughly interwoven that the average person has no inkling of the linguistic source of these numerous loanwords.

“Most Japanese hardly think of these as loanwords, however, as over the centuries they have become absorbed so thoroughly into Japanese as to seem not at all foreign.”

Ibid, page 11

The same can be said for English.  English speakers, unless they are linguists themselves, simply speak what they consider to be English.  The fact that what they are speaking is a mongrel language, a mashup of Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin, etc., etc., is irrelevant to everyday conversation.  And the fact that when Japanese speak it is a mashup of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, English, etc., etc., is irrelevant to everyday conversation in Japan.

For those who think of Japanese as an exceptional language, these considerations would seem to undermine that stance.  If Japanese is a uniquely unique language, then how does the Japanese language manage to borrow such a huge number of loanwords?  In order for language X to borrow from language Y, the two languages need to be porous to each other, to share common features; otherwise borrowing would not take place.  That is why English has been able to borrow so many foreign words.  And that is why Japanese has been able to borrow so many foreign words.

Again, we see that Japanese is unexceptional.  Just like English, and many other languages, the Japanese language is a mixture, a hybrid, a mongrel, a linguistic mutt, a mashup of numerous linguistic influences and borrowings that have become thoroughly interwoven.  To close with a less abrasive metaphor, both English and Japanese are like vast oceans that easily absorb the rivers of numerous languages as they pour into their respective waters.  This gives both English and Japanese enormous expressive resources that would be absent had either language remained ‘pure’ due to isolation.  As poets, both Japanese and English writers are greatly blessed by this history of borrowings and influence.  It is an expressive feature which both English and Japanese share and which both benefit from.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Way of Form and the Way of Nature

The Way of Form and the Way of Nature

The natural world unfolds in cycles that we recognize by the periodic appearances of forms.  Every month there is a full moon.  Every day there is a sunrise.

The seasons are marked by cyclical appearances.  It is the appearance of these seasonal markers that speaks to us that the season is changing.  In late winter the quince bloom.  In early spring the plums blossom and birds begin to build their nests.  In autumn, the fur of animals becomes thicker and in some cases changes color.

Formal verse follows this way of nature.  We recognize a particular form because each time it appears there are certain markers that tell us that the poem is in a particular form.  We know a flower is a tulip because tulips replicate certain formal features each time they appear.  We know a tree is an oak because each oak replicates, or instantiates, certain features that cue us into recognizing that this tree is an oak even if we have not seen that particular tree before.

In a similar way, we know a poem is a sonnet because it has certain markers, or features, that let us know that the poem is a sonnet.  We know that a poem is a tanka because it has a certain syllabic shape.  We know a poem is a triolet or villanelle because of the refrains that mark those forms.

This kind of repetition is following the way of nature.  Each full moon shares certain features with other full moons, but each full moon also has its own unique displays: some are brighter and some are dimmer; some are obscured by clouds and some appear in a cloudless sky.  In a similar way, formal poetry replicates the features of a form yet, at the same time, displays unique aspects that previous instantiations of the form did not have.

Cyclical appearances emerge due to causation; they are dependent appearances.  Plum blossoms appear as the days are getting longer and somewhat warmer.  The plum responds to these changing conditions by blossoming.  As the days get shorter and colder, animals respond by their fur growing thicker and many birds respond by migrating to warmer regions.

The forms of poetry depend on human beings for their regular appearance.  The crucial causal dependency of poetic forms is human interest.  If human beings are interested in a form then some of them will take pen to paper, or keyboard to computer, and compose in that form.  Like natural phenomena appearing when causal conditions are conducive to their appearance, poetic forms also appear when causal conditions are conducive to their appearance. 

Interest in specific poetic forms seems to ebb and flow.  There are periods, for example, when English poetry was heavily focused on the sonnet, and other periods when the sonnet was not so central to poetic creativity.  The sestina has a similar ebb and flow, with periods of complete lack of interest in this form followed by energetic involvement in its possibilities.  This ebb and flow of interest replicates the ebb and flow of natural phenomena.  Just as there are seasons of flowering there are also seasons of a particular form.

From this perspective, poetic forms are not so much human creations as they are creations of nature wherein nature uses human beings as a causal basis for their appearance.  Poetic forms are human creations in the sense that human beings are a necessary condition for the forms to appear (along with many other causes and conditions).  But in another sense poetic forms are nature, or the cosmos, or the network of causal relations and dependencies, or the web of existence, or creation, using human beings so that certain types of forms will be materially embodied and be present in creation.  Creation uses soil, rain, sunlight, etc., so that certain flowers will appear at certain times.  Creation uses human beings, along with those aspects which human beings depend upon, so that certain poetic forms will appear.

When composing in a poetic form there is often the experience of an expanded sense of sharing and presence.  At first this feeling is a sense of connectedness with other poets who also write in the form, with other people who appreciate the form, a sense of contact with an extended human community.  But this sensation of plugging into something larger, something beyond individual expression, has other dimensions, which are more subtle and, at the same time, more persistent.  If the poet pays attention to this sensation of an expanded presence what opens up is a shared sense of the way of nature and creation itself.  Formal poetry leads us to an understanding of the way of creation; but not through an intellectual understanding of the way of nature.  Rather this understanding of the way of nature is learned through participation that way.  Through composing a formal poem the poet enters into the same manner of creation that creation uses when the moon becomes full, when leaves turn color in the fall, when the tide ebbs, and when the sun rises in the morning.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Book Launch: Even in Winter

Book Launch: Even in Winter

I have just published my latest collection of poems.  It is called Even in Winter.  In this collection I take a new turn in how I have put the poems together.  Previous collections have been form specific: either the entire book was dedicated to a single form (such as Microcosmos which is dedicated to renga, or White Roses dedicated to haiku), or each section of the book is form specific.  An example is Lanterne Light which contains three collections of poems and all three collections are form specific; the lanterne, the tetractys, and the cinquain.

In Even in Winter I have mixed the forms, so the collection is not form specific.  All the poems are formal, but the forms are interspersed and not grouped into form specific collections.

Five forms are used: Etheree, Fibonacci, Lucas, the Even Sequence, and 100 Friends.  These forms are explained as part of the back matter in a section called ‘Afterthoughts’.  I felt that the different forms worked well with each other because all five of the forms share a similar overall shape.  All of the forms start with very short lines and then expand into longer lines.  What differs among the forms is the pace of the expansion.  Here is a quick look at the syllable counts for the five forms used in the collection:

Etheree:               1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10
Fibonacci:            1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21, etc.
Lucas:                  2-1-3-4-7-11-18-29, etc.
Even Sequence:   2-2-4-6-10-16, etc.
100 Friends:        2-4-2-4-6-4-6-8-6-8-10-8-10-12-10

I think of this collection as a kind of bouquet of forms.  Hopefully they are attractively arranged.  The collection covers a number of themes; nature and seasonality are central.  Spirituality and my commitments as a Quaker are woven into the collection, hopefully in a not too obtrusive way.  I think I would say that the overriding theme is the human relationship to eternity in an ephemeral world.

Even in Winter
ISBN: 9781514224649
118 pages

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Chester Creek Ravine: A Review

Chester Creek Ravine
By Bart Sutter

The variety of approaches to haiku in English can be confusing.  Newcomers, in particular, can find it difficult to negotiate the different approaches and the various arguments, and dogmatics, used to support conflicting claims of how haiku should be written in English.  One way of looking at this, an approach I have found useful, is that there seem to be two main approaches.  One approach to haiku is to deconstruct the English language along theoretical lines so that the language conforms to some view.  The belief, for example, that haiku ‘captures a moment’ is applied as a rule to English grammar.  And the result is a kind of attack on standard English usage such that certain verb forms are considered bad form.  The minimalist ideology that is foundational for a number of haiku organizations is another example: when it is applied to the English language redundancies are questioned, modifiers reduced or eliminated, etc.

The second approach takes the English language as a given and then seeks to shape the language in accordance with certain standards: like the 5-7-5 syllabic shape.  In this approach English poetry is seen as a resource upon which the haiku poet can draw so that traditional poetic devices such as metaphor, simile, alliteration, assonance, etc. are integrated into the haiku form.  One of the most significant poetic devices in English language poetry is rhyme.  In the second approach I find that rhyme often makes an appearance; whereas in the first approach it seems to be actively discouraged.  (Now and then I have found rhyme used in the first approach.  It is rare, but it does make an appearance.  Sometimes it is used humorously, and sometimes affectively.  On balance though, its presence is unusual.)

Rhyme moves into the foreground in the haiku stanza poems of Richard Wilbur, who rhymes the first and third lines of each verse.  Wilbur’s haiku stanza poems are among the finest haiku written in English.

A recent example of a poet who takes advantage of rhyme for the haiku form is Bart Sutter, the author of the newly published Chester Creek Ravine.  In this collection almost every haiku rhymes.

Wood smoke on the breeze
The heavy-headed grasses
Bow as summer passes.

In the haiku quoted above Sutter rhymes lines 2 and 3.  Often Sutter will rhyme 1 and 3:

The crow above the creek
Keeps cursing flowing water
In a fit of pique.

That snowfall was a beaut.
No sound now but chickadees,
The creaking of my boots.

The effect that the use of rhyme has is to make the haiku more memorable and to give them a sense of rhythm.  The use of rhyme also clarifies lineation.  In addition, the use of rhyme links Sutter’s haiku to the great tradition of rhyming English verse.  Also traditional is Sutter beginning each line with a capital letter: this is standard for the vast majority of English poetry and a lot of English language haijin that take a syllabic approach use it as well.  There is something inherently attractive about these little, rhyming, vignettes; there is an elegance about them that draws the reader in.

Sutter arranges his haiku in four chapters following the standard seasonal arrangement of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter.  All of his haiku contain seasonal references and in that sense they are traditional haiku.

Though 5-7-5 seems to be a starting point for Sutter’s haiku, a large number of them go over that count.  Here is an example:

Spring at last?  It has to be:
A pair of woolen mittens
Stuck in a leafless tree.

Here we have 7-7-6, for an overall count of 20.  I haven’t counted all the haiku, but a longer count seems to be what Sutter leans towards.  I suspect that metrics plays a role here. 

There are some haiku with a short count:

A stem of lupine
Left on the sign
For the hiking trail.

Here we have 5-4-5, for an overall count of 14.  Sutter’s counts fall into what I have observed as the overall range that syllabic haijin allow themselves.  The standard seems to be 5-7-5 with a plus or minus 3 count giving a range of 14 to 20. 

Sutter’s haiku are written in full sentences.  The haiku are either a single sentence or two sentences.  Here is an example of a single sentence:

Out here in the cold,
The woodpeckers tap telegraph,
But we can’t crack the code.

And here is an example of two sentences:

Way back in there,
Tiny songsters.  Doesn’t it sound like
They’re sewing in the air?

Sometimes in haiku with more than one sentence Sutter will have one of them run over to the next line, like the one above.  At other times the sentences are matched to the line:

How the dog’s tail wags!
I bring home wildflowers
And windblown plastic bags.

The back matter states that Sutter lives near Chester Creek Ravine.  These haiku, then, are the poet’s observations on a local ecological feature that he has grown familiar with.  They are rooted in place. 

I enjoyed this book.  The rhyme is pleasing and the author has absorbed the significance and importance of the nature-centeredness of haiku.  There is a lilt to these well crafted haiku.  Many of them are cheerful, but a significant number also have a thoughtful dimension.  The world Sutter shows us is filled with many aspects of nature, but he also takes time to introduce us to neighbors, offer thoughtful observations on the state of the world in a way that is subtle (like the above haiku that mentions plastic bags), and there are haiku that have resonated with me for days:

I thought I was alone,
But I hear women’s voices,
Water over stone. 

I think this is a fine collection of haiku.  They are well-crafted, picture perfect, pleasing to the ear, and thoughtful for the mind. 

Chester Creek Ravine
Bart Sutter
ISBN: 9781935666752
79 pages

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Sociology of Form

The Sociology of Form

I have been struck by the lack of celebrations in the American poetry community regarding the 100th anniversary of the Cinquain.  The form first appeared in print 100 years ago in a posthumously published collection of its creator’s poetry, the poetry of Adelaide Crapsey.  It is a distinct contribution to the world of formal verse and since its appearance numerous poets have found it a congenial vehicle for poetic expression.  Yet, I have not heard of any sponsored celebrations of its presence.  For example, I have not heard of any University conferences devoted to the form, nor have I seen anything like a Norton Anthology devoted to the Cinquain.  There has been a Norton Anthology devoted to English Language Haiku, called Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, published late last year.  But nothing by Norton or any other publisher for the Cinquain.

I think it is instructive that the HIE anthology emphasizes free verse haiku.  Though there are examples of syllabic haiku, the preponderance of entries take a free verse approach.  In addition, the editors in their essays are clearly sympathetic to a free verse approach.  Overall, the haiku anthology fits neatly into the esthetics of modernism.

This has given me an opportunity to pull together some stray thoughts I have had about what I think of as the ‘sociology of form’.  Specifically, I am referring to the type of people who seem to be attracted to the syllabic forms that have recently emerged in English language poetry.

The first observation is that the appearance of syllabic forms seems to me to be very much a reflection of popular interest as opposed to the interests of the elites.  I mean here that, with some exceptions, MFA programs, University English Departments, and similar institutions of the elites, are not the source of these syllabic forms. 

Adelaide herself is exceptional in this regard.  She was highly educated, went to Vassar and taught at Smith.  She also engaged in highly analytical examinations of English prosody.  If she had lived longer I suspect she would have been a significant presence in the academy.

But Adelaide is unusual in this regard.  The syllabic forms that have been created in the 80’s and onward seem to emerge from what I think of as a more working class background.  The rictameter was created by two cousins interested in poetry; one a fireman.  The tetractys was created by a British poet who wrote a large body of work, but was not of significant fame.  Both the fibonacci and the lanterne seem to have appeared in several different places at the same time, but were not created in an official or University context.  In general what I have noticed is that new forms are offered by those with a significant, and long term, interest in poetry, people who write poetry, people for whom poetry is an important presence in their lives, but are not of national or international status.  I am thinking of people like Etheree Armstrong Taylor and the creator of the Whitney.  They often do not have MFA degrees or are otherwise accredited.  They usually lack the kind of networks that help new poets break into print.  It seems, from what I have observed, that they may have a local following (at the County or State level), but have not entered into the national or international scene.

From the perspective of the University and official poetry magazines, like Poetry Chicago, the emergence of these syllabic forms is marginal or overlooked completely.  This is understandable.  Free verse dominates MFA programs and University literature departments, with a few significant exceptions.  But those exceptions are devoted to traditional metrical poetry.  I am not aware of a program at the University level that emphasizes a syllabic approach, or focuses on syllabic forms in English.  (Readers, please correct me if I am wrong.)  On the other hand, and this is significant, syllabic forms are taught in elementary schools.  For example, both the syllabic haiku and the cinquain are regularly taught to children.  Sometimes these forms are taught for didactic purposes (like clarifying grammar).  Sometimes they are taught in a highly simplified way because they are fun to do in the way that a game is fun to play.  One consequence of this is that many people have learned about these syllabic forms in congenial settings which bodes well for the future of these forms.

What I see in the emergence of syllabic forms in English is what I refer to as a ‘yearning for form’.  I think human beings enjoy creating form.  I think that is why people like to garden, compose tunes and sing songs, why they find carpentry satisfying, why they like to bake bread, etc.  I see the shaping of words into significant forms in the same light.  I think there is a spontaneous need for form and that this need gets instantiated in poetry with the creation of form.

For over a century the elites have emphasized free verse for English language poetry.  But my suspicion is that this runs against this almost biological need for form.  There is something truly satisfying about composing a well crafted poem in a form that others have used.  There is a feeling of connection and community when one enters such an approach.  There is also a sense of overcoming a challenge.  This aspect is similar to why human beings like to play games.  From hockey to chess, people like to be challenged by rule bound situations to see if they can live up to the challenge.  In poetry, this manifests as an acceptance of the rules for a form and then instantiating them in one’s own poetry.  Part of the thrill of writing, and reading, a sonnet, for example, is simply that one has been able to absorb the parameters of the form, to internalize them, and follow them out and still, amazingly, created something that others will enjoy.

From the reader’s perspective, formal poetry creates a sense of expectation on the part of the reader which, when met, is pleasing.  It is like knowing that a waltz will be have a certain time signature and then hearing that signature when listening to a new waltz.  Or it is like hearing a new song that uses a traditional song structure with verses and refrain.  In poetry, formal verse gives the reader an assist; the poet is taking the reader into account.  And, to a certain extent, flattering the reader by assuming the reader knows aspects of the form. 

This spontaneous appearance of syllabic forms in English has happened without official sponsorship.  From the perspective of official poetry organizations it is something that has happened under the radar.  In some instances it has happened even though official organizations have disapproved of it.  Specifically, the ongoing production of syllabic haiku has happened in spite of a concerted effort on the part of official haiku organizations to undermine the approach.  This indicates to me that the attractiveness of form is inherently compelling and can’t be ignored for too long.  My feeling is that the emergence of syllabic forms in 20th century English poetry is an awakening to a dimension of poetry, the formal dimension of poetry, which had been dismissed and sidelined or ignored by elites.  What is intriguing is that this emergence of a formal dimension is taking place in a reconfigured context.  The movement of free verse had, and has, a strong ideological component to it.  This manifested as a dismissal of the relevance of the past for present day poets.  This created a break with the past in order to explore new ways of approaching poetry. 

One of the unforeseen consequences of breaking with the past is that the formal dimension of poetry can be uncovered in approaches that were not central to traditional English poetry.  One of these approaches is formal syllabic verse.  Formal syllabic verse is traditional in the sense that it accepts rules and regulations, relies on counting to shape a line, and views form as a positive means of expression rather than an impingement on individuality.  Formal syllabic verse is non-traditional in that it does not rely on metrics in the shaping of its forms.  This difference probably seems minor to a free verse poet because free verse poets do not want to be constrained by things like counting and both traditional metrics and formal syllabic verse constrain the poet through the mechanism of counting.  But I believe the difference between formal metrical verse and formal syllabic verse is audible; there is a different sonic presence and pacing between the two.  And it appears that some poets who are intrigued by the possibility of form in English verse are often attracted to the sonicscape offered by a syllabic context.

Syllabic poetry is still very new to the English poetic world.  But the fact that most of the interest in syllabics has emerged in a marginal, and unofficial, context says to me that it is emerging from strong roots.  Already we have seen a number of attractive blossoms.  The garden of English syllabic verse forms has only recently been planted and already that garden is attracting numerous visitors.  In a way, it is a hidden garden.  It is on the edge of the English speaking poetic world.  But when you have some time, come and take a look.  It is fresh and inviting and poets who visit this garden invariably find themselves enriched.