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