Eastern Structures – A Review
For the past maybe three to five years I have noticed that poets who are interested in a syllabic approach to eastern forms, such as haiku, tanka, ghazal, etc., have expressed a need to find locations, spaces, venues, where a formal approach to these forms in English is emphasized instead of undermined. Almost all poetry journals and poetry societies dedicated to Eastern Forms are controlled by poets who use a free verse approach to lineation. To pick a good example, English language haiku associations and journals are, without exception, devoted to a free verse approach to haiku in English even though haiku in Japanese is formal verse.
I think the first explicit expression of dissatisfaction with this situation was in the ‘Introduction’ to Ravishing DisUnities by Ali where he criticizes the tendency of contemporary English poets to write free verse versions of the ghazal. Ali’s criticism is sharp, but it is also one that is knowledgeable of the traditional ghazal form and that this form has potential in English. Ali was fluent in English and was comfortable writing in it and for that reason he was speaking from personal experience with the form in the English language, even though English was not his native tongue. Ali was not saying that the ghazal has no place in English language poetry; rather he was suggesting that if English language poets are going to compose ghazal they should map onto English the formal features of that traditional form.
In ELH (English Language Haiku) the dominance of a free verse approach in official haiku organizations and publications is almost total. The result is that those who take a syllabic approach to ELH find themselves gradually alienated from those official organizations. Most of them simply move online and find others of like mind there.
The felt need for those taking a formal approach to these types of poetry to find their own spaces and journals has been gathering energy for some time. But exactly how to go about this has not been clear. With the publication of Eastern Structures this inchoate feeling has finally born fruit in something concrete. Published by R. W. Watkins, Eastern Structures is dedicated to a formal approach to such Eastern forms as Haiku, Tanka, Ghazal, and Sijo. The first issue packs a lot of material into its 32 pages of 8-1/2” X 11”. The ghazal are finely crafted and formally focused. The haiku are seasonal, syllabic, and rooted in the traditional syllabics of the Japanese. The article and examples of tanka are similarly focused. I would say that the only weak section in this first issue is the section on sijo, the Korean form. Watkins notes that he had difficulty contacting people who have written in this form, so if you are interested, or know others who are interested, forward information about this new poetry publication to them because they now have a place to publish their efforts in the sijo form.
Watkins has done a fine job with the layout and other publication matters. Watkins has published poetry zines before (particularly for the ghazal) and this experience has served him well for this first issue of Eastern Structures. For example, the cover is of a famous skyscraper in Malaysia, the world’s tallest building; a reference to the name of the magazine, Eastern Structures. And the back cover is a picture of a farm woman holding a lynx; a clever reference to Lynx, which was published by Jane and Werner Reichhold for 30 years, a poetry journal that emphasized the same forms that Watkins is interested in. I like the way Watkins gives the Reichholds a bow in this picture.
The poetry is a pleasure to read. I have some of my own work included in the section on tanka and I hope others feel the same way about my contribution. The essays are thoughtful, sometimes funny, and in general optimistic about the potential for a syllabic approach to these forms.
If you are interested in a formal approach to Eastern forms in English, this is a great resource. If you are a poet who is writing in these forms, Eastern Structures is a great venue for you to publish in. If you have essays, reviews, or thoughts to share with this focus, this is the place to share them with an appreciative audience. You can send submissions to:
Watkins has decided to use print-on-demand to publish Eastern Structures. It is available from Amazon for $5.99 – a great deal. Buy a copy for yourself, buy copies for friends, and post reviews at Amazon.
In closing I want to express my appreciation to Watkins for taking the time and effort to bring forth this publication. As someone who has published poetry magazines in the past, I know how much time and energy goes into such an endeavor. All of us who are interested in a formal approach to haiku, tanka, sijo, and ghazal can applaud this effort.
Editor: R. W. Watkins
Available at Amazon