Monday, April 25, 2016

Finding Room to Grow

Finding Room to Grow

In previous posts I have written about a slowly growing awareness among those interested in syllabic, formal, haiku that they need their own journals, their own online spaces, etc., to share their haiku.  There is a sense of a parting of the ways, that syllabic haiku needs to go its own way.

I think a useful metaphor here is ecology.  Syllabic haiku is crowded out by other types of haiku such as free verse, one-liners, and consciously avant-garde approaches.  It is sidelined and left malnourished.  The specific skills, needs, and approaches of someone wanting to take a formal approach to haiku are not nourished in a free verse context and for this reason formal haiku tends to wither in a free verse setting.

Not all plants can grow in the same garden.  And not all forms of poetry flourish in the same setting.  To show what I mean by this I would like to contrast two series of haiku.  Think of them as excerpts from hypothetical anthologies.  I have chosen to use hypothetical anthologies because there is, at this time, no anthology of formal, syllabic, haiku.  So I wanted to contrast the two anthologies on an equal footing.  First, here are some haiku from a possible free verse haiku anthology:

in my silver
wedding shoes
. . spider webs

          Carol Montgomery
          (Haiku Moment page 138)

Slow swing of willows through my own fault

          Patrick Sweeney
          (Haiku in English page 239)

The sky is all black
then light comes slowly, slowly
while the cat watches

          Edith Shiffert
          (The Light Comes Slowly, Preface)

low tide
all the people

          Anita Virgil
          (Haiku Anthology page 243)

a single shoe
in the median
rush hour

          Elizabeth Searle Lamb
          (The Unswept Path page 140)

I have gleaned these haiku from published anthologies, with the exception of the haiku from Shiffert, which is from a collection of her haiku.  My purpose was to create a sequence that does not reflect my own taste.  All of these haiku have passed editors’ criteria of what makes a good free verse haiku.

Compare the above selection with the selection that follows:

Water registered
the quarrel of clouds and moon
with sudden blackout –

          Helen Chenoweth
          (Pageant of Seasons page 85)

The boys are in school;
fall leaves – the only swimmers
in the swimming pool

          Margot Bollock
          (Borrowed Water page 81

The sky is all black
then light comes slowly, slowly
while the cat watches

          Edith Shiffert
          (The Light Comes Slowly, Preface)

Night below zero,
And the long valley’s echo
The sound of the stars.

          David Hoopes
          (Alaska in Haikupage 65)

What makes them do it –
jaywalkers in dark clothing
at night, in the rain?

          Mary Jo Salter
          (Nothing by Design page 60)

Both series share the haiku by Edith Shiffert, the third one that begins ‘The sky is all black’.  In the first series the Shiffert haiku is surrounded by free verse haiku.  In the second series the Shiffert haiku is surrounded by formal haiku.  What effect do the different surroundings have on the Shiffert haiku?

In the first series the Shiffert haiku reads like a free verse haiku.  If you do not perceive this, try to look at the series through the eyes of someone completely new to haiku in English.  Because all of the haiku in the first series have different shapes, because none of them share any common formal features, the formal nature of Shiffert’s haiku is lost.  Someone new to haiku would not be able to discern the formal foundation of Shiffert’s approach.

In the second series all of the haiku share the same formal shape.  They are all syllabic.  They all share the three line 5-7-5 syllabic contours.  If someone completely new to haiku were to read the second series they could quickly and easily discern the formal nature of the poems.  In terms of Shiffert’s haiku, the formal connection to the other haiku is revealed, and therefore the underlying commitment to a formal approach emerges.  This adds a dimension to the reading which the first series does not have.

What I want to suggest is that the ecology of the two series differs.  The first series is an ecology that is defined by free verse.  It is an ecology that validates and encourages the growth of free verse haiku.   When a formal haiku in 5-7-5 is placed in such a series the particulars of formal haiku are lost and overshadowed by the surrounding free verse poems.  That is why it is so unsatisfying to have a formal haiku placed in an anthology of predominantly free verse haiku, or placed in a haiku journal that consists predominantly of free verse.

The ecology of the second series, in contrast, is an ecology that encourages formal haiku and the methods that give rise to formal haiku.  The syllabic structure, the underlying rhythm, the foundational counting, are present as dominant, even essential, features.  There is a sharing of these features as you move from haiku to haiku in the second series that is absent from the first series.  And there is a sense of communal understanding as to the nature of the haiku form implicit in such a series.  There is no sense of shared understanding in the first series.

From a free verse haiku perspective the need for distinct regions for formal haiku doesn’t make sense.  The free verse view is that they do, in fact, publish 5-7-5 haiku, so what is the problem?  The problem is that free verse has a corrosive effect on the form; the reader, particularly the new reader, cannot see the form because of the surroundings.  In a free verse context the 5-7-5 syllabics is perceived as adventitious and arbitrary.  In the context of a series of formal haiku, the 5-7-5 syllabics as seen as the ground from which the individual formal haiku blossom.

For a long time now, formal haijin have accepted the dominance of free verse haijin in ELH organizations and journals and have routinely submitted their haiku for publication and have, sometimes with reluctance, participated in such organizations.  But the felt uneasiness with this situation has become more articulate.  Formal haiku cannot grow in the ecology that is offered to it by organizations like the HSA and publications like ‘Modern Haiku’.  Formal haiku begins with different procedures, has different esthetic criteria, and presents itself in different ways. 

Slowly some spaces are being opened where an ecology in which formal haiku can grow is being found.  This is a two-step process.  The first step is the realization that free verse haiku and formal haiku have, over time, diverged to such an extent that they have, in fact, become different forms of poetry.  The second step is to follow through on that realization and create actual places that cultivate a formal approach to haiku.  This second step is just beginning; it is tentative and a little unsure of itself.  I think of it is a sunrise, a slow dawn, where details of the landscape are still being discerned.  Over time, I think, it will become clearer as the ecology which supports syllabic haiku emerges.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Eastern Structures -- A Review

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.

Eastern Structures
Editor: R. W. Watkins
Available at Amazon
ISBN: 9781530638406

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Free Verse Mind -- Part 6

Free Verse Mind – Part 6


Some time ago I posted a few times on the topic ‘Free Verse Mind’.  I’ve wanted to post further on this topic, but have been stopped by the complexity of what I’m writing about.  There are many factors; sociological, political, esthetic.  And it is difficult for me to sort them out into something that is coherent.  At this point I want to make some observations that may or may not be completely coherent in the sense of a well thought out position.


Several years ago I read Beautiful and Pointless by David Orr.  I enjoyed the book.  There was one comment Orr made in particular that stuck with me.  Orr observes that nothing gets modern poets more agitated than discussions about form.  As someone who is keenly interested in poetic form this observation resonated with my own experience.  It’s almost like there is some kind of aversion in the wider poetic community to the subject of form.  Free verse poets are dismissive, reluctant, or openly hostile to entering into these kinds of discussions.  Like Orr, I remain puzzled by this kind of reaction.


I was once at a poetry reading where one of the poets read a poem and then concluded the reading of the poem by saying, ‘That’s a modern sonnet.’  I went over the poem in my mind and my sense of the poem was that it didn’t scan, didn’t rhyme, and I suspected it was not in fourteen lines, and it did not have any turn.  At the conclusion of the reading I went up to a table where the poets were displaying their poetry books.  I found the book with the ‘modern sonnet’.  I was right: the poem that the poet called a ‘modern sonnet’ had zero indicators, or markers, of the sonnet form.  I was baffled.  Why would she call it a sonnet?  Why would she want to?


Christian Wiman made a similar point in his review of The Penguin Book of the Sonnet.  Wiman writes, “What is a sonnet?  Careful, because if this anthology is a reliable guide, your definition needs to include some poems that have neither meter nor rhyme and aren’t fourteen lines long.  The editor, Phillis Levin, states that her own working definition was that a poem ‘act like a sonnet,’ which must have meant that it lay quietly on the page when notified of its inclusion, because there are some contemporary poems here that have in common only ink and English.”


Part of the problem, I think, which I have teased out in conversations and from my reading, is that if someone, like myself, or like Wiman, says that a poem that is called a sonnet is not a sonnet (or some other form), that means that we are saying that the poem is a bad poem.  But the issue of form and esthetic value are separable.  I could like a poem and still argue that it is not, in fact, a sonnet even if the poet calls it a sonnet.  It is my observation that these two evaluations are often confused.


Recently I read a collection by a poet who has achieved a significant following.  In his collection there are two sections of ghazals.  None of the ghazals follow the traditional formal constraints of the form.  There is no refrain.  There is no metric unity (either with meter or syllabics).  The only carryover from the traditional ghazal is that the poems are written in couplets.  The poet does not use either end rhyme, or the rhyme before the refrain which are standard markers of the form.  Now and then the poet will take advantage of rhyme; but their appearance is haphazard rather than structural.

Is writing a series of couplets enough to make these poems ghazals?  I don’t think so.  Again, my remark is not about if these poems are good or bad, pleasing or distasteful, insightful or trivial.  My question is simply, why would he want to call these poems ghazals when almost all the markers of the form are absent?


It’s kind of like ‘bait and switch’.  For those of you who might not know, bait and switch is a retail technique designed to get customers into the store.  The store will advertise that an item is on sale for an incredibly good price.  But they will only have a few of those in stock.  Or, in really unscrupulous situations, they may not have any in stock at all.  When customers come in the salesperson apologizes, informing them that the item has sold out, and then steers the customer to some other item.  The sale item was the ‘bait’; the item the customer is steered to is the ‘switch’.  The ‘switch’ is more expensive and usually at a higher markup than the bait.

I once worked at such a retail store.  Every Thursday they would advertise in local papers items on sale for the weekend.  At best our store would get six to ten of the items.  I didn’t realize when I first started that this was systematic and intentional.  I just found it embarrassing.  When I figured out what was going on I found another job.

When modern free verse poets take a formal designation for their poem and then don’t follow through on it, this has many of the features of the retail bait and switch operation.  To call a poem a ‘sonnet’ is to set up expectations in the reader.  The poet, in fact, may get people to buy their books based on the idea that there are sonnets included.  So when the reader goes to the sonnet in the happy expectation that they will read a poem following the formal parameters that they know, and then they discover that not a single one of those parameters is met, it feels to the reader like they have been suckered.  I think they are right. 


There is another element to consider here: cultural appropriation.  This happens when modern free verse, which is a western cultural phenomenon, takes a form from another culture and then eviscerates it of all its distinguishing features.  It is then transformed into simply another free verse poem, indistinguishable from western free verse in general.  But the name of the form is retained.  It’s like serving macaroni and cheese and calling it some special Korean dish, like Bi Bim Bop, and then, if criticized, responding that rice is a carbohydrate and noodles are carbohydrates so what’s the problem?

I became aware of this kind of cultural appropriation from reading the poetry and essays of Agha Shahid Ali; the poet who did more than anyone else to bring the ghazal to the contemporary English speaking world.  In Ali’s collection Ravishing DisUnities he writes,

For a seemingly conservative, but to me increasingly a radical, reason – form for form’s sake – I turned politically correct some years ago and forced myself to take back the gift outright: Those claiming to write ghazals in English (usually American poets) had got it quite wrong, far from the letter and farther from the spirit. . . .

. . . I found it tantalizing to strike a playful pose of Third-World arrogance, laced with a Muslim snobbery . . . For a free-verse ghazal is a contradiction in terms.  As perhaps a free-verse sonnet, arguably, is not?

(Ravishing DisUnities, pages 2 and 3.)

For Ali, who moved to America from Kashmir, the idea of a free verse ghazal essentially ignores the nature of a ghazal.  That is to say that it is the very nature of a ghazal to be formal verse.  If it is not formal verse, it is not a ghazal; it may have borrowed elements from the ghazal, but it cannot be called a ghazal in good faith.  And to call a free verse poem a ghazal is an act of cultural appropriation or colonization.

Interestingly, Ali does not see the same necessarily applying to the sonnet.  Here I think Ali may, in fact, be blinded by what he refers to as his own ‘Muslim snobbery’.  My guess is that Ali was not as acquainted with the history and place that the sonnet holds in English language poetry, and how closely that place resembles the place that the ghazal holds in the Urdu and Farsi speaking worlds.


What I have found puzzling about free verse appropriations of forms is trying to unpack why there is this tendency to appropriate a name, and implicitly a tradition.  At times I have suspected bad faith; I mean wanting to stand on a venerable tradition without actually being qualified to do so.  But I know from discussions with free verse poets who engage in this kind of appropriation that they do not see themselves as doing this and would, I think, be angry at the idea that they are engaged in such appropriation.  Is this simply a blind spot on their part?  I’m not sure.


I have said before, in previous posts, that free verse poets are ‘form deaf’.  This deafness resembles a musician not comprehending the difference between different time signatures.  Such a musician would be inclined to play a waltz which lacked any distinguishing rhythmic features and would not be able to see anything wrong with that.  In a similar way, because free verse poets are form deaf they are unable to feel the distinguishing rhythm of a particular form and therefore feel no constraints at doing away with that feature; because they literally lack the ability to sense that feature.  This lack resembles colorblindness.  Just as a colorblind person lacks the capacity to perceive certain features in the world, so also the free verse poets seems to lack the capacity to perceive the rhythmic shape which makes a formal verse distinguishable from a free verse poem.

I don’t know if this is a physiological deficit, like colorblindness; I suspect that it isn’t.  But here’s the thing: if a poet does not exercise this capacity for hearing form, then that capacity will atrophy.  This is true of many of our capacities which explains why many people exercise regularly. 

And I think this partially answers Orr’s inquiry as to why poets today become so agitated regarding the subject of form: because they sense that they have lost the capacity for hearing form and this is, at some level, embarrassing.


The end result of this rejection of all distinguishing features of a form is that all the poems in that form, but lacking the formal distinctives of that form, look simply like standard free verse poetry.  They are, in fact, indistinguishable from ordinary free verse.  A free verse ‘ghazal’ simply looks like, and reads like, an ordinary free verse poem.  The same is true of free verse haiku, or free verse sonnets.  They all become assimilated into the free verse collective understanding of how modern poetry should be written.  All distinctions as to type vanish and we are left with an undifferentiated fog of featureless pseudo-forms.  This procedure resembles that of the Borg Collective, from the Star Trek Next Generation series.  The Borg would search out sentient life forms and then assimilate them into the Borg Collective (symbolized by a spaceworthy gigantic high-tech cube).  If a life form tried to resist they would be overwhelmed by the superior technology of the Borg and forced to become a part of the collective.  The Borg would announce, ‘Resistance is futile.  You will be assimilated.’  And then the Borg would proceed to do just that.

In a similar way, free verse has combed the poetry of the world, finding forms here and there, and then absorbing them into the Free Verse Collective understanding.  Free verse has done this by ejecting all the distinguishable features of particular forms (like metrics or syllabics, rhyme, and other formal markers) and then forcing the form into the standard parameters of modernist free verse.  And they have been very successful in doing this.  Free verse haiku, free verse tanka, free verse ghazal, free verse sonnets; they all more closely resemble each other and standard free verse than they do the forms that they would like to think they are connected to.  In this way they are assimilated into the Free Verse Collective.


Using language like ‘The Free Verse Collective’, and comparing them to the Borg, is, admittedly, hyperbolic.  I don’t believe there is an actual free verse collective engaging in the practice of cultural appropriation and imposing its will on any and all cultures of formal verse that dare to resist.  I hope that is clear; but in case it isn’t, and in our overly literal time people have difficulty spotting this kind of thing, I so clearly state. 

Rather, I am describing a frame of mind that simply sees its way of doing things as naturally superior and therefore cannot see any negative consequences in the kind of cultural assimilation described.  No doubt the Borg considered themselves superior as well and, if they gave it a thought, would think that their absorbing peoples into their collective to be uplifting them.

I once gave a reading of my poetry, focusing on my collection of quatrains, Hiking the Quatrain Range.  I was reading from my quatrains that mimic the formal parameters of the Chinese quatrain tradition: that is to say I used five or seven count lines with a traditional rhyme scheme of A-B-C-B.  I read excerpts from several sequences.  Then I paused for questions and comments.

A woman in the audience, a free verse poet I slightly know, asked why I used so much rhyme.  I responded by saying that rhyme was an essential feature of traditional Chinese poetry and my goal was to mimic as closely as possible the parameters of the Chinese form.  She didn’t understand what I was saying.  The conversation continued politely, but for the most part we were talking past each other.

The difficulty was that she could not understand why I would want to impose constraints upon my poetry, why not just write a free verse line?  This is what I mean by being deaf to form.  For the most part, free verse poets lack the capacity to perceive the beauty that underlies a particular instance of formal verse; to perceive the form beneath the manifestation. 

But I don’t think the situation regarding formal verse is hopeless.  To see what is going on with formal verse at this time you have to pull your gaze away from what I call ‘official poetry’; those organizations and journals and MFA programs that are representatives of elitist culture.  When you do lift your gaze you find a remarkable outpouring of formal verse scattered here and there.  There is Cowboy Poetry, the emergence of a huge variety of new forms, small groups dedicated to particular forms found here and there, the lyrics of popular song, and dedicated individuals who persist in composing in forms which the elites have either rejected or absorbed into the free verse Borg.  When I look at this wide variety of emerging poetry I think of it as a ‘yearning for form’ which the elite poetry institutions no longer satisfy.  Form provides us with a deeper dimension of the poetic experience, a dimension that has been lost among the elites, but which ordinary people find appealing and beautiful.  The beautiful is, by definition, attractive.  And it is by turning to beauty that form is found.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

On Publishing

On Publishing

At the store where I work, a spiritual book and tea shop, we host events every Thursday.  A few weeks ago we hosted a poetry reading with two Native American poets; Kim Shuck and Duane Big Eagle.  It was an inspiring evening of poetry.

In talking with Duane Big Eagle both before and after the reading he informed me that he does not publish his poetry.  I know that some of his poetry has been anthologized, and he seems willing to let that happen.  But he has not made any effort to have a collection of his poetry published even though he is fairly well known in California and his poetry is admired.

I have run into this before.  It isn’t common, but I have seen it with a few poets; this reluctance to publish.  The quintessential example is Emily Dickinson.  Bill Albert is another example that I discovered recently.  He died in the late 80’s and his haiku were published by friends who gathered his haiku into book form.  Albert himself never made any effort to publish his haiku either in book form or by submitting them to haiku journals.  The Chinese poet Han Shan (Cold Mountain) is another example; his poems were gathered together by others and published after Han Shan died.  If you look for poets who were reluctant to publish you can find them here and there.

Talking to Duane Big Eagle gave me an occasion to think about my own mixed history with publication.  Early in my writing of renga I submitted some of my solo renga for publication.  Some were accepted by various haiku magazines.  Some were rejected, but the rejections were always very helpful and detailed.  I still have some annotations by Robert Speis on two renga I submitted to him; he rejected them but took a lot of time writing marginal notes which I read and learned from.  I also, in the early 80’s, submitted some haiku that were published.  And I was anthologized in a few books of haiku and renga.  And finally, when I began writing tanka I submitted some to a few journals and they were published (Denis Garrison was particularly encouraging.)

Then I began to pull away from submitting and pretty much stopped doing so altogether.  I don’t recall making a conscious decision in this regard.  The shift in attitude seems to have simply happened on its own, and I went with it.

Partly, I think, the pull away from submitting my poetry had to do with my own changing esthetic.  As I moved away from a free verse approach to haiku and renga I found the syllabic approach more and more rewarding.  But at the same time I had the realization that I was heading in a direction not shared by the journals and organizations noted for publishing this kind of poetry.  I began to see publication in them as, in a sense, entering alien territory.  That’s an exaggeration, of course, but I began to feel a sense of distance and estrangement from haiku and tanka publications and organizations.

I began to notice what the effect is of having a syllabic haiku published in a haiku journal dedicated to a free verse interpretation of haiku.  The effect is that the syllabic haiku simply looks like a free verse poem.  This is because the relationship to the other haiku does not mark it as distinctive.  Thus free verse haiku has a corrosive effect on syllabics; though free verse haijin won’t see it that way.

To see what I am getting at, if you take a collection of syllabic verse that all share the same form, say the published volumes of the cinquain journal ‘Amaze’, as you move from poem to poem they all share the same form.  This is true even when there are variations on the form.  And the reader picks up an underlying shared sense of rhythm and shape that all of the cinquain share.  There is a relationship between the poems that is deeper than their surface depictions; a communal commitment to a particular pulse.  You can find this in sonnet anthologies as well.

This deeper dimension is lost in modern haiku anthologies because the communal commitment to a shared syllabic shape is not present.  So even if the anthology, or journal, agrees to publish a few syllabic haiku, the effect of a communal sharing of, and commitment to, a deeper, underlying pulse and rhythm, is lost.  If you read a haiku collection by Edith Shiffert, to pick just one example, the shared pulse acts as a stream like current carrying you from haiku to haiku.  But if you take a single haiku from her collection, and then place it in an anthology of free verse haiku, that current that carries the reader from haiku to haiku is simply not there.  I began to feel the absence of this pulse, this current, as a loss of meaning.

These thoughts are in hindsight.  At the time I just felt less and less at home in the free verse haiku and tanka journals.  Tanka journals in particular struck me as simply collections of free verse poetry with no discernible connection to the actual history of tanka as formal verse.  This has developed into a feeling that syllabic haiku (and other syllabic forms that free verse poets have taken a liking to) needs its own space and journals; because when a syllabic haiku is placed in a collection of other syllabic haiku the relationship between the haiku, the shared shape/pulse/rhythm emerges with clarity.  And the fact that this sharing is a communal commitment, and not just an accident (which is what it seems like in a free verse haiku context), and the centrality of that communal commitment, becomes clear.  The result is that the reader senses that the form itself is meaningful, which is not clear when a syllabic haiku is surrounded by free verse haiku.

There is another aspect about poetry journals that makes some poets reluctant to participate; and that is that they are ephemeral.  And most of them have a very tiny readership.  And this readership is often scattered geographically so that you don’t really get a sense of community from their presence in the pages of a journal.  For some, it is unsatisfying.  I even wrote a sonnet about exactly that feeling.

Eventually, I would access print-on-demand technology, and this made it possible for me to publish my work in a way that I find satisfying.  I think this is true for many poets today.  The gate to publication is no longer controlled by those who have a particular esthetic commitment; in the case of haiku, publication is no longer controlled by official haiku organizations that have an esthetic commitment to a free verse interpretation.  This kind of access has tipped the balance away from such organizations and allowed poets to put forward their poetry even if that poetry is based on an understanding out of sync with the official gatekeepers.  I think that is a very good thing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Kokinshu Day for 2016

The Kokinshu is the first Imperial collection of waka poetry from Japan.  It was edited about 905 and contains 1111 poems, almost all of them in the waka form; what today we refer to as tanka.  This form has a long history in Japan.  The form is remarkably stable consisting of five lines, or 'ku', in the following pattern: 5-7-5-7-7 syllables.  The stability of the form has lasted for about 1400 years and continues to be a central mode of poetic expression in Japan.

I have set aside a day to pay homage to the Kokinshu, also known as the Waka Kokinshu, primarily because there are two translations into English that replicate the syllabic structure of the original.  The two translations are:

Kokin Wakashu, transalted by Helen McCullough, and
Kokinshu, translated by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius.

Both of them are excellent.  And both of them, remarkably, retain the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure in their translations into English.  What this means for those of us interested in English syllabic verse is that we have two anthologies of syllabic verse, written by competent scholars, excellent translators, who were sensitive to the significance that all of these poems share a common form.  In an era when many free verse poets are form deaf, this is a significant accomplishment.

My feeling is that both of these translations can serve as manuals for how to construct effective syllabic verse, and tanka in particular, in English.  And that is the primary reason I have set aside a day to celebrate this anthology.  

I slightly prefer the McCullough translation.  But price is an obstacle.  At almost $100 the McCullough version is beyond the reach of many.  In contrast, the Rodd translation is priced reasonably; so if price matters (and it almost always does), go with the Rodd translation.

Just to give an idea of the difference between the two, here is tanka 210 from both translations:

Now they call again
above the mists of autumn --
those flocks of wild geese
who took their leave of us
merging into springtime haze.

(McCullough, page 54)

the voices of the
wild geese that were swallowed up
by the mists of spring
have returned   to penetrate
the autumn haze and sound again

(Rodd, page 108)

My feeling is that McCullough has a surer grasp of lineation.  Notice how in the Rodd translation line 1 to line 2 is a runon; ending line 1 with 'the' undermines the basic syllabic shape.  Rodd tends to use this kind of enjambment and it is the main reason why I consider her translation not quite as efficacious as the McCullough translation.  I don't want to exaggerate; the Rodd translation is really fine and well worth reading.  On the other hand, the syllabic shape is more clearly delineated in the McCullough translation.  It's too bad about the price of the McCullough version.  My hope is that Stanford University Press will issue this translation in paperback and make it more accessible to a wider audience.

So take a moment today to look at the Kokinshu in English and, if you feel inspired, you might want to compose a syllabic tanka of your own.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Etheree Day for 2016

Today is set aside to celebrate the Etheree syllabic form.  I have a great fondness for this form: its simplicity, its flexibility, and the way it starts slow and then blossoms into fullness are attributes that offer a poet many opportunities.  A number of my books use the form:

'Poems of Place' contain a series of 'Tea Etheree', most of which begin with the word 'tea'.

'Safe Harbor' contains an Etheree series I call 'Cathedrals'.

'Even in Winter' has Etheree poems scattered through the collection.

The Etheree is a form I have explored extensively and continue to do so.  It seems to have endless possibilities.  Here is one I wrote recently:

From a Hermit's Perspective

Quince blossoms
From dusk to dusk
Boulder in a stream
Butterfly migrations
The rise and fall of nations
Enacting my daily routines
The waking world, the world of dreams,
The desert hermits from long ago
Seasons of summer, seasons of snow,
Stability as the stars ebb and flow

Friday, January 22, 2016

Syllabic Tanka Day for 2016


Today is January 22nd.  I bet you didn't know that this is Syllabic Tanka Day!  Hooray.  It seems fitting that now that I'm plunging into Genji Monogatari, which has hundreds of tanka/waka scattered through the book, that I take a moment to celebrate this form which has been so rewarding for so many poets and readers down through the centuries.  In the anglosphere tanka has not yet taken root; instead what you have are people writing free verse poems (usually five lines) and then labeling them tanka for no clear reason.  That's OK; it's what is happening.  But for those of us who want to really engage with traditional Japanese tanka the syllabic count is essential.  Thankfully a small number of poets are slowly learning the syllabic shape and using it skillfully in English.

Here is a tank from my collection 'Tanka River', a landscape:

The hours before dawn,
Before the sun has risen,
Before the stars fade,
Before the world rushes in,
The hours of the morning calm

And here is one from a sequence on love:

By the ocean's edge
I wait patiently for more
Memories of you,
Riding the incoming waves
Or the last rays of the sun

And here is a tanka from one of the first tanka collections in English, 'Wind Five Folded', edited by Jane Reichhold:

Walking east, I watch
The moon rise, huge, smokey orange,
Almost full, alone.
Walking home, I'm almost used
To you being gone again.

John Gribble, page 65

And another one from 'Wind Five Folded':

Ginkgos are boring
Until autumn golding and
Persimmons taste tart --
The vague words of your language
Often mean less than they seem

Mimi Walter Hinman, page 77

Slowly a cache of syllabic tanka is being written.  My feeling is that the less a poet has taken on the narrow esthetics of official haiku, the more accessible tanka becomes to a poet.  I see tanka as more closely related to the Psalms and to hymnody than to free verse haiku.  There is the same quiet contemplation, the same sense of steady rhythm meant for chanting or singing. 

But to find these tanka you have to look beyond official tanka organizations and magazines because most of them (all?) were started by people committed to free verse and completely allergic to syllabics.  They seem also to have absorbed the nihinjinron based mythos of the specialness of the Japanese language.  But, again, that's OK.  They get to do that.  And we get to connect with the Japanese tradition by counting on our fingers: 5-7-5-7-7.