Monday, March 2, 2015

Some Resources for the Cinquain

Some Resources for the Cinquain

2015 is the hundredth anniversary of the American Cinquain.  This is the first syllabic form created by a native English speaker.  It was created by the poet Adelaide Crapsey and first appeared in print in 1915 in a posthumously published collection of her poetry.  Since then the Cinquain has slowly spread and there are many poets who have spent time and energy on this form consisting of five lines with the syllable count of 2-4-6-8-2.

From 200 to 2007 there was a magazine devoted to the Cinquain.  It was called ‘Amaze’, which is the title of one of Adelaide’s Cinquain.  There were three people involved in ‘Amaze’.  Deborah Kolodji was a co-founder and editor of the Journal.  Lisa Cohen was another of the co-founders and a regular contributor.  Finally, Denis Garrison was a third co-founder and had the title ‘Editor Emeritus’.  Garrison contributed poems, articles, and reviews.  Garrison was a prolific editor for about a decade.  He also edited and published ‘Modern English Tanka’, a magazine that did a great deal to bring this form to the attention of many poets.

‘Amaze’ was a quarterly journal.  In its last two years, 2006 and 2007, it moved online, giving up the quarterly printed magazine.  At the end of the year Kolodji published all four issues in book format: Amaze: The Cinquain Journal 2006 Annual, and Amaze: The Cinquain Journal 2007 Annual.  Both of these are available from at a reasonable price.

For those who are interested in the Cinquain and how various poets have used the form I highly recommend these two publications.  The bulk of the material consists of Cinquain poems.  Most of the Cinquains are written in the standard form of 2-4-6-8-2.  But there are also variations on the form including Cinquain Sequences, reverse Cinquain (2-8-6-4-2), and other permutations. 

The two volumes contain a wealth of excellent Cinquain by numerous poets.  It is remarkable how consistently high the quality is. 

Both volumes also contain articles about the history of the Cinquain, its esthetic, the influence of Japanese forms on the development of the Cinquain, essays on the prosody of the Cinquain, and reviews of books and poets that are Cinquain centered.  This information is rewarding and adds depth to our understanding of this form.  

It would be a wonderful thing if the other years could also be turned into publications like the 2006 and 2007 Annuals.  I suspect, though, that such a project would be very time consuming.  Fortunately, the earlier issues of Amaze are archived online so that you can access them as well.  You can find them at:

If you have an interest in the Cinquain, in syllabic forms in English, or want to read some really excellent short form poetry, I recommend getting these two annuals.  Go to and search for the following:

Amaze: The Cinquain Journal 2006 Annual
ISSN: 1935-8849

Amaze: The Cinquain Journal 2007 Annual
ISSN: 1935-8849

Monday, February 23, 2015

A Ghazal for the Gardener

A Ghazal for the Gardener

A white rose in full bloom in the garden,
The full moon will rise soon in the garden.

A wizard sits down next to a lizard
While calmly casting runes in the garden.

A crush of tourists who are in a rush,
For others there’s no room in the garden.

A drunken loser, a longtime boozer,
Faintly whispers a tune in the garden.

Lost in the city, feeling self-pity,
She is feeling marooned in the garden.

I, Wordsmith Jim, wave a greeting to him
Who’s standing on a dune in the garden.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sears Tower

Sears Tower

Years ago I worked in the Sears Tower;
At that time the tallest building in the world,
At that time it wasn’t even finished,
Construction continued on the top floors
Where the city looked small and diminished
And distant parks looked like single flowers.

I do not remember any flowers
In the countless corridors of the Tower.
Flowers looked out of place and diminished
In the technologically sealed world
Consisting of elevators and floors,
Corridors and doors that never finished.

Though things look solid they are soon finished;
Petals that are falling from some flowers
Landing one by one on a wooden floor.
Things are like the Tarot’s Blasted Tower;
A change of perspective on our whole world,
From distant space it will look diminished.

Sometimes our lives seem small and diminished,
Like there’s nothing left, that all is finished;
But in unexplored regions of the world
There is beauty in some unseen flowers
And glacier-carved granite cliffs that tower
Above a forest on the valley floor.

Before there were walls, before roofs and floors,
Before our lives were timed and diminished,
Before there were words, before the Tower
Of Babel was completed and finished,
Spaciousness bloomed into countless flowers,
Into countless dreams and numberless worlds.

Is there anyone who comprehends the world?
The vastness of the cosmos leaves me floored.
The whole world is but a single flower
The source of which is never diminished,
Whose beauty never fades, is never finished
Like an eternal flame in a distant tower.

A crystal tower reflecting the whole world,
From the smallest flower to everything that’s finished –

We walk on floors of emptiness that cannot be diminished.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Shorter Haiku Journeys


I have just finished putting together and making available another collection of my haiku.  It is called Shorter Haiku Journeys and is now available at Amazon.  In a few weeks it should be available through Ingram Distribution, and thus through your local bookstore.

This is my third collection of published haiku.  Looking at the three I can see how my own approach has evolved.  My first collection is ‘pine and pond’, and appears in Poems of Place, along with some other collections of non-haiku poetry.  ‘pine and pond’ was written in the early 80’s.  At the time I was writing in the short count, free verse line that is the approach advocated by most haiku organizations in the U.S. (with the significant exception of Yuki Teiki).  I still enjoy reading this collection.  I like its crispness and the focus on a single location through the seasons gives it a rootedness which I think is a feature of the collection which still appeals.  This collection, incidentally, was self-published as a chapbook in the early 80’s and was the occasion for my friendship with Jane Reichhold.  Somehow Jane got hold of a copy and we discovered that we lived fairly near each other.  She wrote to me (no email at that time) and I visited shortly thereafter.  Jane has been a nourishing presence in my poetry ever since.

The second published collection is White Roses.  When I reread this collection I feel the strong influence of Richard Wright.  Many of the haiku are single-sentence type.  I wrote almost all of the haiku in this collection while I was living in the town of Sonoma; and many of the haiku are location specific.  The topics covered are more wide-ranging than what I would write about in the period when I wrote ‘pine and pond’.  In looking at it, though, I sense a certain unevenness in the output; some of the individual haiku I still like, but others feel somewhat derivative to me.  Not that they directly mimic another author’s haiku, but in tone and approach they are definitely under the shadow of other authors (besides Wright, the other prominent influence would be James Hackett).

With Shorter Haiku Journeys I feel there is a stronger individual voice and I have become less dependent on the approach of other authors.  I think there is a greater sense of confidence, particularly in the usage of poetic devices such as metaphor, simile, rhyme, etc.  I have completely gotten over the idea that these devices do not belong in haiku.  I notice also that the lineation is freer than in White Roses.  I think this is because I am more confident about the ‘haiku recipe’ and with this confidence comes a greater ease at changing the specifics of the ingredients.  The topics touched on are even more wide ranging than in White Roses and include, for example, political, religious, and social observations, along with the standard topic of the seasons. 

Shorter Haiku Journeys consists of fourteen haiku sequences.  The longest has 29 haiku, the shortest has only 2.  I call them Shorter Journeys because the sequences are shorter than those found in White Roses, where the number of haiku in a sequence is about 100.  Each haiku for Shorter Haiku Journeys was written on its own and can function as a stand-alone haiku.  But for publication purposes I have gathered them together in thematic sequences.  I think of haiku sequences as word collages.  My experience with renga has definitely influenced how I place the haiku in a sequence; I often had renga linking strategies in mind when putting the haiku sequences together. 

Putting together Shorter Haiku Journeys was fun.  And it gave me an occasion to look back on my own haiku output.  It’s good to see how I have changed over the years.  I suspect there will be more changes in the future.

Shorter Haiku Journeys
By Jim Wilson
91 Pages
ISBN: 9781507568255



Thursday, January 22, 2015

Syllabic Tanka Day for 2015: The Translations of Edwin A. Cranston

Syllabic Tanka Day for 2015

Tanka is one of the oldest continuously practiced syllabic forms in the world.  It has a written history of about 1400 years; but I suspect its origins go back into the mists of time.  In Japan it is the central poetic form out of which both renga and haiku have emerged.

Over all the centuries that tanka have been written the syllabic shape has remained the same: five lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7.  This generates a beautiful rhythm which always reminds me of paddling down a stream in a canoe. 

The transmission of tanka to the west has been rough; it has not generated nearly as much interest as haiku.  And interest in specifically syllabic tanka is even smaller.  There are a number of reasons for this; a general tilt among modern poets towards free verse, the lack of a strong poetic voice in ELT who takes a syllabic approach to act as an example for others, and the lack of any organizational support for a syllabic approach to ELT.  There are probably others as well.  Still, there are a small number of poets who have taken a syllabic, traditional, approach to ELT.  And there a number of resources that can assist those interested in a syllabic approach to ELT; primarily these are the superb translations of Japanese tanka into English which adhere to the syllabic shape of the original Japanese.

The translations of Edwin A. Cranston are unsurpassed in this regard.  Cranston has published two volumes containing tanka translations.  The first is A Waka Anthology Volume One: The Gem-Glistening Cup.  This volume contains translations of poems from the earliest sources through the Manyoshu and a little bit beyond.  By far the largest section is devoted to the Manyoshu.  This is a very rich anthology.  I took a full year to read it.  The translations are preceded by the translator’s discussion of the sources.  And individual poets are preceded by remarks about their overall output.  And individual poems are preceded by notes that illuminate references and allusions.  It might seem that all this material from the translator would be burdensome.  Remarkably, it is not.  The notes are informative and are not overburdened with technical terms.  They have a tone that resembles having a learned Uncle by your side, assisting you as you go through the material. 

Volume Two is called A Waka Anthology: Volume Two: Grasses of Remembrance.  This volume is divided into two sections, which are published as separate books; Part A and Part B.  Part A contains translations from the court commissioned anthologies of waka (aka tanka) which have exerted such a huge influence on Japanese poetry.  The translations contain selections from a number of these including Kokinshu, Gosenshu, and Goshuishu.

Part B contains translations of all the waka found in The Tale of GenjiGenji contains 795 waka.  The commentary places the waka into the context of the story.  This is a treasure chest of waka verse.

Cranston takes a basically syllabic approach to his translations.  Cranston allows himself more freedom regarding lineation than Helen McCullough did in her translation of the complete Kokinwakashu (I believe Cranston studied with McCullough).  But the syllabic count of the original has a central place in Cranston’s approach.  Here is an example from Part B:

Dweller by the bay,
To those sleeves that draw the brine
Try comparing this:
A night garment sealed away
From the reach of the road of waves.

(Page 761)

The count is 5-7-5-7-8; a close rendering of the original syllabic shape.  One observation; I have noticed that often when Cranston translates his line count will be a few counts longer than the traditional rather than shorter.  This is important information because it runs counter to the minimalist views held by those who have adopted the nihonjinron view of the Japanese language.  In general, I have observed that translators of Japanese poetry, particularly traditional waka/tanka, into English do not fall into minimalism.

For those who are attracted to the traditional syllabic approach to tanka, I recommended these volumes.  They will help you, guide you, and offer you exemplars.  Structurally they offer many examples of tanka in various configurations; such as the single sentence, the two part type, several sentences, and juxtaposition.  They also show the lushness of the tanka tradition and its commitment to the full range of human emotions.

The one drawback is the price: these are expensive volumes.  If they are beyond your budget, and for many they will be, particularly the second volume, you might want to see if you can borrow them from a library using interlibrary loan.  They are published by Stanford University Press which has an execrable track record for making material like this available to a larger audience.  It appears, like many University Presses, that they are not really interested in granting access to this material by those who might reside outside the University.  That’s too bad.  It is my hope that at some point in the future Stanford will make these specific volumes, and other related volumes, available at a more reasonable price.

Still, I have seen used copies every now and then at Amazon offered at a reasonable price; so if you have an interest you might want to tag them and grab a reasonably priced copy when it appears.  Act fast; I have seen them come and go very quickly.

Overall, I am optimistic about syllabic tanka, meaning traditional tanka, eventually taking root as ELT.  It is a slow process, but it strikes me that the translations have given ELT a rich trove of syllabic tanka upon which ELT can be nourished.

A Waka Anthology: Volume 1
The Gem-Glistening Cup
Translated with a Commentary and Notes by
Edwin A. Cranston

ISBN: 9780804731577

A Waka Anthology: Volume 2
Grasses of Remembrance
(Part A and Part B sold together)
Translated with a Commentary and Notes by
Edwin A. Cranston

ISBN: 9780804748254

Monday, January 19, 2015

Love of Words

Love of Words

Over the years I have developed friendships with a few potters.  One thing I have noticed about them is how much they love clay.  They love to get their hands on the clay as it is spinning on the wheel.  There is a look of concentration and happiness, their faces light up, as they turn an amorphous lump into a cup or vase. 

I know some gardeners who have the same relationship to their gardens.  These friends who are gardeners are only really happy when working in the soil, planting, weeding, cultivating. 

I see poets as having a similar relationship to words.  Poets take the amorphous cacophony of words and shape those words into significant forms.  Poets are lovers of words. 

Philosophers also love words; but I think there is a difference.  For philosophers the focus is on meaning; and by meaning I mean definition.  Philosophers analyze meanings of words, linking them to other words on the basis of their conceptual content, distinguishing them from other words based on analysis and logical criteria.

The focus of the poet differs.  For the poet the sensual surface of words is central.  It is not that meaning is ignored, but other factors come to the foreground for the poet.  For example, poets will link words by rhyme, assonance, alliteration, metaphor and simile, and other sensual similarities.  The philosopher, in contrast, does not consider these kinds of connections.

I recently discovered Wilfred Owen, the W.W. I British poet.  I find his poetry remarkable.  He developed a type of rhyme, which some refer to as ‘pararhyme’.  In this type of rhyme Owen links endwords for the lines of his poems such as moan/mourn, years/yours, wild/world, hair/hour/here, etc.  These examples are taken from his poem ‘Strange Meeting’.  The idea is the consonants remain the same while the vowel shifts.  The effect is remarkable and alluring to the ear.  I see this as an example of what I refer to as ‘love of words’ and a focus on the sensual surface of words.  This kind of linking, or weaving, of words, this shaping of words in accordance with their sonic surface, is what attracts poets and what we find attractive when we read a poem.  I have the same feeling when I read Emily Dickinson and notice how she will link certain words together based on subtle sonic similarities.

For the poet words are attractive as objects in the way that flowers are attractive as objects.  The botanist will classify flowering plants according to physiological distinctions.  But the gardener does not need to know these distinctions; the focus of the gardener is on their display, the sensual surface that the gardening will result in.

In a similar way poets focus on the sensual surface of words to create what we might think of as a garden of words where each word is a blossom in the garden.  This is what makes poetry attractive to people.

By ‘sensual surface’ I don’t mean ‘shallow’.  The sensual surface of a garden, the sensual surface of a poem, instantiates and offers to us beauty.  It is the same kind of beauty that I observe in a sunset or in a landscape.  The sensual surface of a poem functions as a kind of luminous gate to the realm of beauty.

Beauty is difficult to define and I won’t try to do so here.  When we are in the presence of the beautiful we feel uplifted and this feeling of exaltation, which may be mild or intense, is unmistakable.  This feeling makes poetry worthwhile and attractive across the centuries, across cultures.

In Ennead 1.6, which is devoted to a discussion of beauty, Plotinus writes,

Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for the hearing too, as in certain combinations of words and in all kinds of music, for melodies and cadences are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above the realm of sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in the conduct of life, in actions, in character, in the pursuits of the intellect; and there is the beauty of the virtues.

(Plotinus: The Enneads, Stephen MacKenna translation, Larson publications, 1992, page 64.)

For Plotinus beauty exists in the world as an emanation of the One; that ultimate reality that transcends being and out of which all things come, upon which all things depend.  Beauty is the immaterial making itself known in the material.  Beauty is the sign (like an oracular pronouncement) that there is more to existence than the fleeting and ephemeral.  As Plotinus says,

We hold that all the loveliness of this world comes by communion in Ideal-Form.

          (Ibid, page 65.)

One way of looking at this is that from a strictly logical point of view, beauty is not necessary in the material world.  I mean to say that there is a logically possible world in which beauty does not exist, yet all the parts of the world would still follow the laws of material existence.  In a sense, beauty is an add-on to the world.  I don’t mean this literally; rather I am offering this as a thought experiment.  The idea here is that beauty comes to us from another, non-material, dimension.

In this way the sensual surface of a poem is linked to the ultimate; what Plotinus will refer to as the Good, the Beautiful, and the One.  Plotinus will say that this ultimate reality is, in itself, ineffable; that is to say it is beyond any names and beyond any forms.  This is because the ultimate is partless.  Words function as names for parts and will, therefore, always be somewhat off the mark. 

From the perspective of the emmanationism of Plotinus, some words are closer to the ultimate than others.  We can say that the Good, the One, and the Beautiful are ‘next to’ the ultimate; though they are not the ultimate itself, they occupy a position that is near the ultimate.  As long as we comprehend that they are not the ultimate itself, but are next to it, such usage does not generate difficulties.

The beauty of a poem speaks to us of the ultimate beauty of the One because the beauty of a poem depends upon and participates in the beauty that the One is.  And if we follow beauty to its source, we find ourselves in the presence of the Divine.  I believe that this is why poets in the past had a kind of exalted status; because the shaping of words into patterns of beauty can open the gate to this eternal presence.  Such beauty assists us in realizing that there exists a dimension to our existence that we have forgotten about.  Distracted by the concerns of the day, the need to earn a living, the demands of other people, the anxieties we have, both personal and social, we forget about the source and the presence of this dimension.  Beauty reminds us that this dimension is still there.  Beauty beckons us to enter into this dimension.

“. . . The Good, which lies beyond, is the Fountain at once and Principle of Beauty: the Primal Good and the Primal Beauty have the one dwelling-place and, thus, always, Beauty’s seat is There.”

          (Ibid, page 72.)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Country Sestina

Country Sestina

I can see you are about to leave me,
I see in your eyes there are other skies,
Already traces of all those faces
That we used to share are becoming rare,
I’ve begun to fade to something you’d trade,
Things we used to say are just yesterdays.

Isn’t that the way?  Night will follow day.
Seaside memories of just you and me,
A painting I made I’ll now sell or trade,
Though sometimes my eyes see you in the sky
I no longer care that these visions are rare
And that special place no longer holds your face.

At first I would pace, thinking of your face,
Through the month of May, through those empty days,
I no longer care, pacing now is rare,
There’s always T.V. to keep me from me
(I have become shy of the nighttime sky)
E-commerce was made for hours-soaking trade.

Some feelings don’t fade, some things we can’t trade,
We can’t replace a particular face,
There’s no reason why I recall that sky,
Or that I replay what were better days,
Or that old oak tree where you spoke to me,
That is where I dared to think this was rare.

The seasons declare moments that are rare,
Something made from clay that we will not trade,
An afternoon free just for you and me,
The pleasing trace left by a smiling face,
In the sunlight rays autumn leaves and days,
From a mountain high the endless blue sky.

So now I will try to dwell in the sky,
I’ll leave my despair for spaciousness that’s rare,
Through a veil of haze I’ll forget these days,
A long past parade I’ll easily trade;
Dreams without a trace, a forgotten face,
Lost in a vast sea, memories and me.

The thought of me disappears in the sky,
A faceless ev’rywhere like a rare sigh,
A trade for those days at the end of why.