Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Adelaide Crapsey Day -- 100 Years

Today is the 100th anniversary of the death of Adelaide Crapsey.  She passed away on October 8, 1914.  Crapsey is the poet who created that sparkling form, the Cinquain.  The Cinquain has become a widely taught and practiced syllabic form in the English language.  To celebrate this anniversary I am posting a piece I wrote for a local online community forum.  This forum contains an active poetry section and I have, at times, posted poems there, as well as contributing to discussions.  The post is an overall appreciation of syllabic forms in English poetry; Crapsey is highlighted as having a significance in the slow dissemination of that approach among English language poets.  

Syllabics: An Appreciation

The 20th century saw many experiments in the world of English language poetry.  Free verse took off, while at the same time the traditional, metric, approach to poetry continued among a large number of poets and especially song-writers.  Another, much smaller, approach to English language poetry also emerged in the 20th century: the use of a syllabic approach and the emergence of short syllabic forms.

Traditional English poetry is metric, counting the stresses of a line.  This is the approach used by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Browning, Millay, Frost, countless poets and songwriters down through the centuries.  The free verse approach does not use counting as a method for constructing a line: I see the ‘free’ of ‘free verse’ as referring to ‘free from counting’. 

The syllabic approach ignores stress and poetic feet.  Instead, the syllabic approach counts only the syllables of a line.  The difference can feel subtle, but there is a qualitative difference in the two approaches which the ear can hear.  The syllabic approach is the standard poetic practice in a number of cultures such as France, Japan, China, and Wales.  But it is new for English language poetry.  I think of the syllabic approach as dating to the early 20th century.  In particular, I think Adelaide Crapsey played a significant role in its emergence because she was the first poet to create a form, the Cinquain, which relied on counting syllables.  Crapsey’s Cinquain is shaped by counting the syllables of each line: 2-4-6-8-2, for a total of 22 syllables.  It is interesting to observe the development of the form in Crapsey’s own thought.  It appears that at first she thought of the Cinquain as a metric form with the lines defined as 1 beat, 2 beats, 3 beats, 4 beats, and one beat.  But she soon shifted to a syllabic presentation and today it is taught as a syllabic form.  For this reason I think of Crapsey as marking a transition to a possible syllabic approach to English language verse.  If I had to choose a date for syllabics entering English language poetry I would choose 1915, the date her small collection of poetry was posthumously published which included a significant number of Cinqauin.  That makes syllabics in English just 100 years old.

Also influential in the emergence of a syllabic approach was the adoption of haiku as a form for English language poets.  In the transmission of haiku from Japan to the U.S. different schemes were used to map the haiku form onto the English language.  For this reason you will find different approaches used by different haiku poets and organizations.  One group chose to map the Japanese count of 5-7-5 onto the English syllable so that to construct an English haiku you have three lines of 5-7-5 syllables.  This is the approach used by Richard Wright, Mary Joe Salter, Haydn Carruth, James Hackett, Edith Shiffert, Richard Wilbur and many others; it is the approach also used by what I call ‘popular haiku’.  The widespread absorption of a 5-7-5 form has done a great deal to implant the legitimacy of a syllabic approach to English language poetry.

Elizabeth Daryush (who, in my opinion, is unjustly neglected these days) also took a syllabic approach to English language poetry.  She was influenced by her father, Robert Bridges, an English poet laureate who preferred syllabic construction, and by Persian poetry, especially Hafez.  Daryush was the first to apply syllabics to traditional English forms such as the sonnet.

Today a syllabic approach to poetry still remains a small, but growing, approach to English language verse.  In the late 20th century a number of poets created syllabic forms that have developed followings.  These include the Fibonacci, based on the mathematical Fibonacci Sequence; the Tetractys, a five line form of 1-2-3-4-10; the Lanterne, another five-line form of 1-2-3-4-1; the Rictameter, a nine-line form of 2-4-6-8-10-8-6-4-2; and many others.  I really enjoy watching how these forms are being presented and picked up by others.  Online poetry forums have facilitated the presentation and spread of these forms.  Some of these forms are ephemeral; but some have developed significant followings.  A few, like the Fibonacci and the Syllabic Haiku, have their own journals and forums.

I have become fond of these forms.  I think what I like about these forms is that it brings out a craft approach to poetry.  The basic idea is that you shape words to a pre-existing template, which in the case of syllabic poetry is the syllable and line count of the form.  I think it resembles a potter making a cup.  All cups have a similar form, a shape that allows them to hold liquid.  But within that common shape infinite variation is possible.  Similarly, all Cinquain share a common syllabic shape, but within that shape infinite variation is possible.

I also like the sense of being part of a poetic community; that is to say when I compose in a syllabic form I feel that I am connecting with others who have written in the same form.  I like that sense of connection

I think of a syllabic approach to English language poetry as a ‘third way’; I mean that it is neither free verse nor metrical verse.  Because syllabic poetry does not count stresses it is non-traditional.  The result is that syllabic poetry often has a more conversational quality to it than traditional verse.  Because syllabic poetry is shaped by counting, it differs from free verse.  Syllabic poetry in English is ‘formal’, but it is non-traditional in its approach to form: hence I think of syllabics as a ‘third way’.

Personally, I started out writing free verse.  But I’m the kind of person who needs a formal structure in order to maintain focus.  I find that when I write free verse my poetry tends to wander and quickly become obscure.  This isn’t true for everyone, but it is an aspect of my own personality.  An imposed frame helps me in being more articulate and communicative.  For this reason I have, over the years, become more and more immersed in the syllabic forms that have so recently emerged in English language poetry.  I find that each form has its own tone, or ‘meaning’ (‘meaning’ isn’t exactly the right word, but it is in that direction).  The form itself embodies a certain feeling.  The Cinquain, for example, with its closing 2-syllable line, has a strong sense of closure and cadence.  In contrast, the Fibonacci (with a syllable count of 1-1-2-3-5-8, etc.) opens up and has the feeling that it could continue; it doesn’t have that same sense of closure that the Cinquain has.  I have similar observations for the other syllabic forms; these are subjective, but also meaningful.

These syllabic forms are fun and, at the same time, challenging.  Like a potter shaping clay, or a baker shaping flour, or a gardener cultivating plants, the syllabic poet grows poems in the garden of various forms. On this upcoming 100th anniversary of syllabics in English language poetry, I am optimistic for the future of these syllabic forms and the syllabic approach in general.

Monday, September 29, 2014

David Crystal on Contemporary English and Its Possible Futures

David Crystal is a British linguist who has written engagingly on various aspects of the English language.  I came across this video on youtube and I thought readers of this blog might find it interesting:

I was really struck by Crystal's observation that there are 400 million Indians who speak English.  That is a huge block of English speaking people.  And as Crystal notes the dialect that has developed in India has its own shape and norms.  And I suspect that these norms will influence how English is spoken and comprehended in the English speaking world at large.

From the perspective of prosody, and how English language poetry is shaped and heard, I think there are a number of applications, or tendencies, that are already reshaping English language verse.  I have written before about how I suspect that the emergence of syllabic verse in an English language context is at least partly due to English becoming a global language.  Add to that global context the relative lack of accentual contours in some of these populations, like India, and this creates a precedent for a non-metrical approach to English language poetry.

This is particularly true, I think, for formal verse in English.  What I sense is a kind of shift from the accentual to the syllabic.  A good indicator of this is, I think, the way Syllabic Haiku has become so widespread and how it has assumed a place in popular culture.  The widespread usage of Syllabic Haiku, of a form that counts syllables in three lines of 5-7-5, has created a numerically large group of people who have approached English language verse in syllabic terms.  What this means is that someone who has the experience of composing Syllabic Haiku will not have difficulty understanding a syllabic approach to the sonnet, even though that approach differs from the traditional metrical approach.  The basic mechanism of counting syllables is the same in both cases.

As Crystal notes it is difficult to make claims for the future.  Even so I think it is clear to all of us interested in language, and specifically English, that the contours of the language are changing.  And I suspect that the contours of our poetry will change as well.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Changes and Possibilities

Dear Friends of Shaping Words:

As regular visitors to this blog must have noticed, my rate of posting for 2014 has been slight; especially if one compares it to previous years.  It is not that my interest in syllabics has waned.  It has more to do with not being clear as to the direction I want to take Shaping Words.  There are several possibilities.

Part of the decline in posting has to do with having said what I want to say in certain areas.  For example, regarding syllabic haiku in English, I have, for the most part, said what I wanted to say in defense of this type of haiku.  I don’t want to simply repeat myself.  This gets tiresome; both for me and for the visitors to the blog. 

 On the other hand, there are larger issues and perspectives on poetry today that I have not spoken to.  The challenge, though, at least for me, is how to express these views without sinking into the standard online rhetoric of snarky dismissals with those who have a different view.  It is a matter of balance and respect, which seems to be difficult to pull off online.

So I am considering several possibilities of refocusing.  My idea is that the change would be one of emphasis rather than of topic.  It is not clear to me, yet, how this will manifest, but by 2015 I think it should be clear.

Best wishes,



Monday, August 11, 2014


Microcosmos, my latest book, is finally published!  Microcosmos is subtitled, The Art of the Solo Renga.  It is, as far as I know, the first collection of solo renga in English.

Microcosmos has three sections.  The first section brings together my own solo renga written over a period of about 30 years.  My solo renga are presented first and foremost as poems; to be read as poems.  My target audience is the reader who is engaged with contemporary poetry, but does not necessarily have a specialist’s knowledge of Japanese poetry or renga procedures.  In this way my collection of renga resembles a collection of sonnets; when publishing a collection of sonnets the reader does not have to know all the rules and constraints of sonnet composition in order to enjoy the sonnet as a poem.  In a similar way I present my solo renga as poems to be enjoyed by the interested, but non-specialist, reader.

The second section is a collection of 100-verse solo renga, known as ‘hyakuin’ in Japanese.  The 100-verse form was the form that emerged in medieval Japan and it is the form that all other forms of renga are derived from.  It is the 100-verse form that Sogi used to write his solo renga.  The second section includes my own 100-verse renga, ‘100 Verses at Sebastopol’. 

The second section also includes a 100-verse renga by Edith Shiffert, ‘A Return to Kona’.  I believe that Shiffert is the first to write renga in English, the first to use the 100-verse form, and the first to compose a solo renga.  Shiffert published this renga in 1964 in her collection of poems that used that title for the renga as the title for the collection.  Shiffert, remarkably, takes a syllabic approach to her verse construction.  This solo renga deserves to be much more widely known.

Writing in another style, section 2 includes a 100-verse renga by Jane Reichhold, ‘Masks of Madness’.  Reichhold’s approach uses a short-line, free verse, approach to lineation, which is a widely used approach among practitioners of Japanese forms in English.  Reichhold’s renga also uses a lot of word-play and has a snappy, scintillating quality to it.

Finally, section 2 contains two translations of 100-verse renga by Sogi.  These translations (by Earl Miner and Steven D. Carter) are published with the permission of their respective copyright holders.  The Sogi renga give the reader an opportunity to experience how Sogi used the renga form in a solo context.  In particular, the 100-verse renga that Sogi wrote towards the end of his life, called ‘Sogi Alone’, is a work of great beauty; it is this renga which inspired me to compose solo renga.

Section 3 of Microcosmos contains essays and asides.  Some of the essays are on technical matters, such as the way season and time interact in renga.  And some are expressions of appreciation.

Microcosmos is available through Amazon and is also distributed through Ingram; so it should be available through local bookstores as well.

ISBN: 9781492933229

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Lynx Magazine Has Published Its Final Issue

Lynx Magazine

I have learned that Lynx Magazine, after a run of close to 30 years, has published its last issue.  Most poetry magazines are ephemera; some last for only a few issues, others for a few years.  30 years is a good run.

The ending of publication for Lynx brings back to me many memories.  I began Lynx back in the mid-80’s.  At its inception it was called ‘APA-Renga’.  ‘APA’ stood for ‘Amateur Press Association’.  In the mid-80’s the internet was just on the verge of becoming widespread, but it hadn’t become the dominant means of communication at that time.  It was just about to, but not quite.  ‘APAs’ were a group of publications which were subscriber written.  Most of them had a topical focus, though a few were more like diaries.  Many of them started out in Sci-Fi fandom and were focused on a particular author or type of science fiction or fantasy. 

APAs worked by having a central collator.  Members of the APAs sent in their contributions, with copies.  The collator then collated the submissions, but did no editing.  Then the collator would send out the collection on whatever schedule was set for the APA.  Most of the APAs had a small membership; they rarely rose to 30. 

APA-Renga followed the procedures of a standard APA.  People would submit an opening verse (hokku) for a renga.  I would then copy this and send it out to all the participants on a regular schedule.  Participants would then respond to the verse, or not.  I would then add the responses and send them out in turn.  Then people would respond to the second verses, as they felt inspired.  If no one responded to a verse, it dropped out of the next issue.

This meant that all of the renga branched out with many alternative paths stemming from each opening verse.  This was completely non-traditional and experimental.  It was also a lot of fun.

I was only able to run APA-Renga for about two years.  Life suddenly became very complicated and I was unable to find the time to continue with the publication.  Fortunately, Terri Lee Grell stepped forward and agreed to take over the publication.  It was Grell who changed the name from APA-Renga to Lynx.  She also added reviews and, if I recall correctly, some regular renga to the mix.

Terri’s life, in turn, became complicated (life is like that!) and after about another 2 or 3 years passed along Lynx to Jane and Werner Reichhold.  Jane and Werner quickly moved Lynx to the internet and Lynx became an online publication.  Both Jane and Werner recognized quite early the potential for online poetry publication.

Over the next 20 years Jane and Werner faithfully published Lynx four times a year.  They added more reviews, more explorations of poetic form, and increased the space devoted to other forms such as ghazals and tanka.  At some point, I can’t remember exactly when, interest in this branching style of renga waned.  I believe this is because knowledge of the standard form became more widespread and people wanted to shift their attention to a more traditional approach.  Jane and Werner made the decision to drop the participation branch renga and continue with Lynx as an online publication focused on a mixture of reviews, thought pieces, and poetry. 

It is amazing to me that Jane and Werner were able to keep up the pace for so long.  It was a huge effort and contributed greatly to the online poetry world in general, and to those interested in Japanese poetic forms in particular.  To Jane and Werner – many thanks for your decades of dedicated work.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Armstrong Woods

Armstrong Woods

My fav’rite place on earth is Armstrong Woods.
Old growth groves of redwoods are very rare,
A slower flow of time is present there,
The constant cool and stillness of the air
Resembles a cathedral of quiet
With filtered sunlight scattered on the paths.

Walking on a winding woodland path
Under the giant trees of Armstrong Woods
I experience palpable quiet,
Something that in our noise-filled world is rare
(Ordinarily, noise fills the air)
But human noise is an intrusion there.

Once I found countless orchids scattered there
At the base of redwoods beside a path;
I heard a high bell-like sound in the air,
A soft rustling whisper at Armstrong Woods,
Like a song heard just once, a song that’s rare,
A sound, a song, that merged with the quiet.

There exists an interior quiet,
A grove that’s found within the heart and there
One enters into a stillness that’s rare.
It’s discovered by following a path
That resembles the paths of Armstrong Woods.
It’s our inheritance; we are all heirs.

It’s a grace, freely given, like the air,
A place where all human thought is quiet,
It is the mind and heart of Armstrong Woods
And if I could I would always stay there,
This grove of peace at the end of the path;
But in truth my spare moments there are rare.

But it’s enough to have this glimpse that’s rare,
To rest in the peacefulness of the air
After walking the meandering paths
That emerge in solitude, in quiet,
In luminosity found only there,
The grove of the heart, the grove of Armstrong Woods.

Scatter my ashes at Armstrong Woods,
Scatter my ashes on the quiet path that’s there,
In the cool air, in the quiet that’s rare.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

My Alaska

My Alaska

I have never really left Alaska.
Its geography is fixed in my heart;
How the aurora on a winter night
Will take flight, stretching across the whole sky,
Or how the sly midnight sun casts shadows
Across a free-flowing wilderness stream.

All I have to do is sit by a stream
And like a remembered dream, Alaska,
Appearing out of memories’ shadows,
Memories that lie deep within my heart,
Take shape like the moon in the autumn sky
When thin clouds depart on a windy night.

In winter the day hours are mostly night,
It’s easy to walk on a frozen stream.
An owl will take flight in the silent sky
Above the taigascape of Alaska
The Brooks Range, like a slowly beating heart,
Casts deep, dark, and slowly moving shadows.

When snow begins to melt in the shadows
And the flood of sunlight reduces night,
The sight of flowing water cheers the heart
And people launch canoes upon the streams,
Both great and small, that criss-cross Alaska.
Heading north, a flock of swans in the sky.

Days arrive, long and warm with sun-filled sky,
When it seems as if there are no shadows
To be found anywhere in Alaska,
And people sleep less during the brief night,
Listening to the sound of nearby streams
That seems to soothe a busy mind and heart.

Cold comes quickly and falls upon the heart.
Winds start to pull the leaves into the sky.
All those years have slipped by me like a stream
Increasingly covered by long shadows.
I’m swiftly approaching that endless night,
The sight of the tundra of Alaska.

An Alaska lives deep within my heart.
During the night while standing on the sky
Shadows from the past like a stream flow by.