Friday, January 29, 2016

Moonlight Musings









What Shoulders Do You Stand On?
– Stylistic Influences  

Do you like your poetry strict or random, sparse or ornate? Do you have one distinct style or many? 

And have you drawn on the work of other poets to expand your range? Probably we all do that, whether consciously or not. In my case it is often intentional.

When I was a much younger poet than I am now, my poetry was lush, sensual, full of metaphor and imagery, sometimes mysterious.  

Somewhere along the way I was introduced to haiku and fell in love with the great haiku masters: Basho, Buson, Shiki, Issa. (Basho is my first love, and I think many regard him as the greatest, but the others are wonderful too.) I began to want to pare my own poetry back, to find a way to write with their simplicity and transparency. I wanted my poems to be like glass, that the reader could see straight through to what I was describing, as if the words were hardly there. I wanted the words to be clean, clear windows, so the reader would not even notice the glass but see only what it showed.

I decided that the way to acquire this kind of clarity and immediacy was to learn to write haiku myself, so as to bring those qualities to the rest of my poetry. And so I began a journey which has lasted seven years so far. I don't know Japanese, so I have had to try and learn from haiku written in English, either original or in translation. In fact it's interesting to compare different translations of the same haiku master: it gives you the essence of what the poet was trying to say, somewhere beyond the varying interpretations. 




I discovered that the haiku is at once the easiest and most difficult form to write. Anyone can write three lines of observation of the natural world. It's not hard to do it with the syllable count of 5/7/5 words per line. After I read that 'syllables' in Japanese are much shorter than in English, so that our 5/7/5 haiku are unwieldy by comparison, and that many serious haiku writers in English now go for short/long/short lines instead – well it was easy enough to do that too.

But to write a haiku, a real, actual haiku – oh, that is so difficult that it often seems almost impossible. 

What makes a haiku? There are certain rules. I tend to think, now, that 5/7/5 is the least important. 

They must deal with nature. There should be a season word (a kigo) which identifies the season being written of in a way that readers will instantly understand, but which does not specifically name the season. Metaphor and simile are to be eschewed. Haiku don't rhyme, and they don't have metre. In many ways they are about as different from Western poetry as you can get. Some experts differentiate haiku from poetry altogether, as a separate and distinct art form.

There is traditionally a 'kireji', a word where the haiku makes a sort of turn. Some contemporary writers use a dash after the kireji, or even instead of it. It is often said that there should be a juxtaposition of two images. This is done without explanation; the reader is supposed to fill in the gaps. The haiku, if I understand correctly, demands the engagement of the reader. It is as if it makes a suggestion, and invites readers to find their own experience of what is suggested.

Is this getting to sound a bit mystical? Perhaps it should. Of all the definitions of haiku I've ever read, I most like Natalie Goldberg's in Writing Down the Bones where she says that it should give the reader a tiny experience of God. We could call it by a more familiar term: an 'Aha!' moment. And that, for me, is where the real difficulty lies.

I don't worry too much about season words. Haiku are international now, and different countries have different ways of denoting the seasons. In Australia, for instance, we don't see many of the cherry blossoms which, in Japan, mean Spring. If we put lorikeets in our haiku, Australian readers would know the season, but perhaps few others would. As we can't make the season universally recognisable, I don't try. Well, I sometimes just name the season, if it seems essential, or say something obvious about heat or cold. 

I do like the juxtaposition of images/ideas, though. And I hope I give my readers some 'Aha!' moments.

Haiku are very like a form of writing shared with the world by author / psychotherapist / Buddhist priest Satya Robyn: 'small stones'. Many of you will be familiar with them, but for those who aren't, small stones are brief observations of the external world, keeping oneself and one's reactions out of the picture. I embraced small stones too for several years, and still like to write them occasionally. Being a poet, I naturally put them into verse most of the time, although that is not a requirement. 

These practices worked. While I still struggle to master haiku – and expect that to be a lifelong quest with no guarantees – my other poetry did become, as I desired, plainer and simpler. I liked this effect. I thought that I was attaining the greater clarity I had sought. For a long time I was very happy about this. Then eventually I noticed, with alarm, that my poetry now lacked metaphor and had even lost some musicality of language. The pendulum had swung too far.

Having become so immersed in this understated, subtle style, I wasn't sure how to find my way back to a richness I had lost. Then I came across the Magnetic Poetry site which functions as a random generator of lines and phrases (based on the old fridge poetry idea). What a joy! If poetry is playing with words, here's the ultimate in playfulness. You can create all sorts of music and imagery without any real meaning. Or if you do manage meaning (which is not entirely impossible) still it's a bizarre, unexpected meaning. There are all sorts of strange twists and turnings. Simple and transparent it's not. 

Playing with this opened my mind up again to magical, musical word-play, to metaphor and mystery. Even when I'm not playing with this random word generator, I think more colour and drama is finding its way back into my verse. 

Is there a happy medium? If I work it right, shall I find my way to a balanced style with just enough transparency along with just enough imagery? I do hope not! That already sounds far too dull and proper. I think it's more interesting, to me at any rate, if I have a range of styles to suit the needs of particular poems. It was one of the haiku masters. (Shiki? Issa?) who said, 'If your writing doesn't interest you, how can it interest anyone else?' (Or something like that.)

In the same way, although I prefer to work in free verse (when I'm not trying haiku) I do also like to play with form. It's good to learn from the masters, I think. When the modern master, Samuel Peralta, was hosting the FormForAll posts at dVerse, he gave us examples of all kinds of sonnets from the older masters. He made it sound easy, and so it was. I'd always been in awe of the sonnet before and thought it beyond me. It was a delight to find I could do it after all – indeed, could do various kinds. 




Some free verse poets have an enviable ear. They seem to just know instinctively how the lines should fall so as to create poetry and not chopped-up prose. And there is room for all sorts of variations of style and mode within that criterion. But for many of us it can be tricky. After the years of experimenting with haiku, my poetry had in fact become prosy! Exploring form was an obvious strategy to try and restore the balance. I haven't stopped writing haiku – nor small stones – but I don't do them so often now. Instead, I play with other forms more than I once did.

Writing tanka was a nice place to go from haiku: still Japanese, with some of the same delicacy of touch, but romantic, with room for music and metaphor. Another option I've grown to love is the haibun, that mixture of prose and haiku which Basho himself initiated. It gives me a chance to make my prose poetic, in contrast to the verse becoming prosy, another way to counteract that trend. When I'm not thinking about line endings, rhythm etc. I can pay even more attention to heightened language and perhaps get the hang of it once more.

It's a great gift to have poetry communities such as this, which, with their prompts, give us the opportunity to try different ways of making poems, adding to our tool-kits and refining our craft. The presenters often introduce me to forms I didn't know before. It's fun to try something new.

You'll note I asked 'what shoulders' rather than 'whose'. If we began to list all the individual poets who have influenced us over the years, it would surely take a lot of space. In any case, such preferences are individual and subjective. Let's not debate the relative merits of Yeats and Yevtushenko, Piercy and Plath. Some will thrill to one, some to another, most of us to a number. Let us be grateful to all who came before, to show the way and sometimes break new ground. 

[I'll give you one tip. When you find a poet you admire, copy something they've written. I don't mean parody them, though that too can be a good way of learning. No, I mean copy down something of theirs by hand, word for word, exactly as they published it. In the process you will find yourself noticing how they did it, their tricks and techniques. 

If I remember rightly, that advice originally came from Stephen King, for fiction writers.]

I wonder what styles and modes of poetry have influenced you, what ways of making poems have inspired you to want to try your hand at something similar? Do you love simplicity or ornamentation? Brevity or discursiveness? Boundaries or wildness? Or do you want the lot?


Feel free to share your thoughts.

29 comments:

  1. Interesting reflections. When it comes to poetry, I like lucidity. Clear images. Once a poem's meaning is convoluted by flowery words or overcooked imagery, I tire reading it. I don't need the meaning to be crystal clear, but I find some poems today are clouded by too much introspection. One can drown in a sea of someone else's angst. I think we are enriched by our engagement with others rather than seeking solely to explore ourselves. We catch glimpses of our own humanity in that of other poets. If one goes back as far as Ode to a Nightingale, even though Keats expresses his own solitary thoughts, one can relate to each and every one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love lucidity too, Clarissa. But as you say, this doesn't have to mean crystal clear. The poems that need a bit of work from the reader can be the most rewarding. That is a very different thing from obscurity. Yes, we have to watch that we are not so much in our own heads that we make no sense to the reader. It need not be that way! In this context I think of the wonderful work of PU member Jae Rose, whose deeply introspective poetry is widely loved and admired (by me among others). Yes, there is mystery there, but the language is both beautiful and straightforward; she lets us in rather than obfuscating.

      Delete
  2. Ah, Rosemary, what a fascinating post. I really enjoyed reading YOUR poetic journey. I liked your comment that you do draw on other poets to expand your range. Recently I have allowed myself to be influenced by Mary Oliver. In the past I have allowed myself to be influenced by Gregory Orr, Marge Piercy, Leonard Cohen, and some others. I find I go in stages. I like how you described the simplicity and transparency you strived for at one point. I see you have found this in writing haiku. Though I don't often write haiku, I too strive for simplicity and transparency in most of what I write. And then there is the idea of metaphor and musicality & how you are making your way back. I commend your approach to writing. I myself try to experiment with different ways of writing poetry. I don't want people to say, when they look at my work, that I am writing the same poem again and again. Ha, this reminds me I haven't written a triolet in a while, and for a while I was writing them regularly! Hmmmm. Yes we do need to be grateful for all who have come before & also for the fine poets who are online writers right now. Sometimes THEY inspire me as well. Smiles. Interesting idea to copy longhand a poem that we admire. As to your question about simplicity or ornamentation? I generally prefer simplicity. Brevity or discursiveness? I tend to lean toward brevity...my theory is it is much easier to ramble on and on and than it is to cut to the quick and say what needs to be said! Thanks for this article, Rosemary.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oliver, Piercy, Cohen – among my greatest loves. So I see I'll have to investigate Orr, whom I've not come across. I'm glad, and relieved, that you found it interesting to read of my poetic journey. I was a bit afraid of appearing egocentric, but that was the material I had to hand to illustrate the points I wanted to make. (Smile.)

      Delete
    2. I must add that I greatly admire your poetry, Mary, because the simplicity and transparency at which you succeed so well must result from much work at the craft. It is a deceptive simplicity, as I think I have remarked before, and often houses profound ideas and observations in a way that makes them readily available to readers. Quite an art!

      Delete
  3. Rosemary,your thoughts are clear and your love for poetry and haiku is evident. I have recently discovered that deeper haiku that goes beyond just the counting of syllables and I find it to be rich and deep. I did notice though, like you, that I started "haikuing" all my poems. Reigned back on that one. I enjoy exploring the many prompts for and styles of poetry. The art of playing with words, at which I am an amateur,is truly satisfying and sometimes thrilling to me. I often am alone in my room hollering "Yay. That works!" Thank you for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And thank you too, Carol, for sharing your own experiences in this comment. I can so relate to the image of you alone in your room, hollering with delight and triumph! Funny business, being a poet – how could we ever explain to non-poets how exciting and absorbing it can be?

      Delete
  4. Rosemary, these Musings are my favourite of your features. I enjoyed reading this so much, and I learned some things. I loved reading about your poetic explorations and loves. An exercise that taught me something was to take a poem of a favourite poet, following the identical metre, but substituting one's own words, thus creating one's own poem. Cool exercise. Thanks so much for this wonderful post, Rosemary. Very interesting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aha, that exercise is how I taught myself to make poems, when I was a child! I often used pop songs as my metric template, too. They were available to me, I guess We usually had the wireless (radio) on.

      Delete
  5. Lovely musings Rosemary ... turning my thoughts to the whys and where-froms of my own poetic flights ... thank you <3

    ReplyDelete
  6. I love your thoughts here Rosemary.. still being so early on my poetic journey I have mostly been unafraid to try anything. I agree that haiku is so very difficult... maybe I got a little tired of the natural aspect of it, and I do love good metaphors. As for influences I think I have read much more of online poetry, but whenever I feel very inspired by a poem it's through what people recommend.. Recently I have started to read a lot of Carol Ann Duffy who is a poet whose voice speaks to me... and of course I do love Tranströmer and Boye (but more in Swedish than in translations).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! And how lucky you are to be able to read the celebrated Tranströmer in the original! (Smile.) I don't know Boye, but shall have to seek out some translations now.

      Delete
  7. Thank you, Rosemary for this post...I read it this morning with coffee and I found it to be both informative and inspiring. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for saying so. Happy to accompany your morning coffee (smile). I am still sipping mine while reading this.

      Delete
  8. " Natalie Goldberg's in Writing Down the Bones where she says that it should give the reader a tiny experience of God." -- that is what I love about reading haiku, that revelation, which always makes me think and start turning over rocks to find those tiny moments in my own life. I don't write haiku though. It requires a mindset that I don't possess but I love reading it.

    "Some free verse poets have an enviable ear. They seem to just know instinctively how the lines should fall so as to create poetry and not chopped-up prose." -- this so true and why I stick to the forms, sonnets usually, because most free verse poems don't sound like poetry to me and that goes double for my own feeble attempts at them. I'm a storyteller playing at poetry though. This is a great post, very informative and very interesting peak under the hood and see the innerworkings of a poet's process. :)

    ReplyDelete
  9. oh wow, another great post, Rosemary.

    about haiku. yes, it seems easy (what's so hard about a 3-line poem?) but really is difficult to write a good one. more so if you live in a tropical country without any marked changes of seasons, and most of the time all you see are concrete and asphalt. but still i am drawn to it, i have a <a href="http://dsnake6.blogspot.sg/>another blog</a> just for haiku and other shorter forms. a strange thing about haiku is, i may spend more time on it than a free verse poem, as every word (and space) in a haiku demands more attention.

    i used to copy and hand-write my favourite lines, quotes (not just poems) in a notebook when i was in school. i guess maybe the author's style does rub off on me somehow!

    thank you for another thoughtful and interesting article. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha, I used to keep notebooks of favourite quotes too, when younger – and whole poems as well. I started when I was at school, and went on into early adulthood.

      Delete
  10. sorry to mess up the comment with a lousy link. :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Never mind, I seem to have found the other blog at your profile, by clicking on your name in the comments here, and will have a proper look some time.

      Delete
  11. This is great advice.
    Having only started out writing seriously for about 6 months ago, I have been struggling to try to break out of my current rut (everything thus far has been mostly autobiographical).

    Simplicity and writing with restraint always seems difficult but the challenge can be fantastic especially know that the reward is personal growth as a writer. Let alone copying the process to try to figure our the inner mind of the artist. Thanks for putting forth this feast for thought!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome. (Smile.) And the best advice for new writers is – learn by doing. Keep writing! (Also, read a lot of good writing.)

      Delete
  12. thoroughly enjoyed this read Rosemary- am only just starting to try out some of the poetry forms as first I need free verse/free thought just to warm up - as on a voluptuous lady though, the corsetry is most flattering. Sonnets beyond me so far- have been re-reading Ted Hughes and also recently returned to Dylan Thomas who speaks lines as readily as his Eli Jenkins – The reverend, poet and preacher who dreams of Eisteddfodau.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dylan Thomas is wonderful! A favourite of mine since my early teens. Hughes CAN be wonderful too, but I think being Poet Laureate did his writing no good.

      Delete
  13. This is a wonderful read Rosemary..I think what always draws me to poetry is the content, form comes later..Even in Haiku, Tanka or any other form I try to find out how every word is spoken and delivered ..The poet's inner beauty gathered from his/her own experiences or from reading others reflects in every word of his/her creation. It's a joy to unlock the word to get to its essence..I really enjoyed your approach to reading poetry..

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ideally, I think form and content should match, Sumana. Some beginners get it awfully wrong, e.g. tragic words written to galloping rhythms! That being said, I think content is always paramount, only we sometimes have to work at presenting it to best effect.

      Delete
  14. I so much appreciate this post Rosemary. Thank you. I learned something, especially about haiku - a form I've stayed away from due to fear that I cannot do it justice. I think I will start reading more haiku in an effort to improve my poetry. Then maybe I'll write a few. But essentially, I'm a lazy poet. I play with the words until they make some poetic sense, but am a coward about form. I have much to learn.

    ReplyDelete