* Masaoka Shiki & life sketches

along this darkling

country road

comes the lonely voice

of a coachman

every so often urging his

horse on


The above lyric poem is by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), one of the innovators of the modern tanka form *.  Tanka is a Japanese poetic form that differs from haiku in that there is room for the poet.  Haiku traditionally is an image, a moment, a flicker that triggers realization.  With tanka, the poet can present an image as well as turn it a bit.  Tanka means little song, so you could say the poet in a tanka is allowed to sing.

What moves me about the poem above is how it evokes a sense of loneliness and perseverance.  I mean, there are nights where all I have in me to keep me going is the need to keep going.  I read these lines and am taken not only to that country road but to all the roads I’ve been on in the dark.

Shiki had friends who were painters who introduced to him the idea of shasei, which means a sketch from life.  Shiki took this idea and applied it to his tanka, producing ‘life sketches’ whose images embodied the poet’s inner life.

Here’s another, written while bedridden:

no visitors have come

and spring, it’s passing:

on the surface of the pond

these yellow yamabuki petals

fallen, gathered together

– You almost get the sense of a person watching each petal fall as he waits for visitors.


Since learning of Shiki I have myself tried my hand at life sketches.  I find the form pushing me to really see the world around me and what it means.  The idea has furthered my conversation with words and led me to a poetry more my own.  When I sit down to write each day, I delight in taking in details, turning them over, letting them sit together.

Here is a small poem I wrote the day before reading about Shiki.  I came back to these lines the day after and marveled at how in spirit they were with Shiki’s aims and ideals.

wanting nothing

but to start over

a friend points out

the clouds

over the mountains

(J, 021312)


Happy sketching!



* I learned about Shiki and his life sketches from an article by Barry George entitled “Shiki the Tanka Poet” in the February 2012 Writer’s Chronicle.  The poems reproduced are, I believe, a Barry George translation.

* some Rimbaud thoughts & eating your own heart out

I is an other.

Arthur Rimbaud


Mr. Rimbaud may be responsible for our contemporary poetry workshops.  The spirit of these words can be heard around any discussion of a poem in terms of its speaker: the speaker seems real; the speaker isn’t believable; it feels as is if the speaker has issues with his father, etc.

Anything to keep from seeing a poem in terms of “the poet.”

Think in terms of Heraclitus who says You can’t step in the same river twice.  You can’t step into the same poem twice.  Even a week after writing the first draft of something, you come back to the same words a different person.  Maybe you’ve picked up some image or phrase in the passing week that can now go into the work at hand, into the work that this ‘other’ you has left to be revised.

Thinking in terms of “I is an other” can free you up as you write, keep you from being stuck to the detailed-oriented defense of trying to write “how it really happened” and open you up to what can happen now.  Revising should be about coming back to words for more words.  In essence, one is always revising one’s self.


Here’s another bit of Rimbaud in this vein of thought:

Beneath a bush a wolf will howl

spitting bright feathers

from his feast of fowl:

Like him, I devour myself.

(from A Season in Hell)

In one stanza, almost carelessly, he writes down what could be seen as the manifesto for 20th century poetry if not 20th century society.   The focus on the self, on uncovering, recovering, and analyzing the self that drives so many memoirs and self-help books – not to mention countless poems in every language – can be seen here.

Below is Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert”, a poem that has a similar effect as the above stanza.  I recall Galway Kinnell using it to preface an essay in which he talked about the nature of being a poet.


In the desert

I saw a creature, naked, bestial,

who, squatting upon the ground,

held his heart in his hands,

and ate of it.

I said: “Is it good friend?”

“It is bitter-bitter,” he answered;


“But I like it

because it is bitter

and because it is my heart.”

Stephen Crane


Happy eating!


* the friday influence

The sawdust that fell from your hair, I find in my poem today.

(Monochord #330, Yannis Ritsos)


For today’s Friday Influence, I present the work of the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos (1909 – 1990).

The above is from a series entitled “Monochords” that was written in one month while in exile, August 1979.  Reading through them you get a sense of urgency and consideration, an immediacy that brings to mind the best haiku and tanka.

I believe that a poet’s relationship to form changes over time, until, if so fated (meaning it is inevitable in the poet’s growth and engagement with form) a form becomes his or her own.  There is, for example, Allen Ginsberg who takes the standard seventeen syllable English form of haiku and rolls it out all out in one sentence, calling them “American Sentences”.

In his Monochords, I see Ritsos reaching out and taking note of what he sees in life, using the sentence as a sort of pocket for an image or thought.

I plan to share more of my ideas on how forms change shape with the poet and vice versa in the future.

For now, here is another poem from Ritsos that showcases his eye for detail and in which he empties his pockets further for us.



He picks up in his hands things that don’t match – a stone

a broken roof-tile, two burned matches,

the rusty nail from the wall opposite,

a left that came through the window, the drops

dropping from the watered flowerpots, that bit of straw

the wind blew in  your hair yesterday – he takes them

and he builds, in his backyard, approximately a tree.

Poetry is in this “approximately.”  Can you see it?


Happy approximating!


* bert meyers, poems in pockets, and update

Evening on the Farm – Bert Meyers


Time for a jacket now,

and to put my hands away.


I must learn from the stars

how a field should look.


But one by one, bright children,

the stars rush downstairs


to meet my horses and hay

with an astonished eye.



Tomorrow is Poem in Your Pocket Day and I have taken it upon myself to pass out poems to my co-workers.  I have selected who gets what in terms of their respective astrological signs (told you I was a geek).  Seeing as I don’t work with any Pisces, and I simply marvel at the poem, I am choosing the above as my selection.

The late Bert Meyers was a master of images.  His collected poems, In a Dybbuk’s Raincoat, is essential for anyone who enjoys not only great images but solid lyric poetry.  As Denise Levertov points out in her introduction:

“It is a mark of the most profound poetic instinct to comprehend, in the act of making poems, the degrees of analogy: and so to avoid muffling the perception of coalescence, which demands metaphor, with the word ‘like’; or, on the other hand, failing to note resemblance with the appropriate figure of speech, simile…Meyers’ intuition in this…seems to have been faultless.”

You see this mastery in the lines above: how easily “bright children” is followed by “stars” tumbling downstairs, all of it leading up to that “astonished eye” at the end, the words evoking an image through sheer magnetism it seems.


In other news, the open mic was a bust.  Nuff said.

I have, instead, taken to reading aloud the Rimbaud I’m in the middle of.  It’s colorful, to say the least.  We’ll see if it helps.  Here are some choice lines of his that took me back to dark times in Texas:

I made up rhymes in dark and scary places,

And like a lyre I plucked the tired laces

Of my worn-out shoes, one foot beneath my heart.     (from “Wandering”)


What will be in your pocket?


* poets in novels and countdown update

“Coming on the scene, he thought what a mercy shipwrecks were, how clean, their horrors swallowed by the sea.  Not so here.”


The above is from the book I just finished, Bruce Duffy’s Disaster was my God: a novel about the outlaw life of Arthur Rimbaud.  The book covers in a meandering manner the life and death of a poet who, after five years of brilliant writing that changed the course of poetry for years to come, swears off writing and runs off to be a sort of mercenary merchant in Africa.

Having a poet as the hero of your novel is always a gamble.  Will they be believable?  Duffy’s Rimbaud, I’m happy to say, is pretty convincing.

Not only is Duffy able to pull off lines like the ones above, that present an idea, a parallel verging on metaphor, and follow through, but there are several moments where you feel like he is trying to sneak in pieces of poems into his narrative.  Here is a snapshot of the poet Paul Verlaine:

“…squinty eyes.  The beard is thin and leonine, the forehead a looming moon, the mouth a single crooked horizontal line as might have been drawn by a somber child on a rainy day.”

Phrasing such as this means even more when you find it in a novel about the poet who brought the prose poem into use.  The focused wording, the leaps of logic – Duffy spins his story well-versed in the, ahem, verse of his subject.  Here is a snapshot of the young Rimbaud before he ran away for good:

“Perfect eyes.  Perfect hearing.  Perfect skin.  Hair still cut, nails clean: studious, well dressed, polite.  Perhaps most amazing under the circumstances is that fact that behind those angelic blue eyes burns a soul remarkably intact, million-leaved like a great oak lifting its branches, aroused, in the evening wind.”

The punctuation here is fascinating.  The initial clipped sentences, then the mix of details paced with commas and a colon.  Then that expansive description of the soul.  Read closely this excerpt has the effect of watching a card dealer change speeds while dealing out cards then stopping to look you in the eye.


The other gamble of writing a poet in your novel is attaining a sense of truth in your description of this specific writing process.  For me, Duffy gets it right, as in this interaction between an elder poet and the young Rimbaud:

“…but, Monsieur Rimbaud, surely as poets, it is our job to explain, to be clear.”

“No,” said the boy testily, “but you see, when I read your writings – many of you – you labor to explain.  To merely be clear, as if a poem were, what, a newspaper?  Read once, then used to wipe your — “

Rather than an argument between two people, this could easily be the transcript of an argument in a single poet’s head.


As for the countdown, I plan on going tonight to another East of Edith open mic.  I am going to be reading from my forthcoming chapbook, The Wall.  I haven’t read these in public yet, so, wish me luck.


* an admission and the friday influence

Watermelons – Charles Simic *

Green Buddhas

on the fruit stand.

We eat the smiles

and spit out the teeth.


So, I’m going to come clean and admit that I’m a geek about astrology.  I don’t swear by it but I do check my horoscope daily and find my chart to be an interesting way to keep tabs on myself.  I know it is not for everyone.  And I’m also not the kind of person to write anyone off once I find out their sign.  I’m a writer: we do our art in solitude, which makes us socially awkward.  And the socially awkward need all the help they can get.

Also: astrology is listed by Gary Snyder as one of the forms of traditional magic essential for a poet to know in his What You Should Know to be a Poet. **

I bring up astrology because, in an effort to keep things interesting, I am going to make Friday posts astrology-centered.  I will call these posts ‘the friday influence’ – ‘influence’ being the old fashioned way of making reference to astrology, as in ‘influence of the stars’.


Today, I found out, is the first full day of Taurus.  To celebrate, I have picked out a poem by Charles Simic.

I won’t read too much into his being a Taurus, but one thing that has been a steady coincidence with friends I know under this sign is that they know how to eat good.  Case in point, I found myself rushing out to eat a caprese salad after reading a Simic essay where he describes making one.  He made it sound awesome.

And it was.

A certain amount of love for food had to have gone into the above four lines.  The poem disarms you with the first image, humorous and unexpected.  Then the poem brings you in real close to shape (smile) as well as into a visceral sensation.  I love quoting this one to people – it always gets a smile.

Happy eating!


p.s.  I’m a Virgo.  My apologies.

* from his book Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk

** which you can find here: http://ninaalvarez.net/2007/04/24/poem-of-the-day-42/

* Holderlin, details, and making time stop

“Poetry is the establishment of Being by means of the word” (Heidegger)


Now there is a definition and defense of the lyric poem if there ever was one.

Heidegger said the above statement in an essay on the work of Friedrich Holderlin (1770-1842).  This week, at the insistence of a new acquaintance, I have been delving into the poems of this great German poet.  Here are two I’d like to share:


At the Middle of Life    (trans. James Mitchell) *

The earth hangs down
to the lake, full of yellow
pears and wild roses.
Lovely swans, drunk with
kisses you dip your heads
into the holy, sobering waters.

But when winter comes,
where will I find
the flowers, the sunshine,
the shadows of the earth?
The walls stand
speechless and cold,
the weathervanes
rattle in the wind.

— There is a duality played out in the two stanzas here, between seasons in nature and in life, that is lovely.  But more than anything, it is the inclusion of “weathervanes/rattle in the wind” that moves me the most.  It is the kind of detail that makes lyric poems powerful.  Someone heard this rattle years ago, and someone can hear it now.  The rattle of years and change.  Cool.

Here’s another:


Ages of Life      (trans. David Constantine) **

Euphrates’ cities and
Palmyra’s streets and you
Forests of columns in the level desert
What are you now?
Your crowns, because
You crossed the boundary
Of breath,
Were taken off
In Heaven’s smoke and flame;
But I sit under clouds (each one
Of which has peace) among
The ordered oaks, upon
The deer’s heath, and strange
And dead the ghosts of the blessed ones
Appear to me.

— There’s a lot here.  The first half has that “Ozymandias *** ” feel, assessing past glory and putting it into context.  “Forest of columns in the level desert” has the feel of Shelley’s “lone and level sands”.  But what got me on the first read and sunk me into the poem occurred at these lines:

“But I sit under clouds (each one
Of which has peace) among
The ordered oaks…”

The work that those parentheses do is astounding!  First you have ‘clouds’, and then time kinda stops as you take in something about the clouds, their ‘peace’, all this before being brought back to the speaker’s train of thought.

I am not sure whether the parentheses are there in the original or if it is tricky maneuvering on the part of the translator – either way, those lines got me thinking of what it is poetry can do: evoke a certain kind of stillness and timelessness in an, as Holderlin points out, everchanging world.


* found here: http://allpoetry.com/poem/8523007-At_The_Middle_Of_Life-by-Friedrich_Holderlin

** found here: http://www.jbeilharz.de/hoelderlin/fh.html

*** for those unfamiliar with the sonnet, here is “Ozymandias”: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175903

* using ‘like’ and liking it

(a note on motion)

The heart is a thing in motion,

like the stars, like the ocean.



In early 2010, I filed for divorce.  I had never thought I would get married, much less that if I did that it might not work out.  Owning up to a relationship not working hurts no matter what side you are on. I spent the first month of the process reeling in late nights, beer, coffee, and words.

Two nights in particular stick out to me.  I got home one night and read the first of a number of nasty emails from my ex (she had every right).  The turn, though, from confidant to stranger hit hard.  Her words haunted me.  I was stuck between beating myself up and needing to move on.

I spent that night playing around with different phrasings of the above lines.  The original was (embarrassingly enough) something like: the stars are always in motion, the heart with them.  When I came back to the words the next day, I cut much of the free write out and found myself, of all things, rhyming.  At a time in my life when few things were harmonious, here were these two lines wanting to chime.


What I see in these lines is a meeting of the personal with an admission of insignificance.  However vast the heart inside me felt at the time, the stars and ocean were always vaster.

Another thing I see in these lines is the affirmation of a lesson learned: For years I had carried with me something Galway Kinnell had said about simile, how the word ‘like’ pointed to where imagination cut off from reality.  He said it in the context of avoiding simile.  The lesson for me with these lines is that there is a time and place for ‘like’.  In these lines, it needs to be ‘like’ because while, yes, all three things – heart, stars, ocean – are perpetually moving, of the three things listed, the heart is the one thing that eventually ceases.

Mortality as played out in word choice.  Whoa.

Seriously, this distinction, this cut between imagination and reality, lifted the lines from the mire of naivete that rhyming couplets evoke and made them self-aware of that naivete, made them realistic as well as hopeful.


* milosz and some friends

Recently read an interview with Czeslaw Milosz where he says:

“My motto could be that haiku of Issa—“We walk on the roof of Hell / gazing at flowers.” ” *

Which speaks to the power of the short lyric poem – a haiku in this case – that it can be carried in one’s mental pocket and offered up as something understood and communed with.  What I am moved by is the duality captured so casually, the line between happiness and suffering pointed out with an air of amusement.  This kind of thing requires nerve.


The Japanese poet Issa is amazing.  A great anthology that includes his work is “The Essential Haiku:versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa” edited by Robert Hass.

Another fan of Issa is Don Wentworth, editor of Lilliput Review, a journal that focuses on the short lyric.  His blog is Issa’s Untidy Hut and can be found here:


Happy gazing!


* (found here:http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1721/the-art-of-poetry-no-70-czeslaw-milosz)