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Viva New Mexico

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This desert globemallow is a southwestern native plant growing in my yard.  This one grew from a seed dropped by a plant I dug out of the sand in the arroyo near our house and transplanted several years ago.  Transplanting from the desert is tricky because the plants very quickly send their roots down deep for water.  If you cut the root the plant most likely won’t survive. Desert globemallow is a short-lived perennial, so I was pleased when two new plants arose to replace the old one.

I am setting up this post to go public while I am at a writing workshop at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.  That’s Georgia O’Keeffe country.  I hope to see, and photograph, some beautiful rocks, and perhaps some New Mexico native plants that don’t grow in the desert.

To experience more of New Mexico, click on 200 New Mexico Poems in the side bar.  This site has poems relating to many areas, landscapes and cultures of new Mexico.  New poems are being posted almost every day, growing toward the promised 200 poems.  It’s worthy of frequent visits.

Haiku, “Rules,” and a Recommendation

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Haiku, that Japanese form which took hold in English about 50 years ago and has continued to be of interest to many, is a great example of the role of “rules” in poetry.

I particularly like a haiku posted recently on the blog, Five Reflections:

soft subtle mantra
hoes the garden of the mind
new poem blossoms

I was delighted by the contrast between the mantra described as “soft subtle” and the hardness of a hoe.  But then my inner critic sounded alarms:  “the ____ of the ____” the critic complained.  “Couldn’t he have avoided at least one of those empty words?”

I keep my critic busy checking my own work for unnecessary cases of “the” and “of the.”  But was he (or is my inner critic a she?) right to complain in this case?

There are two schools of thought about haiku, those who insist on a 5-7-5 syllable structure and those who argue for shorter, tighter lines.  The 5-7-5 imitates the Japanese form.  But the second party asserts that those Japanese “syllables” are not all words, some are signals of other kinds, so the 5-7-5 structure is a poor substitute.

The Haiku Society of America takes no official position on this question.  Their definition a haiku reads: A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.  I have noticed, however, that the winners in their annual contests are more often of the shorter style.

I had a workshop with a person of the “shorter is better” school.  He ruthlessly cut down my already short attempts.  I was persuaded that he knew what he was talking about.

Now, I’m not so sure.  “the garden of the mind” has a gentle flow to it that appeals to me.

On the other hand, does this haiku fulfill the Haiku Society’s definition that it “convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season”?  “The garden of the mind” is completely metaphor.  No actual garden, no hoe.  What should I make of this?

My favorite of the haiku I have so far seen on Five Reflections is this one:

sea smoke illusion
ancient seafarer ghost ship
grandpa’s story time

What I like best about this poem is the turn in the last line: the misty sea scene is suddenly transposed to an indoor scene, warm and cozy, where “grandpa” tells his story.  I didn’t even notice at first that this poem has nary a “the” nor an “of.”  This poet knows what he is doing, which further confirms my suspicion that sometimes those “lesser” words are the right ones for the flow and mood of the poem.

In summary, the following, sometimes contradictory, “rules” are apparently made to be broken by skillful haiku writers:
“Always use a three line construction of 5-7-5 syllables.”
“Don’t waste syllables on lesser words like “the.”
“Start with or focus on nature.”
As one who finds haiku challenging to write, I’ll take these “rules” as suggestions, refusing to be bound by them.

To read more at Five Reflections, click on the link in the blogroll in the column to the right of this post.  Enjoy!

 

 

Thinking about Form and Content

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I have long been of two minds – or more―about the relationship of form and content.  Which comes first?  Which, in a poem, becomes primary?  They’re linked, but how?

I’ve found an explanation worth sharing from Paul Horgan and a stunning example of how they can work in satisfying tension from Ellen Bryant Voigt.

Paul Horgan, in Approaches to Writing (rev. 1988) connects form and content organically, saying that the initial impulse (idea) can only become a finished work

if as early as possible it begins to find, in the writer’s imagination, the precisely appropriate from for its fulfillment.
Once that is glimpsed, even incompletely, the subject, the idea, is safe . . .

In other words, the planned form gives the idea (content) staying power in the writer’s mind.

In Kyrie Ellen Bryant Voigt took an unusual subject for poetry, the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, and combined it with a tight form: a series of sonnets and near sonnets.  The structure is able to carry the confusion, fear, anxiety of the time, as well as a variety of characters and crises, and to keep them in a frame; the contrast increases their power.  I think it must have helped greatly in the composition process as well.  Here is my favorite of the sonnets:

To be brought from the bright schoolyard into the house:
to stand by her bed like an animal stunned in the pen:
against the grid of the quilt, her hand seems
stitched to the cuff of its sleeve―although he wants
most urgently the hand to stroke his head,
although he thinks he could kneel down
that it would need to travel only inches
to brush like a breath his flushed cheek,
he doesn’t stir; all his resolve,
all his resources go to watching her,
her mouth, her hair a pillow of blackened ferns―
he means to match her stillness bone for bone.
Nearby he hears the younger children cry,
and his aunts, like careless thieves, out in the kitchen.

Though there are no end rhymes, this follows the sonnet form of four quatrains of increasing intensity and a final couplet which wraps up the poem in what goes on outside of the boy: all of it painful for the him.  We never learn the boy’s name, but he will appear in other pieces, trying to cope with the changes after his mother’s death.  This is powerful work.

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