Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Weekly Writing Challenge--Octameter

I love playing with meter. I think it is fascinating that different languages seem to lend themselves to certain meters. For example, in English, the most common meter used in poetry is iambic pentameter - each line containing five metrical feet.

The badger grunting on his woodland track
With shaggy hide and sharp nose scrowed with black
(John Clare, The Badger)

In other languages, meter can be quite different. The modern French language does not have a significant stress accent (like English) or long and short syllables (like Latin). This means that the French metric line is generally not determined by the number of beats, but by the number of syllables. In the Renaissance, there was a brief attempt to develop a French poetics based on long and short syllables. The most common metric lengths are the ten-syllable line ("décasyllabe"), the eight-syllable line ("octosyllabe") and the twelve-syllable line (the so-called "alexandrin").

Our weekly challenge is to write a staza of poetry in octameter--lines of eight metrical feet. Though this meter is more common in the French language, there have been a few superb examples of octameter in English:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore-
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
(Edgar Allan Poe, "The Raven")

(Note especially the second line.) Doesn't that sound great? Let's try it!


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Cherry Blossom Haiku

Cherry blossoms and haiku just seem to go together! The sakura are so evokative and so typically Japanese. Here are a few of my efforts--inspired by a post at Mind on Fire.

Sakura beauty
Dark trunks against pale blossoms
Life in an image.

My sakura soul
Blossoms full then falls.
A short, brilliant life.

Silent sakura
In the blossoms a message
Taste life's beauty now.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Weekly Writing Challenge--Haiku

Writing haiku is wonderfully relaxing. (I need to take it easy after all that hard work on the sestina.) I don't know what it is about the combination of 5, 7, and 5 phonetic units that is so serene and peaceful. But you'll notice that writing haiku is good for the soul.

I discovered that there is a difference between the original Japanese form of haiku poetry and the Western version. In Japanese, the haiku contains a special season word (kigo) representative of the season in which the poem is set, or a reference to the natural world. The three different phases are signaled by grammatical breaks, and the poem is written all in one line. In English, we generally separate the poem into three lines.

I'll get you started with two beautiful representative poems. The first is translated from an "old master" Japanese poet. The second is a more modern, urban haiku.

Temple bells die out.
The fragrant blossoms remain.
A perfect evening!
--Matsuo Basho

Freeway overpass
Blossoms in grafitti on
fog-wrapped June mornings
--Michael R. Collings

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

My First Sestina!

I finally succeeded at writing my first sestina. It really was a challenge to try to craft something meaningful and keep it flowing while maintaining such a stringent structure! I loved working on this and I will definitely use this form again. Let me know what you think.

Silver Salud

When first we met I danced on spikes of silver,
I tossed about my locks of chestnut hair,
And with one finger lightly stirred my drink.
When first we met I treasured sun-swept days,
Was always ready with a sultry smile,
And loved to touch, perpend, converse, and think.

Do not suppose at all I could not think!
I sermonized with ease, my tongue was silver.
I softened eruditeness with a smile,
And twirled around my fingers wayward hair.
I read a thousand authors in those days,
With gusto all their words my mind did drink.

When first we met you licked my lips to drink
Their steamy sweetness. Now I think
I never had such wanton wondrous days.
Everywhere you touched me sparkled silver
Your fingers tangled softly in my hair
I bared my neck and glowed a secret smile

The years went by. I met them with a smile
While passing little hands their orange drinks
And finger-combing snarls from tangled hair.
We went whole months and didn't even think
Or read, or talk. But earning stocks and silver
Occupied your afternoons and days.

Now it has been more than a million days
Since first we met. And now my faltering smile
contains fine lines of sadness. See these silver
tears which trickle down my cheeks whene'er I think
of cancer and concoctions you must drink
And how you cling to life by just a hair.

My mirror shows crow's feet and thinning hair;
I now decline to celebrate birthdays.
But I can be content because you think
that I am still a beauty. Make me smile
and we'll hold hands across a frosty drink
While high above the waning moon turns silver.

Though I lament my hair is gone to silver
And there are dark days when I cannot think,
Yet toast I seasoned smiles into my drink.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Rhyming Sestina

I think one of the reasons I'm having trouble writing my sestina is that the first sestina I ever read was a rhyming one. Sestinas need not have a meter or rhyme, but some poets have written them using iambic pentameter and/or rhyme. The most important recognized sestina variant is the rhymed sestina, which was devised by Swinburne. Here keywords 1, 3 and 5 rhyme with each other, as do keywords 2, 4 and 6. The permutations are revised so that every stanza has the same rhyming scheme ababab. In terms of the keywords, the revised structure is:

stanza 1: 123456
stanza 2: 614325
stanza 3: 561432
stanza 4: 256143
stanza 5: 321654
stanza 6: 432561
tornada: 14/23/56

The sestina I'm working on right now will be in iambic pentameter (mostly) but I think the rhyming is out. I'm trying to finish it up so I can post it this week.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Sestina Variations

There are several interesting variations authors have made on the Sestina. Here's a "shrinking" sestina--you'll love it!

The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina
by Miller Williams

Somewhere in everyone's head something points toward home,
a dashboard's floating compass, turning all the time
to keep from turning. It doesn't matter how we come
to be wherever we are, someplace where nothing goes
the way it went once, where nothing holds fast
to where it belongs, or what you've risen or fallen to.

What the bubble always points to,
whether we notice it or not, is home.
It may be true that if you move fast
everything fades away, that given time
and noise enough, every memory goes
into the blackness, and if new ones come-

small, mole-like memories that come
to live in the furry dark-they, too,
curl up and die. But Carol goes
to high school now. John works at home
what days he can to spend some time
with Sue and the kids. He drives too fast.

Ellen won't eat her breakfast.
Your sister was going to come
but didn't have the time.
Some mornings at one or two
or three I want you home
a lot, but then it goes.

It all goes.
Hold on fast
to thoughts of home
when they come.
They're going to
less with time.


Forgive me that. One time it wasn't fast.
A myth goes that when the years come
then you will, too. Me, I'll still be home.

And here's a link to an expanded Sestina called "Our Seasons." Each stanza of the Sestina has a theme such as "Grief," or "Passion." Then the author has written an 8-line poem for each line of the Sestina, resulting in 36 additional poems!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

History of the Sestina

The sestina is a poetic form that is believed to have been invented before 1200 in Provence by a poet named Arnaut Daniel. Daniel was a member of the court of Richard the Lionhearted and was respected as one of the best troubadours of the time. Daniel's poem, Lo Ferm Voler,(follow the link for the poem in Provencal and an English translation) is the first known sestina. Following Daniel's use of the sestina, both Dante (1265 – 1321), author of The Divine Comedy, and Francesco Petrarch (1304 – 1374), poet and founder of humanism, adapted the form as well.

The form was revived in the 16th century by a group of French poets known as La PlĂ©iade, and in particular by one of their members, Pontus de Tyard (1522-1605). After 16th-century poet Sir Philip Sidney’s double sestina, “You Gote-heard Gods,” there was a 300-year gap in English-language sestinas. Then, in the 19th century Ferdinand, Count de Gramont, wrote a large number of sestinas, and Algernon Charles Swinburne composed a remarkable rhymed double sestina "The Complaint of Lisa," with twelve stanzas of twelve lines each.

In the 20th century, Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, James Merrill, and others wrote them. Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery wrote great sestinas for the mimeographed magazines of the 1960s.

The writing of sestina poetry is popular today. McSweeney's, a literary magazine, recently began publishing poems for the very first time. The form of poetry published was limited to sestinas.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Weekly Writing Challenge--The Sestina

The Sestina is one of the more challenging forms of poetry. I've been trying to write one for quite a while now, with little success. But I hope this public forum will inspire me to really work on it this week!

This poem is made up of seven stanzas, the first six of which have six lines, the seventh having only three. There is a very exact pattern to the sestina's stanzas.

The first stanza is the defining stanza, and the six words that are used to end each line are the defining words, as they will be repeated throughout the rest of the poem.

In this template, each letter represents the ending word of a line:

a b c d e f (first stanza)
f a e b d c (second stanza)
c f d a b e (third stanza)
e c b f a d (fourth stanza)
d e a c f b (fifth stanza)
b d f e c a (sixth stanza)
a d (1st line of the 7th stanza, "a" must be in the line, but the line must end with "d")
b e (2nd line of the 7th stanza, "b" must be in the line, but the line must end with "e")
c f (3rd line of the 7th stanza, "c" must be in the line, but the line must end with "f")

Let me illustrate with a sample. The following is "Sestina of the Tramp" by Rudyard Kipling:

Speakin' in general, I'ave tried 'em all
The 'appy roads that take you o'er the world.
Speakin' in general, I'ave found them good
For such as cannot use one bed too long,
But must get 'ence, the same as I'ave done,
An' go observin' matters till they die.

What do it matter where or 'ow we die,
So long as we've our 'ealth to watch it all
The different ways that different things are done,
An' men an' women lovin' in this world;
Takin' our chances as they come along,
An' when they ain't, pretendin' they are good?

In cash or credit no, it aren't no good;
You've to 'ave the 'abit or you'd die,
Unless you lived your life but one day long,
Nor didn't prophesy nor fret at all,
But drew your tucker some'ow from the world,
An' never bothered what you might ha' done.

But, Gawd, what things are they I'aven't done?
I've turned my 'and to most, an' turned it good,
In various situations round the world
For 'im that doth not work must surely die;
But that's no reason man should labour all
'Is life on one same shift life's none so long.

Therefore, from job to job I've moved along.
Pay couldn't 'old me when my time was done,
For something in my 'ead upset it all,
Till I'ad dropped whatever 'twas for good,
An', out at sea, be'eld the dock-lights die,
An' met my mate the wind that tramps the world!

It's like a book, I think, this bloomin, world,
Which you can read and care for just so long,
But presently you feel that you will die
Unless you get the page you're readi'n' done,
An' turn another likely not so good;
But what you're after is to turn'em all.

Gawd bless this world! Whatever she'oth done
Excep' When awful long I've found it good.
So write, before I die, "'E liked it all!"

You can find some great tips on writing the Sestina at eHow.
Good Luck! If you succeed in writing a Sestina, please share it with us in the comments!