Sunday, April 10, 2005

Hobbled Discourse on Poetic Forms—The Sijo

What good is a traditional poetic form outside of the tradition from which it was derived? This is a question I consistently bump my head on as I ponder the role of “given forms” in poetry. Certainly, the haiku has achieved its place as an icon among forms in English because so many have practiced it for a number of years. But I always get the feeling when I’m reading the latest offerings from the Haiku Society that something has been lost, some strange piece of foreign antiquity has lodged itself between the teeth of us moderns. Basho might cringe at how the haiku has become the object of a dabbler’s afternoon fancy.

The constraints are fun to move around in, but one always asks, why 5,7,5 for the syllable count? Why not 7,11,7 in order to appease the gambling set? Of course, Robert Kelly did become disenchanted with the form in the 60’s and started writing the lune, a form which employed syllable counts of 5,3,5 because he thought that English says things in fewer syllables than Japanese. I’ve always thought that a good mathematical foundation for the number of syllables in a line should be the Fibonacci sequence, sometimes known as the The Golden Section [1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc]. This pattern is found all over the place in nature. At least it might seem universal.

I’ve also been curious why some forms that are dredged up out of other traditions seem to make it big. Others don’t. The sonnet comes from the Italians. Now every American poet is writing a sonnet . . . until he/she reaches the fifteenth line; then he/she is not [Note: Henri Cole’s latest collection Middle Earth]. To me, this seems disingenuous. You can’t just keep a couple of the formal constraints, toss others out and call yourself a practitioner of the form. If poets were divers and left out a couple of twists on their dives of 3.2 difficulty, they’d lose a lot of style points.

The ghazal is a good example of this. I was first introduced to the form by Robert Bly and some of his translations of the Persian poet Hafez. There he describes the ghazal (pronounced “guzzle” I am informed, though I have never heard anyone in the U.S. call it this) as a series of couplets that employ sprung lines (each couplet is detached from the others) that finally invoke the poet’s name in some manner in the last line of the last couplet. I may be oversimplifying, but then Bly was oversimplifying before me. If one reads a little further about this form, one sees that the opening couplet should be rhymed. The successive couplets should employ an AA, BA, CA, DA, etc . . . rhyme scheme. In addition, the radif, the two-to-three words immediately preceding the rhyme in the first line of the first couplet should be mirrored in the second line of the first couplet and every second line of every couplet thereafter. Imagine such rhyming excess. In addition, to become really fluent in the form, one should familiarize oneself with the concepts of Beher, Matla and Kaafiyaa. On top of this, it is said that each line in the couplet should have the same syllable length or employ the same metrical pattern. One has to be quite diligent to get all this down. The end result is something that would strike most American readers as more than a slight bit repetitive. Adrienne Rich invokes the form throughout her career in a way that is interesting, but it doesn’t come close to the formal constraints of the traditional form. Is this another American conceit or does Rich just understand the psychology of the contemporary American a little better than ancient speakers of Urdu?

After a while, I think we can see: why bother? The game is up.

Too many constraints? This is only part of the truth. The other part I think is marketing. Until the big name poets plug this form (and why do they do it? one seemingly can point to an answer that mixes genuine curiosity and the genuine ambition to seem erudite), there is very little attention paid by other poets, even less incentive to imitate it outside of the workshop led by the famous poet.

So in the interest of advertising for my favorite but little-known form (which has little to no value with regard to the strengths that the English language has to offer), I humbly prepare for you: the sijo (pronounced shee-jo).

The Korean sijo is an ancient haiku-like form from the 16th century. It developed at that time because the pre-existing lyrical form, the hyangga, had gone out of fashion and only the didactic “hanshi” form and the epistolary “kyonggich’e ka” existed at that time. And both of these used the Chinese hanmun rather than the vernacular hangul Korean. The sijo, like the haiku, has three lines. Each line has a major pause in the middle. Each of its three lines typically has fifteen syllables, for a total of forty-five. Each line (of the first two) is usually broken down into two half-lines of 7 to 8 syllables. However, because the form can be interpreted as somewhat elastic, a sijo can have as few as forty-one or as many as fifty. Typically, though, the most rigorous adherents conform to the formal constraint of syllable counts 7-8 (first line), 7-8 (second line), 8-7 (third line).

The first and the second lines are nearly identical in form and syllable count, but there is considerable variation in the last line. The similarity between the first and second lines is one of function and content. The first line usually declares the theme; the second reinforces it usually through a restatement or a concrete example. The second line develops and elaborates on the first. However, in both function and content the last line is quite different. The third line closes the poem by introducing a jolting twist or countertheme. Because this third line is the focus of the poem, the first half-line of the last line, may be “syllable-heavy” usually containing eight of the total fifteen in the most rigorous application of the form, but it could range from five all the way up to nine syllables.

Hangul was reserved solely for the lower ranking individuals in Korean society. Women were some of the sijo’s foremost practitioners, and they were responsible for some of the greatest love lyrics in this form.

I will break the back
of this long, midwinter night.
folding it double,
cold beneath my spring quilt,
that I may draw out the night,
should my love return.
—Hwang Chin-i, early sixteenth century

Of course, all topics are fair game for sijo—love of nature, the joys of drinking, the pleasures and sorrows of idleness.

Green Grass covers the valley.
Do you sleep? Are you at rest?
O where is that lovely face?
Can mere bones be buried here?
I have wine, but no chance to share it.
Alone, I pour it sadly.
—Im Che (1549-1587)

Night covers the mountain village;
a dog barks in the distance.
I open a brushwood gate
and see only the moon in a cold sky.
That dog! What is he doing, barking
at the sleeping moon in the silent hills.
—Ch’on Kum

Boys have gone out to gather bracken;
The pine grove is bare of guests.
Who will pick up the dice
Scattered on the checkerboard?
Drunk, I lean on the pine trunk,
Let dusk and dawn pass me by
—Chong Ch’ol (1537-1594)

In the wind that blew last night,
Peach blossoms fell, scattered in the garden
A boy came out with a broom,
Intending to sweep them away.
No, do not sweep them away, no, no.
Are fallen flowers not flowers?

For my next installment on traditional poetic forms I’d like to discuss the Icelandic form of the slettabönd, a rigorous four-line verse form that has the same meaning backwards and forwards. These palindromic verses are composed by people who have been buried in an avalanche and are waiting to be dug out. The rigor required to compose such a piece is said to keep the mind active and to keep it from panicking in the face of such a calamity. If each one of us gets going on this, I bet we all could knock one off before we’re 50.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Jeanne E. Clark's Ohio Blue Tips

Very rarely do I get surprised by a literary experience. I am jaded. If I do get surprised, it is usually because I am unpleasantly surprised. That is why it is so nice to report on Jeanne E. Clark’s Ohio Blue Tips. Not only was I pleasantly surprised once, I was pleasantly surprised twice.

My first surprise was during her reading at California State University, Sacramento. I had no expectations. I went because Josh McKinney invited her and also because I had a common point of interest, namely, we were both primarily raised in Ohio. Her reading exhibited some beautifully crafted poems and some highly eroticized imagery. She read many poems from Ohio Blue Tips and some new poems. She also read a poem by poet Tim Seibles (on Cleveland Sate University Press) entitled "First Kiss" that was a tour de force. On the strength of what she read that night, I bought the book.

The second pleasant surprise was reading the book. It was a winner of the 1997 University of Akron poetry prize. I am always a little dubious of lauded "prize" books. So many turn out to be duds. I started the book and immediately realized that most of the poems were even better on the page than read aloud. The dense imagery was able to soak in even more. I didn’t experience "style fatigue" as is the case with many first collections. There were catalog poems, narratives, character sketches, short impressionistic pieces, etc. All of these were wrapped up in one of the most intoxicatingly arranged manuscripts I’ve ever read. Come for the poems; stay for how they are laid out in this book.

In Ohio Blue Tips Jeanne E. Clark wends her way through a collection of poems that transform Ohio into a rich wonderland full of dangerous erotic pleasure the likes of which I never saw as I was growing up there. The book is formally constructed in three parts, but these three parts do not belie a simple structural strategy. The book vaguely traces the course of the sexual adventures and yearnings of a woman. Probably this is Jeanne E., but only one reference to a "Jeanne E." (as "NeeGee" spelled backward) appears in the book. Later on the reader infers that this character is probably the same as the Quinn Margaret character who presides over the second section. In the third section Quinn Margaret is married and enduring the doldrums of married life as she is haunted by a domineering mother that she can’t quite shake off. [Perhaps my desire to equate Jeanne E. with Quinn Margaret derives from the knowledge gained during the reading that she really did teach in the prisons in Ohio and that she really was prevented from teaching one day because she was thought to be too high value of a target for kidnapping.]

Two main fictional characters (Joe Silver—it was Joe Spinner in an earlier incarnation during publication in Weber Studies—and Quinn Margaret) are interwoven throughout the poems in the book. Joe Silver is a character about which all information is inferred. He could be described as a mentally-deficient prisoner, and someone who is doggedly pursuing a female speaker in the book (mostly in the first section of the book) to the point of near self-destruction. The female he is pursuing is submitting to the pursuit, but Joe Silver eventually ends up compromised on a Marlowe bed, a device used to restrain prisoners, his “bread-dough belly breathing hard.”

The female character he doggedly pursues is seemingly Quinn Margaret and sometimes the first person "I," whom the reader surmises is probably Quinn Margaret because the same events overlap in the poems that use Quinn Margaret as the central figure and ones that use the first person I as the central figure. Bits of Quinn Margaret's poems interlock with poems that employ the "I" so that the image that begins to appear upon these interlocking puzzle pieces is the image of a single character. The overall effect is the accretion of narrative bits that link together—some pieces moving forward, other pieces looking back. Often times the narrative sweep is punctuated by short, meditative impressions.

So one puts together the following formula: Quinn Margaret is probably based on Jeanne E; Quinn Margaret is synonomous with the first person "I." Jeanne E., the author, is written on top of, a palimpsest of the first person "I." The end result is that the author is speaking to the reader through the guise of an invoked character that is seemingly her self. This ingenious bit of narrative witchcraft is disorienting at times, but as all of this comes together through many scenes of unspoken passion, it spells out the life of a child of Eros in Ohio.

For sure, Ohio becomes the third main character in the book. The culminating poem provides some sense of this.

That Summer, Joe and Prison


Ohio, with its steel-toed boots,
Heels worn away on the outside.
Those boots are shackled
Like a chain of Coniber traps;
Ankles, the twice-sprung necks of muskrat.
Gray day workclothes hang
From window bars by a rope.
Ohio, an inmate’s sucker-punched face,
Peony face, swollen
And latticed with ants,
Its broken nose bleeding from one side.
Ohio’s wrists are leashed
By leather, its puppet hands
Playing to a full house. Wooden heads
Jerking off on a day-hall rug.

Ohio then, with its petticoat sail
Skirting the lake. Bare-breasted,
Bikini top whipping a mast,
Its tin bucket full
Of bluegills dropped back.
Ohio on holiday,
Tongue licking colored ice,
A thin-wristed lover,
Sunburned and sleeping,
Its fingers, a ribboned ponytail
Twisting down the back,
Fingers that loose a rope from the pier.
Ohio, a four-pointed star
Spread out under moonlight,
Its pretty ankles
Dipping the green water.


Ohio, wrist under the hand of Michigan,
Riot gear stacked in the hallways,
The Man figures my worth
As a hostage: young, white teacher—
Single female with child. I’m worth too much.
He sends me home for the weekend.
Johnny Crusoe sends each pitch
Home, over the wall. Crash Redell
Glides his facethrough plate glass.
The Man cancels passes, fishing.
And you, slamming a ball down the alley,
Break the pinsetter’s leg at the knee.

Bluegills in a tin bucket,
And the man I’ve invited from New York
Dangles his chicken-bone wrist
Over the side of the boat. I float on my back,
Casting into night: boathouse dinner,
Then the moon, shiver of glass,
Spreads out on the deck.

The Man called you Fat-Boy-in-Trouble, Joe,
Strapped you four ways down to a Marlowe bed,
Bread-dough belly breathing hard,
Rising naked and fast in 102 degrees,
Six-by-eight room. You called for water.
And sometime before morning,
The man from New York pissed
From the side of the boat. It was summer,
And laughing and no good. The trouble, Joe,
Falling back and away from me.

Here we have the perspective of the first person "I" looking back on the events that are presented in the first part of the book. The emphasis on Ohio in the first section suggests that the distant perspective attained by Quinn Margaret/I is seen through an Ohio prism. It was the place where odd magic happened. The way Ohio is repeated it seems almost like an incantation designed to ward off evil spirits.

Quinn Margaret is the focus of the book. She is somewhat of an oddball female character that doesn’t seem to fit into the family portrait. Her interests and passions are diverse and unconventional. The composite female character of Quinn/I encounters a mother that is self-righteous and a sister who is naive but endowed with a physical presence that tends to be noticed. In the third "marriage" section she is a woman who has moved beyond her family's judgments only to have them resurface in her overly-defining-of-the-self marriage. Quinn Maragaret clearly struggles with notions of propriety. A bit of danger always seems to be lurking, usually near water like where one might find the Sirens. The Quinn/I character moves through her erotic passions, some conventional, some not for the timid (as a male I kept hoping that someone would grant me permission to write about similar topics, such as my lusts and transgressive erections). There are scenes with prisoners and women [Aside: what has she saved for the next book? animals and furniture?]. If blood doesn’t start flowing to uncharted regions of your body while you read this book, you just might be dead.

The following is another vivid example of the visceral nature of so many pieces in this book.


Back then, I knew what I liked:
Tomatoes huddled in hothouses,
The fat, splitting red
Faces of German gardeners.
The Loeschers
Sold the hothouses to the bank.
Bill Loescher, the grandson, the heir,
The first boy in our school
To drink coffee and eat shrimp in a restaurant.
The first boy. Back then,
Hawthorns and marigolds
Grew on Sugar Street.
Blisters bubbled the bottoms of my feet.
The pool swam against them,
Sandpaper on soft wood.
I liked the bleeding,
Rubbing my raw toes against
The also-raw toes of my favorite boy—
Cousin Brian—
Not the one everyone thought.
I liked that my desire was secret:
A criminal’s herb
Fundamental and growing,
The bone twitch in a girl’s hip,
Summer squash that in one day
Outgrows the garden
But not summer—
Big, but not the whole season.
Back then, I liked calves,
Young cows and the legs
On a left-handed girl.
They stood upright and strong.
I liked sweat,
Its coral vine
Trails along my baked skin.
I liked that Wednesday was the hungriest
Day in the middle
Of abandon and houseflies.
I liked a thunderstorm’s electric dirt,
the way it started the dog.
Back then, I liked
That sometimes penniless sky.

This piece is from section two. It is one of the poems that looks back on childhood from the vantage point of a young woman, not quite the mature woman the reader encounters in section three. What strikes me is the rapacious hunger present in the quality of seeing in this poem. Heat and a kind of throbbing rawness make their way to the surface. These two qualities, especially the heat (as intimated by the title of the book), are consistent metaphors throughout.

The heat of desire is always lurking in the shallows. In the following poem, Clark conflates this heat with the common practice of luring snails to their death. The erotic merges with the grotesque in a manner that thrills.

The Eccentric Beauty (excerpt)

I collect snails
At night,
Set out grapefruits,
Half-moon traps
Hollowed out.
The snails
Are gray lips
Over these breasts.
They push small circles
Of brown earth.
By morning,
the fruit is full
With their bodies.

Somehow, reading this kind of passage makes it easier to imagine what freak show artists do to each other when they are aroused in their circus trailers.

After all, firing the imagination of the reader is the heaviest lifting that poetry can do. All else is but good stewardship on the part of the poet. I suspect Jeanne E. Clark is an excellent steward of her senses. When she recognizes what stimulates her senses, this provides a grade for the path she takes to the reader’s imagination. There could be other kinds of beauty besides the rough and sumptuous kind presented here in Ohio Blue Tips, but those other kinds of beauty don’t get touched as often. And she is a poet who is very generous to her memories, memories that might make others flinch at their slightest recall.