Monday, July 28, 2008

Across the realm of short verse..essay

Across the realm of short verse
(An odyssey)
Rita Malhotra

Time does not linger in today’s fast paced world.There is no scope for reflection, contemplation or idealism considering the complexities in every aspect of life.Even though purists in the academic world may not always agree, we poets are destined to break away from certain poetic practice and say what we wish to say in as condensed a form as possible conciseness however demands skill and entails the use of oblique reference, suggestion, wit and balance. The poet has to be a careful craftsman for in addition to giving a final poetic shape to his lines, he also has to be concerned about the lyrical quality of the poem and all this in a very few words. The order of the day is no superfluous usage of words, no obligatory confirmation to poetic metres, not a word extra. Art now is not so close a form with strict norms and defined virtues. An open and explicit verse may have all the poetic qualities. In fact Lawrence wrote that “it is the hidden emotional pattern that makes poetry and not the obvious form.” The use of metaphor and allusion that trigger elaboration and interpretation of the unsaid , is inevitable in short verse form. Expression in “vers- libre” or free verse does not mean freedom from poetic form. “Here the poet’s sensibility is at work besides his individual sense of image and metaphor,” as the eminent poet and journalist Rakshat Puri says. I would add that the pulse and rhythm of recitation also gives credibility to the poem.

As one knows, Japanese lyric poets are exceptional as far as compression of their poetry is concerned. In the words of Yves Bonnefoy “No people has ever equaled the Japanese in echoing reality in the consonance and dissonance of a few words.” In fact the Japanese Haiku, a short verse form is a live genre and a great lyric form having developed from ancient Korean and Chinese verse forms like Sedoka, Waka, Tanka and Renga.The 7th century song-writing form Sedoka was used to reveal riddles and was written in a question-answer format. Waka was a serious form of poetry composed to celrbrate love, victories in battle and for religious reasons. The classical Tanka is a form of Waka and are mood verses with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure.Tanka means a short poem and was used as a means of communication between lovers and friends. It often contains metaphor and uses personification and other poetic devices.The Hokku meaning opening verse originated as an abbreviated version of classical Tanka poetry.It consists of three parts of 5-7-5 syllables. A great master in this tradition, the famous Basho writes

An old pond
A frog leaps in
the sound of nature.

Eleven words but the swiftness of craft fascinates the senses especially the clear images that communicate with the reader.To my mind it is the symbol of life-going-on.A poignant calm setting is soothing to the ear.Another familiar Basho classic brings to the fore a marvel of the haiku technique and short verse in general:

Harvest moon
Walking around the pond
All night long.

One admires here the precision of expression and the usage of symbol and image.This is a kind of contemplation of times gone and summing up of life.In both the poems the relationship to a tradition is maintained with captivating efficacy. The poems are multilayered though the literal meaning is clear.

In the Japanese language each syllable is spoken at almost the same pitch and so the absence of stress-rhythm is felt but the flow of lines and the pause create the rhythm
With time the tanka form became ossified and the waka was transformed into linked verse called Renga.However a poetic form called Haikai emerged as a distinct genre around the 14th century.It laid emphasis on verbal wit.Basho and Onitsura were masters of haikai writers of which Hokku was a significant part.

Another great master in the same tradition was Yosa Buson whose poems are visually powerful and seem to be in love with colour.One would agree that poetry should not be a function of subjectivity which usually creeps into judgements of readers.Even where a poet constructs a myth, one looks for the creation of sounds of music.According to poet John Logan “Poetry is a ballet for the ear.”It is the right permutation of words that create a masterpiece.In short verse this requires immense skill which is visible in the following haikai of this great poet

Among twenty snowy mountains
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird

The apt choice of words leaves one mesmerized.The depiction of sheer stillness of the place could not have been better in such a concentrated form.In the vastness of white only black is visible and amidst that black the movement of the eye.These lines seem to lend voice to a beautiful work of art, a dialogue between the two art forms of painting and poetry.Another expression of this artist-poet leaves one in awe of his skill of combining discipline with a sense of freedom.

Lighting one candle
With another candle
Spring evening

Here the first two lines could be interpreted as talking about continuity as light creates light and this movement seems a propagation of celebration.Here the location in nature is evident and the mention of spring evokes a diversity of colours and the associated joy.These haikai , a significant category of short verse, are beautifully crafted and their meaning is likely to change according to the perspective lent to them.Both give a powerful sense human place in the cyclical movement of the cosmos.Even though no new popular style followed,an individualistic approach to haikai was followed by the humanist poet Issa Kobayushi. He has often been described as a Whitman or a Neruda in miniature perhaps because his poems often portray life’s smallest creatures like the flies, crickets etc.On the other hand there is a certain rage against injustice and an acute sense of pain as in the following poem where the poet captures the emotional upheaval and anguish of a mother.

Nursing her child
The mother
counts its fleabites

The nostalgia for normal life and a kind of helpless surrender are very moving.They awaken the lyrical impulses of the reader.As a spontaneous reaction I couldn’t help penning the following lines:

Sense of pain intense
In dry night’s dry dreams
The day ageless.

The economy of language and suitability of images are also evident in another very sensitive haikai by Issa:

A dry riverbed
By lightning

Haikai entered a period of decline till the emergenceof Mashaoka Shiki who created a style of reformed hokku (called Shesei meaning sketching from life).Shiki was impressed by western culture and removed the Buddhist influence on writing hokku,a term he finally discarded and called his revised verse form haiku.The haiku is often referred to as an epigrammatic Japanese verse form and the elusive flavour lies in its touch and tone The term haiku is also used for foreign adaptations(In 1949 it was introduced to the west by R.H.Blyth). Unlike traditional haiku poets however, modern poets consider any subject matter suitable and emphasize on personal freedom(Here one would like to mention that when the haiku structure is used to comment on the human condition or to relate to subjects other than seasons or nature the poem is called Senryu.)
Haiku has also made its presence felt in Indian verse which surprises because short verse forms like Rubaayi in Urdu,Dohra in Punjabi and the like already exist and are quite popular.

Agroup of poets called Imagists headed by Ezra Pound and influenced by Chinese and Japanese poetry,said that poetic ideals are best expressed by actual rendering of concrete images to convey different shades of emotions.Some of Pound’s poems capture the haiku quality.His short poem “Fan Piece for Her Imperial Lord” is one such creation:

O fan of white silk
Clear as frost on the grass blade
You are also laid aside

The minimalism and density of the images is amazing.The softness of silk represents a delicacy of touch contrasting with the crystalline bitterness of frost,chilly overtones of white and frost suggest in the fan, a perfection born out of unadornedness---they combine into a self-contained whole. Interpretation of the white could be specific to individual circumstances.The white silk to me refers to a fragile purity or virginity.The word “for”gives an added perspective that suggests an offering to the Imperial Lord who has cast her aside.
Some opine that in short verse a needed factor is a title which usually sets the scene as has been done in Pound’s poem.But I would like to disagree for I believe that a title could limit the poem whereas it should be open to different interpretations.

(It is rightly concluded that since theological and philosophical thought has occupied the European mind to such an extent that their poems are rather long.)( However) the French poet Rimbaud’s short poems offer a great model for today’s age.The interest in haiku in France is strong even today.It is an awakening to a fundamental reference and shall remain at the centre of western poetic thought.In his lines from L’Eternite he attempts an intimate understanding of eternity in an amazingly concise form:

It is found again
What? Eternity
It is the sea gone with the sun.

A beautiful juxtaposition of images. The sea connotes infinity.Its vastness has no beginning and no visible end and just like eternity its limitless expanse and fathomless depths symbolize the mysteries of eternity. The image of the sea in Dickinson’s poems comes to mind where the sea is an image of a state of mindbeyond the borders of waking consciousness.The sea gone with the sun also represents an expanse of darkness portraying perhaps the time of life after death which is eternity.So much said in so few words---a short verse carving its own path through skillful use of language.The journey would be incomplete without mention of some other significant short verse forms like the Korean Sijo, the Cherita ,the American Cinquain etc

Sijo is a lyrical form similar to haiku in its brevity and nature imagery.It is an example of our western poets delving into the beauty and simplicity of Asian forms.Sijo retains a strong relationship to the European ballad in its lyric patterns.In a Sijo the final line usually begins with a surprise or twist of meaning, sound or structure.In the following Sijo by Karkow this tradition is honoured:

Carved high in cliffs of Hindukush
Statues of Lord Buddha loomed
Five centuries they gazed serenely
Massive across green valleys
Ravaged now ,piles of stone
Can wild flowers ever hide the wounds?

The atmosphere is built up with a vivid description.The wound on stone is actually the wound on the mind which the beauty of nature can never make up.

The Cherita created by ai li is an offshoot of the haiku and renku experience and thus maintains the fragment quality.It usually has a story but is often lyrical as in:

After seeing you off
Taking the path along
The canal
A nestle of leaves

These lines seem a kind of recall, nostalgia-laden where the togethernss of walking together is remembered with sadness.

The American Cinquain enjoys the freedom of poetic musical rhythms with a specific number of beats.But the lullaby cinquain is different from haiku as it is not a simple sketch of nature and allows for the poet’s freedom and thoughts.It is about something concrete and builds towards a climax;

Across the street I went
To drink at the new bar
I drank she smiled we talked I thought
Nice bar.

I conclude with a brief reference to the Crystalline Verse which is a haiku analogue.The poem is a two line verse and serves the function of the Japanese kireji or cutting word.Often poets are inspired by another poet’s lines resulting in linked verses.

Since in short verse, opportunities for lyricism is very limited so one has to rely on extra-poetical understanding to provide depth and emotional resonance.This fact only evokes awe and admiration for short verse forms and their writers.In today’s technologically advanced life ,people’s worth,their outlook,ambitions and values are all governed by time.This is an oblique hint for us poets to take inspiration from haiku and other short verse forms and express ourselves in forms that are compact and condensed.The astounding variety of stylizations found in short verse forms assures us that this is not impossible.


1.Deborah Russel-Short Verse, A Woman’s Perspective

2.Katherine Washburn, John S Major-The World Poetry

3.Twentieth Century Poetry in English-Michael Schmidt,Rupa and Co.,The Harvill Press

4.Parthasarathy,R –Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets,Oxford University Press,Delhi

5.Rakshat puri-A Time for Short Verse,Reading at Poetry Society of India Meet,1994

6.Rakshat Puri-Blossoms of The Apricot,Virgo Publications,1998

7The Quest,A Literary Journal, Vol. 16 No.2,2002

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