Sunday, June 1, 2014

Tanka Chain Sonnets


A tanka, as you may or may not know, is a Japanese form in which line lengths are 5-7-5-7-7 syllables respectively, kind of like a haiku with two extra lines of 7 syllables added. Repeat this form ad infinitum & you make a tanka chain.  Click here for an example of the traditional tanka chain.

To turn a tanka chain into a sonnet, I make the title the first line (hence, the title is 5 syllables long). The remaining four lines of that tanka follow, as do two additional tanka, which make fourteen lines &--voilĂ !--a sonnet is born.

"In Steinbeck’s Novels," "Everything Must Go," "As the Sun Came Up" (lines 11-12 should read "trans- / migration"),  "Gathering Darkness," "Hume Goes for a Walk" & "The Maharishi," which have appeared in magazines over the past year, are all examples of this hybrid form, which is, as far as I can tell, of my own invention.  I point this out not to show off--well, not entirely--but to plant a flag on the tanka chain sonnet form in hopes of not repeating the situation discussed in my entry about Nearing Narcoma (scroll down to almost the bottom of this link). 

I also use the tanka chain form to create sestinas by writing a chain of eight tanka, in which the title, as with the sonnet, stands as the first line of the chain.  I've posted an example of a tanka chain sestina, "Last of the Rorschachs," here.   Likewise, I've devised a plan to write tanka chain villanelles, but villanelles are tricky & as of yet . . . 


In The Sounds of Poetry, Robert Pinsky suggests that syllabic meter is "more or less arbitrary" because "the variations in accent & duration make it extremely hard--virtually impossible--to hear how many syllables there are in a line."  This view would categorize much of the world's prosody as arbitrary.  Perhaps Pinsky means that syllabic meter is arbitrary--a term often used to describe line length & line breaks in free verse, which is how Pinksy sees syllabic verse--only where poetry written in English is concerned, but if so, what makes poetry with line lengths predetermined by feet as opposed to syllables less arbitrary?   Tradition?  If you hear a certain number of stressed syllables to determine where lines end, you're still counting syllables, whether conscious of it or not.  Beyond that, I disagree with the underlying assumption of formalist purists--not Pinsky--that the most effective way to produce rhythm in poetry is through predetermined patterns of stressed & unstressed syllables. 

Not only don't I consider syllabic meter arbitrary, but I also take exception to labeling line lengths & line breaks in free verse arbitrary. The term itself has a pejorative connotation, as if to suggest that formal verse is guided by virtue of principle & reason, whereas lines of free verse result from sheer chance & whimsy. William Stafford in Writing the Australian Crawl defends the aesthetics behind his poetry, which eschews formal poetics, as his search for the poem primordial, based upon the conjecture that the first person to write a poem didn't set out to write fourteen lines of rhyming iambic pentameter. For that matter, I doubt if the first poet counted syllables either. Indeed, not only does tracing the origins of poetry lead logically to free verse, but the best hope for the future of poetry most likely lies in free verse as well. 


Meanwhile, stuck in the here & now, I've written, in addition to tanka chain sonnets, an assortment of traditional sonnets.  "As Wordsworth Wandered" (scroll down--it's my third poem) & "I, the Minotaur" both began as tanka chain sonnets, but each needed more space than 93 syllables (the total number of syllables in a tanka chain sonnet, title included) in order to breathe, er, freely.