The Poet’s Almanac ❧ Earth

The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry
Week One: Earth

  • Looks like I’ve already fallen behind, but I have most of Sunday ahead of me. Let’s see what I can accomplish.

After the cycles of birth, lovemaking, age and death, the seasonal cycles of the earth are the great subjects of poetry. From the first songs to the modern era, no culture has so closely tied their poetry to the seasons as the Japanese. The development of seasonal references coincided with the beginnings of Japan’s own poetic tradition and the creation of the Tanka. The first references weren’t any more than might be found in the Western tradition, but the Japanese never consistently developed longer verse forms. There is no Japanese verse epic, for example. The closest the Japanese come to narrative verse is in the linkage of much shorter forms like the Tanka. The results can feel disjointed to a Western reader. Perhaps the most famous example of a narrative form by a Japanese poet is Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Interior 奥の細道. The narrative or travel diary, recounting Basho’s journey, by foot, to see some of Japan’s most famous landmarks, is actually prose interspersed by haiku, a genre that was known as haibun.

it hides in the moon—
the firefly

– Sano Ryota (Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems)

Writing in such short forms meant that there was little opportunity for scene painting. A Japanese poet simply didn’t have room to spare. So how does a poet evoke a sense of place while still allowing his or herself the space to poetize? The answer developed over hundreds of years. The quickest way to evoke a sense of place, a seasonal feeling, or mood (a poet’s intuitive relationship with the world) is to indicate one of the four seasons in which he or she was writing. All of us who live in the world’s temperate zones, grow up with strong seasonal associations and the Japanese learned to skilfully evoke those associations with a single word or image. The very first anthology to hint at the direction Japanese poets would take was compiled in the early 900’s (long before the development of haiku), called the Kokinshû. For the first time, Japanese readers found categories for the four seasons. Kenneth Yasuda, in his book The Japanese Haiku, writes that this early anthology “seems to recognise the importance of natural objects as subjects of poetry in the same way as love, or congratulatory, or elegiac poems were recognised”. Not only were the seasonal categories of poetry recognised but, more importantly, the Japanese began to develop the first inklings of Kigo. In other words, a reference to a plum tree became more than just the plum tree. The tree was also meant to evoke a connection with the wider setting of spring with all that season’s concurrent associations – but these were only the first inklings. Over the next several hundred years, the significance of a given image, like a reference to cherry blossoms, might be used without any seasonal resonance whatsoever.

Garden butterfly—
as the baby crawls, it flies

-Issa (Ib. p. 99)

A poetic form which was to exert decisive influence on the development of Kigo was the Renga, a form of linked poetry from which the haiku was to evolve. Renga were communal poems that honoured the hosts and celebrated the talents of the poets who participated. Because these renga were frequently published, attaching a particular date to the composition of the renga was considered essential. That task fell to the guest. His task was to write an initial hokku (which would later become the independent haiku) both honouring the host and indicating the date of the renga’s composition. By the end of the 14th century, the twentieth volume of the Tsukubashû (1356) contains only hokku, and though they’re not divided into seasons, all the hokku contain a seasonal reference. By the 15th century, the importance of kigo, as an art in and of itself, was systematically discussed by Sôgi (1421-1502) in his Azuma Mondô (1470). The tradition was now established. Sôgi was also among the first to compile a list (like a dictionary) of season words. His example was followed by Rippo in 1636, who compiled a listing of 650 seasonal references. By the 19th century, a compilation like the Haikai Saijiki (1803) contained 2600 items.

In truth, and with a little practice reading Haiku, a western reader can reliably discern a haiku’s season. Japan’s seasons aren’t so mysteriously different from our own that we can’t recognise the seasonal reference of blossoms or falling leaves.

The seasonal importance of haiku continues into the 21rst century. The modern, and western poet Lee Gurga, author of Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, considers the seasonal reference to be the soul of haiku. He writes:

Season is the soul of haiku, as simple as that. One can write fine short poems that do not have a seasonal element, but they will not offer the same gift that seasonal haiku do.

Many modern haiku poets would not consider a poem, otherwise identical to a haiku, a haiku without some kind of connection to the earth’s seasons.

after Christmas
a flock of sparrows
in the unsold trees

– Dee Evetts (Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, p. 25)

That’s all.
& Further Reading:

The Japanese Haiku: It’s Essential nature, History, and Possibilities, with Selected Examples
Haiku: A Poet’s Guide
The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku
Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems
Basho’s Narrow Road • Spring & Autumn Passages

The Poet’s Almanac ❧ The Artful Language

The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry

Week One
Artful Language

Ask the average person what separates Poetry from Prose and many readers might still answer that a poem rhymes and prose doesn’t. The rhyme may well be the feature with longest and most consistent history in the poetry of all cultures.

The earliest evidence of rhyming is commonly ascribed to China’s Book of Songs – compiled in 600 BC. The Book of Songs represents China’s earliest collection of poetry – believed to span some 600 years. The earliest poems may date as far back as 1200 BCE. While fully half of the poems may be lyrics or songs, more interesting are those which may not be. When did poetry make the transition from being ‘words to music’? When did the human ear decide that the music of language was beautiful in and of itself? China’s Book of Songs may quietly suggest the transition.

Plop fall the plums; but there are still seven.
Let any gentleman that would court me
Come while it is lucky!

Plop fall the plums; there are still three.
Let any gentleman that would court me
Come before it is too late!

Plop fall the plums; in shallow baskets we lay them.
Any gentleman who would court me
Had better speak while there is time.

• Arthur Waley translation from Anthology of Chinese Literature

How long has it been since the girl offered her love? Meter is nothing more than the echo of music’s time signature. Rhyme is nothing more than an echo of a melody’s refrain. Until the 2oth Century, when free verse all but quieted these echos, the music of our ancient ancestors survived in our poetry. In April of 2004 National Geographic reported the discovery of ancient Egyptian Love Poetry. The poems are likely to predate China’s Book of Songs, making them, in fact, the earliest surviving evidence of rhyme. In his book The Ancient Egyptian Culture Revealed, Moustafa Gadalla writes:

The Egyptians perceived language and music as two sides of the same coin. Spoken, written, and musical composition follow the same esact patterns. Both poetry and singing followed similar rules for musical composition. Poetry is written not only with a rhyme scheme, but also with a recurring pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Each syllable alternates between accented and unaccented, making a double/quadruple mater and several other varieties. Patterns of set rhytyhms or lengths of Ancient Egyptian poems, praises, hymns, and songs of all kinds, which are known to have been chanted or performed with some musical accompaniment were rhythmic with uniform meters and a structured rhyme. p. 155

The Harper’s Song for Inherkhawy (Excerpt)

So seize the day! hold holiday!
Be unwearied, unceasing, alive
you and your own true love;
Let not the heart be troubled during your
sojourn on Earth,
but seize the day as it passes!

(Translated by J.L. Foster)

China’s Book of Songs and Ancient Egypt’s Love poetry has more than rhyme and meter in common. Women’s voices sing strongly in the ancient poetry and songs of both cultures – women were as equally desirous of life and love as men and were as joyfully smitten with the beauty of language.  Writes the National Geographic:

Women’s voices were strong in Egyptian poetry—as the narrators of poems or as lovers making choices about their beloveds, for example. This strength confirms that women had a higher position in ancient Egyptian culture than in other societies at the time, Wilfong said. Women may even have written some of the poetry.

Further Information:

Handbook for the Studies of Eastern Literatures: Book of Songs
Ancient Nile’s ancient Egypt – Egyptian Poems /Poetry
Ancient History Sourcebook:  Egyptian Love Poetry, c. 2000 – 1100 BCE

Love Poems from Ancient Egypt
Amazon: Reading Ancient Egyptian Poetry Among Other Histories

The Poet’s Almanac ❧ The Storytellers

The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry

Week One
The Storytellers

This is the first post of what, I hope, will turn into a year-long journey. Once a day I’ll post one poem, or extract and tell you one thing about – one thing that makes it unique. Maybe, by the end of the year, I’ll have something to publish, something you can hold in your hands and enjoy: a real and honest to goodness book from PoemShape. I thought the best place to begin was with the most ancient poetry that still remains to us.


Gilgamesh represents the world’s oldest surviving fragment of poetry, the oldest story told in verse and the oldest epic. The oldest surviving poetry is a story. The version which most of us read survives from around 1700 BCE, but fragments of the same epic survive from 3700 BCE. The first version of Gilgamesh, as it has come down to us, was probably written inthe  21rst century BCE – as far before the birth of Christianity as we are after it. What follows are the opening lines from Andrew George’s faithful rendering of Gilgamesh. Rather than piece together a whole and coherent narrative, he presents readers with two surviving and differing fragments just as they are.

He who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew . . ., was wise in all matters!
[Gilgamesh, who] saw the Deep, the country’s foundation
[who] knew . . ., was wise in all matters!

[He] . . . everywhere . . .
and [learnt] of everything the sum of wisdom.
He saw what was secret, discovered what was hidden,
he brought back a tale of before the Deluge.

He came a far road, was weary, found peace,
and set all his labors on a tablet of stone.
He built the rampart of Uruk-the-Sheeofold,
of holy Eanna, the scared storehouse.

See its wall like a strand of wool,
view its parapet that none would copy!
Take the stairway of a bygone era,
draw near to Eanna, seat of Ishtar the goddess,
that no later king could ever copy!

Climb Uruk’s wall and walk back and forth!
Survey its foundations, examine the brickwork!
Were its bricks not fired in an oven?
Did the Seven Sages not lay its foundations?

[A square mile is] city, [a square mile] date-grove, a square mile is
clay-pit, half a square mile the temple  of Ishtar:
[three square miles] and a half is Uruk’s expanse.

[See] the tablet-box of cedar,
[release] its clasp of bronze!
[Lift] the lid of its secret,
[pick] up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out
the travails of Gilgamesh, all he went through.

Surpassing all other kings, heroic in stature,
brave scion of Uruk, wild bull on the rampage!
Going at the fore he was the vanguard,
going at the rear, one his comrades could trust!

A might bank, protecting his warriors,
a violent flood-wave, smashing a stone wall!
Wild bull of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh, the perfect in strength,
suckling of the august Wild Cow, the goddess Ninsun!

Gilgamesh the tall, magnificent and terrible,
who opened passes in the mountains,
who dug wells on the slopes of the uplands,
and crossed the ocean, the wide sea to the sunrise;

who scoured the world ever searching for life,
and reached through sheer force Uta-napishti the Distant;
who restored the cult-centres destroyed by the Deluge,
and set in place for the people the rites of the cosmos.

Who is there can rival his kingly standing,
and say like Gilgamesh, ‘It is I am the king’?
Gilgamesh was his name from the day he was born,
two thirds of him god and one third human.

In his book, Visions and revisions: of American poetry, Lewis Turco informs us that the “verse” of Gilgamesh was distinguished by “grammatic parallels”. Presumably, this artificial construct was meant to heighten the aural impact of the epic in the same way that, thousands of years later, meter and rhyme would distinguish poetry from prose or every day speech. In some ways, the poet who most closely approximates that experience might be Walt Whitman, whose poetry is marked at times by grammatic, syntactic and rhetorical parallelism.  The parallelism of Gilgamesh probably represents a traditional and ancient formalism typical of ancient poetry. The only equivalent in our own poetry is the meter of blank verse – Iambic Pentameter. To get a feel for the heightened effect the language of the original might have had on an ancient reader, a modern reader might want to avoid free verse translations. Consider reading David Ferry’s recent translationGilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse – a blank verse translation (the same meter as Paradise Lost).

The Story

of him who knew the most of all men know;
who made the journey; heartbroken; reconciled;

who knew the way things were before the Flood,
the secret things, the mystery; who went

to the end of the earth, and over; who returned,
and wrote the story on the a tablet of stone.

He built Uruk. He built the keeping place
of Anu and Ishtar. The Outer wall

shines in the sun like brightest copper; the inner
wall is beyond the imaginings of kings.

Study the brickwork, study the fortification;
climb the great ancient staircase to the terrace;

study how it is made; from the terrace see
the planted and fallow fields, the ponds and orchards.

This is Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh
the Wild Ox, son of Lugalbanda, son

of the Lady Wildcow Ninsun, Gilgamesh
the vanguard and the rear guard of the army,

Shadow of Darkness over the enemy field,
The Web, the Flood that rises to wash away

the walls of alien cities, Gilgamesh
the strongest one of all, the perfect, the terror.

It is he who opened passes through the mountains;
and he who dug deep wells on the mountainsides;

who measured the world; and sought out Utnapishtim
beyond the world; it is he who restored the shrines;

two-thirds a god, one-third a man, the king.
Go to the temple of Any and Ishtar:

open the copper chest with the iron locks;
the tablet of lapis lazuli tells the story.

If you’ve never read Gilgamesh, consider reading it. The epic isn’t long; but tells us a story as true to our condition as 6000 years ago – a story about friendship, loss and acceptance.

Further Information:

The Epic of Gilgamesh: An online Translation

Storytelling, the Meaning of Life, and the Epic of Gilgamesh