Sunday, April 13, 2008

we've moved!

some of you might be curious why there hasn't been a new post in a mazillion years. Well it's 'cause you're looking in the wrong place. Blood and ink has moved to check out the new contributors and see what we have to say.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Small Press Editorial Changes

There are times in the small press when, as a publishing writer, you'll be asked by an editor for certain changes. Depending on the weight and creativity of these changes, you can find yourself wedged between that age-old rock and a hard place. How to handle these situations, and whether to handle them is up to you, but there are some useful things to keep in mind and that we'll discuss in this post. I'll begin with an example, and we'll move on from there.

I sent three poems to an editor for a publication we'll call 'The Whistler'. I received a response only days later, which was swift, but the response was strange. The editor explained that he'd been rewriting my poems, and had hit a snag, so wanted me to okay what he'd already done before he continued rewriting them. I read this email several times, slower each time. There was an attachment that supposedly contained what he was talking about. What did he mean by 'rewriting' my poems? Was this a misunderstanding, and he meant simply that he was typing them into HTML for his webpage, or copying them in some way into his layout program for the next issue, or did he mean he was literally rewriting my work, you know, going to town and changing whatever he pleased? I read the poems he enclosed and yes, he'd rewritten them, heavily. They resembled what I sent, but had been altered all over the place. Not just a word or two, but entire stanzas moved around, broken up, words simply removed, and most of my punctuation had been removed as well. This was like someone disciplining my kid without my consent.

I responded, of course. I told him I wasn't into my work being altered to that extent, and that I didn't want it printed with the changes he had 'offered'. It was an ethical thing, for me. If I didn't write the poems (these changes were to such an extent that I no longer felt the poems were my own), I didn't want them in print with my name on them. A bigger problem was that I simply didn't like what he'd done with the poems. He'd made numerous changes, not just one or two, and all of them altered the poem considerably. I felt he'd fucked them all up, really, and warped them into his own poetry. I was cordial about it, but I withdrew the poems from his consideration. The changes wouldn't have been so bizarre if the poem had been an objective narrative, or complete fiction, but the poems I had sent were about ME, my life, things that had happened over the years. Changing those details, true ones, seemed ludicrous. So, I rescinded from the publication and began the process of getting it behind me. The story should end there.

It doesn't.

The editor emailed me back very quickly with a barrage of profuse apologies. He was sincere, and felt just awful about the situation, and confessed that he didn't mean to overstep his boundaries, and shouldn't have, and then asked me to reconsider, and let him print the poems. It seemed he still wanted to keep his rewrite version for print, after I'd rescinded. I started questioning myself. Was I right to rescind so quickly? Should I have tried to talk to him first? Oh man... had I been a total dick to the editor?

I felt bad for the guy. He seemed really upset with himself, and my withdrawal of the poems had hit him in a harsh way, which wasn't what I intended. I decided to look over his changes some more, and see if I was able to find a middle ground for which I'd be satisfied the poems were my own, and good, but still allow a few of his changes (I'll add that not all of them were bad, per se, they were just numerous and heavy).

Before I could respond with something like: "Sorry about that, man. Okay, let me think about it", I received another email from him. This was about an hour after the last one. The new email was angry, bitter, and he seemed to think I was being pig-headed for not accepting his changes. He went on to say that anyone would have made those same changes, and alluded to the notion that I should have made them myself. I got the idea that he no longer wanted the poems. I mean, this newer email just came off scornful. This email was 180 degrees in the opposite direction as the email that preceeded it, and given that I received them nearly back to back, without having responded yet... well, they spooked me. I decided not to answer him and move on. Things had become weird. He was pissed and I wanted out, though I was supposedly already out, due to my earlier rescinsion.

A couple hours later, however, I received another email from him. This one was melancholy, down-in-the-dumps, and certainly apologetic. He stated that he had planned on using my poems for the centerpiece of the entire issue, and had done much with the formatting to adjust his issue just for my poems, that they were incredible, and that he felt truly horrible for having offended me. He then began a paragraph wherin it was explained that he'd changed my work for love. Those were his exact words. The changes he had made were an act of love, and love was never wrong. I think he meant it. And I was now creeped out sincerely. He'd gone from apologetic to pissed off to sad, to true, perfect love... all in a matter of three emails over about 3 hours, and without my having responded to any of them. It's not like I ditched this guy for a month without response, we're talking 3 hours. I could have been alseep for all he knew. I remember thinking, Jesus, my cover letter... this guy knows where I live. I'd better check my records and-- Oh shit. I live a day's drive down the coast from this guy...

The following morning, I woke and, sure enough, another email from the editor. This one was more like he was trying to identify with me and how I must have felt having my work altered without consent, and how he felt bad for having done it. He stuck to his guns, though, defending the changes he'd made, stating they were good, that the poem was great, that he needed it for his issue and it was all going to be so perfect and ideal... I'd see, just wait, it would come out great, I'd see...

Dear reader, I'll have you know this creeped me out so much that I cowed entirely. I immediately responded. My response was contrived to snuff out what I discerned to be a disturbing turn of events, and to do it in the fastest possible way with the least possible backlash or further communication. It was the biggest solve-all solution I could think of: I told him to go for it, print away, I loved his changes, they were great and I don't know why I didn't see it before. He was great, too. Then I apologized to him for being premature in withdrawing my poems. My bad, all that. I then gave him the all-clear. No problem, buddy. They're all yours. Have a good one. Heh heh... don't murder me in my sleep... right?

The issue came out shortly thereafter, and my butchered poems were present for the world to see. Sure, I wasn't so pleased with the notion that people would read them and think I intended the weird intro, the lack of punctuation, the forced lines... and seeing my altered work on the page certainly bugged me, but hey, I wasn't being stalked or looking over my shoulder, so... it was a fair trade, in my mind.

End of the story, and yes, I'm going somewhere with all this.

When submitting to a publication, it is expected that you have an interest in the publication, and that you feel your work is a fit with their process and production. You think your poem or story fits with what they're up to and you decided to send it. Simple. So you wait for your response and eventually, it arrives. However, what happens if you get a red flag response, stating a 'potential' acceptance of the work in question, pending certain changes the editor has decided you should make? I get these from time to time, and there is no simple solution. It depends on the changes, doesn't it? As a general rule, a minor alteration doesn't bug me much (I.E. An editor asking me to insert 'and' in a line that maybe needs it or maybe doesn't, or an editor letting me know I have a few typos, or misspelled something). However, what if the editor wants more 'creative' changes, meaning, they want you to do some rewriting before they'll accept the piece?

Basically, this is a minefield you have to navigate with care, and the clock is ticking. On the one hand, you shouldn't be so blind about it that you rush to the other end, flinging changes into your poem like mad to suit the editor, but on the other hand, you shouldn't give him/her the finger, either. Again, it depends on the level of change involved. It can be pretty insulting when an editor of a particular ethic or 'school of poetry' tries to change your work to match what they prefer. If they liked your work enough to ask for changes, instead of just rejecting it, there's something you've done right. The differences may be aesthetic, in the sense of general tone or language, or the differences may be strong, as with an editor asking a full rewrite. A 'workshop' editor usually feels that a lot of poetry is open to scrutiny, and I've noticed that most of them tend to forget that not everyone is involved in the workshop manner of things, wherein everything is on the table and open for change. It can be problematic when a more workshop-oriented editor lets this form of learning/exploration effect a writer with a differing style. It can cause much confliction when an editor desires to mellow a poem that wasn't intended to be mellow, or speed up the flow of a poem you wanted to function in a slower measure.

Part of you may be thinking, "Uh, these changes are asinine, overall, and will only disturb what I have going on. They'll only take my poem over and make it one of yours, with me having done only most of the writing." You have to weigh the changes objectively. As I said, this can be tough if you're not into the workshop way of doing things, or haven't been subjected to schooling whereby poems are usually given exacting scrutiny for a particular vein of traits. I'm pretty isolated on my page, and don't like it any other way. The work is mine and I'm on the ball, so more than a couple of suggestions, especially if they're heavy changes, makes me wince. However, I'm not so egoistic to believe I shit roses, and though I dislike it, I will certainly work with an editor if they see something they think will better the poem. I'm critical about it, but not bitter, and on my guard, not a warpath.

I do know poets that hold the more sycophantic notion of accepting everything an editor asks. "Oh thank you! Yes, the poem is so much better this way!", no matter the changes. Think for yourself, but don't forget the editor is doing the same thing, and there needs to be a middle ground if you're going to continue interacting together on or concerning a piece of writing and its publication. It is of high likelihood that you and the editor are seeing the piece from different perspectives. When this occurs, you have to understand that any prospective readers may see it from either, or their own. Tread light: What is it you're trying to do?

Another example:

Editor: "We think the poem would be enhanced if you changed 'sunset' to 'sunrise', and 'midnight' to 'the witching hour'."

Now, you might think, "No, the poem takes place at twilight, and continues until midnight, so 'sunrise' makes no sense. Also, 'the witching hour' sounds out of place when discussing where one day officially and lawfully becomes the next, especially considering I'm not writing some dark, spooky poem, but a poem about officiousness, calendars, and the restraint of living in the present." If this is the case, explain it carefully and kindly. You're sticking to your guns, but not firing them, right? You don't want to get caught in the following sort of banter:

Editor: "We think the poem would be enhanced if you changed 'sunset' to 'sunrise', and 'midnight' to 'the witching hour'."

You: "What, are you stupid? I'm filet mignon and aged red wine. You're hot dogs and a pee milkshake. I'm done with you."

Neither do you want to engage in the following:

Editor: "We think the poem would be enhanced if you changed 'sunset' to 'sunrise', and 'midnight' to 'the witching hour'."

You: "What great ideas! I'm blown away! I'll totally make these changes right now! I'm so glad there are people around who can tell me where I'm flawed!"

You have to navigate what you're willing to change, versus what you're not willing to change, and you have to use a bit of diplomacy in explaining yourself. Remember, the editor saw something in your work that they appreciated, otherwise you would have only received a rejection. Don't make them sorry they liked your work, simply because they want to try and better it (whether their changes are apt or not). Confidence and competence don't always agree.

When it comes to changes in your work that occur without your knowledge, things can be a bit dicey. There are several reasons that can cause these nonconsentual changes to appear in the publication that accepts your writing. Most are innocuous, and related to simple transcription or typographical error. Your poem 'The Sandal Pearls' appears in print, after a long wait, and you notice that the title has been changed to 'The Sandal Petals'. If you submitted on page, by post, it is more than likely, the editor was compiling the issue and your poem was around the 40th poem the editor had typed up in a day. His/her eyes were bleary and numb from reading poetry all day, and it's possible he saw your title peripherally and simply typed what he though he'd read. The words are similar in this instance, yes? If the publication is a bit more automated, they might be using an Optical Recognition Program through a scanner, and your poem is being transcribed by a computer. This can create errors at times. It's also possible the editor spellchecked the issue and a typo in 'Pearls' caused it to come up with 'Petals', and the editor may have clicked 'OK', not realizing the error being made. These are trivial and to be expected. If the publication is an electronic journal, changes can easily be made to a poem that comes to print with mistakes in it, but if we're talking a print journal, there's not much you can do but make a fuss with little resolve.

In your favor as a poet, many online web journals send a customary email out before an issue goes live, asking you to go over your work and get back to them if you find any errors. There are some print journals that do this as well, though more and more of them are abandoning the practice. For those publications that let you examine a work and its layout before it enters complete print, this is a great service, and you should use it, if offered. If it isn't offered, and you later notice an error in your printed work, consider the weight of the error before contacting the editor. Is it just that some random letter in your poem happens to be in bold-face, or the all too common 'teh' appears once instead of 'the'? Likely, not a big deal. For small things like this, readers will know what's up, but what if the publication did produce something very wrong (Dear Editor, your spellcheck muddled up a couple of things- My last name is 'Succre', not 'Soccer', and in the last stanza, the squash is called 'butternut', not 'butt nut'). If so, you should contact and mention it. Again, be cool about things. It is more than probable that the editor had no malicious intent and the problem is a simple typographical disturbance, and if electronic, easily remedied, so don't get all insulted and throw an e-mail hissy-fit at someone you don't know.

I've met poets who will stonewall an editor at the mention of changes (I'm posessed by genius!), believing it to be insulting, and I run across some more passive writers who will generally acquiese (Whatever you say, just print it.), being publication hungry. It's common that these mindsets can be altered by the amount of time the poet has been publishing, and how many publications he/she has under their belt. You're hungrier when you're starting out, and you're more confident when you've succeeded enough times. I think the most effective and least damaging approach is to travel between these two formats, giving a little when needed, standing rigid at times, and keeping your head on no matter what. It's a good idea to remember that most of the prolific writers throughout history had an editor of some sort that gave their work at least a once-over before it saw print. These days, and especially in the small press, this dynamic can get convoluted because there is a huge surplus of writers and editors, and an even larger resevoir of opinions about poetry, what it is, what it's supposed to do... schools of thought, yeah? More confusing is that any of these manners of thought regarding poetry can be augmented easily to fit a particular aesthetic in an editor or writer. Couple this with the notion that most of our small press editors are also writers, and you have a vast gamut of situations that can arise during submissions to publication. Keep that in mind when approached by an editor that wants to talk shop on a piece of your writing.

There are editors who will take it upon themselves to ask a tremendous amount of revision, some of which might be unacceptable to you. This situation is rare, but it does happen. In these cases, there comes a point where a line has to be drawn. You might not know where, at first, but you'll definitely know when it's been crossed. An editor edits a publication, and to some extent, can help out with a piece of your writing, however, not to the point of rewriting it entirely. That's no longer editing, but co-writing. I do know poets that get insulted too easily, will start a pissing match with an editor over even a minute alteration, and I know poets that do the opposite, lapping up whatever they're told or asked to change and smiling all the while. The thing to remember is that, in most instances, these are suggestions. Granted, not making an effort to follow them may bar you from the publication in question with the material you sent, but you can easily turn away and go elsewhere. However, as suggestions, you may want to take heed and give them a shot (within reason). When an editor asks me to make an alteration to a piece, I weigh it with much thought. Does the change requested ruin my poem? Is it inconsequential enough that I wouldn't even notice if I didn't know about it? Is the poem enhanced in a way I'm okay with? Putting myself in a reader's shoes, and keeping my writer self out of it for a moment, do these changes help catch my interest without overly catering to me? As a writer, can I make the changes, or my own, alternate changes to suit the editor, and still maintain my own thing without neutering my stylization in the poem?

Tough questions when you're under the scope, but keep your head and think of your place in the piece, and your station as a writer. What's the worst that can happen? Keep it in mind, and remember that principle is mostly invisible. What are you willing to give or take for it?

Monday, October 22, 2007

some exercises

This is a continuation of an old post where I promised some creative exercises but never followed up on it (sorry)
Being primarily a cartoonist I will of course skew these small acts with an eye toward cartooning but it doesn't take a brain surgeon to realize that there are corollaries and connections between all the arts and what benefits an artist of one stripe can also benefit an artist of another. Some of these exercises will not be helpful to a writer of poetry or a dancer or a person who battles sharks but with a little luck there will be at least something in this list that will appeal to everyone's idiosyncratic creative drives. These are presented in no particular order.
  • Make a grocery list and go shopping. When that is done take your list and sit down at a table. Make a quick drawing of each and every item on the list... don't spend more than two or three minutes on each drawing. Make a small book of those drawings (if you don't know how to make a small book you can look it up with a search engine of your choice using keywords like 'zine' or 'minicomic.' I will post a detailed how-to on that subject in the distant future) Take that book to a local zine show or craft fair and sell them for a quarter.
  • go for a walk and collect objects you find on the sidewalk. Make sure to have at least ten items. Once home arrange those items on the floor in a row, in an order that you think of as "harmonious" for lack of a better word. Write a short story incorporating all the items. The items should appear in the story in the order they are arranged on the floor.
  • Write a poem, do not spend too much time on it, this is just an exercise remember? Turn that poem into a comic strip, turn that comic strip into a song, turn that song into a video monologue, turn that video monologue into a short story... you get the idea. Take no more than twenty or thirty minutes on each form. feel free to stretch it out over several days if you need to though. When you are done you should be able to notice distinct strengths and weaknesses that each form offers.
  • write a short biographical study, this can be in comic form, prose, screenplay, whatever. Try to make the study dramatic and narrative, not just a list of events. Make sure to remain true to the facts.
  • write a stream-of-consciousness story for thirty minutes or more. if written on the computer you should print it out. with scissors cut the paragraphs apart and paste them together in no particular order. read the story aloud and see what new inspiration you can derive from it. repeat as many times as you can stomach. try the same technique cutting each sentence into strips and rearranging.
  • go and see what some of my co-contributors have to say here and here both articles are hugely inspirational and many good exercises could be cultivated from them.
I'll try to list off a few more exercises whenever things get slow around here. Thanks for reading, now go make stuff.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Formal Construction in Poetry - Part 2

Across the planet, written language in its most basic beginnings flourished, and it most certainly flourishes still. There is no end to the sheer infinitude of things requiring description by humans in language. As times change, so does interest in various modes of language, especially in manners of expression considered artistic. In the poetry arena, this is certainly evident and we have a large backdrop of styles and forms that make up the structure of this style of lingual art. Translations are in high demand these days, and you'll notice a large number of venues in the small press looking for them. Translation poses problems between languages, of course, but in languages of similarity, it can be managed somewhat well. The meeting of east and west, and later, the far east with the far west, however, created a kind of rift in translation. What happens when poetry in a specific language uses strong elements and a construction that simply doesn't or can't exist in another language? Can these works be translated well? This is a difficult question, though translations do abound from form to form, language to language. Even more difficult to capture are the very forms in which certain poems are written. One may be tempted to discern the differences in Japanese tanka or haiku and their western counterparts to be minor, but they are not. One might be very comfortable writing in Adelaide Crapsey's version of a cinquain, a form inspired by both French and Japanese forms, yet find difficulty with a study of the base roots of the form.

As cultural borders and interests shift in each society, the rules behind their most modern forms of verse are augmented or simplified. Effects of other languages are often taken on, studied, and attempts at use in another language are made. In this mode, synopsis is made, simplified, and usually explained to others in basic elements, and it is common that the interests of one culture can change the interpretation of poetic forms from another. Through these changes, Italian farm songs of old are re-envisioned in writing forms of the French aristocracy, then adapted into English, given new rules, and finally, we have the modern villanelle. Funeral stone carvings and inscriptions become popular among collectors in ancient Greece, are anthologized and studied, then a style develops, is utilized for longer works once papyrus becomes common, is adopted by many languages, including English, and through all of these changes and interests, we arrive at the modern epigram. Church prayer in France spawns the use of amen statements, one of which, when repeated often, inspires a verse form that survives today in many languages, the kyrielle. In Persian poetry, the use of quatrains becomes so popular that, a thousand years later, one of the greatest middle eastern verse forms, the ruba'i, is still written in these simple quatrains, having adopted a critical and inventive system of refrain. All of these forms have been adopted into other languages, some of an entirely different construction. In short, culture steals. The varying styles of poetry of a great many places exchange popularity, and often, and many have made it through the language barriers to you and me. Even more interesting is that some of these verse forms inspired other verse forms that we'll also read about. You can note them dating one another through history.

You may have noticed that in my articles thus far, there seems to be quite a few French, Japanese, and Persian forms. There is a reason for this, being that much of the rhythmic forms of poetry we use had their birth in these places, through the ages, and have carried well enough into English. By far the majority of our poetic English forms are based on previous forms in other cultures, and especially early French, Japanese, and middle eastern forms or practices, though there are many invented (and often reinvented) in English itself.

You'll also find that there are six different forms in this article, rather than the five I try to maintain. The reason for this is due to my study of the cinquain. After searching through books and all over the internet for reference and various tidbits of history, and getting different explanations of what a cinquain is and was from just about every synopsis I encountered, I chose to write a more complete history of the cinquain, with a large explanation behind why there are so many types of poems called 'cinquain', and explain what all the confusion is about. It will be explained more in detail that at the heart of the confusion surrounding cinquain, and why the rules seem to change depending on who you ask, is that our most modern cinquains are inspired by the tanka, while the name 'cinquain' was taken from a French form already in existence, and which was quite different. Also, we'll learn about other forms inspired by the newer cinquain, and that also contribute to the confusion about all of it. In order to highlight how this all occurred and what it means today, I added a history and study of the tanka to the five forms I had already prepared for the article.

As with the previous article, I have provided scansive marks where appropriate, with soft accents appearing as 'o', and their opposite hard accents appearing as '/'. These are often shown as circles and dashes, as well as other symbols, but for this text, I've chosen to go with o and /, and use color to indicate rhyme or layering effects.



Kyrielle (KEAR-ee-EL) is a form that shares a hearty lineage alongside the pantoum and other French forms. Like the pantoum, its history is longer than that of most poetry forms.

Origin and History: This intriguing kind of poetry was born in medieval France, early in the renaissance, and was originally a troubadour verse pattern. The name itself derives from christian liturgy, the 'kiriele', which is a derivative of the kyrie eleison, a form of church prayer. Each stanza of the kyrie ended with the phrase "Kyrie eleison", which translates as "Lord, have mercy". This was used as a sort of refrain / amen statement at the end of certain church songs and chants. Refrains and repeating lines were common enough in liturgy, and were sometimes called 'rime en kyrielle'. Even today, the kyrie eleison is a strong feature in modern church hymns and verse.

The form: The poetic form developed from the kyrie. This form, the kyrielle (sometimes kiriele), has been adapted, for nonreligious verse, into the canon of poetic forms. The basis was octosyllabic (8 syllable) lines, usual among troubadour songs, and was not often rhymed, as is common in French poetic tradition. The traditional Kyrielle is designed around stanzas, each being 4 lines. The fourth line is a refrain, and is repeated in its entirety with each 4th line of the poem. Another trait it has inherited from the faith-based song form is a heavy use of repetition (like, though of a different nature, the pantoum), both in word and phrase, and there is a refrain at the end of each verse. The kyrielle did not ascribe to the particular rhythms that steep English history today, but was measured in a count of single syllables, not an English rhythm, as we tend to use in our modern verse. In English, rather than keeping the lines octosyllabic only, a rhythm is used, in addition to retaining the rule of eight syllables. With eight syllables, you're rhythmically left to the iamb (o/) or the trochee (/o), though the traditional, canonical usage certainly dictates iambic.

The modern and less strict version of the kyrielle that we retain and use is similar to its original form, but we use English rhythms to construct it. Each stanza contains 4 lines, the first 3 of which are in iambic tetrameter (those wishing to dismiss the octosyllabic rule of the kyrielle may use pentameter, as this is acceptable anymore). The 4th line is the refrain, which also uses the same rhythm, but can vary in size from a single foot (monometric), to a size equal to the three lines preceding it. The refrain no longer needs be "Lord, have mercy upon us", but is open to the use and needs of the author. French has a wide variety of vowel endings, far more than in English. As English lacks some of the musicality of these endings, we have a stronger need for rhyme. The modern English kyrielle usually carries an AABB rhyme in the first stanza, followed by CCBB in the second, and so forth (red here denotes the refrain rhyme). Other variations are plausible. It is also possible to write the kyrielle in couplets (2-lined stanzas), rather than quatrains (4-lined stanzas). The notion that the kyrielle's prevalent quatrain form is actually only two couplets without separation is arguable, and does have a following among some with a great interest in the kyrielle form. In the use of separated couplets, the refrain would be the second line, which ends each couplet, rather than the 4th line of a quatrain.

Quatrain Tablature in 4 stanzas, in iambic tetrameter, with AABB rhyme scheme:

o/o/o/o/ A

o/o/o/o/ A

o/o/o/o/ B

[refrain (o/)] B

o/o/o/o/ C

o/o/o/o/ C

o/o/o/o/ B

[refrain (o/)] B

o/o/o/o/ D

o/o/o/o/ D

o/o/o/o/ B

[refrain (o/)] B

o/o/o/o/ E

o/o/o/o/ E

o/o/o/o/ B

[refrain (o/)] B

Couplet Tablature in 4 stanzas, in trochaic tetrameter, with AB rhyme scheme:

/o/o/o/o A

[refrain (o/)] B

/o/o/o/o A

[refrain (o/)] B

/o/o/o/o C

[refrain (o/)] B

/o/o/o/o C

[refrain (o/)] B

Whether in quatrains or couplets, the kyrielle has a rich history evolved from christian church liturgy, and its survival, or revival, in modern poetic usage is an indication of its powerful nature. The use of exact refrain drives a point or plead quite far, and while the kyrielle is not as versatile as the sonnet, and not as stringent as the pantoum, it has its own place among poetic form aficionados, and writing in it is a superb experience that carries both great tradition and longstanding history.



What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole;
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

-Samuel Taylor Coleridge

He would stab his best friend for the sake of writing an epigram on his tombstone.

-Oscar Wilde: The Nihilists, act 2. Referring to Prince Paul

Considered at times to be a lyric, though of diminutive shape and length, nothing defines an epigram more than its wit. It shares a trait with the Japanese haiku in that its primary usage requires concision, subject, and brevity, but that's where the similarity ends. The concentration of the subject, usually with a focus on a turn of wit near the end, and with an exacerbating tone, is tantamount in the epigram. Considered a staple form for many humorists and poets alike through the centuries, the epigram has been mastered by a wide variety of individuals, from poets the likes of Coleridge, Baudelaire, Dickinson, and Balzak, to various humorists. 20th century playwright and author Oscar Wilde was notorious for his epigrammatic wit, as was satirist Ambrose Bierce, and writer / humorist Mark Twain. You'd be hard-pressed to find a performing comic that doesn't make use, even without knowledge of the term, of epigrammatic lines, especially in segue and in interactions with hecklers.

Origin and a Brief History: The very etymology of the word 'epigram' has had a long life. From Merriam-Webster Online, 'Epigram' is from Middle English epigrame, from Latin epigrammat-, epigramma, from Greek, from epigraphein, to write on, inscribe, from epi- + graphein to write. This same dictionary entry describes the epigram as: "A concise poem dealing pointedly and often satirically with a single thought or event and often ending with an ingenious turn of thought." This definition encapsulates the epigram well, but a more historical study (and a sense of humor) is certainly needed to truly enjoy the form.

In the earliest origin, epigrams were utilized in verse form and appeared as inscriptions on public memorials, funerary objects (another form, the elegy, springs from this same funerary function), and statues of popular figures of Greece. These inscriptions were necessarily short, as they were designed to be set, literally, in stone, which required some work. During the Hellenistic period, when setting statements in stone was surpassed by the evolving use of papyrus, the shortness of epigrams became a matter of the author's choice, as longer works could now be feasible. However, their roots in stone held, and the epigram was usually kept short. These were often gathered in collections, as well, with some known to be quite large. Through their intellectual enjoyment, these collections of brief inscriptions soon gave way to a genre of literature. The epigram evolved directly from the simple use of inscriptions, which gives a strong impetus for promoting concision and expeditiousness in the form. These early, Greek epigrams were not so short as epigrams in the modern, western tradition, and carried funerary themes for quite some time.

Modern epigrams take their shortness and brevity from the European tradition, which did not use a broad scope when studying the diverse Grecian epigrams, instead using a very selective adaptation of a few authors in order to coordinate it with the tradition of metrical satire in some Roman forms. The modern, western epigram has a long history, and, along with the proverb, dominated early English literature. It contains a swiftness to reach the point, and a tightly constructed brevity in wording, oftentimes to deliver, as with a limerick, the punchline or twist. It is not uncommon for epigrams to take on meter and rhyme, and a usual, well-recognized size is 4 lines, though this a matter of choice on the author. The real relegation of an epigram is perfection of statement, and if your wit comes turn in 3 lines, then 3 lines it should be.

The epigram form, with its origin in inscription, has many facets in modern culture that have long ago separated from formal poetry. Many witty one-liners can be considered epigrams, like Mark Twain's famous line:

"The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right."

The memorable phrases of enlightenment attributed to philosophers are often epigrammatic, as with Frederich Nietzsche's statement:

"Under peaceful conditions a warlike man sets upon himself."

Some folk sayings share the epigram root as well, like in the proverbial:

"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

It could even be inferred that many of the world's bumper sticker sayings (really just stick-on inscriptions, yes?) are epigrammatic. For example:

My wife said it was either her or the truck.
I'll miss her.


Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
Now she's at rest — and so am I.

-John Dryden

Of old when folk lay sick and sorely tried,
The doctors gave them physic, and they died.
But here's a happier age; for now we know
Both how to make men sick and keep them so.

-Hilaire Belloc

Who leaves the pine-tree, leaves his friend,
Unnerves his strength, invites his end.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson



It is usual that westerners group forms by ethnicity, and where you'll find haiku, you'll usually find a mention of tanka. Like haiku, the history of tanka can be a little confusing, though not once the few clear changes in how it was officialized are understood. The lifespan of tanka, through several names and cultural shifts during many periods of Japanese history, is much longer than that of haiku or its base form, hokku. Like all Japanese poetry, it is short, concise, and requires expert construction to pull off.

History and Origin: Tanka is Japanese, with it's very name meaning "short poem". It evolved off the end unit of another, older form, the chōka. The late Nara and early Heian periods (early 10th century) of Japanese history saw the modification or abandonment of various styles of poetry, and was a time of poetic nationalism, when the Japanese sought to distinguish their own poetry forms, waka from that of the well-known Chinese styles, kanshi. Waka (also referred to in earlier times as Yamato uta) and kanshi mean, respectively, 'Japanese poem' and 'Chinese poems'. It is also a time of revision, and many styles of poetry were left to history during the Heian period, while some were augmented or reaffixed in academics and poetry circles of the time.

Waka was a term given to many styles of Japanese poetry and contained many forms, including the chōka ("long poem"), sedōka ("whirling head poem"), bussokusekika ("rock of the Buddha's footprint poem"), katauta ("half song"), and the hanka ("reverse poem"). Of these forms, the hanka and the chōka were the most used and were considered the more customary in the period's poetry. The chōka, which ended with a metrical count of 5-7 / 5-7-7, was instrumental in the evolution of the hanka, which is exactly 5-7 / 5-7-7. It was the ending of chōkas that inspired them to be written, at times, on their own and called hanka. This is similar to how hokku (later called haiku) evolved as a form, after separating from its usual usage as the opening of a haikai poem. The Heian period saw the demise of most waka forms from common usage, except for the hanka, which survived strongly. In time, the term waka began to take on a meaning synonymous with the single sub-form to have survived the times, hanka. The terms became semi-interchangeable, though most used the term waka. The subjects of most waka related to love, funereal sadness, and descriptions with occasional elements of philosophy and nature.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the famed Japanese poetry critic and revivalist Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), himself a poet of much renown, sought to separate the historical notions of many Japanese poetic forms from the modern usage, and appropriate names accordingly. With clarity and disambiguation in mind, he began liberating many poetry forms from their confusing family names, and trying to give each its own, modern identity, or at the very least, its own name. You may remember Shiki from our study of the recreation of Haiku, in a previous post. Shiki felt the history of these forms was messy, and caused many modern writers to lose focus on what certain forms were, and why. He wanted a renewal to the pantheon of Japanese poetry, a modernization that would carry both clarity and simplicity. It is Shiki that we owe our knowledge and usage of haiku to, as well as other forms, including the modern hanka, which he gave the title "tanka". Shiki used the term tanka for a specific short poem, educating many on the differences in the new terminology. Waka would come to be a term of certain poetry structures again, in general, and tanka would be a specific sort of poem itself.

In English, the tanka is extraordinarily young, having been adopted into English only in the late 20th century. The earliest English tanka collections date from 1974, which means the tanka, in English, is roughly the same age as the author of this post. This is quite a juxtaposition with its Japanese age, which is well over a millennium.

More information regarding format: Waka poems are often divided into sections, much in the same way western sonnets consist of an octave and a sestet. Waka uses a similar system of division. Kami-no-ku (upper phrase), refers to the topmost phrase or system in the poem, and shimo-no-ku (lower phrase) refers to the second, lower phrase or system. These poem structures are measured in mora phrases as well. A mora is a unit of sound in many languages that determines syllable weight, or stress. Japanese is a language that uses moraic qualities extensively, in contrast to English, which uses syllables. This causes much disability when translating poems from Japanese into western language. 'Nippon' (the Japanese name for their country, for which westerners extracted the name 'Japan') has 2 syllables in English, NIP-PON, but 4 moras in Japanese: NI-P-PO-N. A mora phrase, in Japanese poetry, is a portion of sounds that can serve as a refrain or stress pattern. These are as similar to English metrical rhythm as they are dissimilar. Their function is alike, but in a wholly different metrical system, much like the functional difference between the American mile, in measuring distance, and the metrical kilometer in Europe. They serve the same purpose, in the same means, but are entirely different machines that operate in distinctive methods. Look to the example of tanka below to see how these phrases and functions operate.

Another function in these forms is that they are designed in units, rather than romanicized lines. The closing or concluding unit of certain Japanese poems is called an envoi, and if often doubles as the lower phrase. When translated into English, a line is the closest approximation to the unit of poetry in which these forms are created in their native tongue.

As they are available and relatively simple, I will describe all of the abovementioned forms and their mechanics, in our most modern understanding of them.

The Waka Forms


Japanese: This consists of a series of the mora upper phrase (kami-no-ku) 5-7 recurring 2 or more times, and ending with a fresh lower phrase (shimo-no-ku) 5-7-7 ending. Example: 5-7-5-7-5-7-5-7-5-7-7. In this example, red is used to denote the unit of measure being repeated. The chōka is usually a longer poem than the example I've given. The 5-7 measure is repeated a number of times until the poet chooses to end the poem, by capping it off with the final 5-7-7.

Western: The same, but with syllables rather than mora. Most westerners do not adopt the upper/lower phrase system, and rather keep the poem in the function of lines in certain syllable counts. In chōka, this is a line in 5 syllables, then one in 7 syllables, with further repetition of this 5 and 7, until the poem ends with lines of 5-7-7 syllables. Example: 5-7-5-7-5-7-5-7-5-7-7. Again, the red denotes the measurement being repeated, in this case syllables. As with the Japanese original, repetition of certain sounds is expected, and in the west, often results in alliterative poetry.


Japanese: A mora structure of 5-7-7-5-7-7. Here, red denotes the mora phrase being repeated. It is repeated once. The upper and lower phrasing is identical, metrically.

Western: The same in syllables. 5-7-7-5-7-7. Again, red denotes the metrical repeat.


Japanese/Western: A katauta is the same as a sedoka, but without the repeat. This means it is exactly half of a sedōka. The mora/syllable count is 5-7-7. This is a single phrase poem, and has no repeat.


The pattern for this form, in Japanese is 5-7-5-7-7-7. There is no modern English equivalent to this poem, as one of the hallmarks of bussokusekika is that it be carved in slate. I suppose if one so chose, he/she could make a western version using the above pattern in syllables, however, I don't know of any poets who earn enough from penning verse to afford chisels and slate instead of paper. If anyone decides to write a bussokusekika in western language and actually carves it in slate, send me a picture.

Tanka (originally hanka):

Japanese: A mora upper phrase of 5-7-5, followed by a lower phrase of 7-7. You can see now how this matches the end phrasing of a chōka, which was mentioned in the above history.

Western: 5 lines made of the following syllable count: 5-7-5-7-7.

Tanka, itself a development from the chōka, has also been instrumental in the development of other forms, as well. It is a Japanese tradition among poets that when one sends a haiku to a friend, the friend return the gesture by sending a tanka. Renga, which I will cover in a later post, is another form begotten from tanka. It began as a game between poets, where one would create, either writing or reciting, an upper phrase of a tanka, and a second poet would complete it, writing or reciting the lower phrase. This is similar to the vogue of circle-writing that English has seen in its past, which only carries over now into basic formats in workshops and group exercises. The tanka was also key in the invention of one form of Americanized cinquain, as you will read below, in the next form discussion.

In closing, the tanka is an adapted form that has a high degree of popularity in both the east and west, created openly with identical construction, but dissimilar base units. There are many small press western magazines that actively seek English tanka, and the number of them grows by the year. The only changes the tanka has seen are in the sometimes obfuscating, though necessary, measurement definitions when crossing the language barrier between east and west, and its title as a poetic form, which was a matter of officializing the form and giving it a new name for clarity in the early 20th century. The tanka has seen a long, millennial advancement across many eras and periods of history, and in that time has undergone virtually no change in construction. From its conception onward, it has kept itself both pure and provident. It is, to use a cliche, a form both tried and true.

For an excellent source of various English examples:



What makes a cinquain ('sing-KANE', though in some circles pronounced 'saw-KAHN') is a bit of a controversy among those who write it with regularity. The reason for this discongruence is that two different forms of poetry (and in great error, others at times) claim the same nomination of title: Cinquain. I'll describe them both to you, with tablature, and mention some of the others that have snipped the title on occasion. In this article, the older cinquain will keep its name, and the second form will be referred to as Crapsey's cinquain, after it's inventor, Adelaide Crapsey, an American poet and promulgator of many verse forms, of some prominence in the early 1900's. What these two forms share is brevity in the use of 5 lines. That's where the similarity exists, and only there.

If you do a basic Google search for 'cinquain', you'll find a throng of descriptions. Some are very specific, but have little to do with the next description you'll find. There will be some that claim the cinquain is French, and some will claim it is American, and I've seen still others that claim the form is Japanese. All three are correct on certain levels, though this depends on which cinquain is being discussed. Most of these sites will also state exactly what a cinquain is, and how to write it, but you'll notice the next site has a different explanation entirely. Some relegate that a cinquain is all subject, with a few rules about lines that modify it, in specific lengths, while others will state that a western meter be used, while still others claim it's nothing more than a specific set of syllables and that's it. About the only thing anyone agrees on is that the cinquain, in whatever form, is 5 lines long. So, of all these descriptions, which is true? Which is traditional? Why do some say it was invented by an American poet, and some say it was invented in France, and some say it comes from the Japanese tanka or even haiku? Which is actual cinquain, versus some offshoot of cinquain? Who didn't do their research and who did? Most are professors, but they give different answers so... WHAT'S GOING ON?

In order to answer that, we have to go to the root of the problem and talk about Adelaide Crapsey, and before we can go to that root, we need to travel overseas for a moment and look at the root of her inspiration (and title). Next stop, France.

Cinquain Form: The cinquain is a French form (sometimes referred to as 'quintain', which means 5 lines, in the same system for which 'quatrain' means 4 lines), and is designed around a 5 line stanza with a rhyme scheme of ABABB, though the rhyme and line length can vary. Rhythm is often used, but the poem can be devoid of classical feet, can exist in free verse, or various constructs, if one so wishes. The basic rule is 5 lines and the ABABB rhyme scheme.

Tablature, in iambic pentameter:

o/o/o/o/o/ A

o/o/o/o/o/ B

o/o/o/o/o/ A

o/o/o/o/o/ B

o/o/o/o/o/ B

That's it, nothing too complex. They are a pleasure to write and provide quick gratification to someone wanting to formalize a poetic afternoon. Now that we know what a cinquain was, we have to travel over to ancient Japan, Heian period, and study the tanka, because it is key in understanding why the cinquain is no longer like the French model on which we've just read. Go ahead and read about tanka, in the post previous this, above, if you haven't already.

All done? Good news. Now, having visited France and Japan, we have to travel to America, early 20th century, and find out why this relatively simple French form is now touted all over the internet with many, many different definitions, virtually none of it resembling the actual French form, and most of it resembling Japanese forms, particularly tanka. Strap in.

The Second Cinquain History and Origin: Adelaide Crapsey, a poet in the beginning of the 20th century, heavily influenced by the more image-oriented Japanese poetry, devised a poetic form, based loosely on the 5-line tanka form. Japanese poetry was seeing a vanguard in American poets in the turn of 20th century and its use of image and brevity was gaining in popularity. Crapsey's new American form had a much more specialized set of rules than tanka, but there were similarities. Proud of her form, she most likely saw a great degree of use to be had for it, and so all she needed was to give it a title. It is in this particular function, giving her form a name, that all our future confusion arises. It all leads back to this single point in history: Adelaide chose 'cinquain' as the name of her new form, which was a name already taken. She may have meant 'cinquain' merely as a defining title, as it means, literally, '5 lines', but the world seemed to adopt 'cinquain' as the form's actual name. Why this poet chose to name her new form, an offshoot of Japanese tanka, a cinquain (a form from France and related to church liturgy), is befuddling, and a cause of some of the confusion surrounding her created form. The two original forms share a structure of 5-lines, but the similarities end there. One can only wish she had chosen to simply call it a "tanka cinquain", or a unique name of its own, which would have been easier on those of us with an interest in her form. Crapsey did something similar with the epigram, as well, attempting to use the name for a new form of her own. This seems to be a strange habit of hers. We can assume she was trying to innervate older forms by changing them up a bit, adding some spice here and there, but in hindsight, much spicy confusion has been sowed, and innervation has become enervation, instead. This may be our fault more than hers.

Now, having studied a bit, we can better understand how a 5 line French form's name was taken and used for a 5 line American form inspired by a 5 line Japanese form. None of which are all that alike. Ah, the noble cinquain(s).

So, we know what the French form was, and now we're going to take a look at Crapsey's form, which is more relevant in modern times when one looks up 'cinquain' references.

Crapsey Cinquain form: Once the tanka and French form is understood, we can better understand the Crapsey form. Adelaide's cinquain was an unrhymed poem, of five lines, and consisting of just 22 syllables from beginning to end. As with tanka, haiku and other Japanese forms, she gave each line a specific metrical count (in English, syllables). The first line has 2 syllables, the second uses 4, the third carries 6 syllables, and the fourth line uses 8. Line 5, the last and final line of the poem, reverts in size and is but 2 syllables, just as at the beginning. She gave her cinquains titles, just as with original French cinquains, and unlike modern tanka.

Tablature of the Crapsey Cinquain is not required, as there is no rhythm of feet and no formal structure beyond a syllable count of 2, 4, 6, 8, 2.

Of Note: There is yet another alternate definition of a cinquain that one may find in various places online, attributed to the French cinquain, though I found no history to back it up at all, just numerous mentions. The alternate form and definition is as follows: A French form in five lines. The initial line is a title, with the second line describing this title in but two words. The third incorporates action words, again regarding the title line, and the fourth line uses exactly four 'sensory' or 'feeling' words. The last line of this French cinquain line involves a description of the title in a single word. (Author's note: This alternate definition doesn't coincide with French poetic tradition much, and I have to question the validity of the statement that it is French at all. This alternate definition seems more like a hybrid of the original French cinquain and Crapsey's American cinquain).

More confusion? Indeed. The turns and gyrations of definition keep coming, and if this alternate description of the 'original French cinquain' with its improbability and strong difference from the one we studied before hasn't confused you enough, read on.

The Americanized Crapsey version of the cinquain, inspired by the tanka, has spawned and inspired numerous offshoots of its own in the poetry world. It has been breeding all over the place. All of these offshoots share certain ideals in Crapsey's rulings, but with their own eccentricities and grooming habits:

Cinqku, a spin-off form created by American Poet Denis Garrison (Garrison and Crapsey are both mentioned frequently in studies of 20th century poetic forms), is a concise, five-line cinquain in 17 syllables, like a haiku, bearing no title, and usually with a 'twist' or 'turn' in the last two lines.

Lanterne, another sprig from the Crapsey cinquain stem, is a five-line verse, but shaped like a Japanese lantern. It carries the rule that the syllable count must follow this precise pattern: One, two, three, four, one. In addition to this, each line must be able to function as a separate phrase. The lanterne can also go without a title, though if one is used, it is in service to a sort of '6th line', which often summarizes the poem, like a title, as a 'handle' to the image of the lantern.

Tetractys is another form from the Crapsey cinquain origin. For this one, we have British poet Ray Stebbings to thank. A tetractys, like those above, is a 5-line poem, but has 20 syllables throughout, and certainly a title. The syllables are utilized in the 5 lines as follows: One, two, three, four, ten. As with the lanterne, each line must stand on its own as a phrase.

Quintiles are a bit different from those above, in that they are longer. The reason for this is obvious when one considers what makes a Quintile. This form is created when multiple cinquains (Crapsey's) are linked together around a common theme or image. A quintile is a chain of cinquains that forms a new, larger, unique poem, similar to a "crown" of sonnets being a chain of multiple sonnets.

These are all examples of five-line image forms that are related to Adelaide Crapsey's cinquain form, with the exception of quintiles, which are multiples of other cinquains. Some of these numerous forms are often mislabeled as simply 'cinquain', and even more confusion has set in. The original cinquain (Not Adelaide Crapsey's), has spawned a few variations of its own, as well, seen in the use of some English quintets (5 line stanza or unbroken poem), quintillas, and five line blank or free verse.

With both forms seeding the poetry world with so many young, new poetic forms, all of which bare similarities to one another, and many of which are sometimes referred to simply as 'cinquain', it's easy to see why fans of various cinquain forms can find themselves in confused arguments, and spend time arguing out the peculiarities of one another's poetry. Some editors in the small press favor these poems, but before submitting to one, it may be wise to research what, exactly, a particular editor refers to when the term 'cinquain' is used.

I'm not posting examples of these various 'cinquain' forms because there are simply too many to track down. A simple internet search will find you droves of them, but be cautious of the definitions that accompany the examples. They vary nearly by site.



Ruba'i is the Persian singular for 'quatrain', the plural being rubáiyát (sometimes written as ruba'iyat, ruba'iyyat or rubaiyat). The ruba'i is a rhymed quatrain, often linked into longer chains of quatrains with an interlaced rhyme scheme. While there are numerous poets renowned for their rubaiyat in Iran, the western world has few translations of these keystone poets. Some of the works of Rumi have seen publicity in the west, and there are many others to be found, particularly in various divans (collections of verse by a single poet, the Persian version of a 'reader'), but the most famous example of rubaiyat, internationally, is the well-known Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam, which exists in various language translations, with the English version translated by Edward Fitzgerald being far and wide the most known and distributed. Fitzgerald was a major reason for this Persian system of quatrains becoming known to the west, and also one of the primary players in getting Omar Khayyam more notice in his own country (historically, Khayyam was often dismissed as hedonistic and of lighter talent, and even accused of not writing all of his own verses, for a time, but the popularity of Fitzgerald's translation caused critics to rethink his abilities, and certain manuscripts discovered later proved that Khayyam did write all of his verses).

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam saw much praise and is still heavily available in most bookstores with even a rudimentary poetry section. This was no easy feat in the west, as Persian poetry is heavily imbued with distinctive beauty in language and a unique, versatile sound usage that doesn't exist in most other languages, and translations into English lose a wealth of the pleasure in Persian poetry. English translations can relate theme and subject, monorhyme (which works very well in Persian, and to different effect than it can in English), but very little of the musical construction, or sound essence can be transferred, and many of the Sufi images and allusion don't come across the cultural and lingual border. This is similar to the way in which French vowel endings don't exist so heavily in English, or Japanese mora don't translate into the metrics of English directly. We can only receive generalized translations of work in which elements are at play that English has no system for collaborating. Khayyam's rubaiyat, and their translation by Fitzgerald, in particular, is so highly renowned that the well-known book of it is often referred to as simply "The Rubaiyat", though this is also due to the misconception behind the word 'rubaiyat', with many westerners initially thinking it to be a specific title term to the book, and not simply the Persian word for 'quatrains'.

Origin and History: Most of the Persian forms came about or were augmented anew in the Ghaznavid and Seljuq periods, which saw the rise of numerous great poets, including 'The Six', which are a group of writers of various times, who were all considered the masters of poetry and prose, each in their own fields. Persians through the ages have held a strong reverence for these practitioners of written language. The six were Ferdowsi, Khayyam, Anvari, Rumi, Saadi, and Hafez. Hafez (also known as Hafiz), you may recall was mentioned in my last post in relation to the ghazal, for which he is considered a master.

Rhyme is an absolute in classical Persian verse. The usual format of it is monorhyme, meaning a single rhyme sound that continues throughout the poem. There are 4 main verse forms that have survived the test of Persian time, these being principal in the history. These are the qasideh, masnavi, qazal (also known in the west as ghazal), and the subject of this study, the ruba'i. These other forms will be studied in later posts, and the quazal we've already covered in a previous post. For now we'll focus on ruba'i and its form.

The Form: A ruba‘i is a quatrain (a four-line poem, usually metric). It carries within it a rhyme scheme of AABA, meaning that the 1st, 2nd, and 4th lines rhyme. A chain of ruba'i is known as ruba'iyat, and the rhyme scheme continues through the chain in singular fashion, meaning that the same rhyme sound is used throughout the poem: AABA, A2A2BA2, etc... This means that the same rhyme sound is used in each quatrain. The ruba'i is written in a specific meter, though this is a matter of choice and deliberation on the author's part. A more common format is in syllabic count, though in western languages, our formal rhythms can be used.

Other format: In later, augmented fashion, and especially in other languages during long strings of ruba'iyat, it is not uncommon to see more intricate rhyme schemes at play. For instance, the unrhymed line in the first quatrain can be used as the rhyme sound for the next quatrain (AABA, BBCB, CCDC, etc...), and this convention is known as 'interlocking ruba'iyat', and can be used to tie the separate quatrains together in a more woven and complex way, exacerbating the sound and flow of the poem. It is also common to interlock the last quatrain to the first using the same system, creating a loop in sound, as with the French pantoum form.

Tablature of rubaiyat, in four quatrains, interlocking rhyme, and using western iambic heptameter (seven feet of iambic meter), and looping back into the first quatrain with the last. This is a very short example. Coloring in this example indicates where the open second line in each quatrain becomes the rhyme of the next quatrain:

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ A

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ B

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ A

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ A

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ B

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ C

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ B

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ B

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ C

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ D

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ C

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ C

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ D

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ A

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ D

o/o/o/o/o/o/o/ D


Opening 5 quatrains from 'The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam', translated by Edward Fitzgerald

AWAKE! for Morning in the Bowl of Night

Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:

And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught

The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.

Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky

I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,

"Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup

Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry."

And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before

The Tavern shouted -- "Open then the Door!

You know how little while we have to stay,

And, once departed, may return no more."

Now the New Year reviving old Desires.

The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires,

Where the White Hand Of Moses on the Bough

Puts out, and Jesus from the Ground suspires.

Iram indeed is gone with all his Rose,

And Jamshýd's Sev'n-ring'd Cup where no one knows;

But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields,

And still a Garden by the Water blows.

[NOTE: This segment alone does not highlight the rules completely. For a complete version that highlights rubaiyat, as well as the complete poem, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, visit:]

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.



"The villanelle is often used, and properly used, to deal with one or another degree of obsession.[...] There is even the potential for the two repeating lines to form a paradigm for schizophrenia... The mind may not fully know itself or its subject, may not be in full control, and yet it still tries, still festers and broods in a closed room towards a resolution that is at least pretended by the final couplet linking of the refrain lines."
-from "Modern Versions of the Villanelle," by Philip K. Jason. College Literature, 1980.

Medieval troubadours have been credited with causing the birth of many poetic forms, and for some time, the villanelle was attributed to this passage as well. In reality, the villanelle did not stem from these more metropolitan troubadours, with their intricate structures and daedal partsongs, as has been held in various circles, but from a far more common usage in the rural shepherd and farm songs of Italy. These were simply constructed, rustic songs with refrains for easier memorization, and were similar to ballads, though with no fixed length. The French name 'villanelle' (also sometimes referred to as 'villanesque') stems from the Italian 'villanella', from the Latin 'villano' (farmhand) and 'villa' (farm). The word 'villanelle' means, literally, 'farm song'. The early farm song 'villanelles' were adopted by Frenchman and Hellenist Jean Passerat during the Renaissance, in the 16th century, who wrote a poem he titled 'Villanelle', on the subject of a turtledove. He had many other poems he also deemed villanelles, though these were in differing forms, with most of them unlike the famous turtledove poem. Passerat was lucky in the sense that his poetic form, which our modern villanelles are based on, managed to be accepted into the literary convention during his lifetime, a feat that is uncommon in literary history. It is Passerat's villanelle that is the basis of our modern, and he can be considered the form's inventor.

In the 19th century, another French popularizer of the form, Theodore de Banville, under the notion that the villanelle was an antiquated form, began playing with it in earnest. In truth, he was following a form of 'villanelle' that he believed was originated by a poet, Wilhelm Tenint, and not the early farm songs for which villanelle were named, nor the works of Jean Passerat, from which the form he studied had sprung. His revival inspired other authors of the period, and especially authors that would come after him and take up the villanelle into their usage.

Origin: While the villanelle, as we know it in our most modern times, is considered a French form, there is only a small usage of the villanelle in French history, with the vast quantity of villanelles being written, instead, in English. The English villanelle is an imitation of the French model, which is an imitation of the rustic farm songs of old. The first English villanelles were written by Edmond Gosse, who was inspired by the above-mentioned Banville, and he praised the form and sought to give it life in English. He managed this in the late 19th century through the use of an essay, "A Plea for Certain Exotic Forms of Verse". It caught on, and many well-known writers began using the form, including Oscar Wilde and Austin Dobson. The English modernists of the era, however, saw villanelle as just another annoying detail of the stuffy, formal aesthetic that they sought to take literature away from. There is a notable example of James Joyce, in his 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man', having his young main character writing a villanelle, to highlight the youthful naivety of the character.

In the 1930s, William Empson gave a strong effort to revive the form, and several other writers found it to be of interest. W.H. Auden began toying with the form, and then Dylan Thomas, in a point of well-known history, used the most basic format of the villanelle to compose his famous and heartily regarded "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night". Later authors of the villanelle included Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, and Theodore Roethke. Even with these well-known and highly regarded authors having utilized the form, it was still on the fringe of English poetic forms, yet to see major adoption by the English poetic pantheon. This didn't occur until the appearance of the New Formalism, in the 1980s. Since that time, the villanelle has become much more common, and large numbers of poets have used the form, often in slight variations of the original English villanelle, which has now become one of the most recent additions (recent in comparison to many other popular forms) to the reservoir of major, English poetic forms.

The Form: There are some poets who consider the villanelle, like the pantoum, to be nightmarish and unruly. There are very specific limitations and functions at work in the villanelle, and adhering to them can be difficult.

The villanelle is nineteen lines long, and written in tercets (three line stanzas, also known as triplets), except for the last stanza, which will be a quatrain (4 line stanza). There is no established metrical system for the villanelle, but most modern usage sees a habit of using a syllabic count of 10 syllables to the line. There are but two rhyme sounds in a villanelle, being exhibited in a somewhat staple rhyme scheme of ABA throughout, with an additional A closing the quatrain at the end. This is simple enough, and the complete rhyme structure will be: ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA. Now on to the intricate part: The difficult essence of what makes a villanelle anything to marvel at is its refrain system, and in the repetition of the refrains. A villanelle's first stanza, three lines long, consist of your first refrain, a 'normal' line, and then your second refrain, which will rhyme with the first. Thereafter, each stanza will end with one of those same two refrains, alternating. This continues until the last stanza, the quatrain, where the poem ends with both refrains, back to back, in order as the last two lines.


First Refrain (A)

Line (B)

Second Refrain (A)

Line (A)

Line (B)

Repeat of First Refrain (A)

Line (A)

Line (B)

Repeat of Second Refrain (A)

Line (A)

Line (B)

Repeat of First Refrain (A)

Line (A)

Line (B)

Repeat of Second Refrain (A)

Line (A)

Line (B)

Repeat of First Refrain (A)

Repeat of Second Refrain (A)

The two refrains, which hound the poem back and forth between them, meet at the end and deliver their hard, overall meaning in one, concise statement. This summarizing, finale can be fantastical, when you've made your way through the poem's interwoven lines and refrains to reach it. The power in this form comes from using refrains that have a sensible figure in the poem, each time they are placed, so as to avoid a stock or clumsy sound. The refrain should have new meaning, or augmented meaning, each time it appears, especially in the final quatrain. Like pantoum, one of the keys to writing villanelle is acrobatic word choice and a strong yet grammatically passive refrain.

There is another, modified form of the villanelle called a terzanelle, but I will save this for a later posting, after we've covered terza rima, which plays one of two parents to the terzanelle, the other being the villanelle.

In the following example, you'll see that Dylan Thomas followed the pattern explicitly, and in it you'll find a strong sense of how the dual refrains collaborate into making a series of emphatic, athletic lines into a much greater, more powerful work:

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night,

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night,

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


There you have it, 6 forms and numerous sub-forms, in all of their distinctive flavors, histories, and essences. Attempts at any of these provide a unique and challenging opportunity to broaden your own work by taking on the habits of the form. A series of villanelle or kyrielle can teach you how powerful repetition and refrain can be (something most modern songs have adopted absolutely), whereas a tanka can show you how to bring concentration of statement and meaning into the shortest of lines, an excellent skill for any poet to practice. A ruba'iyat can give you indications on how to interlock your stanzas for both dramatic and indicative effect, as well as ease of statement, while writing epigrams is sure to sharpen your wit. Even the cinquain, in all its myriad definitions, can make you proud, at the very least, of knowing one from the other.

In the next article we'll take a look at some of our most modern, and even untested, forms, who's conceptions are new, and who's practices are so young as to have not made much history yet. Until then, there are excellent resources online that a simple Google search can unearth for further study of the abovementioned forms, and examples galore.