Saturday, April 29, 2006

National Poetry Month

Yesterday, I wrote a bit about poetic forms, and will continue that today. One of the most popular forms is the Japanese haiku, which, unfortunately, has been distorted by Westerners so that it is often not really haiku at all. Other Japanese forms include the tanka and the senryu.

There are several types of sonnets, but the two most common are the Shakespearian and the Petrarchan. Forms we do not hear much about include the quaterne, the terzanelle, and the rondelet, and there are also forms even rarer than these. An especially interesting form is the ghazal, which contains, among other things, a couplet involving the poet's signature.

A very good book on forms is The Making Of a Poem, edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland. Another good one is All the Fun In How You Say A Thing: An Explanation of Meter & Versification, by Timothy Steele.

Forms evolve with a culture. The sestina was invented by 12th Century troubadours, who entertained by singing strictly formed poems which repeated key words. The sonnet originated in the courts of Sicily. Francesco Petrarca, a Tuscan poet, strung together a sequence of these short poems, which were extremely popular. Blank verse, which people identify with Shakespeare and therefore assume to be English, also originated in Italy. The conversational meter of blank verse made it a natural form for Shakespeare to use in his plays. Likewise, the villanelle was created in Italian harvest fields. Most of the forms with which we are familiar, however, came to us directly from France, regardless of where they originated.

Today's popular hip hop poetry (sometimes called slam poetry because it is often read at poetry slams), a derivative of jazz poetry--though not a form in the structured sense of the word--is nevertheless a style of poetry that has evolved with our American culture.

Here is a quaterne, originally published by Poets Against War:

History Lesson
By Diane E. Dees

Ancient heads of stone have fallen,
shattered by the desperate mobs
who, for decades starved and battered,
took no comfort in their relics.

Liberators ignore the past;
ancient heads of stone have fallen.
The book that tells of Babylon
is missing pages forever.

Gone the Korans, gone the tablets--
taken quickly in broad daylight.
Ancient heads of stone have fallen;
history no longer matters.

Our oldest civilization
now a mass of shards and rubble;
those who clean up take no notice.
Ancient heads of stone have fallen.


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