Poetry is physical and sensual. It is vocal art. A poem is shaped by the mouth and tongue, breathed in and out by the lungs, and infused with the power of the human voice.

Although I have read poetry all my life, I never really studied it until recently. For years, creating a poem seemed far beyond my reach. I didn't know enough about the technical aspects of poetry and so I felt too intimidated to try. And yet, virtually every time I read a poem, I felt a gentle tug upon my heart.

I knew that I had to try to write a poem. At that point, it was my good fortune to join the Poetry Society of Tennessee (PST) and, along with it, the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, Inc. (NFSPS). Both organizations sponsor poetry contests that can result in prizes, publication, or both. PST’s annual publication is Tennessee Voices Anthology. All first place winners of their monthly poetry contest are published in this anthology. In addition, the Poetry Society of Tennessee hosts monthly meetings and other events.

The PST monthly contests often feature different forms of poetry, some of which are unfamiliar and quite challenging, almost like working a puzzle. For my first entry into a PST contest, I won third place. The poem was in the form of a “BEECH,” a type created by the poet Beecher Smith. It is a five line poem with the syllables of each line corresponding to the number of the letter of the alphabet—B is the second letter of the alphabet and so the first line of your BEECH poem should have 2 syllables, and so on. (E and E are 5 syllables, C is 3 syllables, and H is 8 syllables). The first and fifth lines must rhyme. The middle three lines must also rhyme. The title of the poem can convey further meaning.

The next month, I won first place. My poem was a description of a painting by Gustav Klimt, called “The Kiss.” Little did I know that there is a fancy name for a poem which describes visual art —it is called an EKPHRASIS poem. In an interesting case of synchronicity, I had already begun my poem about “The Kiss” when I received the February issue of Writer’s Digest, which featured an article about ekphrasis poems. The article helpfully suggested that you could move back and forth between subjective reactions and objective observations of the work of art, which is what I did in my poem about Klimt’s painting. One of the most famous examples of an ekphrasis poem is John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

The monthly poetry challenge for the next deadline was to write a HSINKU poem. I was unable to find an example of this type of poem, but I did find out that it consists of four lines, with the 2nd and 4th line rhyming. Also, the 4th line must contain an “ironic twist of enlightenment” about the previous three lines. To me, an “ironic twist” is often funny, and so I wondered if this meant that a hsinku poem must be humorous. I looked up “irony” in the dictionary, just to be sure that I understood what it really meant. Irony can imply humor or light sarcasm when the intended meaning of the words is the opposite of the literal sense of the words. In another shade of meaning, irony can be mockery. The last definition in my Webster’s New Collegiate says that irony is “a state of affairs or a result opposite to and as if in mockery of the appropriate result; as, the irony of fate.”

The National Federation of State Poetry Societies, Inc. (NFSPS) is a non-profit organization dedicated to the furtherance of poetry on the national level. It was founded in October of 1959. By joining PST, you automatically become a member of NFSPS. The National Federation of State Poetry Societies offers fifty contests each year and publishes winning poems in their anthology, Encore. The forms of poetry for some of the fifty contests are quite varied and some sound very challenging—cinquain sequence, sonnet, blank verse in iambic tetrameter, occasional choriambs, free verse, iambic pentameter, dorsimbra, and villanelle.

One of the challenges for the NFSPS contest was to write a VIGNETTE. There was some discussion among PST members about the poetic definition of a vignette since the word is not defined in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. As it turns out, a poetic vignette points to a style rather than any form. It is a brief but clear verbal description, especially of a person. In discussion, they also decided that a vignette could describe a scene or even describe a situation involving action.

For the annual PST contest, the challenge was to write in any poetic form about any subject. I wrote a haiku sequence consisting of seven haiku verses linked in meaning and imagery. Although the poem was untitled, which is typical for haiku, it can be called by its first line and therefore titled, “In Dogwood Winter.” I was honored to be selected by the Japan-America Society of Tennessee, Inc. for their online educational course, Things Japanese in Tennessee.

HAIKU is a poetic form that has several rules or standards:
The usual Americanized form contains 3 lines with a total of 17 syllables. The 1st and 3rd lines contain 5 syllables and the 2nd line has 7 syllables.

  • The poem is about nature...or contains a seasonal word.
  • It presents a memorable moment, an observation, almost objectively.
  • It has no rhymes, similes, metaphors ..and yet is poetic.
  • A haiku does not have to be a complete sentence.
  • It should not tell the reader what to think.
  • Haiku are usually untitled.

Keep checking this webpage for updates. I will regularly be adding more about poetry, poets, and their craft.

GUEST POET

Signposts to Elsewhere book coverApril is National Poetry Month. For April 2008, I interviewed my first Guest Poet for this Poetry page as my way to honor poetry and the work of contemporary poets. My hope is to post a new interview here at least once a year. In the spirit of openness expressed in Rumi’s poem, “The Guesthouse,” let us welcome new arrivals in our lives and embrace every experience of being human.

My first guest is Yahia Lababidi, an Egyptian poet who is the only contemporary Arab writer to be included in James Geary's Encyclopedia of the World's Great Aphorists. He has recently been quoted (more than once) in The Week magazine, Sun Sentinel, and The New York Observer. A few of my personal favorites are listed here on this web page, below my interview with Yahia, such as: "The personal made universal is art's truth" ...and... "Different faiths are different dialects of the same Language." But the aphorism that first caught my attention was quoted in Anu Garg’s wonderful online resource, A. Word. A. Day: "Like cars in amusement parks, our direction is often determined through collisions." Yahia and I have had a remarkable collision online, as a result of this quote which I mentioned in my Yoga Blog. We have begun a friendly conversation and this interview is one of the results. Enjoy! And then read on, below the interview, to find more of his aphorisms and a wonderful poem called Clouds..

Yahia Lababidi

 

 

It seems unusual to be an aphorist…why did you choose to write in this form?

I wrote out of an inner compulsion, to talk back to the books that I was reading. I suppose it was Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray that got me started trying to “sum up the world in a phrase.”It wasn’t that I had anything in particular to say to the world, but rather a head full of questions to pose to myself. Aphorisms presented themselves as a natural way of thinking outloud (and quoting the soul’s dialogue with itself).

Are there any particular writers or poets who have been an influence in your work?

Wilde, Nietzsche, and Rilke are certainly up there. But there are many others in between: Gibran, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Beckett, Rimbaud, too many to mention, really. Basically all thinkers, seekers, rebels and free spirits like Blake, who realized “[they] must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s”.

What poetic form do you use…is it free verse? How would you define free verse?

Free verse, yes. I would define it as verse free of restrictions, or corsettes, that allows thoughts and feelings to come as they are and to breathe freely.

What is the meaning of your name? And how do you pronounce it?

It is pronounced Ya. Hia (sounds like, Yeah, Here!) And, it means Live, or Long Live in Arabic. It’s a fairly common name. Apparently I was named after John the Baptist. (Yahia is actually John in English, or Juan in Spanish).

Do you attend or lecture at writer’s conferences and if so, do you have a conference you’ll be at this year?

No, nothing of the sort … Frankly, I don’t trust myself to play the part of the writer, just yet. Perhaps later, I will feel that I’ve earned such a privilege or that it is necessary. But, for now, I think the work speaks for me better than myself.

Do you have any plans for other forms of writing, such as a short story or novel?

Short stories I wrote as a teenager, but no more. As for a novel, I don’t think I have the breath for that … yet. I would like sometime to try my hand at a play, or maybe even collaborate on one with another writer.[I think plays on words and ideas can be serious fun, and (Socratic) conversation, both witty and wise, is probably the origin of Philosophy, anyhow.]

Do you have another book in the works now?

Two actually. A book of essays about everything from Nietzsche to belly dancing which is currently under consideration at a University Press –working title, Trial by Ink. Plus, a poetry book that I must glean from 100 poems or so that I’ve managed to secrete over the last several years…

Is there anything you’d like to say about anything at all, for all the world to know?

It’s there in every line I write... as well as in between the lines.

Thank you, Yahia!

Below are a few aphorisms which he so graciously agreed to let me use here, as well as a wonderful poem called Clouds, originally published in Leviathan. His book, Signposts to Elsewhere, is available from Jane Street Press. All of these aphorisms strike me as true, in the deepest sense of the word. And being brief, they are easy to memorize and enjoy. Like a good haiku, an aphorism is a wonderful companion to your day.

Ambiguity: the bastard child of Creativity and Cowardice.

Two good reasons to read: to better understand oneself or to forget oneself, altogether.

Spirituality occurs at the boiling point of religion, where dogma evaporates.

Miracles are proud creatures; they will not reveal themselves to those who do not Believe.

Intuition: generous deposits made to our account by an unknown benefactor.

For the inconsolable, there is Nature.

 

Clouds
to find the origin, trace back the manifestations. Tao

Between being and non-being
barely there
these sails of water, ice, air -

Indifferent drifters, wandering
high on freedom
of the homeless

Restlessly swithering
like ghosts, slithering through substance
in puffs and wisps

Lending an enchanting or ominous air
luminous or casting shadows,
ambivalent filters of reality

Bequeathing wreaths, or
modesty veils to great natural beauties
like mountain peaks

Sometimes simply hanging there
airborne abstract art
in open air

Suspended animation
continually contorting:
great sky whales, now, horse drawn carriages

unpinpointable thought forms,
punctuating the endless sentence of the sky.

-Yahia Lababidi
(Clouds was originally published in Leviathan)

 

All Content © Wanda Collins Johnson