Each day the first, new
shapes grow out of the disappearing
darkness, the color of damp leaves
and pine. Trees
standing firm, giving
back our movement, your voice, first light.
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A Trio Miniatures
I like to think of the form of a poem as a pattern which emerges out
of movement, much like the shape of a wave emerges out of the form-
ative flow of a stream. We hear the flow of spoken words, and without
trying to think about how the poem is written down or formally structured,
we sense a certain rhythmic pulse, a certain fluctuation of density and texture.
This is how I conceive of the poem's music, again not so much as notation
or what we see written on the page, but rather as a kind of natural movement
to be experienced.
With First/Last, I'm exploring the possibility of a new species of poetic
miniature which is related to what in traditional rhetoric is called syllabic verse.
This is when we count the stepsor syllables that a sequence of words makes
in a phrase and arrange them in some kind of outward, more or less pre-determined
structure. The result is a kind of dance which is made with language instead of our
feet. After a lot of trial and error and experimenting with this idea, I eventually came
up with a little 37-step form that was both short enough to be heard as a single breath,
yet at the same time long enough to create its own space, perhaps even with a kind
of storyline or center.
One of the beautiful things about a a relatively short form like this is that it can be
repeated, thereby creating a sequence of variations. I've always been struck by the
extraordinary richness of, for example, the Shakespeare sonnetsall 140 steps each
when hearing, say, just three or four of them in slow, rhythmic succession. The flow
from poem to poem creates a wonderfully dynamic interplay of similarity and differ-
encesimilar in form, but different in actual content. This is, of course, no different
than how we experience form generally in the natural world. There, we encounter,
for example, the same basic spiral structure in the arrangement of seeds in a pine cone,
or on the disk on a sunflower or the threads of water in a whirlpool in a fast-flowing
But instead of going back to traditional forms like sonnets or, for example, haiku
with their 17 steps, I'd much prefer to work with something new. This is because I'm
very much looking for an organic fit between, on the one hand, the outward form, and,
on the other, the inner movement of meaning in a composition. And well, I would also
argue that new meaning in a way must have new form in order to properly manifest.
One last thought for those readers interested in the relationship between music and
poetry: If one were to write the poems down as I say them in musical notation, they
would all have exactly 37 notes, but the durations, meters, accents, dynamics, and
other articulations would look -- and sound -- strikingly different. In contrast,
when written down in standard English script as on the next webpage, the result is
in a subtle and fascinating way quite misleading. This is because they do indeed look
almost identical, just like a series of sonnets would, but, remarkably, the mode of
notation does not display any of the just mentioned important differences. In other
words, this is much like having to perform Bach from a simple sequence of pitches
with no indicated rhythm, which would be almost impossible. So, in a wayjust like
musicthe poems have to be actually heard to be understood.
If you would like to see (and hear) a much longer cycle of 15 little 37-step poems,
go to the page called, Ridge Crossing. Here, the poems are collected together in five
sets of three and, as a whole, make a kind of ritual walk from valley floor over a
difficult, dark, north-facing, mountain ridge and then continue on down the other
south-facing side of a new, unknown valley. Instead of the title, Ridge Crossing,
this longer cycle might just as easily have been called North/South. This is actually
the kind of cross-country mountaineering I have practiced in the European Alps
for many years, and how many of the photographs in the Picture/Poem collection
were made. Basically, one moves from valley to valley, frequently without knowing
for sure if there is a route to the other side, or indeed, what to expect once one is there.
If the poems at first seem a bit austere in aspect, I suppose that has something to do
with the granite-like ruggedness of the country out of which they have emerged. I
can only hope that they start to, as the saying goes, 'sound right' after a time.