Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"The sense of summer" -- and an exposition of the Boomerang Poem form

In the same Comment box on Ron Silliman's blog where I'd posted my boomerang poem blogged here yesterday (as "Absent from the menus"), the Melbourne-based poet Michael Farrell asked me what "a boomerang poem" is? It's a question some readers of this blog might also wonder about. I dashed out the following reply.


The simplest feature to note is that the first and final lines are identical (hence, the poem "boomerangs"; the word is my own conceit, not found in the Chinese). A second feature to note is that (generally speaking), the poem is a particular instance of the 8-line shi form. In Chinese, this most typically means it has 5 characters per line, though 7 characters per line (and, more rarely, following a more ancient model, 4 per line) might be found. [added note: actually, 6 characters per line is also, though very rarely, found in some classical shi too.] I think in actual practice, the boomerang form is probably found only with 5 per line. As I've adapted this to English (following in part some astute observations of Arthur Waley's about translating shi), this equates to lines with five stressed syllables per line. Next, the most basic rhyme scheme is as seen here: ABAB BABA or ABAB CACA (the above example [meaning, the poem "Absent from the menus"] can be regarded as the one or the other, depending on whether one deems the slant rhyme a rhyme per se). But I have also practiced boomerang poems with some variants on these basic patterns, such as ABABCCBA or ABBABABA or ABABABBA or ABBACCBA; these may have slightly differing effects, but not radically different really. In practice, any such scheme one cares to follow, is fine. The ABAB CACA is oftentimes simplest, and seems perfectly pleasant to me.

Those are basics of the form. Optionally, one may also adopt some other features of classical Chinese poetics. (Some can be easily articulated, others one perhaps gets to know more intuitively, through exposure to this tradition and absorbing some of its formalities and values.) The most crucial one really -- which alas I have been taking a very casual attitude to, but DO sometimes practice -- involves what is known as grammatical parallelism. This is a very basic and very interesting topic in Chinese poetics; but to appreciate it most fully, it's helpful to look at a Chinese poem line for line and character by character. It's premised on the couplet as the basic unit of poetry. That is, the line is of course the basic unit -- but the line always exists as part of a pair of lines. The couplet (two lines) is, according to me, in some respects an even more crucial concept in Chinese poetics than the single line. The world of Chinese poetry is constructed by pairs of lines -- and this does NOT mean rhymed couplets. It instead involves utterances and observations that are given as pairs. The pairing -- the habit of pairing -- is closely related to a sense of balance, which has many philosphical, psychological, conceptual, poetic consequences (it could be argued). Ultimately it's no doubt related (in terms of cosmology as well as esthetics) to yin-yang theory. At any rate, enough with this (for now). It's something I'm not aware is expounded on anywhere (come to think of it). One who studies Chinese poetry kind of learns to absorb it, and takes it for granted. It belatedly occurs to me that something can be said about it -- and for it. So now I've done so.

But I've not even gotten to grammatical parallelism. The better way to explain this would be via example. So maybe I'll take a moment to extemporize a boomerang poem that follows more properly (as the one above does not, quite) this principle. In terms of classical Chinese 8-line poems [this being the most basic and essential classical form -- beginning some time before the Tang dynasty, and continued on really into the present day], in the more strict traditions of shi, a requirement of the form is that the 3rd & 4th, and also the 5th and 6th lines -- i.e., those two couplets (conceived always as couplets per se, but they are not rhymed couplets, as said) -- they should exhibit complete grammatical parallelism.

Classical Chinese is a language easily given to this kind of thing. It doesn't have gendered verbs or any articles (definite or indefinite); it is a very bare-bones language in which word order is the crucial thing for syntax and for defining word function. In these circumstances, grammatical parallelism emerged as a custom with esthetic possibilities, and poets get besotted with it. Its roots go way back before the Tang dynasty, into the most archaic of literature. For example the opening lines of the Dao De Jing -- dao ke dao fei chang dao / ming ke ming fei chang ming -- shows a simplistic form of it. But I digress.

Enough with theory; the possibilities of applied grammatical parallism in English, are something one may explore in practice and experiment. Permit me anyway to compose a poem that endeavors to show this (in some simple way) with the two requisite couplets (the 3rd and 4th of an 8-couplet boomerang poem). In Chinese poetics, as I understand it, in the more classical style, the parallelism is requisite for the 2nd and 3rd couplets, and it is also optinoal for the 1st and 4th couplets (of an 8-line / 4 couplet poem). On my blog, if one were to search the archive [the blog goes back to last September] for "boomerang," one might come up with some couple dozen examples of my occasional use of the form. (At some future point I'll make an index to blogged boomerang poems.) But here is this morning's try.

In May, the sense of summer slowly comes
this month, I'll turn the page marked "50 years"
I've seen how life plays manic games with sums
I've felt how time makes sober sport of fears
sometimes the sky has clouds, sometimes it clears
sometimes the song has strings, sometimes it's drums
now morn grows late -- I've heard no chanticleers
in May, the sense of summer slowly comes

The 3rd and 4th lines show an exacting example of parallelism; the 5th and 6th lines show a slightly fudged (but perhaps adequate) example of it. The "it" is not really grammatically parallel with the "it's"; the "drums" even less so with the "clears"; but anyway, these objections should suffice to suggest what is being fudged & how. (I feel the lines hint at the principle without getting too orthodox about it; the needs of the poem overall I deem as essential; -- and as noted, I'm deeming this particular poetics feature -- parallelism -- simply as an option in the boomerang form, not 100% requisite, but nice to do when one thinks of it and when it works).

Will this suffice as simple tutorial? Thanks for asking! I think there may be one or two examples of boomerang poems somewehre in the anthology Sunflower Splendor (I don't remember where or by what poet). When I was shelving books in the East Asiatic Library at UC Berkeley (circa 1978 or something), I stumbled on one book of poems -- the life-work of I don't know who -- comprised entirely of boomerang poems. My impression is that it's deemed a slightly baroque form in Chinese, that occasionally poets got into (I'm now guesing: maybe more in the Song than in the Tang), but was not really practiced very rampantly. But a few poets here and there liked it. And I've liked it enough to introduce it into English. ;-)



Blogger Jon Aristides said...

I don't personally have much interest in boomerang poems as such. However, I thought it was worth congratulating you on your poem, "The sense of summer" as it seems to me both musically satisfying and emotionally interesting.

Sun May 21, 08:48:00 AM PDT  
Blogger david raphael israel said...

thanks Jon, obliged.


Mon May 22, 12:59:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Jon Aristides said...

I've seen some of your other "boomerangs" and it seems to be a form that is very suitable to your gifts. My recollection of your poem "Carol and Adore" (not a boomerang), leads me to conjecture that your gift is essentially a lyrical one.

Tue May 23, 03:09:00 AM PDT  

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