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Make Visible: Focus on Form: Senryu

Welcome to Focus on Form. For the next three weeks, we poets will be writing a poem in the same form and sharing it here on the blog.

My first experience with Senryu poetry was when I posted what I thought was a Haiku and was told it was Senryu instead.  It’s a Senryu because it includes a man-made object (my glasses), even though it’s about the weather; and also because of its sarcastic tone.


The June rain
Leaves drops on my glasses
I can’t see summer from here.

June 7, 2008
© 2008 Anne Westlund


Senryū (川柳?, literally ‘river willow’) is a Japanese form of short poetry similar to haiku in construction: three lines with 17 or fewer total morae (or “on“, often translated as syllables, but see the article on onji for distinctions). Senryū tend to be about human foibles while haiku tend to be about nature, and senryū are often cynical or darkly humorous while haiku are more serious. Unlike haiku, senryū do not include a kireji (cutting word), and do not generally include a kigo, or season word.

Senryū is named after Edo period haikai poet Senryū Karai (柄井川柳, 1718-1790), whose collection Haifūyanagidaru (誹風柳多留?) launched the genre into the public consciousness. A typical example from the collection:

泥棒を dorobō wo

捕えてみれば toraete mireba

我が子なり wagako nari

The robber,
when I catch,
my own son

(Excerpted from Wikipedia,

The first step to writing Senryu poems is to think of a theme and what message is to be conveyed. Taking ideas from family life and experiences with friends and coworkers is a good place to start.

Once the theme is established, the next step is to begin jotting down ideas and phrases.  Build on those ideas until they form three lines and add up to 17 syllables or less. Senryu poetry seems easy to write but in actuality it is not easy to convey a complete message in three short lines.

The first line should set up the setting, and the subject should be the focus of the second line; the third line should use action to sum up the poem. This is a simple way to approach writing Senryu. With more practice and reading examples the writing process will become more natural.

One thing to remember when writing this form of poetry is that it is not complex. Senryu uses simple language and incorporates humor.  Here are a few more examples written by modern poets:

As if it were spring
the green mold
on the cheese

© Garry Gay

rush hour-
the blonde in the Porsche peels
an orange

©Robert Bauer

(excerpted from How To Write Senryu Poetry by Sarah Carter,

Give it a try!  I can’t wait to see what the rest of the Poetic Muselings come up with.

“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”~Robert Bresson, French Film Director

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Taming the elusive Iamb

Note: In all of the following, I have indicated stressed syllables in bold.

Woods and Fields near my home

My woods and fields

An iamb is a two-syllable metrical foot where the stress is on the second syllable:

da dum

A trochee is a two-syllable metrical foot where the stress falls on the first syllable:

da dum

Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is composed of iambs:

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.

For an example of dactyls check out Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s “Song of Hiawatha

Should you ask me, whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odors of the forest,
With the dew and damp of meadows,

And now Michele’s first stanza:

We claim our fears and ghosts by what we do,
   paths drag us into, not by accident,
   territory steep in our deep taboo.*

*Note: there are several ways to read this line — this is one.

So, lines one and two consist of nothing but iambs, but line 3 starts with two trochees.

One way to figure out the meter is just what I have done above: read the lines aloud, then underline or bold the stressed syllables, then see what you have. Another is to clap as you read: clap on all the stressed syllables while at the same time keeping track of whether this matches your pattern.

Another is to imitate a well-known rhyme or song. One of the only successful rhymed stories I wrote followed the rhythm of a nursery rhyme (unfortunately I’ve forgotten which one). Here are the first couple of stanzas. Can you help identify the song or nursery rhyme I tried to follow?

Old Tom Troll
had a hole by a bridge,
not far from the River Dee,

a lonely hole
not fit for a Troll,
and full of damp debris.

So Old Tom Troll
went out for a stroll
to find new holes to see.

Old Tom Troll
had a hole by a bridge,
not far from the River Dee,

a lonely hole
not fit for a Troll,
and full of damp debris.

So Old Tom Troll
went out for a stroll
to find new holes to see.

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Capturing the Elusive Villanelle

Garden of the Gods, Colorado. © Graf 2006

Maybe “deconstructing” is a better word for what follows.

I love a well-constructed, nuance-laden, tension-building poem — especially one with lines or phrases repeated, each time expanding on the underlying theme. When it works, it really works. When I dabble in a structured form, I need to take it apart and put it back together in a way that makes sense to me.

Over the years, I created my own versions of “cheat sheets” — today they are usually called “templates” — for a variety of poetic forms, when it was important to have a set number of syllables or sounds per line;  control the number of lines in each stanza, especially if the stanzas are not constructed the same — like the villanelle. I’ve used them with haikus, tankas, ghazels, alternating voice layout, and for song lyrics — especially useful to bridge beats, where you want to stretch out a sound.

My Villanelle template and construction process are simpler than it appears at first glance.  I:

1. Took as my guide the Dylan Thomas poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, which Margaret used when she introduced the form.

2. Identified the rhyme pattern alongside each line, as Margaret explained. To make it easier, I highlighted the first line and each repetition that followed, then used a different color highlighter, and did the same for the third line. Since the only other rhyme was with line 2, I highlighted the last word in each of the “B/b” lines (below is a portion)

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

… and so on.

Then, I:

3. Counted the number of syllables per line (ten); the number stanzas and lines per stanza (five stanzas of three lines each (tercets), plus one stanza of four lines (a quatrain)); the total number of lines I needed, including a blank line between stanzas (24 lines total)

Next step was to write my first three lines, using the right number of syllables or sounds, and the right pattern, knowing that the first and third lines would be repeated several times in the poem:

   We claim our fears and ghosts by what we do,
   paths drag us into, not by accident,
   territory steep in our deep taboo.

This gave me the shape of the form. Time to do the template. I:

4. Created a table with eleven columns across (one for each of the ten syllables needed in each line, PLUS a first column with the rhyme pattern), and 24 rows (for each filled and blank line in the poem)

5. Shaded in the rows that were stanza breaks (rows 4, 8, 12, 16 and 20; I didn’t create a column to number the rows — just counted down)

6. Filled in each of the first three rows, one syllable per each cell across the table, in columns 2 – 11, with my first tercet.

7. went back to column one, and, with my trusty Thomas poem, wrote in what the rhyme pattern needed to be.

8. filled in on my template where lines one and three were repeated

9. really cheated on the next step! I wrote the sound I needed to repeat (in parentheses) in the last column of each line. Yes, I’ve creatively split words as I sounded them for the cells.

… (the complete template is at the end of this post)

10. then came up with a bunch of words that rhymed with each of the endings of the two lines.

A1 and A3:  do/ taboo (DO) — view, new, clue, avenue, cue, due
B1: accident (DENT) — amazement, evident, coincident, bent, went, event, dent, sent

Then the creative process really started:

11. I wrote the poem from the last stanza forward — I knew how it started; that was already written. I decided how I wanted it to end, and, using the list of “sound alike” words, figured how to end each of the lines in the quatrain.

12. Worked my way through the poem, looking at the rhyming words I’d come up with, and moved them around.

13. wrote lines, juggled them from tercet to tercet, until they made sense to me.

And, voila! Though this is still a work in progress, you can see how each step shaped this draft of the poem’s cadence, flow, rhythm, content, and context. Now the work begins, to hone it into a sharp, complete story. Like Mary’s poem, my subject is dark. I hope to capture the same sense as hers did.

Ever Thus
by Michele M. Graf

We claim our fears and ghosts by what we do;
paths drag us into, not by accident,
territory steep in our deep taboo.

You may argue with me, bellow your view;
we both know how those branches get so bent:
we claim our fear and ghosts by what we do.

Mourn the loss, the lack of hope for the new
words to stop needless blood so poorly spent.
Territory steep in our deep taboo.

Paint it, gloss it, but you can’t hide the hue
of euphemism masking what is meant.
We claim our fear and ghosts by what we do

when we rant, and rave, call it just miscue,
no longer valid — such self-evident
territory steep in our deep taboo.

Fate enters laughing when it all comes due.
Can how its end not be coincident?
We claim our fears and ghosts by what we do,
territory steep in our deep taboo.

Mary’s Villanelle: Dark Days

I love the Villanelle. It’s very musical, with the rhyme and rhythm, and the repeating lines. When done right, it really rolls off the tongue when read aloud. My first two Villanelles are not in classic form with iambic pentameter. That added an additional challenge this time around. I also went a little darker than the previous Muselings… My mind has been on The Secret World, a modern day MMO of myths, legends, and conspiracies. So that is where I took my inspiration.


wendigo_C2 (Photo credit: doctorserone)

Dark Days 

She grips her sword, the battlefield looks stark,
almost too late to set the world aright;
Hold ground, dig deep, the days are getting dark.

A flock of ravens flies through the themepark,
abandoned structures gleaming in moonlight.
She grips her sword, the battlefield looks stark.

Filth clinging like a permanent birthmark,
wendigo crouches just within their sight–
hold ground, dig deep, the days are getting dark.

Her two companions circle like a shark–
once enemies, they now combine their might–
she grips her sword, the battlefield looks stark.

The monster takes first blood: claws tears a mark
through one man’s side, his face goes deathly white.
Hold ground, dig deep, the days are getting dark.

Wendigo falters at a shotgun’s bark
and blade moves in to finish off the fight.
She grips her sword, the battlefield looks stark;
Hold ground, dig deep, the days are getting dark.

mary-sig2 (1)

Lin’s Focus on Villanelle

Cupid Cupid weather vane Pentlow, Essex.

Cupid Cupid weather vane Pentlow, Essex. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is my first villanelle,  from 2009. I found it very interesting and challenging to work in a rhymed form instead of my usual free verse.  It was also a stretch to work to  a rhyming pattern, but I managed it. I hope to see some of your villanelles posted here!

Love’s Progress

– A villanelle-
Lin Neiswender

Love takes wing and flies away
Shy Cupid with arrows adrift
Leaves mere mortals to seize the day

Blushing glances longings betray
Pulses beating now more swift
Love takes wing and flies away

Stem by stem a sweet bouquet
Rose and lilac scents do lift
Leaves mere mortals to seize the day

Soft low voices fears allay
Giving fear a mere short shrift
Love takes wing and flies away

New lover’s whisper, a tender play
Hearts will meet then souls uplift
Leaves mere mortals to seize the day

One kiss may give passion sway
A final tender parting gift
Love takes wing and flies away
Leaves mere mortals to seize the day

©2009 Lin Neiswender

Previously published in Love and Other Passions, 2012


Focus on Form: Villanelle

Welcome to Focus on Form. For the next three weeks, each of us Muselings will be writing a poem in the same form and sharing it here on the blog. 

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


A villanelle is a 19th century form was originally a song/dance sung by a troubadour. The modern form developed in the 19th century.


A Villanelle is a a nineteen line poem consisting of five tercets and a concluding quatrain. It contains only two rhymes. The first and third line of each of the tercets and the first and final two lines of the concluding quatrain form one, and the middle lines of the tercets and the second line of the quatrain form the second.  In addition, the first and third lines of the first tercet are refrains. Thus. let A1, B1 A2 be the first tercet, and a small a or b indicate a line that rhymes with either the A lines or the B line, the poem lays out as:

A1, B1, A2    a3, b2, A1    a4, b3,A2    a4,b4,A1   a5,b5,A3    ,b5,A1,A2

In addition to the rhymes and the refrain,  in a classic villanelle, the lines themselves should be in iambic pentameter and the repeated lines be repeated without variation.

Tip: pay careful attention to the first stanza, and especially to the end words, as you will need to find a goodly number of rhymes for them.


Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage 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.

One Art
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Writeit!) like disaster.

My own try:

This poem comes from Robert Lee Brewer’s PAD challenge for April 18th: take a regional cuisine and make it the title of the poem

Southern Fried Chicken

A chicken fried in oil’s a wonderous thing
so spicy, crispy, crunchy with a golden crust
You’ll take a bite. Your mouth will want to sing.

Add salt, paprika for that special zing.
A pinch of jalapeno is a must.
A chicken fried in oil’s a wonderous thing

The spicy pepper adds a bit of bling
to penetrate the chicken’s flesh.  I trust
you’ll take a bite. Your mouth will want to sing.

The oil must be hot so you can bring
the crust to crispness. As we have discussed,
a chicken fried in oil’s a wonderous thing

Keep clear of boiling oil. It will sting.
If oil becomes too hot it may combust.
You’ll take a bite. Your mouth will want to sing.

At last the chicken’s ready, and you spring
to action, find the flavor most robust.
A chicken fried in oil’s a wonderous thing
You’ll take a bite. Your mouth will want to sing.

Your Turn

Now I open it up to you. I welcome any feedback on my poem, as long as it is constructive and not destructive. Let’s help each other improve.

I’d love to see your own attempts at the form as well. You can post them in the comments here, or on future posts, or link to your poem if it’s on a separate site.


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Report from the Mass Poetry Festival

Swirls Four
Medium: Mouse on mousepad
Artist: Margaret Fieland

Painted Rectangles
Medium: Mouse on Mousepad
Artist: Margaret Fieland

This past weekend I attended the Mass Poetry Festival, which took place this past Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I skipped Friday, but I did  attend both Saturday and Sunday.

Back when the event was in the planning stages, I got an email about a reading of poetry from their books by Massachusetts authors who had published a book of poetry in 2011. I hesitated — “Lifelines” was written by six of us, and I was “sure” they’re reject me — but sent in my information anyway.

They said yes, illustrating yet again my father’s maxim, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”  I hope I remember this: not to assume I will be rejected simply because something is a reach or is out of my comfort zone.

I was part of the Sequential Poetry Reading for poets with new books of poetry that appeared in 2011.  The reading started at Noon on Saturday and lasted until 2:40. We were told that we each would have eight minutes to read, but we had a couple of no-shows, so we each had ten minutes.

The reading went well. The audience included us poets and about an equal number of what I expect were friends or family. It was a real treat to be be able to listen to the poets reading from their own work. A good many (most) of them simply read from a copy of their book. I might have done the same except for Michele’s excellent advice to print out what I wanted to read in LARGE, DARK type, and to practice. I did both, and I was very glad I did. Michele also suggested alternating dark and light poems.  I doubt that, left to my own devices, I’d have thought of this either.

There  were a long list of workshops taking place all three days of the festival, and we were encouraged to sign up in advance. I did sign up for several things, but as it turned out, simply walking into the workshop was generally good enough. I suspect the pre-sign-up thing was to figure out expected attendance at the workshop in order to facilitate room assignments, number of handouts, and the like. Next year, I will attempt to sign up for what interests me, but I won’t be a slave to the schedule.

The workshops themselves were tremendous fun. I arrived Saturday morning, signed in, got a copy of the workshops and a map, and by that time it was a bit too late for me to get to much in the way of workshops, so I ended up going to a couple of the art activity things that had been set up with kids in mind.

I *love* art activities — my mother was an artist who specialized in portraits. I was hugely energized by the art projects, and ended up spending several hours Saturday evening after I returned home playing with MS paint. I didn’t get much sleep Saturday night — MS paint is hugely addicting, and I was pretty pumped up from the festival — so I considered skipping Sunday. In the end, I decided that I would just main line coffee and go for it.

Good decision. The first workshop I attended was given by someone I know. He’s a kick-ass teacher, and I had signed up for the workshop. Not only was the workshop very good, but the attendees, as is often the case with Tom’s workshops, were equally interesting. Several of us exchanged email addresses, and I hope we will keep in touch.

There was also a  lit mag and small press event, and I bought several journals and a book of poetry, collected flyers from some of the lit magazines. I’m reluctant to order off the internet for magazines I’ve never had a chance to look over in person, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to pick up some of the ones I was interested in. The poetry book is a book with poetry in French on one side and a translation by Marilyn Hacker on the other. I find reading modern poetry in French a challenge, so I welcome the opportunity to, first, cover up Marilyn’s translation and simply read the poems in French, and eventually, to read her translation as well.

I didn’t stay for the Saturday night headliners — they started at 7:30 — but the Sunday headliners started at 2:15, so I did go to that. The readers were Frank Bidart, Martha Collins, and Stephen Dunn. Stephen Dunn is one of my favorite poets. I  knew two of the poems he read.

What engages me as a reader and writer of poetry is conciseness and precision in language, the sound of the words themselves, their cadence. Freshness of imagery. A sense of humor. A poem that forces me to take another look at the familiar, evocation of emotion.

Here is one of the poems he read — one of the two I recognized:
What Goes On
by Stephen Dunn

After the affair and the moving out,
after the destructive revivifying passion,
we watched her life quiet

into a new one, her lover more and more
on its periphery. She spent many nights
alone, happy for the narcosis

of the television. When she got cancer
she kept it to herself until she couldn’t
keep it from anyone. The chemo debilitated
and saved her, and one day

her husband asked her to come back —
his wife, who after all had only fallen
in love as anyone might
who hadn’t been in love in a while —

and he held her, so different now,
so thin, her hair just partially
grown back. He held her like a new woman

and what she felt
felt almost as good as love had,
and each of them called it love
because precision didn’t matter anymore.

And we who’d been part of it,
often rejoicing with one
and consoling the other,

we who had seen her truly alive


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