For New Year’s I thought we could talk about couplets. Couplets are probably responsible for your earliest introduction to poetry. After all what are nursery rhymes and Mother Goose if not couplets. Sometimes they’re written in four short lines but I’m thinking they were composed in couplets.
Jack Be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack jumped over the candlestick
*** *** ***
Tom Tom the piper’s son
Stole a pig and away he run
The pig was eat, and Tom was beat
And Tom went crying down the street
*** *** ***
I ponder whether couplets may be such a natural to poetry because they correspond to the need for “another”. Poetry seems to have been initially used to persuade, induce, or seduce. What better way than through rhyme and emotion. One line needs another as one person feels complete with another person. Love calls out for two lines, a rhyme to unite them and harmonic sounds to enhance the feelings. In an earlier article found here I wrote about “rhyme”. Couplets usually consist of two lines that rhyme and have the same meter. However, increasingly free verse is written in couplet lines employing white space in between to enhance the meaning of the words and to allow the reader time to assimilate the layered meanings.
Rhymed couplets written in iambic pentameter are called Heroic Couplets:
O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull,
Strong without rage, without o’erflowing full.
–John Denham Cooper’s Hill
A Poetic Epigram may also be written in couplet form.
What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole;
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Or they may be included as part of a more formal poem such as a sonnet.
“As truth and beauty shall together thrive
If from thy self, to store thou wouldst convert:
Or else of thee this I prognosticate,
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.”
–Last four lines of Shakespeare’s Fourteenth Sonnet:
However I chose Couplets for New Year’s because of the Chinese use of couplets for their New Year’s celebrations. These are sometimes called “contrapuntal couplets”. They are placed on doorways in Chinese communities all over the world. I suppose now they are sent as text messages on smart phones. They are sent as greetings and well wishes for the day. They are called Chun Lian. The calligraphy can be purchased at marketplaces and glued to a doorframe. They may be traditional in nature or they may be some texts that reflect on recent news or political events. Some Chinese couplets may consist of two lines of four characters each. Couplets are read from top to bottom where the first line starts from the right. The Chinese New Year occurs in the spring. Chun means “Spring”.
Here is what I found on http://www.chinapage.com:
Chunlian is a special type of Duilian, or couplet. It is used only during the Chinese New Year as part of its celebration. While duilian is permanent, chunlian is a temporary decoration to be placed on the entrance of the house, somewhat akin to Halloween and Christmas decorations.
Duilian comprises of a couplet written on vertical strips of red paper in the best calligraphic style one can muster. The first (called upper) line is posted on the right side of the front door. The second (called lower) line is posted on the left side of the front door. In addition, a third horizontal piece may be posted across and on top the door.
Here is an example:
Word-for-word translation of above:
Top (Horizontal across) Whole Earth Returns Spring
Left (Vertical) line : winter gone mountain clear water sparkles
Right (Vertical) line: Spring comes bird sings flowers fragrant
Note that word for word, the upper and lower lines are antithetical, yet the meanings are complementary and content of the message is hopeful and uplifting. The words in the horizontal are written from left to right.
So it seemed to me that this understanding of nature, good will, and good luck that has been given by the Chinese for centuries makes a wonderful form to consider for the New Year. Then I stumbled upon Crystallines and they seemed to be the perfect kind of couplet for us to write in English. Crystallines are two line image poems often with a title. It was created by the American poet, Denis Garrison. His website is here.
Crystallines are small poems, limited to 17 syllables, whose primary focus appears to be to match the Japanese clarity of image with the English harmony of sound. It was inspired by the Haiku and like the haiku it may be at its best when written in present tense. Any reference that can place the verse in context much like the Japanese kigo (season) or kidai (symbolic seasonal reference) is recommended.
The Crystalline employs the kireji (cutting word) of the haiku. The kireji in haiku is a word that “cuts off” one view and turns the reader to a different view. In a longer Japanese poem the kireji is 2 long lines inserted midway in the poem that change the direction of the poem not only in structure but in thought. A stand alone small poem such as the Crystalline emulates the long poem’s kireji couplet long line frame and it should “cut” or turn the view from one line to the next.
Unlike haiku which observes the image with objectivity and attempts to keep the ego out of the verse, the Crystalline invites the poet’s subjectivity and permits the poet’s thought and feelings to be communicated through the verse.
Love flowers as commitment ties,
as mere flirtation flies,then dies.
ON THE WING
Hot summer days bring into view
A Red Admiral and Holly Blue.
ONE SUMMER DAY (A Crystalline Sequence)
From twisted sheets the new day rises,
low sun dispelling fever dreams.
Watering my garden – with the green
in the mist and steam, my rainbow.
In bright of day, mad dogs and I
in maple-shade together lie.
New mown grass, wild onion scent
console me through this torrid afternoon.
Ice tea pitcher breaks a beaded sweat.
Steaming, we welcome thunder’s threat.
Under soft black sky, the dark hills,
the air filled with fireflies’ fairy lights!
In the still night air, the ebbing heat
provokes the gray tree frogs to sing.
–Denis M. Garrison
So wishing all of you much success in your life and writing in the New Year, prosperity and good health. Hope you enjoy playing with couplets, chunlian and crystallines.