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Literary Arts

Emergent Verse | Sonorous Sibilants

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Poets love form — even free-versers like me, who let go of strictly prescribed numbers of syllables in each line (meter), number of lines (like sonnets, villanelles) and rhyme schemes. Still, I try to make my poems well-structured, with stanzas divided according to some obvious principle, and ensure lines are distinct units, not just random words in a prose-like sequence.

Then there are poets, like long-time villager Rubin Battino, who embrace form so comfortably that it’s a real joy to watch them work their magic. The “poem” below actually consists of six, three-line poems, but they are so artfully arranged that the whole, to my mind, is much greater than the sum of its parts. Each three-line “stanza” is haiku-like while not conforming exactly.

“My goal,” Rubin wrote in an email attached to his work, “is to catch in three lines an image or idea or feeling.” I believe he does this extremely well. Take a look and see what you think:

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black shadows of foliage
stark on snow
full moon tonight

ground fog luminous
and the moon in the morning
a single bird sings

taut with tension
thunder clouds
lightning the night

in the pine forest
silent ordered shadows
quiet sunlight

across the morning
half moon greets the sun
the meadow wakens

waterfall silence
softly shifting sibilants
a lone leaf floats by

The first poem is, according to Rubin, “a rare form where the three lines can be read in any order.”

Very cool. And as I count syllables, I notice not all are the 5-7-5 required by traditional haiku. In fact, only the second and fifth stanzas conform perfectly to the ancient Japanese form. Which is fine by me. I enjoy seeing Rubin play a bit with form to suit the poem’s needs.

Happily, readers do not need to know any of the above to experience these poems deeply. And I do mean experience, not merely understand, for the pleasures of fine poetry go way beyond the rational mind to affect the emotions, heart and soul. They do this by using craft quite craftily.

“Since I believe that poetry needs to be spoken,” writes Rubin, “I work over the poems to make them sonorous, i.e., the way the words sound are important.”

I couldn’t agree more that the best poems deploy loads of sonic delights. Look at those rhyming “a”s in the very first line, “black shadows of foliage,” or the “i”s in “single bird sings.” Then there’s the abundance of alliteration in lines like “stark on snow,” “moon in the morning,” “taut with tension,” and the gorgeous “softly shifting sibilants.”

Lovers of conventional rhyme will thrill at “lightning the night,” which is not only a great sound effect but a wonderful compression, turning the noun “lightning” into a verb. Both the sound and substance of the line awaken me. And what a perfect time for it, halfway through the sequence of six “stanzas!”

Haiku typically focus on the natural world, and Rubin’s hybrids are no exception. The first thing readers are likely to notice, besides the fact that stanzas are so short, is that they’re in the sensory world of nature. Rubin’s well-chosen sights and sounds are mostly quiet until the eruption of lightning and thunder. But even that relative violence feels softened within the context.

This poem’s power is cumulative, making it more than the sum of its parts. It’s the overall effect, beyond a small collection of imagistic moments, that makes reading the poem so rewarding. I like the buildup to the climactic “thunder” in the middle. The rest of the poem resolves that tension, moving us gently to that beautiful last stanza. The “softly shifting sibilants” are for me the emotional resolution. Not only do I hear that “waterfall silence”— great paradoxical juxtaposition — but my body and mind resonate to the great sighing of those hissing sssssibilants.

By the time I arrive at the last line, the poem has become a single entity, inhabiting me. After reading, I’m better able to handle the “10,000 things” vying for my attention.

Though I’ve never been a huge fan of super-short poetic, Rubin’s mature use of the form, his “sonorous music,” quietly changes my mind. He explained he’s been writing poetry for over sixty years and has written several hundred three-line poems, publishing some in Haiku magazines.

Though not easy, the short form strikes me as a very accessible one we can all try. If you do, feel free to share with me some of the results.

Send your original poems to me at

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One Response to “Emergent Verse | Sonorous Sibilants”

  1. Alan Basting says:

    Dear Ed: Just wanted to send you a note of appreciation for your article praising Battino’s poetry and the explication of his verse. How wonderfully refreshing to find an editor willing to feature the spirit and merits of poetry, particularly in these sullen times. It helps us push back against the darkness.

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