Review: Eastern Structures Ed. R.W. Watkins


Fair disclosure: this literary journal solicited work from yours truly for its inaugural publication, and so this review is not the ‘neutral’ view we usually try to bring you. Nevertheless, we’re going to praise this new journal because the concept is brilliant. Whether we write in Eastern or Western classical traditions, Eastern Structures, and Quarterday share a common goal of promotion of classical forms. As such, these two publications are almost unique in a world where ‘poetry’ means ‘free verse’ and forms are considered by editors and publishers as analogous to parlor tricks and not ‘proper’ poetry at all.

Like its forerunner, Contemporary Ghazals, this irregularly published journal is a literary interest of the maverick, outspoken Canadian poet and critic, R.W. Watkins. We can understand why Watkins’s unexpurgated views on just about everything in the Asian poetry scene has got up establishment noses. We love his rants, though, a rare sign of a healthy, squalling, environment classical poets need to create. He is not diplomatic in his savage critiques, but our view is there is room for this roughhousing: precisely because formalists are restricted, we need to consistently ‘live on the edge’ in our writing lives.

So how does this journal differ from Contemporary Ghazals? Eastern Structures places ghazals — now a thriving form thanks largely to the efforts of R.W. Watkins and Bill West at Contemporary Ghazals, and Holly Jensen at The Ghazal Page — in context with other Asian forms, including the little known Korean sijo form.

Structures attempts to revive these forms and encourage innovation while adhering to classical structure, providing both a venue for classical verse and a tutorial for those who wish to try new forms of Asian poetry. As Watkins notes in his Foreword to the issue, Structures is an Asian Poetry department store. We might linger over the familiarity of senryu, but those ghazals over there look enticing. For this reason, we believe that this journal will have a long shelf-life, a reference, and a joy to return to again and again, and a must-have for a formalist looking for inspiration and very helpful tutorials and articles. There is a slight issue with the sijo section. Ghazals and Japanese forms are well-covered, but the little known Korean sijo remains a form few have tried — despite structurally being similar to a sonnet. Including this form, however, in a journal dedicated to classical Asian poetry may revive the sijo’s fortunes in the West.

Structures is organized by form, starting as you’d expect with ghazals, before moving to sijo, then to haiku and finally to tanka (waka) poetry. What was especially pleasing was the way in which the selected poets shifted between the forms. Bill West, especially, moved through all forms covered, demonstrating his skill with Asian forms. Special mention also goes to the tanka and haiku of Jim Wilson and Priscilla Lignori, respectively.

Importantly, Watkins’ editorial essay Dial 5-7-5 for Classicism forcefully and convincingly argues that the unity of form allows for more innovation and variation in theme, a common structural grounding. The poetry selections reflect this philosophy. Classical themes of lost love, mysticism, and erotic longing lie as close bedfellows to grungy cityscapes, dirty sex, political polemic, dark soul, and light wit. A brilliant thought-provoking, and (for some) an infuriating read.

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