Larry Kimmel, US




Experimental Verse


Introduction to Flexible Forms: "Cherita"


Flexible Forms: "a personal speculation"


Form, whether it is a set form or an organic form, is one of the fundamentals that every poet must come to terms with. What I’d like to discuss here, is something between the set forms, such as ballad stanzas, sonnets, or the sestina, and the organic forms, which act as the armatures of effective free verse. For the purpose of this essay, I will call that something a ‘flexible form.’

As a young poet, I yearned for a form that would be a handmaiden to all my needs as a poet. Fortunately, I didn’t find it, and eventually grew away from the urge to have the form, or perhaps I should say, the format, of my next poem handed to me. I wrote mostly in free verse, that is to say organic forms. But once I discovered haiku, and, a short while later, tanka, I had discovered something that somewhat met this old desire for a handmaiden for all occasions, though at first I did not realized this.

Let me explain.

Syllabic forms in English have little meaning, of course, except as a way of creating a resistance, which I believe can be of great value in the creating of a poem. Sometimes resistance happens in the search for an organic solution to the poem in question, or because the poet is having, for one reason or another, difficulty in realizing his or her poem. But the poet can, also, create resistance by imposing, or inventing, a form.

What I like about an imposed form is that it makes me work harder, and when I work harder, I very often write a better poem. Part of the pleasure of writing poetry, I think, is this particular challenge of playing content against form. But what of the times when the form damages the final product, by a need for padding it or cramping it to accommodate the syllable count? This is where the flexible form comes in. English-language haiku and tanka can work in this manner. Or one can invent such forms. But first, let’s consider the nature of English-language haiku and tanka, as a flexible form.

I believe it is generally conceded that in English poetry, syllabic forms are of little value, except as they may serve any particular poet, as a format to work within. And though in English-language haiku and tanka we are concerned with syllabic counts, they are not precise. There has been, of course, the English tradition of the 5-7-5 syllable haiku, but we are long past the point where we feel compelled to stick with this first English-language concept of haiku. An important factor—not the only, but an important one, to my thinking—is that once we begin to deal with a 17 or fewer syllable haiku, we leave behind that danger of damaging our haiku or tanka by padding or cramping it to accommodate the syllable count. And here, I suggest, we have entered into the realm of the flexible form.

The haiku remains a haiku, with its two-element (fragment and phrase) form, but there is a flexibility as to the number of syllables used. Up to a point, that is. The size, or the syllabic length, of the haiku is still an important factor in determining its form. One can, of course, go beyond the seventeen syllable limit, but if it is taken too far, it is not likely that the resulting poem will be accepted as a haiku. The same for the tanka, with its underlying five line, short-long-short-long-long, structure, originally imported into English as a 31 syllable form. Also, the tanka, like the haiku, ideally has a two part structure, a turn between the first three lines and the last two, although where the turn comes in English tanka is variable. Still, we have here a form, but not a form that is fixed at a certain number of syllables. The sonnet, for example, is a fixed, or set, form, in that it is fourteen iambic pentameter lines, usually rhymed. To change that, is to play with the form, and in the strictest sense, whatever results would no longer be a sonnet.

So, it was that I, at last, found something that satisfied my one time desire for a handmaiden for all occasions, the flexible form, providing, or course, that I was dealing in the very short forms of haiku and tanka. But there are other flexible forms available. I’d liked to discuss one such form - the cherita.

Cherita is the Malay word for story or tale and was created by ai li, the founding editor of still, a journal of short verse, with its now independent e-zine offshoot dew-on-line. A cherita consists, according to its creator, of “a single stanza of a one-line verse, followed by a two-line verse, and then finishing with a three-line verse.” The cherita tells a story.

More can be found about the cherita’s origin, on the still website at: Here you will find examples of ai li’s cherita, and others, by looking under the section "linked forms" and under that for "Cherita."

. . .

In December 2004 and January of 2005 there were postings of cherita and about cherita on the WHCpoetrybridge website. At one point, I posted the following thoughts on the cherita.

“in thinking about what a cherita has been to me, one thing I’ve noticed in writing them is that they have a 'beginning' a 'middle' and an 'end.' and one way [in which] they work well, is to have that [first] line be brief and [used to] set the scene, [give] the tone, etc. the next two lines are the body of the poem, and then (and I think this is important) the last 3 lines, obviously the end, should be fairly short, the climax and denouement in one. this gives it impact. even if the ending is one phrase, it can be broken to fit the form. i think that when the end spreads too much, say, into Whitmanesque lines, what one has is a free form poem put into 1/2/3/ line verses. the essence of the cherita is brevity. it grew out of the haiku [and renku] experience, and I feel it should retain something of that brevity and elliptical phrase and fragment quality. to me that is the essence of cherita. it often has a story, or anecdotal, quality, though I believe it can be used as a lyrical form, as well. but I stress it needs the same care as in writing a haiku. though no exact syllable count has been imposed, it is about haiku length or less in each of its verses. the first line, perhaps, being the exception. it is as short as a single line of a haiku. of course, this is my own opinion, and as it is a new form there is a lot of room for experimentation. to me the beauty of the form, and the game, if you like, of the form, is to see how concise i can be. there is power in conciseness.

in a recent e-mail chat with Sheila Windsor about cherita, she had a somewhat different idea of the length of the different verses, than I have, but I think she has a valid point, which should be considered carefully. i believe when she says, below, that a three line verse should be longer than a two line verse, she means that the syllable count is longer over the total [of a] three line [verse], than it is over the total [of a] two line verse. that is to say, that her cherita do not become longer and longer [in line length, as the poem progresses], but that the [three line] verse contains more syllables [than the two line verse]. her cherita look very similar to mine and to ai li’s, who first devised the 1/2/3/ line unit as part of a linked form, called the Lunenga. here are sheila windsor’s comments, for which I have asked permission to post.

the post:

i'm not by nature a 'rule' person but one thing i try to observe with my own cheritas is that each verse be longer than the one before (taking syllable count as the measure). so that the two line verse is longer than the one line verse and the three longer than the two. it's something i aim for in renku and rengay too. my attention was first drawn to this by john carley (in relation to rengay) posing the question: if the two line verse is to be 'longer' than the three, what meaning does the distinction have? i saw his point immediately and ever since have found myself needing to have a more meaningful distinction between, say, a two and a three line verse, than mere formatting. arguably there should be other differences too, though less easily definable, differences of tone and sensibility for example . . . reasons why a one line verse is a one line verse, rather than a two or a three . . . reasons other than merely: "the form calls for one line at that position"


[a point well taken by this author]

Incidentally, I think cherita is, like haiku and tanka, used for both one or several poems, that is, I don’t think it uses an ‘s’ for its plural.

Here are two examples of cherita, to illustrate my point about conciseness. You will notice that one tells a story, while the other, though suggesting a story, is more lyrical.

his clothes to charity

unpacking the suitcases
of the vacation no longer awaited

the Valentine meant
for today

© 2005 by Larry Kimmel
still, a journal of short verse: Issue Two 2000 Spring


after seeing you off

taking the path along
the canal

a rustle of









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