Saturday, July 12, 2014

Prompt #191 – Writing the Day, One Ronka at a Time by Guest Blogger Kenneth Ronkowitz

I’m happy to introduce you to this week’s guest blogger, Ken Ronkowitz, and to a form of poem called the ronka that he invented. I recently read with Ken at a group reading for The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop, and his poem, based on a prompt that called for a poem to be composed of clichés, really blew me away because it was so much more than just clichés—there were meaning and purpose and a strong sense of craftsmanship that made the clichés feel strangely right.

In addition to being a poet with publications in a wide range of journals and anthologies, Ken has worked a social media coordinator for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), has been an instructor at Montclair State University, and an instructor in humanities and professional and technical communications at New Jersey Institute of Technology. His interests range from teaching, instructional design, and curriculum development to web design, blogging, and media design and management.

From Ken:

This year I wanted to take on a daily writing practice with my poetry. It’s not an original New Year’s resolution. William Stafford is the poet who inspired me the most. He wrote every day of his life from 1950 to 1993. Not everything he wrote was a poem. His 20,000 pages of daily writings include early morning meditations, poems, dream records, aphorisms, and other “visits to the unconscious.” 

I do write every day, but not always poetry, so the resolution was to do a daily poem. Stafford did go through a period when that was also his goal. When he was asked how he was able to produce a poem every morning, he replied, “I lower my standards.” I like that answer, but, while the phrase has a negative connotation, Stafford meant that he allowed himself some bad poems knowing that with daily writing there will be eventually be some good work. I wanted to impose some form on myself each day and I thought using a short form might make the project more likely to succeed. I love haiku, tanka, and other short forms, but I ended up creating my own form for this project.

   Finding a photo of her 

   from that summer when we were fifteen 
   that hot day behind the beach house 
   her bare shoulders, back, arms and legs—
   when I suddenly realized she’s a woman 
   and it startled me. It startled me.

I call my form the ronka—obviously a somewhat egotistical play on the Japanese tanka form. To read more about tanka, click here.

For my invented form, a ronka contains 5 lines, each having 7 words without concern for syllables. It’s important to know that many Westerners consider haiku to be 5, 7, and 5 lines counted by syllables, but, the Japanese language has no syllables, and applying syllables to Japanese forms of poetry has always been a Western convention. So … no syllable counts for the ronka.

Letters Loved

Old letters from lovers, not love letters,
but timelines of relationships like plot diagrams—
conflicts, turning points, resolutions, conclusions, mostly tragedies.
Why do I save them? No sequels.
Dangerous tinder to have around. Best burned.

As with traditional tanka, I decided to have no rhyme. (Even accidental rhymes were considered faults in a tanka.) I also decided to use the haiku principle of show rather than tell. For example, to indicate spring by mentioning cherry blossoms rather than stating the season. I started the year trying not to include myself or people as frequently as we do in Western poetry, those have crept into the poems. I have even added a few footnotes and links to poems.

Fathers and Sons

Sons grow up and leave their fathers
to become fathers and perhaps have sons.
Child is the father of the man,
said another poet, his heart leaping up.
Five days of rain, then, a rainbow.

We are just past mid-year and I have maintained by daily poem practice without great difficulty. I post them online at Writing the Day and each observation of the day is categorized as being from the outside world or inside the world of dwellings or the mind. I write at all times of the day, but most poems seem to come at the end of the day. (I also set a daily 10 pm reminder on my phone about posting a poem.) A non-poet might think that writing 35 words a day is not much of a challenge, but poets will understand that I frequently don’t write much faster than a word-per-minute. I also post an image (my own or borrowed) with each poem. Some poems are ars poetica or poems about poetry or writing.

Firefly Revision

Basho considered a Kikaku haiku as cruel:
A red firefly / tear off its wings –
a pepper.  A pepper / give it wings –
   a red firefly, was Basho’s simple change.
   Revision as a Buddhist act of kindness.


No, writing poetry is more like carving
wood and taking away, finding the heart
hidden inside, paring, using point and blade.
The danger comes from the dull knife.
The soft inside will be thrown away.

Some are observations on a particular day, such as this one from the Friday the 13th in June:

The Thirteenth

A thirteenth day that is a Friday.
A full moon to complete a triad
of  strange correlation without any real causation.
We look carefully for signs and connections—
find clockwork regularity; serendipity in the moments. 

The blog I post to has a “tag cloud” feature, and I tag each ronka with a few keywords that describe the poem. It is interesting to me to see what words occur most frequently: birds, time, the moon and tea have all been things that I seem to return to this year. Titles have become another way of adding a line to the poem, though I still limit myself to seven words there too.

I’m Not an Actor in Hollywood 

But I want a body and stunt double.
I want better lighting. No high definition.
More scenes and lines, 20 against 20,
gross points on profits, hand and footprints,
a star on the Walk of Fame. 

There are lots of books and websites to find poetic inspiration through writing prompts. I have been doing a monthly one at Poets Online since 1998. Adele has provided almost 200 well-defined prompts here already. My fellow New Jersey poets, Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Diane Lockward have excellent craft books with prompts—Writing Poetry To Save Your Life and The Crafty Poet, respectively. William Stafford and Stephen Dunning’s Getting the Knack is a book I bought when I started teaching and I still dip into for inspiration. Daily practices have a long history as paths of transformation spiritually, physically and for learning a craft. Perhaps, meditation and prayer will be your spiritual practice. Perhaps, yoga, tai chi or running is your physical practice. You might even combine them—kinhin is walking meditation. Consider a daily writing practice, whether it be poetry, a field guide from nature, a garden journal, one page of that long-intended novel. Disciplines of the mind are a good way to a healthy brain!

Thanks so much for sharing with us, Ken!

Ken’s advice to write something every day is a suggestion I share (although I don’t always manage to write every day). For those of you who would like to try writing a ronka, some guidelines and tips follow.

1. Decide on a subject for your ronka.
2. Compose your poem in five lines—each line must contain 7 words (no more, no less).
3. Don’t be concerned with syllables, only the number of words in each of your five lines.
4. Avoid rhyming (although alliteration, assonance, and anaphora are okay to create a sense of music in your poem).
5. Instead of just telling about your subject, include things that suggest, for example, the season or time of year.
6. Work through imagery to create meaning and an emotional center.
7. Think of a title (maybe drawn from a line or phrase in your ronka)—the title may or may not be severn words long.
8. Make room for some silences in your ronka (caesuras), and remember that sometimes the most important part of a poem is what’s left unsaid.
9. Remember that meaning should never be subordinate to form, and compose carefully with your focus on what you mean (what you want to say).
10. Resist the urge to finish a poem by tying it up in a neat little package. Your dismount should bring the poem to closure in a meaningful and memorable way.

Be sure to visit Ken’s website
and its companion blog


  1. Looks like fun. I'll try to ronka sometime soon.

  2. What a fantastic idea! I love 'invented' forms, and this one is really great to work with, challenging but without some of the over-the-top rules one sometimes finds with invented forms.

    Thank you Ken Ronkowitz!

    1. So glad you like the post, Jamie! I agree that this is a great form for poets of every stripe.

  3. Oops, forgot to say this this one is really superb (wonderful depth and nuance):

    Finding a photo of her

    from that summer when we were fifteen
    that hot day behind the beach house
    her bare shoulders, back, arms and legs—
    when I suddenly realized she’s a woman
    and it startled me. It startled me.

  4. The ronka is great -- perfect for classroom use and for "mature" poets who need a jump start or a framework. This is definitely something I'll take to my classroom in September.

    Thanks Kenneth Ronkowitz and Adele.

    1. Thanks, Rich! I'm sure your students will like this one! How about having them write a "How I spent My Summer" ronka? :-)

  5. Ken and Adele, I really enjoyed this new form. Have I done it correctly?


    Alone at the shoreline, a heron stands
    silently watching the sea rise and fall
    as if this moment were all there
    is, all there will ever be. I
    come here now to let you go.

    1. This is wonderful, Kathy! Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

  6. To An Ex-Lover Who Refused to Communicate
    (with References to Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”)

    Jabber who, and wocky what? It’s about
    the words that are and aren’t, about
    connections we failed to make: the Jabberwock
    is slain, the raths outgabe. The nonsense
    was your silence and what it cost.

  7. I didn't plan to write a "love poem," but here's what happened when I tried a ronka. I LOVE the form -- it's a great way to make a poem happen. I imagine that we can even do ronka sequences (several related ronka poems).

    Thanks, Adele and Ken, for this new and enjoyable idea for writing.


    Then or Ever

    Where the white water shifts its weight,
    and the sky tilts away from itself,
    something swift flies over the edge of
    what we know, calls us back to
    then and ever, to what love is.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Carol, and for sharing your beautifully written ronka! (Your love poem: funny how what we think we' might write about is different from what the poem tell us to write.)


    He nails weathered hardwood hand hewn boards
    spaced apart to let the air in
    to keep his fall corn harvest dry.
    He brings food to his cattle. The
    days get shorter, but the milk flows.

    © Basil Rouskas

  9. world's made of water and space
    droplets of sweat bead around the chin
    salty perspiration layers coat my hot body
    sweet tears of rain hang on jalousies
    a scorching sun sizzles the summer sidewalk

    1. Very visual! I can feel the heat and the sweat! Thanks so much for sharing, Risa!

  10. So many wonderful examples posted by readers! This kind of sharing is really great! Thanks Ken and Adele, and all the blog readers who are posting their ronka poems.