walking around the pond
all night long.
—Matsuo Bashō, translated by Robert Hass
A respect for language . . . But sometimes the hand is quicker than the eye. It grabs the pencil and slaps down an adjective before the eye has finished looking. The day is “lovely”: full of “fluttering” leaves and “sparkling” waves; clouds sail by, “cotton-white” and, in short, as Alexander Pope said some two-and-a-half centuries ago in his “Essay on Criticism”:
“Where’er you find ‘the cooling western breeze,’
In the next line, it ‘whispers through the trees,’
If crystal streams ‘with pleasing murmurs creep,’
The reader’s threatened (not in vain) with ‘sleep’;”
We’ve asked our students to write poems that invite us to enter. To ground us in concrete, physical detail. To stop, look, and listen. But in the excitement of the moment—in the flush of inspiration—my leaves are prone to flutter; and “dark” is my all-time favorite adjective. The four other senses get robbed of their rights, too, but we rely more for imagery on sight than on any of the others, so it suffers the most. And it doesn’t help if you keep losing your bifocals.
How can we dramatize for student poets the importance of taking a closer look?
At the end of a course, I ask students to write a journal entry about a class or assignment that they found memorable. Recently, Katherine, a junior in the poetry elective, wrote:
This course has forced me to look at things in a very different way than I have seen them before. One class that stands out in my mind is the one when we read Buson’s haiku ‘On a one-ton temple bell / a luna moth folded in sleep.’ You had us close our eyes, relax our bodies and clear our heads. Then you asked us to picture in detail this image: the textures, temperatures, sizes, colors, sounds, smells. Afterward we shared our own images of Buson’s poem. Then we each got a marble from the box you brought in and wrote down phrases that came to mind as we looked at our marble. I remember feeling like time had stopped during that class. For forty minutes I forgot about everything else in my life, all the stress and anticipation left me. Focusing so clearly on something so insignificant and small pushed me to call on all of my senses. I learned that this is the primary step to writing strong poetry and creating vivid images.
Then you took us into New York. I have been to the city many times, but walking around Manhattan with our poetry class I felt like I was seeing the city for the first time. You gave us little notebooks and told us this was our camera and to take many photographs. For the first time I really opened my eyes and noticed specific people on the street. I observed how they walked, who they walked with, how they dressed. I noticed one woman slumped over in the passenger seat with her feet resting on the dashboard, her window half rolled down, waiting for someone to return to the car. On any other day I would have passed right by her and she would have faded into the blur of all the passing people. That day I noticed the color of the hot dog signs on the vendors’ wagon. I noticed a fern growing on the shaded window sill of a third floor apartment. I paid attention to my other senses too: the stench of urine that reeked in the subway tunnels; the screaming police sirens I heard from Central Park Zoo. My notebook by the end of the afternoon was a collage of images of ordinary life in New York City. But the experience for me was out of the ordinary.
[. . .] I wish I had asked her how she got from the class on Buson and the marbles to learning “that this is the primary step to writing strong poetry and creating vivid images!” Like Katherine, I find this kind of attentiveness “out of the ordinary” and would like it to become more a part of my daily life. I want it for my students, too, especially because I agree with artist Frederick Franck that it’s closely connected to empathy: “When the eye wakes up to see again, it suddenly stops taking anything for granted. The thing I draw, be it left, rosebush, woman or child, is no longer a thing, no longer my ‘object’ over and against which I am the supercilious ‘subject.’ The split is healed. When I am drawing leaf or caterpillar or human face, it is at once de-thingified. I say yes to its existence. By drawing it, I dignify it, I declare it worthy of total attention, as worthy of attention as I am myself, for sheer existence is the awesome mystery and miracle we share.” (1)
Before experimenting with the haiku exercise, which can be a stretch for the more literal-minded student (“Big deal—I see this moth on this bell”), you may want to have your class bring in objects to study—to draw and write about. I usually insist on something organic that they can envision in successive stages of its life. I ask them to set the object on their desk and close their eyes for a minute. “When your eyes are open, imagine you are seeing this object for the first time. In fact, imagine this is the first such object to appear on the earth and you are the first one to see it. Naturally, you’ll look at it very closely, poke it a bit, shake it, sniff it . . .
Now you want to make a record of it. Here is a piece of paper. Take your pencil and, without looking at your paper—not even once, not even a sidelong glance—draw the object in detail. Don’t stop looking at it. The point is not to make a perfect drawing but to get to know your object as fully as possible—every vein and dimple, every speck and abrasion, every shadow and crevice. Think large, as you start to draw, because you’ll be putting in so many details and you won’t be able to see exactly where on the paper you’re putting them. This is a case where to process, not product, is the significant thing.”
Expect a lot of groaning. Eighth and ninth graders tend to be more obsessed with making a “realistic,” accurate drawing than juniors and seniors, who may have been exposed in art class or museum trips to abstract art and the power of distortion to express truth. If you’re drawing your own object—which is a good thing to do—check, especially at the outset, to be sure people aren’t sneaking a look at their paper. The temptation is overwhelming! You can be a good role model; hold up your own art work, laugh at it, but point out the things you discovered about your object that you hadn’t noticed before. As I write this, I’ve been taking a lot of time out to watch the red squirrel on my window ledge. I just caught him in the act of yawning. At least, he stretched and opened his mouth very wide; it sure looked like a yawn.
We tend to see what we want to see. What we’re used to seeing. Last week as I said goodbye to my Men and Women in Lit. group, I asked how many, in the course of the semester we’d spent together, had changed their assumptions about at least one person in the class. Every hand, including mine, went up. But challenging our assumptions had been one of the avowed purposes of that course; it had been a frequent subject for discussion. Whether it’s the opposite sex or squirrels or dry leaves, we instinctively classify and judge as quickly as possible, in order to move on to the next item demanding our attention. Poets and artists can’t afford to do this.
Moving from visual to verbal, I ask the class to start listing words—right on their drawings—that capture as precisely as possible what their senses have been telling them and what they have tried to draw. Sometimes we first make five lists on the board of “sense” words, just to warm up:
touch—gritty damp silken furry hairy sticky squishy pulpy
sound—rustle peep bubble whisper crackle
sight—oblong curly spiked undulating minuscule oval
notched indented veined striated
smell—spicy earthy sour sweet piney musty astringent
taste—bland hot crunchy grainy syrupy mealy sweet
We note how the senses blur so that one word will often apply to more than one sense. We mention onomatopoeia—crunch, crack, grunt. We puzzle how to describe the taste of a stone, the sound of a piece of bark or of a mushroom. I might read them Sylvia Plath’s poem about mushrooms—the soft “insistent” hands “taking hold of the loam,” whispering their way up through the earth. We agree that finding the right word is very hard work. So is finding a fresh comparison. “Imagine you’re the only person on earth to have seen this object; you want to leave an accurate record for posterity.” (2)
Once we’ve filled our drawings with words, I take the class through a series of questions, expanding from this matter-of-fact study of the object into association, memory, fantasy—different kinds of “seeing,” which, along with their initial observations, should help them write a poem for the next class.
Tell your object some of the things you noticed about it.
List associations you have with your object and its name.
Jot down a memory that your object calls up.
List things you could do with your object.
List some places you would not expect to find your object.
Imagine what it might do in such a place. (Be surprising, outrageous.)
Ask it a few questions or let it ask you some questions.
Offer some answers or answer with another question.
Describe its transformation into something else or some other form of itself.
As they get up to leave, I tell them they don’t have to incorporate all this material into their poem; they can select and develop just a couple of items if they’d rather. Given the range of these directives, their poem has the potential to be a humorous fantasy, a memory poem, a dream poem, a nature poem—but however it turns out, it will be grounded in close observation and some precise language. As a sample, here’s the beginning of my own, as yet uncompleted, poem based on observing and drawing a pair of otters at the Central Park Zoo. I made detailed notes on shape, size, color, and texture, but in the end it was their motions that really stirred my imagination.
One rests his chin on the other’s wet flank,
lovers afloat and fluid with late afternoon,
lovers in their slipping streamy protean
flexes, backslidings, Moebius strips.
Eelslick, seaflip, webfoot, rattail, whiskered
as cats, their love is checkered light, silver dark.
They know each other almost as they know
water. I’d like to ask, “How did you learn
Next day we are ready to share our drafts. But before students read their poems aloud to the class, I ask everyone to listen particularly for words and phrases that reveal a fully awakened, an unusually attentive eye so that when the poem’s over I can list these on the board for us to think about. Then, to set the tone, I read aloud from John Moffitt’s poem “To Look at Any Thing.” (3)
To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long:
To look at this green and say
‘I have seen spring in these
Woods,’ will not do . . . .
“Don’t assume you’ve really seen any of the objects you’re hearing about in these poems. Be prepared to see them differently. Assume that you’ve never seen the green of spring wood before.”
As we listen to the poems, a record of the students’ “seeing” goes up on the board: a saltine’s eyelet lace, dying banana like a limp, black crescent moon, the white web spun tight around the orange’s flesh, a leaf’s busy perforations, a freckled stone, the saltine orderly as a bingo card, the candle’s syrupy drip, a prune wrinkled as old gums.
This is the point in their writing when some students suddenly start keeping a poetry notebook. So if the weather’s good, take the class on a walk to collect textures, smells, sounds, shapes, colors, and interesting juxtapositions of objects. Who knows which of these may trigger a poem? Or a good line? But even if none do, it’s useful practice in seeing. Students can collect actual objects or capture them in quick sketches and words. You can also assign them to do this at home; basement and attic (though these poetic conveniences are fast disappearing from the scene), kitchen and backyard and garage are all possible sources. So is the local supermarket, especially the fresh produce section, and, if you live in a city, outdoor flower or vegetable stands. One of my colleagues did a class walk with guests from the first grade; his seniors were startled at how much more interesting familiar terrain becomes when you’re seeing it through the eyes of a child. How many more times you have to stop!
Any situation that changes the way you normally perceive your surroundings is apt to be good for your poetry. Falling in love, falling out of love, having a child, starting a new job, travel, acquiring a new skill. Think how many writers got their start when confined to bed during a long childhood illness. A few summers ago I attended a writing workshop in the Pacific Northwest just ten days after I’d had surgery. We were given a daily assignment in “available seeing.” In our notebooks we were to record ordinary sights—a slant of light on a diving bird’s tail, a hair curled in the still-wet shower drain. Not impose our personality on the thing with fancy figurative language or sound effects but just be attentive, in the spirit of Zen, to its “as-is-ness.” Happily, my usual impatience was checked by the fact that I could walk only very slowly, for very short distances. I found myself quite content to sit down on the nearest driftwood log and watch one patch of shore for half an hour. I even became a better reader of haiku.
I show a page from that summer’s journal to my senior writers:
sandal straps limp and lopsided from damp sea air
sour smell of kelp mixed with wild sweet pea
small boy in red clings halfway up the bluff over the beach
hidden dips in smooth sand
sea gull footprints make umbrella shapes in wet sand
I tell them that while I was pleased to find myself paying more attention to my surroundings, I wasn’t convinced at the time that these were useful observations. They seemed so random and their language so matter-of-fact. But a month later, as I read over the page, I began to write a poem about recovering from surgery. To my surprise, four of the five journal entries made their way into the poem:
Each morning I walk a little farther,
listening to my new body ripen
and ache. It makes a green music.
I walk carefully, as if packed full of seeds,
but I am hollow and untried,
like a newly strung guitar.
The ground is my rhythm—
anthill, pebble, pothole, and root
direct my going. Hidden dips in a smooth lawn
assault my body’s tenderness like a stranger’s hand on my arm.
I cry at the deep impress of a seagull’s feet
in wet sand, because it looks like a small umbrella.
I cry when someone says Washington State
has the fourth highest incarcerations rate in the nation,
because I love its coffee and its veils of rain.
I am a cracked egg in boiling water.
My first day here I saw from the car a wild beach,
dark under high bluffs, and I wept
at what I couldn’t smell from the window—
sun on thistle and sweetpea and sour kelp.
Finally today I walked there: the tide was in,
and some ravens, and one small boy in red halfway up the bluff.
I cried—there was such a narrow strip to walk on,
or maybe because I’d gotten the smells right.
One student said, “It seems like your seeing really made the poem happen.” I think that’s because once you start paying attention to what you considered small, insignificant things, you become more attentive to everything and come to realize that nothing is insignificant—except to the egotist. This is the viewpoint necessary for writing haiku, and it was Bashō who said to distrust all adjectives of degree.
Writing haiku is a wonderful discipline for any writer—not only a poet but anyone who wants to cultivate attentiveness to the world and to language. But it’s very difficult to do well. I once spent a four-hour plane flight trying to rub two images together to produce a “spark” in three lines. And a whole morning that had been designed for housecleaning got devoted to reducing the cluttered apartment to my vision of Japanese simplicity in these lines:
I dream emptiness:
sun in a bowl.
If you do want to take the time to write haiku with your class, browse through William Higginson’s wonderfully thorough Haiku Handbook, (4) and immerse yourself in a good anthology, such as Robert Hass’s recent translations, The Essential Haiku. But rather than write haiku with the whole class, you might choose simply to read some aloud together and then give special help to anyone who really wants to try his hand at it.
The exercise Katherine described is one I’ve done with ten-year-olds as well as seniors. Seated quietly in a circle on the floor with their eyes closed, having just focused for a few minutes on their breathing, students listen to me read Buson’s lines that invite us to see a luna moth sleeping with folded wings on a one-ton temple bell. I read it several times, or ask someone else to read it after me. We sit silently for a minute. Then, keeping our eyes closed, we go around the circle saying what our senses and associations gave us as we listened to the poem. Responses range from memories of a trip to Japan or to a museum, to readings for a religion course, to an image of the startled moth flying away as the bell is rung, to an appreciation of the textural contrast between the fragile wings and the heavy bronze or iron, to the juxtaposition of an ancient bell with an ephemeral insect, to a suggestion that both objects are sleeping . . . .
The students realize, if they hadn’t before now, that everyone heard a different poem, based in part on her own experiences and her predilections for one sense over the other, for space over time, for philosophy over art. “Suppose I had used a different translation,” I ask, “with no reference to the folded wings or the weight of the bell? What would your imagination have supplied, do you think?”
Appreciating haiku calls for the same attentiveness as drawing an object and then finding the precise words to describe what we’ve seen. It’s just that process in reverse. If we can pay attention to three lines of poetry—really see what the poet has “drawn”—we should be able to read longer poems with the same empathetic attentiveness.
At this point it can be helpful to ask students to make a painting or collage of the images in a somewhat longer poem. Collage is particularly rich in possibilities if you insist that students choose a variety of textures and shapes and layerings to capture not only literal textures and shapes that may be mentioned or implicit in the images (and the shape of the poem on the page?) but also the “feel” of the poem—the poet’s tone. This requires careful, imaginative reading, silently and aloud. It’s also a good idea to get the class brainstorming a list of materials and objects with interesting, evocative texture that they might use—sand paper, cotton, silver foil, plastic wrap, brown paper bags, rubber bands, nails, string, ribbon, strands of hair, lipstick, etc. Given the declining number of art programs in the schools, it may be wise to get a list of shapes up on the board, too, and show examples of collage—to lift it out of the realm of glued cut-outs from teen fashion and sports magazines.
I’ve used Wallace Stevens’s “Disillusionment at Ten O’Clock,” Gary Snyder’s “Four Poems for Robin,” e. e. cummings’s “in Just-,” Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—there are lots of possibilities. (5) You can hang the collages on the wall and combine art show with poetry reading. If you make it clear that this work is to be taken seriously, you can get students to “read” one another’s collages, once they’ve head the relevant poems: “I like the way you made the rhododendron blossoms bigger than lifesize and kind of transparent with the plastic wrap, because in the poem they’re real flowers but they’re falling while the guy’s asleep so maybe he’s dreaming them, too—and they could be, like, a symbol of this old girlfriend he misses. And you made the beach out of sandpaper, which is a good contrast to the plastic wrap, like it’s nitty gritty reality.” “Yes, and the beach goes off to the back of the paper like it goes on forever—it’s the rest of his life without her” (Gary Snyder’s “Four Poems for Robin”).
Or they can write journal entries or even essays about the connections they see between poem and collage. The main point is, once again, to slow them down and intensify their experience of encountering a poem.
Frederick Franck, Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing: Meditation in Action (New York: Bantam/Doubleday, 1993) xvii. An important book for every poet and poetry lover to own. To quote from the jacket: “Franck encourages us to pick up a pencil so that after years of merely looking at the world around us, we see it again as if for the first time. Filled with wise and moving autobiographical recollections, Zen stories, quotations, koans, proverbs, anecdotes about his students’ breakthroughs, and Franck’s own beautiful pen-and-ink views of the world,” this book “will renew and refresh those who draw as well as those who do not.”
Sylvia Plath, “Mushrooms” in The Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) 139.
John Moffitt in Reflections of Watermelon Pickle . . . and Other Modern Verse, ed. Dunning, Lueders, and Smith (Glenville, IL: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1966) 21. Many of us who came of age as teachers in the sixties still love and use this anthology, which is, unfortunately, out of print. Moffitt’s poem may be found in other collections.
William J. Higginson with Penny Harter, The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku (New York: Kodansha America, Inc., 1985). An invaluable paperback reference and anthology that includes material on the form (along with the tanka), a brief history of haiku traditional and modern, and samples by Japanese, American, and European poets ranging from the four best-known masters—Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki—to skilled contemporary American haiku writers like Geraldine Clinton Little. There are several helpful chapters on how to read and write haiku with students, and an interesting list of traditional “season words” or kigo—plants, animals, weather, rituals—arranged by season. Students who have suffered in elementary school from syllable counting and workbook formulae (“fill in a sprint flower, a color, an emotion”) can be converted by exposure to some of the modern American examples and by Higginson’s down-to-earth attitude: “Haiku happens all the time, wherever there are people who are ‘in touch’ with the world of their senses, and with their own feeling response to it.”
Keeping a sketchbook/notebook during different times of year can help sensitize some students to the clarity of haiku, and for those who are convinced their haiku have to about pretty, peaceful scenes, read them Michael McClintock’s poem, anthologized in The Haiku Handbook (see above):
dead cat . . .
to the pouring rain
My own two favorite books for capturing the essence of haiku are A Zen Wave by Robert Aitken (New York: Weatherhill, Inc., 1978) and Sam Hamill’s Bashō’s Ghost (Seattle: Broken Moon Press, 1989). Each little chapter of A Zen Wave is an intimate, thoughtful talk by Aitken, one of the first American Zen masters, who studied Japanese poetry and Zen in Japan, and each talk focuses on one of Bashō’s haiku—its spirit, its language, some of the different translations.
Gary Synder writes that Aitken “illuminates the angles and corners of loneness and community, plainness and beauty, in the homey, homeless way of Zen.” Hamill, a poet, translator, student of Japanese culture, and the founder of Copper Canyon Press, travels through parts of northern Japan where Bashō made his journeys three hundred years ago, seeking the poet’s spirit in poets and artists he meets along the way, in places and objects of which Bashō wrote, and in his own responses to the world he encounters. A very moving book.
This is also the place to recommend poet Robert Hass’s translations of Bashō, Buson, and Issa—The Essential Haiku (Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1994), which contains about a hundred poems by each writer and an introductory sketch of each. Hass writes that he has tried to give us “the variety and intensity of experience this small form can sustain. What is in these poems can’t be had elsewhere. About the things of the world, and the mind looking at the things of the world and the moments and the language in which we try to express them, they have unusual wakefulness and clarity.”
Short lyrics by Stevens, Snyder, and cummings, along with excellent, flexible writing suggestions, may all be found very conveniently in Kenneth Koch’s and Kate Farrell’s fine anthology and poetry teaching manual, Sleeping on the Wing (see note 9, chap. 3). This is a classic that should be on every high school poetry teacher’s bookshelf.