Teacher

Fountain Reflected in Ice, Boston Public Garden, taken by Me, Feb 8, 2022

I am savoring Jane Hirshfield’s most recent poetry book Ledger

She is my idol. No one has better guided me through how poems work and what they can do. Her own poetry, for me, combines creative precision of language and air-in-winter-clarity-fed-by-Buddhist-sensibility.  What do I mean by “creative precision”? Hirshfield knows where the expected and the unexpected need to go, and what is just enough. 

I’ve also met her. I have. One of the two hands typing this has been held inside her two hands that she writes with. It really has.

She has translated women’s poetry from the ancient court of Japan. These poets often used the form of waka or tanka, a five-line poem that has 5-7-5-7-7 for syllables, as if a haiku got two extra lines. Centuries ago, the language of educated men in Japan was Chinese, as Greek and Latin were for educated English-speaking men in the past. Often it was women, writing poems that were part of the practice of their courtly love lives, that kept Japanese poetry evolving.

I love these forms as a reader and writer. I used to dig my heels into the challenge of sticking to the syllable count and still getting something expressed. More recently, I practice these forms as many other writers of English do, pursuing the spirit of the form instead of the exactness of the numbers. For me, that is a practice of writing from somewhere that is not my intellect, definitely a change from the past.

That being said, I have published examples of these forms with correct numbers, work I’m proud of. I can do it. I just don’t want to. The simplicity and moments of presence in these tiny poems are more fulfilling than making a puzzle of their syllables. 

I wrote a series of tanka dedicated to Jane Hirshfield, and now I am revising them without the syllable counts, but with more…well, both honesty and ambiguity. The ways those two forces work together in language, and support each other, currently has my attention. Reality is full of ambiguity to be reported honestly. Honesty is sometimes accomplished through being ambiguous. 

Here is the current draft of what used to be the by-the-number poems, opened up. I kept the form for the third stanza, but elsewhere I let it go.

Teacher
	for Jane Hirshfield

Precise hand
print from ancient Japan:
The deep drifts
of garment in the open
space, her room. Woman

writing to a lover
past sunrise, poems
that tell, that keep. This,
their way of moments,
of tristesse and breath. 

First five syllables,
seven, five, seven, seven.
In addition, may 
I reveal what I desire?
The first time. Are not all times

the snowfall yesterday,
your papers freshly dust?
Almost the picture, Lady
Teacher, write with me. Let’s
call them from the blankness.

Poetry Month First Course

Let’s have champagne first: Here are some spring Haiku, small poetic bubbles that they are.

A half-circle of melon dawn
disappeared. March snow.


Between small hills, dawn
stays blue. The bare tree is still
its shadow.


Storm wind trickles in somewhere.
The prism fidgets, glints
green-gold.

The Haiku Board

Hey, remember April? Me, either. I think it was the last time I thought about this blog with any sense of fun, since I’ve been overworking at my jobs since then. These things happen. It is what it is. This, too. This too shall pass. Moving on.

April definitely happened, though, and it was definitely National Literature and Poetry Month. The historic site in Boston where I work has some share of literary fame. King’s Chapel’s location is where some of some of The Scarlet Letter takes place. Poets Sarah Wentworth Morton and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. were members. Louisa May Alcott’s grandfather has a Memorial, Herman Melville’s grandfather is buried close by, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grandfather owned a tomb in the crypt. Mrs. Morton’s grandfather was also a member, also buried there, so we are the Champs when it comes to Writer Gramps.

Special displays of people, prose, poems, and quotations filled the chapel for the month. We also offered space and post-it notes for visitors to write Haiku about their experiences. We enjoyed and admired them. Here are some poems left by our visitors on The Haiku Board. I don’t know their names, but I thank them for their Creativity.

Some people focused on what they saw:

Some people focused on history, including the presence of the Enslaved and free People of Color:

Some just cut to the chase. Fair enough.

And some, well, I don’t know what inspired this, but we all loved it!