This was the final week of the first series of poetry workshops at an alternative public high school in my town. We didn’t meet last week because the school was on winter break. Today only about half the group attended. I can’t get used the fact that even though these kids signed up for the workshops, they often have other things to do. I found out that one of the most active participants, and the chair of the group’s final project, now works at a local nursing home as part of the school’s program there, and is no longer available on Friday mornings.

While I get the idea that this alternative school is trying, in many cases in a last ditch effort before the students drop out altogether, to prepare them for “real life,” I find it very odd that apparently no one has told these kids that not showing up, and not telling the person who is expecting you that you can’t be there, is not a very good way to get along in the “real world.” The principal told me point blank that some of the kids are at work now on Friday mornings, but it she didn’t tell me that ahead of time, or work out a time when more kids could be at the workshop.

I digress. Today we talked about poetic forms. I started by explaining that we would be dealing with this topic very briefly, and that I hoped to introduce them to some new forms and deal with setting the record straight about one of my favorite forms. I suggested if they wanted to know more about forms in general or a particular form, I could help them find resources.

Then I shared some thoughts from The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes:

“The poem’s form and content are interactive systems.” (Discovery of Poetry, p. 288)

We talked about the fact that most of the poems we’ve been reading and writing are in free verse – poems without a structured meter or rhyme scheme – but that free verse is a form as well. I threw out the idea of writing a poem, then writing the same ideas in another poetic form in order to really boil down what the poem is about – whatever content made it through that kind of rewrite is what would stay in the final poem, and perhaps a new form would emerge.

Mayes says, “Free verse is improvisational.” (Discovery of Poetry, p. 256) but also tells her readers, “In both free verse and metered verse, lines are as important to the poem as rungs on a ladder.” (Ibid., p. 260)

I briefly reminded them of what meter is (see workshop week four) and then talked about different kinds of stanzas.

Then I gave them a “Villanelle Map” which I found here:

I went over what a rhyme scheme is, what refrains are, and how the repetition in a villanelle is not just flat, but as Mayes explains, “Each time a repeating line reappears, it should have added significance. Rhythmically, the repetition seems to push the poem forward, like waves breaking behind waves.” (Discovery of Poetry, p. 301)

I gave them three villanelles as examples:

“The Waking” by Theodore Roethke

“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas

I read “The Waking,” asking the group to look at the villanelle map as they listened. I had been seeing some pretty blank faces, but they definitely understood better once they heard the poem. Next time I discuss villanelles, I’ll read one first, then go over the form, then read it again.

We switched gears, turning to some of my favorite poetry – haiku and related forms. I told them I chose these forms to share with them in part because I wanted to clear up the common misconceptions about haiku that most people learn in school.

I’ll tell all of you what I told the workshop, and what I say at readings: if you’ve been told that a haiku is a poem that has a certain number of syllables (say, for example, 5-7-5) in three lines, please wipe that from your memory.

If you want to know about contemporary haiku in English, I highly recommend you read any of the following excellent journals:
Modern Haiku

bottle rockets

Simply Haiku

The Heron’s Nest

Frogpond – the journal of the Haiku Society of America (the journal itself isn’t online)

Any of those sites will lead you into other sites, and you can thoroughly explore the contemporary English language haiku scene in America, and beyond.

If you teach, or work with children, or simply want to help stamp out the 5-7-5 myth and help children experience the simple beauty of haiku, I recommend reading Spring: A Haiku Story, (classic Japanese haiku translated into English), selected by George Shannon, illustrated by Malcah Zeldis. And do not miss Haiku by Patricia Donegan, which is a wonderful book about writing as well as appreciating haiku, and includes what Donegan calls “haiku activities” such as making a book, or drawing and writing together (haiga). I used some of Donegan’s selections of haiku as examples for the workshop handouts.

Now for the definition of haiku, from the Haiku Society of America:

“A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.”
See for more notes on this and the other definitions I cite below.

I explained to the skeptical teens, who have heard about counting syllables since they were elementary school children, that Japanese haiku contain 17 sounds, called on, but that translators feel that only comes out to about 12 syllables or so in English. A haiku is one breath long, more or less – something I read somewhere in my haiku journey. If you have to stop for another breath as you read it out loud, you are likely not writing just the essence of the experience, as the definition says

As I do in my readings, I parsed the definition, going over each part and clarifying:

— haiku are about real experiences or memories, not imaginary situations
— they are verbal snapshots that use real images, not figurative language
— they capture the essence of the poet’s subject, with no elaboration
— they generally deal with nature or the season; many juxtapose two ideas or images to create an “Ah ha!” or an “ahhhh, yes,” sense for the reader
— the place where Japanese haiku use a kireji, or cutting word, is often marked in English haiku with punctuation or a line break; it’s the pause when you read a haiku out loud
— some English haiku, like Japanese haiku, use a season word, or kigo

I was getting some blank looks, so I read some examples from my own work, including poems from A New Resonance: Emerging Voices in English Language Haiku, v. 4, which you can find here, along with other fine haiku volumes:

We moved on to the H.S.A. definition of senryu:

“A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way.”

Again, for more on this, you can take the link to the H.S.A. definitions page. I read some of my senryu, which I expected to garner some chuckles or nods or some response – the only one any of the teens visibly responded to was this:

Easter hymns
the flowers on her dress

Perhaps the humor in my senryu was too subtle for kids who live in a culture permeated by the sledgehammer style humor on The Comedy Channel? I’ve had outright giggles from other audiences who heard the same poems.

Anyway, sensing that I was not reaching them, I plunged on, reading the H.S.A. definition of haibun:

“A haibun is a terse, relatively short prose poem in the haikai style, usually including both lightly humorous and more serious elements. A haibun usually ends with a haiku.”

I handed out a page from Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, which you can find here:

And two of my own haibun:

“Parallel Sunsets”

“A New York State of Mind”

I read this second one aloud. Perhaps because the subject matter was something a little more familiar – the kids have probably all seen pictures of Manhattan even if they haven’t been there – they looked a little more tuned in.

I suggested we try a haiku exercise that I sometimes use, by Timothy Russell. You can see it here:

I highly recommend you go to the site and try it for yourself, but here is my overview:

Basically, this exercise is designed to help your observation skills as well as your haiku writing. You write down the month or season, and then something about the day, preferably an observation of nature or the season. The workshop group came up with:

winter cold

Then, quickly write at least ten short descriptive phrases as you look around outside or take a walk, or whatever, jotting down what you see. Some of the phrases the group came up with were:

dead grassy field
pine trees swaying
leafless tree
the smell of cold

Next, you put the initial phrase together with some of the other phrases and come up with some haiku. Here are some we wrote together:

leafless trees
a sense
of cold

winter cold

winter chill
the cold air’s
dull scent

winter cold
I look out
at wispy clouds

One of my students had his mentor in the workshop today, a senior citizen who left just after the haiku exercise. He thanked me for furthering his education! Also, he chuckled at all the senryu.

I asked the group to spend some time writing in any poetic form, other than free verse. One person asked if she could write a “shape” poem, which I explained is called concrete poetry. She called it chaos – it was a jumble of words and phrases, and she was very pleased with it. Another tried a villanelle, a lovely piece about her grandmother. Another wanted to read a poem she’d written between workshop sessions, and it was a rhyming form, in quatrains, about a person she loves – which sounded vaguely like a familiar song lyric. At least two students tried haiku or senryu. They were all too wordy, awkwardly phrased, or about love and things like that, rather than nature. I guess old habits are hard to break. I was glad they tried, and I attempted to give accurate but gentle feedback.

They gave me a status report on the reading plans – and they haven’t made much progress yet. They have a venue, but haven’t set a date, and the person who is the chair of the event is working on Friday mornings and wasn’t in the workshop today. I asked them to get more of a plan together by next week, and we talked about the anthology plans, too. They were talking about charging people who come to the reading and want to read their poems and I suggested gently that they should make this a workshop reading, since it is their final project, and if they wanted to do an open mike poetry night some other time, that would be an interesting idea. When we first began discussing the reading, we talked about it in terms of a celebration of their writing, so I’d rather they focus their energies on revising and reading their work, rather than thinking of ways to make money from the event.

All in all, it was a rough day. I didn’t feel like I connected with the kids, and as I struggled to do that, I ate up time, so they didn’t have as much time to share their work at the end. However, they are still writing, and they heard about some things they’d never considered, and some poets and poems they weren’t familiar with before, so I guess that is good.

Next week, I will be there to meet with anyone who wants to share revisions, talk about editing, or discuss the reading. The following week, a new group of teens will be poembound, as I start a new cycle of workshops.