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If you want to see what I cover in “exploring poetic forms,” you can check out the blog entry from the first set of workshops, here:

When I got to the school today, the principal told me there was very low attendance today, so I’d probably be missing some kids. She was right — only six teens made it to the poetry workshop today, and one of those actually missed the entire discussion portion and came in just as we began writing.

As I was waiting for those few to trickle in, I greeted J., and gave him a book I’d found at the public library book sale last week after the workshop. It’s called the Illustrated Directory of the US Marine Corps, ( He was thrilled. It turns out that another PLC student, T., is also planning on joining the Marines. As I learned last week, J. is already signed up and goes to Parris Island in July.

T. is training with her dad so she’ll be physically fit, but she hasn’t signed up yet. She said her uncle and his wife are both Marines and that “they make good money,” but that “it isn’t about the money.” She told the group it’s always been her dream to serve and she wants to prove to herself that she can do it. J. immediately cracked a huge grin and said, “For me, it’s about the money. I’m staying in 20 years, too, so I can retire!”

T.’s uncle is currently deployed in Iraq, and she said she wants to talk things over with him when he gets back, to make sure she’s ready, before she joins. As the other students came in and we got ready to begin, I found myself praying silently that T.’s uncle will stay safe and come home to talk to her, and that she and J. will succeed and be safe as well. They are both so young . . .

In the first workshops, I felt I’d tried to cover too much when I delved into poetic forms. So this time, I went over the basics of why poets think about form as well as substance, and then we talked about free verse and how it is not just a free for all, but is a form in which line breaks are the poet’s key formatic tool. I suggested that for a look at early free verse they should check out Walt Whitman, and we talked a bit about how he envisioned a new American poetry, less formal and more expansive than its European antecedents.

I then explained that their handouts included a guide to the villanelle form and three villanelles, and encouraged them to read them on their own, because I wasn’t going to go over them in the workshop. Instead, I told them, we’d turn to my passion – haiku and related forms.

This group was more receptive than the last to the notion that what they’d been told about haiku as children was likely not very accurate and I was about to set them straight. For more on how haiku is not what you learned in school, please see the blog entry at the link above. Mainly, please note that haiku is NOT defined as a poem with three lines and a certain number of syllables.

In order to convince the teens that I know what I am talking about, I showed them that I am one of seventeen poets featured in A New Resonance: Emerging Voices in English Language Haiku, v. 4, which you can find here, along with other fine haiku volumes:

We went over the Haiku Society of America’s definitions of haiku and its close relative senryu, which you can find here:

After discussing haiku and senryu, I read several examples of both forms from my own work, and we talked about the subtle difference. My children were glad that they each featured in my examples. I read from several journals which I recommend to anyone interested in these forms, including:

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)

As we discussed my poems I talked a bit about the writing life. I encouraged them to continue to write no matter what anyone told them about the practicality. No, you won’t make much money by writing poetry, but you can write no matter what else you do. We talked about rejections, and about believing in your work enough to keep looking at it critically, and sending it back out if you believe in it. Rejection, I told them, is a part of writing, and it doesn’t necessarily mean your work stinks. I was getting some blank looks.

L. piped up and said, “If it comes from your heart, how can it stink?” While there is certainly much to be said on the subject of good writing, and a piece needs to be well written, grammatically correct, and of the highest possible quality before it will be accepted for publication (at least in theory, that is how it should work), L. hit on an important truth, as I told the group.

T., who hasn’t contributed to the conversations as much as some of the other workshop participants, said, “That’s true. If there’s one thing you’ve taught me it’s that what comes from my heart is good.” Again, just when I was thinking that the topic at hand was boring these kids, they let me know how important our work together is.

I do think that L. and T. are right. If you write passionately, if you put your whole self into your work, it will never stink. It may not be polished and ready to go, you may need to revise, but at its heart, the work will be good. I plan to expand on this thought next week, when we talk about revising.

We went over the HSA definition of haibun and the traditions this form grew out of, and I read some of my haibun. At this point the group seemed anxious to write, so I wrapped up and suggested we try working collaboratively first. L. wrote two haiku before we even finished talking.

We tried Timothy Russell’s haiku writing exercise (found here: ). It’s a great exercise in observation, so I recommend it for anyone, not just haiku poets. To start, you write down the month or season and something about the day. Then, you spend a few minutes noticing and observing (outside is best), and jotting down descriptive phrases. Do this about ten times, and you’ll have some raw material for haiku

The group came up with:

First line:
cloudy morning

the breeze leaps from tree to tree
the flags snap furiously
a smiling face in the crowd
ships sail across yellow fabric (a boy’s shirt)

and we wrote a few haiku together:

cloudy morning
the breeze leaps
from tree to tree

cloudy morning
flags snapping furiously
in the breeze

cloudy morning
a smiling face
in the crowded hallway

Then they wrote on their own. All of them wrote, but only a couple of kids wanted to read what their poems:

T. wrote:

in dark morning
clouds float
slowly moving

L. wrote:

morning wind
sun rising into the sky
fog drifts away

black sky
you stroll through the night
waiting for a glimpse of light

We closed by talking about what we’ll do next week – wrap up the workshops with a session on revising poems.


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.