Listening for the Moment

IT'S May - the crows are raucous, the moist garden beds are erupting green, and in every classroom, the students can barely hear their teachers' voices over the irresistible music of the outdoors. The return of clear skies and sultry weather works its yearly enchantment throughout the school, a Pied Piper-effect that continuously tugs all eyes and ears toward the opened windows. Teachers know that from this time on they are fighting a losing battle for the hearts and minds of their pupils. It is the perfect time to explore the quietly explosive world of Japanese haiku. The centuries-old verse form is one of the few poetry mainstays in the classroom, though it is frequently taught for all the wrong reasons. A teacher who feels uncomfortable with poetry will inevitably be drawn to forms like cinquain, diamante, and even haiku because of their clear structure, their abundance of rules. One can easily check off the ``requirements'' of such poems without ever having to look into the heart of the student's creation (or, for that matter, into your own heart) to measure what life has been invested in the language.

So I tell my students I am going to discard most of the rules and instead we will search for what I call a ``haiku-moment'' - a short-form poem that possesses the feeling and the spirit of the haiku. Matsuo Basho, the great 17th-century Japanese poet, transformed the haiku from prim nature poetry into one of the most subtle and expansive literary forms ever created. We can't help but admire its economy, describing a complex experience in a very few words, making every element of the poem work hard to convey the meaning of the whole.

But Basho's poems did more. They captured the precise instant, the delicate inflections that occur when something out there in the world suddenly touches upon and reveals something personal and impalpable within the self. When the senses are awake and the mind receptive, you discover a harmony between the outer and inner landscapes. In the finest haiku, we learn to read the book of human nature from the text of the natural world.

I read several haiku to my students and they love teasing out all the nuances and levels of meaning. Basho and Buson, Issa and Shiki manage to be serious and playful, spontaneous and profound - all at the same time. The class can see how each poem requires the reader's imagination as an essential building block; only when the writer's and reader's minds join can the poem be whole. It's not long before my class is anxious to search for their own haiku-moments.

And so they are doubly excited when I tell them to take out notebook and pen, to get their jackets from the closet, and to line up at the door! Instead of resisting the impulse of the season, we will use its energy as our motivation. Is there any feeling so sweet as being able to rush out-of-doors when you're supposed to be working inside?

But I don't quite allow them to ``rush'' from the school. I explain that, when they are outside as students, they play and laugh but see very little. How many poems, I ask them, have you written about the playground or the field behind the school? But today, we will go outside as poets, and I'm willing to bet you'll discover dozens of moments, observations, visions you've never noticed before. Once we are outside, we each choose our own private spot to sit or stand. There will be ten minutes with no talking whatsoever.

What beautiful concentration! You've never seen young people so intent, so responsive to the little happenings around them. An ant struggling up its hill; a blue jay, secret in the pine; the feel of the wind on your neck - all these become important events to the careful observer. But there is more: a footprint in the mud; the bent rim of the basketball hoop; the bright yellow fire hydrant beside the red Chevy - these too are oddly delightful and rich with meaning.

I watch as the students' faces soften, their shoulders relax, the nervous energy of the day drains away. And every few minutes, their pens drop down and glide across the notebook pages.

What about me? As adults, we have more inner chatter, more static and interference to quiet down before we can receive the clear and vibrant calling of the world. But I have my pocket note pad in hand and I too am waiting. The kids like seeing the poet and their classroom teacher looking and listening, working on their own.

Aren't we each thinking the same questions: What will you have noticed that I've missed? What have we seen together from our separate viewpoints? And where inside yourself do you go when the wind grazes your cheek, the shadows shift, and even the pale buds on the maple are able to speak?

Swallow's wing curves, an arched eyebrow, winking to the astonished sky. Kneeling to write her spring poem, she doesn't notice the daffodil beneath her Adidas. Catcalls from the classroom window, they tease our poetry. Yes - but we're outside and you're in.

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