Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

in praise of short poems

haiga by Buson

courtesy Wikipedia

I grew up on haiku. It’s popular in school classrooms now — fast, and relatively easy to teach — but I don’t remember there being a lot of my friends who learned it as children.

My familiarity with it — and subsequent fondness for it — may be due to my father, an inveterate reader and lover of poetry. I inherited his collection of Kipling, Shakespeare (one of my earliest books was a child’s Shakespeare that my father gave me), and other poets.

Then, when I began to study poetry, haiku seemed so (deceptively) easy. Seventeen syllables, 5-7-5, how hard is that?

VERY hard. haiga IssaTo create an evocative image — bridge the gap between writer & reader — in SEVENTEEN SYLLABLES??

Actually, I adore short poems — haiku, tanka, limericks, and recently the lune. The lune is an attempt to make English conform more nearly to the spirit of haiku. It’s a 3-5-3 setup, and also very hard.

Today’s poem is really multi-cultural. It’s a lune — my own — in the haiga tradition. Haiga are drawings (usually by the haiku author) accompanying a haiku. But that makes them seem more independent of each other than they are. Think of graphic novels, how the text & illustration are inseparable. That’s more the way of haiga, I suspect.

They’re a wonderful reminder (for me) of how Buddhism often works in the arts. One not more important than the other; each enhancing the other. And the idea of essence: that you can somehow see/ touch the heart of an object/ feeling with these few words…

My attempt is a contemporary riff: a lune w/ a photo. Let me know what you think.

photo the author's

photo the author’s

lune for Pascal  ~

the dog barks

hungry for my hands

heart hungry

beginner’s heart haiku

haiku road

courtesy Google

Haiku is the archetypal Buddhist poetry, at least to most Americans. And certainly the compressed form, the emphasis on experience and now, are very much in keeping with Buddhism. As are many of the early practitioners: Buson, Issa, Bashō.

So I thought today it would be good to visit with at least one of the masters. Take a short trip down Haiku Road, as it were (I couldn’t resist).

Here’s one of my very favourites, by Issa. It says ‘contemporary Buddhist’ better than anything since his time, the 18th century.

Issa

Issa’s portrait, Muramatsu Shunpo

   All the time I pray to Buddha

I keep on 

   killing mosquitoes.

The conflict between what I know about Buddhism — do no harm, cherish all life — and everyday life is nowhere clearer. And that, to me, is the best part of poetry: it reminds you what you already know.

Which is a premise at the heart of Buddhism: you already are a Buddha. You just have to remember…

quilt pieces and a poem for beginner’s heart

poet stamps

courtesy US Postal Service

It wasn’t that long ago that I realised how many of the poets I love best are Buddhist. They don’t make a big deal about it (most Buddhists don’t — I’m kind of an anomaly, blogging from a Buddhist/ Unitarian/ poetic platform), but it influences them in ways that resonate deeply. At least with me. :)

One of my favourites — and many other people’s, as well — is the poet Mary Oliver. Her profound respect for (and deep insight into) the natural world comfort, heal, and most of all, remind me that everything changes/ passes/ dies. Life — and time to appreciate it — are finite.

This poem — her poem “The Summer Day” — carries within it my mantra: what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life? There is no better, more beginner’s heart, line in poetry, in my none-too-humble (but amply educated!) opinion.

quilt fat quarters

courtesy Google

Our lives are ours to craft, no matter our circumstances. My grandmother, an old-time Baptist with strongly progressive leanings, used to try to reconcile free will and ‘what the Good Lord gives us.’ It came out a bit like this: you get a pile of quilt pieces (quilting’s big in my family — we love textiles!) that are the pieces of your life ahead. Some folks make beautiful, richly structured double wedding ring quilts, and linear log cabin quilts. And a few do the meandering drunkard’s path, while others haphazardly make sloppy crazy quilts. And some end up as they started: with pieces.

I love that metaphor. I’ve known it as long as I can remember, Grandma’s voice repeating it, and Aunt Bonnie nodding in agreement. I was probably sitting on the bed in Grandma’s bedroom, the one Uncle Charlie made from the old sleeping porch, watching Grandma sew on her treadle. Probably Aunt Bonnie was on the way outside to work in the yard or garden (the ‘yard’ had flowers; the ‘garden’ all edibles :) ). Two old widow women with blue hair, making do with very limited income.

double wedding ring quilt

courtesy Google

But their quilts? Far more beautiful than velvet, silk, or lace — intricately pieced from endurance and strength and creativity and generousity. Stitched with love and artistry, and filled with the feather-soft memories of the lives that came before and after.

Their  lives still serve me as patterns, as I work to fit together the pieces of my life. Trying to figure out the pieces of a beginner’s heart, and what I will do with my own ‘wild and precious life.’

Here’s Oliver’s poem “That Summer Day”:

That Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

poetry, seeing, and connection

national poetry month logo

courtesy poets.org

I adore poetry, as anyone who knows me knows. Actually, you don’t even have to know me — you can just be sitting next to me on a plane (I’m often reading poetry), or standing by me in a bookstore (cruising the poetry shelves). You might be my letter carrier, bringing me poetry magazines. Or, if you tell me it’s okay, you might be reading this blog during April…

Because I’d like to post poetry — mine, classic, favourites, obscure but worth rescuing. And I need to know how you feel about that. And just in case, here’s a short justification, tying poetry (the reading of it, the writing of it):

Poetry — all art, really — connects us. Offers us the experiences of another to consider, experiences sifted through the sieves of imagery and compression. Reading and writing poetry both help us to see better: to observe the details in the world around us, and to be more aware of how those details shift when seen through the eyes of another.

courtesy Google

courtesy Google

If you love songs, if their lyrics sometimes speak for you when emotions thicken your throat and words are hard to come by, you’re already halfway to being a poet. And you certainly should be reading poetry! It’s the heart’s own language.

So let me know what you think. I’m going to take license, and post one today I dearly love, by a wonderful, well-loved American poet, Elizabeth Bishop. Here’s her poem (A villanelle, no less! But you’ll still like it… :) ) One Art:

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

 

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