Wednesday, November 24, 2021

A Poem-a-Day

(I wrote this introduction for a series of 'zines of short poems selected from my poem-a-day writing practice. I post these poems on FaceBook and Instagram)

I love to write. Just write. I do enjoy getting published as well. But that's different from writing. I have many writing practices one of which is writing a poem a day. I have practiced this on and off  going back 30 or more years. While i try and write good poems I have no illusion that I am producing great poetry. If the poems please me then I am content. Which, perhaps, makes me entirely too complacent, if not lazy. But we'll see.

A few years ago I decided to try a poem-a-day with each day (save Saturday) devoted to a different short form. Thus Sunday = haiku; Monday=gathas; Tuesday=senryu; Wednesday=rubaiyat (rhyming quatrains); Thursday=tankas; Friday=cherita.

I have found over the years that, while poetry in general is, for me, a contemplative activity, the various short forms of which I am fond are excellent for practicing mindfulness. There is so much to notice in the world - beauty and suffering  - all of it. As Rilke writes in his Book of Hours: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

Thus am I sharing some of the product of my daily poetry practice. I am, at least for now, excluding my Rubaiyat cause I suck at rhyming and, more significantly, it is a form for which I still lack adequate understanding. 


Perhaps the best known short form poem in the world, haiku is generally described as three lines of five, then seven, then five syllables. This approximates in English the Japanese practice of seventeen on  which are similar to English syllables. Many modern haiku don’t conform to seventeen syllables but rather seek to express an observation of nature in as few words as possible. I tend to stick to the 5/7/5 but occasionally try something different. Traditional haiku include a kigo or seasonal word. I also challenge myself to avoid using metaphor as this forces me to pay closer (deeper?) attention to what I am observing. But metaphor is fun so it happens often enough despite my attempts to avoid it. A haiku is a nature poem but the 5/7/5 structure lends itself to composing poems about just anything. There is another form, senryu, which uses the haiku form but which is focussed on something else. See my description which follows. I like to stick to haiku being about nature.

Bees collect pollen
in savoury sun-warmed air
Scent of russian sage


When i search for a library book and find it has 95 holds
I vow with all beings
to celebrate the printed word
shared and shared again

I learned about Gathas from Zen Buddhist Robert Aitken’s book The Dragon Who Never Sleeps (Parallax Press, 1992) which I picked up at the Green Gulch Zen Center when visiting there in 1994. Gathas are simple four line poems that are vows for daily living.  Aitken describes The Dhammapada (a collection of Buddha's teachings that I read 40 years ago) as being composed of gathas, but I've always found these rather stuffy. Aitken also points to the Avatamsaka Sutra (my favourite Buddhist teaching) chapter Purifying Practice which is made up of 139 gatha vows. But they've always struck me as a tad lofty and endlessly serious. Even Thich Nhat Hanh's collections of gathas (Present Moment, Wonderful Moment), though lovely, lack humour.  Aitken’s gathas are a wonderful combination of quotidian focus, wry humour, poignant observation. And I quite like the beat of the second line (I vow with all beings) which Aitken adopted from the Purifying Practice chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra.


School bag dropped quickly
he runs to the baseball field
leaping into play

Senryu use the form of the haiku but, while haiku focus on nature, senryu focus on culture. They tend to the satirical and focus on daily  social, political, and economic life.  I like how playful senryu can be. English author R.H. Blyth in his lovely book Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verse (The Hokuseido Press, 1949) describes senryu as being satirical without being cruel. In the preface to that book, Blyth notes that in one of his Japanese books about senryu someone has pencilled the comment: "Senryu are not to be read twice, however good they may be." But, while Blyth  then defends senryu as deserving more attention than this comment suggests, it did make me immediately think of New Yorker Magazine cartoons and Gary Larson's The Far Side. It had never occurred to me to think of these cartoons (and many others besides) as a form of poetry. But they are certainly senryu-like and I am rethinking my take on these.


Flowers hug themselves
Patient for the light and warmth
Of bright vernal days
Each year the earth remembers
Unforgetting seeds and bulbs

I know less about the history of tanka but learned it is a five line poem of 31 syllables (or on as with haiku). There are two sections to a tanka, the upper phrase of three lines (which like haiku use the 5 /7 / 5 syllable pattern), and a lower phrase of two lines of 7 syllables each. Originating in eighth to tenth Century Japan, tanka (then known as waka) were  used for intimate communication between lovers or people who were courting.  Thus the tanka was a kind of love poem (perhaps similar to the Elizabethan sonnet). I thought that this form might be interesting to use as a means of writing love poems to the earth.


Pomegranate seeds swallowed

and the gift of seasons
was born

Each folding
unfolding into each
other endlessly

The cherita is one of the newest forms of poetry I have come across. And I loved it instantly. It is a six line poem in three stanzas, the first of which is one line, the second, two lines, and the third, three lines. It's a form that was created on June 22, 1997 by UK poet and artist ai li. She named this form in memory of her grandparents who were wonderful storytellers. Cherita is the Malay word for “story” or “tale”.” And a cherita tells a story. It very quickly became my favourite short poetry form. I love its focus on narrative and I realized that unlike haiku and senryu which tend to 'take a snapshot,' the cherita invites paying attention to the sequence of action. I've found it's a wonderful form for synthesizing short (very, very short) versions of many tales I love to tell. When limited to only six lines one has to make some pretty hard decisions about what to leave in and leave out.

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