He who neglects to drink of the spring of experience is likely to die of thirst in the desert of ignorance. – Li Bai (Greatest Tang Dynasty poet: 701AD -762 AD)
I got some great news this week. One of my poems – a Haiku – is going to be published in an upcoming issue of the literary journal “Fifty Haikus”. Haiku appears deceptively simple, but the small scale of the poem, just three lines and seventeen syllables, forces a writer to condense a moment to its essence. I had written haiku for years, but did not know the underlying structure. Haiku must contain a “kigo” an allusion to a season. This could be many things: a color – white for winter, green for spring; temperature, length of day. And there has to be a “kireji” a cutting word. This word comes at the end of a line, usually the second, and it signals a change, a transition. I learned this from my friend Shempei, a Japanese colleague at the university in China where I worked.
Years ago, the Dean of the Foreign Language College asked if I could create a Poetry Appreciation class for English majors. I immediately said yes. I had to find a textbook and design the curriculum. That class was the most rewarding thing I ever did at the university. I only wish I had a camera when I told my shocked students they would learn to write English poetry. Working as an editor and helping my wife with translations, I had learned that poetry is the most difficult writing in any language to translate. As the poet Robert Frost once said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Imagine writing poetry in a foreign language. That is what my students did the second week of my Poetry class.
I had the students write a haiku. I had asked my friend to explain Haiku to me. I told my bewildered students I would explain in ten minutes, and they would write for as long as they needed, up to half an hour. I then handed them a post-it note, and told them to create. To demonstrate I improvised a haiku for each season on the spot. As they wrote, I circulated around the room encouraging them, and asking if I could read their work aloud. The flowing of spontaneity and creativity electrified the room. If they agreed, I posted their work to the classroom wall. As the semester went on, I had them do several more poems. The poetry of some exceptional students made me want to encourage them even further. I wanted to have the university publish their work, but the university press told me it would cost – ME – the equivalent of five thousand dollars. That is why I collected and edited their work into a book on Amazon.
The exquisite poetry of one student in particular, Rosemary, amazed me. She wrote in a style similar to the English Romantics with elegant descriptions. So I decided to have a poetry reading to reward the students for their hard work. I presented the idea to the Dean as a celebration of William Shakespeare’s birthday. My goal was to showcase student writing, but I knew them well enough to know students would never do it without a little “cover”. I asked my fellow foreign teachers to read, any style, any way they wanted. I would sprinkle the student poets in amongst their teachers to make them comfortable. Truthfully, most of all, I wanted to hear Rosemary read her poem. I’ll admit, the first time all my students read in rehearsal brought tears to my eyes. For a dozen years, my students knew I was a dedicated, often emotional teacher. I couldn’t have been prouder of them.
The day came, and my colleagues did not disappoint. We had about a hundred students in the audience. I did a little video to go with my poem. My students sometimes called my class the “Wheeler Show”. It was a very popular show for over a decade :-). We had beat poetry, spoken word, Old English, free verse, and Haiku. Shempei was something of a rock star with the students. He is young, handsome and Japanese. The students had long admired Japanese culture and many wanted to chat with sensei Shempei. My friends kindly encouraged the student poets as they stepped forward. I sat by the side and basked in their youthful energy. Rosemary got a standing ovation from the audience. I had all the students and teachers sign the poster the Student Union made for me. It is a prized possession of mine. What was not lost in translation that day, was the beauty and power of spoken poetry.
I keep in touch with many of my former students. I learned from my wife, that there is a lot more than what happens in the classroom to being a teacher in China. You become close to some students and they look to you for guidance in life. Well, during the pandemic I reached out to dozens of my students and set up an email just for them. I heard back from many of them. Some were married, some had children. And one day I heard from Rosemary. She had earned her PhD in English Literature and was offered a position as a professor at our prestigious university. She told me that class, that poetry reading was a catalyst for her choosing to become a university professor. That, my friends was truly poetry to my ears.
Rosemary’s writing is included in the collection with hundreds more of my Millennial students’ writing. (I asked students to choose a pen name to give them a little more freedom to create. Her pen name was Bluebell)
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