365 Poems

Because we are big geeks in our family, this is what my son got for his sixteenth birthday*:

Basically what it is, is an empty box. That I ineptly decoupaged with a bunch of random scraps of paper I had left over from various other inept craft projects that I have unwisely attempted over the years. I know! I’m the world’s best mother, right?

The thing is — because, as I mentioned, we’re all geeks here — once I explained the purpose of this box, my son, instead of giving me a look like, “Now I have plenty of material for the therapy sessions I will require in ten years or so,” said, “Oh! Cool!” And from the way his eyes lit up I could tell he was not just indulging his insane mother while making a mental note to go to college as far away from home as possible.

The purpose of the box, you see, is to accumulate poems. One a day for a year. Not my poems, God forbid — if he’s really dying to read those he can check out the blog, which I have reason to believe he does occasionally when he has nothing better to do, which is hardly ever. No, these are, you know, real poems. By real poets. I’ve been photocopying up a storm from my small but select collection of poetry books, as well as printing things off the Interwebs, and late at night the Poetry Fairy comes and … okay, I don’t really make an attempt to perpetuate that fiction with a sixteen-year-old. I have my limits. But I do put a poem in the box every day (unless I go to a haiku festival and forget, in which case I put three in the day I remember).

The main criteria I have for these poems is that they be: a) not crap; b) poems I enjoy; c) poems I sincerely believe my son will enjoy. I’m not attempting to provide him with the Greatest Hits of English Poetry. (Though I do try to cover a range of eras and types of poetry, just because you never know what will click with someone.) The purpose here is not really educational, except in the sense that everything is educational. (Ask me about my educational philosophy some time if you really want me to blather on interminably.) The purpose is more — to foster joy. Joy in the possibilities of language, the possibilities of imagination, the possibilities of human thought.

This is a kid who has been performing in uncut productions of Shakespeare’s plays a couple of times a year since he was nine, so he knows from great poetry, and he appreciates wonderful language. But I’ve been thinking for a while that he would enjoy a lot of other types of poetry, while being confounded about how, exactly, to sneak in a course of poetry appreciation amid all his other myriad activities. (Oh — he doesn’t go to school, did I mention? Who has time for that, anyway?) Then I thought, “One poem a day. That’s how to do it.” And the box was born.

So the reason I’m bringing this up now — I can hear you sighing in relief as I get to the bloody point already — is that what went in the box today was a couple of Japanese haiku, each in two different translations. Because reading different translations of Japanese haiku is one of my favorite things to do, and I thought my son would enjoy it too. And then I thought that you might enjoy it, too. So here they are.

I hope you can actually read them. They’re by Basho and Moritake. I’m not sure who the translators are because the poetry textbook I took them from didn’t say (bad poetry textbook!).

If you are interested in comparative haiku translation there are lots of great books and websites that feature competing translations — sometimes 30 or more translations of the same ku, such as this page which offers up translations of perhaps the most famous classical Japanese ku, Basho’s furuike ya or frogpond haiku. (There’s a link to it on my sidebar as well.)

Here are two different versions from that page, just to give you some sense of how widely translations can vary:

Old pond — frogs jumped in — sound of water.

— Lafcadio Hearn

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.

— Curtis Hidden Page

Does that blow your mind or what? I think it’s pretty safe to say that the second version takes some, um, considerable liberties with Basho’s verse. The first is pretty literal, which is much more the trend these days (though Hearn was writing in the nineteenth century). Even closely literal translations, though, can vary quite a bit, just because of the effort of cramming Japanese syntax into something readable by English speakers.

Okay, thus endeth the lesson for the day. You can all return to your regularly scheduled lives now, and think fondly about your own mothers, who would never have dreamed of pulling such a stunt on you.


*That wasn’t all he got for his birthday, in case you are thinking of reporting me to Child Welfare or something. He also got some cool running shoes and new shifters for his bike. And with his birthday money from relatives he bought himself an iPhone 4. We don’t live entirely in the past around here. Though sometimes we think it would be nice to try.

16 thoughts on “365 Poems

  1. I think that ‘365 poems’ box is a wonderful birthday present for your son. You put thought and effort into the gift and that’s what makes it a keeper. Maybe for my son’s next birthday I’ll make him one of those!

    I still have a couple of the presents my kids (now 22 & 24) made for me during my 10 years of being a single mom. One that I really like is a $1 bill/coupon for a free breakfast in bed. I have yet to use it. I like to take it out of its hiding place every so often and look at it.

    • Thanks, Roberta. (I loved your workshop last weekend, by the way. Am now working on some haibun which I like way better than any of the other haibun I’ve ever written. Not that that’s saying much. 🙂 )

      When my son was quite small he gave me a crayon box filled with dollar coins which I believe was close to all the money he had in the world at the time. I get teary whenever I come across it.

  2. yeah. these are the true keeper gifts of true giving. now how do you get all that crap about bad mom out of your writing? okay. okay, the same way i get the word “true” out of my own blather.

    the 365 poems box is a jewel gift. may be your son will remember the other presents a few years from now – good luck on that, he might…. i doubt if he will forget the poem box in a century of memories.

    lucky son. great mom. gather on.

    planting memories
    a bird house wind chime
    grows in the breeze

    • Oh, don’t worry, Wrick, I don’t really think I’m a bad mom. I do that partly for humorous effect, partly to ward off sentimentality, to which I have a severe allergy in all its forms. 🙂

      Thanks for your kind words, and for the gift of your ku. (I am still collecting them, like Add-a-Beads for a pearl necklace.)

  3. I wish someone had done this with me when I was his age. I didn’t accept poetry really until I got into college and was strictly a prose writer. Even now, it’d be such a cool gift.

    Maybe I’ll do it for myself… 🙂

    • Yeah, I was pretty strictly a prose writer too until I became obsessed with haiku. (Previously, every few years I would have a brief spell of madness and write some really bad poetry, then come to my senses and desist.)

      In The Haiku Apprentice (which I’m really enjoying and I think you would like, insofar as I can read your taste at this point), the author meets a Japanese haikuist at the beginning of the book and when he urges her to try writing haiku, she tells him that she doesn’t have a “poetic soul,” has never written a poem in her life, etc., etc. He tells her that a lot of haiku poets are the same way. They don’t write other poetry and aren’t even necessarily all that interested in it or even particularly literary. There’s one college, he tells her, where more of the students in the haiku group are math and science majors than literature majors. He invites her to his haiku group and the rest is history …

      I’m not really sure what’s going on with that except that, although I do think haiku is clearly poetry, I also think it has an element of the puzzle or word game to it. In some ways it seems like something to be “solved.” (I’m writing a renku right now with a couple of other people and we have commented on its similarity to sudoku — you can’t use a 5 in that line because you already have one, etc.) It has a clearly defined (and very short!) length, and a flexible but challenging set of rules to contend with. (I mean to some extent you can set, or at least choose, the rules you want to follow yourself, but they’re out there for everyone to mull over.) So it might appeal to people who feel intimidated by the open-endedness of poetry in general but want to have some means of self-expression, and are of a more intellectual or logical bent than your average poet.

      Or am I just projecting? 🙂

  4. Melissa,

    So glad you got something out of the haibun presentation. I tried to make it less academic and more hands on. Feel free to email me any of your haibun if you’d like another pair of eyes to have a look. In reading over your blog I really like the haibun your wrote about the summer your dad was ill and everyone holding hands around the tree. I tried to get the word out for everyone to bring a haibun to read to the presentation (but didn’t quite get there) and that would have been a good one!

    Also I am going to use your idea for a 365 day box for my son but will confine it to piano music since he is a classical pianist. I can’t come up with a good title. “365 classical piano compositions” just doesn’t do it for me. He was born 8.8.88 so maybe I’ll be able to fit that in too.

    • Thanks for your offer, Roberta … I may take you up on that as I am finding haibun a little maddening.

      Glad you liked the haibun about the tree — I am fond of that one myself (and I actually half-considered reading it at the workshop) but I wasn’t sure how it would come across to someone who was interested more in literary than sentimental value. (Also, I couldn’t figure out whether or how to get the footnotes in there. 🙂 )

      Cool idea to make a box of music for your son … “365 Days of Music” maybe? Send a picture if you do something artistic with it.

  5. Great idea!
    It’s so nice to hear that there are kids nowadays like your son that do not consider poetry old fashioned stuff.
    My kids are 8 and 6, and for the time being, at night I read to them short pieces of classic literature books for children. We have read The Little Prince, Martin Fierro (an Argentinian poetry classic) and now are into Don Quijote de la Mancha, and they really enjoy it.
    I love your idea of a poems box… maybe i’ll do something like that with some “real” poets in spanish.

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