Good poems as great teachers of writing: a morning ride in Tokyo

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I was in my mid-twenties when I bought my first chapbook of poems: Sabishi: Poems from Japan by David Hassler. It was around the time that I acquired this book of poems that I figured out something— which took too long for me to figure out but that I finally did. I had been trying (and, in part, failing) for years to write poems about big things—billowing emotions and grand issues—and it was only then that I realized a way to do that was to write about something small. I’m not entirely sure why it took me that long to understand this important, and now seemingly obvious, lesson. 

My favorite poem from the book focuses on just a moment:

“Morning Ride on the Yamanote Line”

The conductor’s voice
glides over the drowsy heads,
like a familiar hand
smoothing unruly hair.
A schoolgirl in uniform
falls asleep on my shoulder
as the train tilts and sways.
She has forgotten about her satchel,
what she is carrying to school,
and sleeps in this brief lapse
of time before the day begins.
For a moment I have a sister, a child,
someone for whom I must be still.

But I am not the fastest learner, and I didn’t remember the lesson so well when I started to write memoir seven years ago. I was trying once again to answer bigger, vague questions, and to write about the greater landscape of my emotions and life, and I forgot to focus on just the one red, widening tulip; the one dew-soaked blade of grass; or that one time when I picked a dandelion and blew its white, puffy seeds into the air, forgetting that all of it was trouble. 

It’s the moments that matter. It’s the thing everyone tells us, but how easy that slips from me. Start with the small. Pick one scene, and then another. Add one little story to the next, and soon you have the grander story and the deeper meaning to go with it. It’s how life works, too.

Every year during National Poetry Month, I like to share a poem I love. It was so easy to pick this one. All these years later, I have the Sabishi chapbook in my shelves. Sometimes I pull it out and open it to the “Morning Ride on the Yamanote Line.” I take that early train ride with the poem’s speaker, and I remember to be still.

Poem from Sabishi: Poems from Japan published by Kent State University Press. Copyright © 1994 by David Hassler. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

A slightly different version of this post was originally published in Change Seven Magazine (thank you!) on April 11, 2017.