Good Poems as Great Teachers of Writing by Shuly Cawood

I was in my 20s when I bought my first chapbook: Sabishi: Poems from Japan by David Hassler. It was a time in my life when I was trying to figure out what career I wanted, and where to live, and, without realizing it, I was also searching for who I was.

Something happened around the time I acquired this book of poems, something it had taken me a long time 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 a 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.

Now, all these year 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.

Shuly Cawood

Shuly Cawood’s memoir, The Going and Goodbye, is forthcoming this August from Platypus Press. Her website is April is National Poetry Month. Please go out and read at least one more good poem.

Read More Work by Shuly Cawood in Change Seven:





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