Tombstone, chatterbox – both modes of speech come easily to me and I never know which role I will play, but ask me to write a poem and my mind ties itself into bunches of knots: 3 – 5 – 87 – more. And yet, and yet, I love poetry and I’m grateful for a few friends who aren’t afraid to lift a pen.

Andrew Schelling‘s “Whirling Petals, Windblown Leaves” (Tricycle, Winter 2007) calls one to look into renga. Schelling describes renga as a form of “linked poetry” that appeared in Japan eight centuries ago, i.e., the Japan of Dogen Zenji (1200-1253).

Schelling says:

Renga feels just right for our contemporary world. It meets our raw need to talk to each other in ways freed from the daily rounds of buying and selling, or the terrible depersonalized language that worms its way into the workplace. It lets us use folklore, image, metaphor, and brisk humor, which feel like home ground. The voice we were born with.

The quick give-and-take of renga might remind one of Twitter exchanges, but the comparison quickly falls apart. Renga composition was not aimed at the quick knock-out punch. Participants in a renga session were expected to adhere to a strict set of rules, and it was said that one should practice renga for 20 years in order to become a worthy collaborator.

Fun fact: Schelling credits renga composition with the appearance of haiku. Each participant in a renga session would offer a three-line verse, a hokku (opening verse), as a possible starting point for group writing. Because only one hokku would be chosen, the rest would be cast aside. Some of these ‘unused’ opening verses were eventually compiled as short poems in their own right, and these are what we call haiku today.

Schelling’s tribute to renga includes a description of an mountaintop renga session that he and 10 other poets held in the Rockies in April 2006. Verses 6 and 7 from Green Mountain Renga:

dripping with creek water
hunting snails

a white egret
impossible legs
like straw

Soaring high over crescent Moon
Clouds nurse on the Sun’s last embers
Quick burns fade into gray-purple sleep
— Who will I be tomorrow?

Seasons (day nine)

April 9, 2016

My friend is writing a daily poem for Poetry month. Come take this one over to the fire and savor it.

The Little Planet Daily

Here is a Korean sijo poem for day nine of national poetry month. Sijo poems are three lines of 14-16 syllables with a pause in each line and a twist at the end.


Let me ask you, Time, do you mark your own passing?

My hair was like grass in summer, my young legs could climb like spring elk.

Sit by the fireside a while, perhaps you have regrets too?

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The Astonishing Light

February 26, 2016

”I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.” –Hafez (Persian poet, 1325–1389)

Source: The Astonishing Light

Many times sitting in silent meditation I have thought of a river and what it teaches about connection and interdependence. I imagine standing by the river’s edge, the water molecules at my feet touching only their closest neighbors, unable to see beyond the next few Angstroms, let alone clear to the other bank. And yet, without these molecules filling this side of the channel, the cross-river water could not exist.

The world is filled with unseen, infinite webs of connection. We may not see them, or we may cautiously trace a fragment of one or two. No matter. Let go and reach out to the “current, hidden”, the “comings and goings from miles away”. A mystery unveils itself in the second verse.

The Little Planet Daily

In 1992, shortly before his death,  William Stafford was commissioned by the State of Washington to provide seven poems to be installed on plaques alongside the Methow river, one of the most beautiful rivers in all of the Pacific Northwest. Ask Me was installed along the river in the town of Winthrop. I can go only so long in my life without reading it. It is one of my anchor and lifeline poems and it belongs along that river the same way Tibetan Buddhist paintings belong on the stone canyon walls of Nepal. 

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.

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Parting words

January 25, 2016

How many of us seek a “good death”? The juxtaposition of “good” and “death” is not easily tolerated. How many of us are willing to linger long enough near the dead and dying, to enter thoughtfully into the space of our imagined transition (I say “thoughtfully,” not “fearlessly”), to even consider that something “good” might be found in life’s endgame? Fortunately, as Tom Rachman observes in “Meeting Death with Words” (New Yorker, 25 Jan 2016), help has arrived for the spiritually timid. Recent years have seen increasing numbers of writers taking up pen and word processor in their last year of life, and these numbers are likely to increase as the Baby Boom marches into history.

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A zen friend sent a gift my way: David Budbill‘s poem, “The Three Goals”. I love its blend of lofty spiritual ideal and humorous, compassionate reality. Enjoy.

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POGIL or perish?

November 15, 2015

When I came back from my last sabbatical in fall 2012 I resolved that I would teach my organic chemistry class using the POGIL (process-oriented guided inquiry learning) method. I had attended numerous workshops designed to get me up to speed as an author and classroom facilitator of POGIL activities, but this was going to be the big plunge. I learned a lot by doing and I haven’t looked back, POGIL is here to stay in my classroom, but it is interesting to contrast what I am doing now with what happens in other chemistry classrooms around the college.

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Mu. Or Mu

October 8, 2015

Koans have fascinated me the way the light over my back door has drawn the attention of the community of moths that populates my back yard. We approach. What is this glowing light? We beat our wings. Exhausted? Enlightened? Spider food?
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Naming Mountains

September 3, 2015

The words that touched my heart this morning… The first people who came here to stay learned the mountain names from the mountains themselves.

And a koan is added, “What do mountains forget?”

The Little Planet Daily

The peaks around here look down
across the patched blanket of fields and forests
seeing all and seeing what lies beyond the time of menand small shadows.

They see their own faces,
they know their own names
without being told:

Loowit of the lost sylvan shoulders,
Wy’ east of the pendant throat,
Klickitat of the white fox fur coat.

What maps know is what mountains
forget in the blink of a winter’s eye,
the storms washing their faces of any misgivings.

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