I Saw You

Some years ago, while reading the Kokinshu for the first time, I was struck by a thought that many of the love poems read like I Saw You ads in the local alternative weekly newspaper. In the Kokinshu, seasons follow arcs—there is the first hint of green with herbs breaking through snow, then the kaleidoscope of flowers, seventy poems about cherry blossoms, then summer comes a we listen to the nightingale for a season. Love and grief also follow arcs—with love, there’s a giddy first hint, then getting to know all about one another, and finally, breaking up. In the beginning of the love section, a poet might glimpse a beauty across the fields of Kasuga and become instantly entranced.

An I Saw You ad, in case you have never heard of one, is a record of a missed opportunity. You might have a conversation with a gorgeous stranger in the frozen food aisle at the grocery and go home kicking yourself for not having asked for a name or a phone number or a date. Or you might make eye contact at a stoplight and want something more. All you would have to do is phone the alternative paper (here call the Alibi) and place an ad with some details about your moment.

I am teaching a freshman humanities course (a “legacy course”) that in part follows the influence of ancient Japanese (the Kokinshu and Basho) and Chinese (Han Shan) poetry on the Beat Generation (Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac) and our contemporary world. The “legacy courses” strive to provide students with knowledge of works and ideas from earlier cultures that have played and continue to play significant roles in understanding the contemporary culture in which we live.

So, my class is also looking at questions such as why does Albuquerque have an annual haiku contest, Japanese botanical gardens, a Zen meditation center, an Asian grocery store, a bunch of anime lovers and martial arts enthusiasts, etc.

In my attempt to bridge the ancient text with our lives, I thought I would bring in some I Saw Ad clippings, have the students write waka (a poem with a 5-7-5-7-7) using the information in the ads, then compare our poems with the those of the ancients. Here are some examples:

Girl at Casino (8/11/14)

I saw you on Monday at Santa Ana Star Casino, near the back area by “The Stage” around 1:30–2:30pm. You were wearing glasses and with a woman I assume was your mother. I was walking up to a machine when we made eye contact for a split second before I looked away … I wanted to talk to you but wasn’t thinking. You are beautiful and I can’t stop thinking about you! If you see this please respond; maybe we can go out to a casino or have dinner sometime and get to know each other :)

Spinning slots at the
Santa Ana Casino
you must be lucky
trying to win money
and winning my heart as well

Incredibly Good-looking Guy at Trader Joe’s

You: Salt-and-pepper haired guy at Trader Joe’s. I looked up and there you were, looking at me with those beautiful green eyes. You made me melt, I didn’t know what to say, but I wanted to say, “I need to know you.”

Me: Attractive woman with long brown hair, in black yoga pants, brown top and black long sweater.

Please Answer. I wanted to say something there but was too shy. Please let me know if you felt the same spark.

Your hair like spices
me melting in the aisles
“I need to know you”
shy like the cans stored way back
I couldn’t speak please answer

Paul, checker at Albertsons On Wyoming and San Antonio

I like your curly hair, beautiful blue eyes and enchanting smile. I don’t know that I made much of an impression, but the guy in front of me was having lots of trouble counting his cash. You wished me a happy new year, and I wished I could have some coffee with you. Are you available?

That might make for a happy new year. ;-)

The sound of crinkled
cash and the tone of beeping
registers but all
I ever really heard was
your kind wish be my New Year

Friday Aug. 1 @ Tia Betty Blues. Not a realtor.

Me: salad eating, animal rescuing, architect from the “hood.” You: photographer, dog loving, vegetarian/vegan. Wondering how we exchanged all that but not names, what you photograph and if you like waffles?

Time elapsed our grasp
together over breakfast
lost in constant speech
o nameless maiden please
capture another moment

Saw you at the expo home show Aug 24th

You were running the booth for Blue Ridge Communication. I should have introduced myself! I’ve been regretting it ever since! Please reply! So mad at myself!

On August twenty
fourth I saw your beauty behind
the BRC booth
and I sincerely regret
our missed communication

From these, we decided that our public spheres are very different. Whereas those ancient poets were always out in nature, we’re often encountering the possibility of love in a place of commerce—at Wal-Mart, restaurants, and casinos. Ours are also really direct about the person and precise about the location. It’s not just in the neighborhood that we find love; it’s at these particular crossroads. They also pointed out that emoticons do the work of enjambment. However, the goals were fairly similar–to connect with another person.

As it turned out, most of the students had never seen I Saw You ads before, so now they know the old-fashioned, printed way that people flirted with one another before Facebook (Tinder?). So, there was an unforeseen learning outcome. Perhaps they will start reading the alternative paper to see if they were seen.


  • These are marvelous little poems! Fun to read the translation from functional prose to poetry and such an interesting way to reflect on ancient times vs current times. You and your students are talented.

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