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Haiku in the Workplace: BurnOut

The philosopher Bertrand Russell completed his magnum opus, Principia Mathematica, at the age of 31. He lived to be 98, but remarked late in his life that he was never again able to concentrate for any length of time as he had been forced to do during its composition. Russell and his peers may have considered this simply a kind of character flaw, but today we recognize it for what it was: burnout. Russell was wise never to have forced the issue, since it’s not simply a matter of will. Or rather, if one makes it such a matter, it is never done without serious and adverse consequences, such as emotional exhaustion, absenteeism, personal deterioration, family deterioration, and depersonalization. Instead, Russell was able to function perfectly well for his long and estimable career without ever revisiting the severe constriction that burnout imposes upon us. He went on to play significant roles in public life as a logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic and political activist, and even won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950. Not bad for a burnout.

This topic, which may figure more in the securing of our livelihood than literary prizes for most of us, seemed for some reason to elicit a flurry of metaphors from our respondents. Metaphors are unusual in haiku for the simple reason that the haiku is itself a metaphor, and nesting one within another challenges the mind to know how to parse its sense. Consider a poem such as this:

a hedgehog 
rolls into a prickly fist —
hiding its softness
	[David Dayson]

We have “fist” as a metaphor for a hedgehog, whose action in turn is to be taken as a metaphor for burnout, with a further metaphorical explanation added in the third line. It seems like too much. This is also an example of a poet not trusting his readers sufficiently — we can all surmise why a hedgehog rolls into a ball, so the third line simply pads the given image instead of offering a second, contrasting image, which might provide the opportunity for the poem to deliver more. Just off the top of my head, things like “exam week” or “tax day” or “pregnancy test result” or “crossword error” seem suggestive, and of course there is the overwhelming temptation to say something about one’s boss.

But this was far from the only one. Here’s one that offers (to use a clichéed metaphor) a silver lining :

heather glows
from the ashes —
of a gorse fire
	[David Dayson]

and this one resides in the silver lining itself:

equanimity —
in that calm zone between
rust out and burn out
	[David Dayson]

However, I don’t wish to dismiss metaphor-driven poems out of hand. Take, for example, this one:

hairline cracks 
of compassion fatigue —
time to be grounded
	[David Dayson]

This is quite clever in the making, I think, and the manner in which it extends its conceit through to the third line, culminating in a “remedy,” is deft. The parallel metaphor of metal fatigue is followed through exactly and nothing is wasted. While not expressly in haiku mode, it nonetheless does everything its author hoped it would do, and is a success for that.

My top prizes, however, all reach beyond cleverness, to consider the consequences of burnout, rather than describing the state itself. If we trust the reader to supply what burnout is and looks like, then this strategy of looking into what follows offers greater depth and interest. For instance, my third choice:

asking why
paper flutters
in an e-mail world
	[David Pilling]

conjures for me a truly despondent state, in which the sufferer has been reduced nearly to inanity, or worse, metaphysics. The poem also reminds me of the dark spaces occupied by such books as Philip K. Dick’s Do Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?, a place where the mind is adrift and left to its own devices to find its bearings. This also has a wonderfully slick rhythm, each line expanding by a syllable, and building in momentum and also finality with each of its single syllable words in the ultimate line. It has the feel and catchiness of a jingle, not so simple a thing as it may seem.

My second selection

paperwork left
on the train
to the coast
	[Marion Clarke]

is a hinge poem, where the middle line relates to both first and last lines, but differently in each case. The lack of punctuation creates the ambiguity, which is then played out in telling fashion. Is it that the paperwork has been left behind because the poet has taken the train to the coast, and, presumably, a holiday away from such paperwork? Or is it that the paperwork has been unintentionally forgotten on the way to a business meeting on the coast? Or perhaps it was not unintentional at all, but instead some passive-aggressive ploy to force a reaction — by the boss, by the client, within herself? And is the playing out of these options rather a consideration of options for someone in the throes of burnout? What’s the worst than can happen? And should that happen on the coast, am I the better for it or no?

Holding the reader in suspense is a sure way for one’s poem to get more attention. It seems we like a bit of mystery. Here the poet has the advantage of what we might term a “fourth line.” The poem was written, and consequently read, in the context of a theme. So the reader has already in her mind the idea of burnout that grants the poem its extra bite. Without it, the poem works the same, and is still pleasing, but a bit less incisive, and for this reason it has topped out here as second-best.

My top choice this week is a bit of masterful craft:

lagging behind
the snooze button
over and over
	[Ernesto Santiago]

succinctly catches the immediate tension of the situation — fatigued, the poet need the extra rest, but taking the extra rest, he falls farther behind. And his remedy, a couple extra minutes of sleep, can never be enough to rebalance his system, so is as futile as seemingly necessary. And the fact that this is “over and over” points out that this is a feedback loop, that there really is no way out of it without breaking the system. What a nightmare! At least the poet has recognized it, which is difficult enough to do.

Repetition can be very effective in haiku — with so few words at one’s disposal, the special emphasis that a repeated word brings to a poem nearly always stops the reader — and so this third line is an effective literary device, and of course a tellingly human one. Solving this problem will take objectivity and resolve — or else acceptance, so the poet can go on to be a logician, or mathematician, or historian, or writer, or social critic, or political activist, or even some combination of these or other things. The bar has been set high. Sweet dreams!

New Poems

feeling burnt out
on behalf of others
a companion dog
     — Ernesto P. Santiago

          *

too tired to sleep . . .
the half moon's descent
through thinning leaves
     — Polona Oblak

          *

bonfire night 
Guy Fawkes and I
both burnt out
     — Rachel Sutcliffe

          *

never saw it coming 
the stroke that ended
his career
     — Celestine Nudanu

          *

after work tryst
here too he just goes
through the motions
     — Roberta Beary

          *

home from work
he searches my face
for a smile
     — Pat Davis

          *

sideways skid
pumping the brakes between
night clouds
     — Gail Oare

          *

pink slip 
our debate switching
to the household budget
     — anna yin

          *

the old GI doc . . .
he can't stomach one more
leaky gasket
     — Michael H. Lester

          *

raking the embers
of my former self
burnout
     — Madhuri Pillai

          *

driving to the office
I wonder if this road
could lead me to Rome
     — Maria Tomczak

          *

supernova —
the office star
gets a boost
     — Martha Magenta

          *

out of order
sitting on the toilet
crying again
     — Elizabeth Moura

          *

lunch bell
a leaning tower
of coffee cups
     — Enrique Garrovillo

          *

burn out
the formality of happy hour
after work
     — Michael Henry Lee

          *

after the burn out
time to turn the music up 
and . . . just dance
     — Katherine Stella

          *

I no longer accept
this imposed work
Consult my analyst
     — Angela Giordano

          *

burning
this candle at both ends
meltdown
     — Karen Harvey

          *

Hamlet’s burnout   and mine   to be or not to be
     — Angelee Deodhar

          *

touch switch
the desk lamp
won’t turn off
     — Olivier Schopfer

          *

four-day work week
i see myself
staring at the wall
     — Willie Bongcaron

          *

my rumpled shirt
don’t give a shit
no more
     — Mark Gilbert

          *

burnout syndrome —
not pausing for air
the barking dog
     — Ana Drobot

          *

a broken butterfly
over the nettles
development talk
     — Kerstin Park

          *

this dark image 
In the restroom mirror
one last cigarette
     — Marietta McGregor

          *

after all she with
her unfinished novel
flat on the bed
     — S. Radhamani

          *

burnout —
a cup of green tea 
quenches the stress
     — Elisa Allo

          *

daily task
wishing it were
EOD Friday
     — Angelo Ancheta

          *

interview
moving down a rung
in questioning tears
     — Erin Castaldi

          *

work stress
running out of
the best days
     — Eufemia Griffo

          *

About to unfold:
the moonflower 
the switchblade
     — Stephan Massi

          *

work work work . . .
in a japanese daily
suicides again
     — Marta Chocilowska

          *

burnout treatment —
coming back at work with
the sunburned face
     — Tomislav Maretic

          *

spinning head —
too many bits
to deal with
     — Anna Maria Domburg-Sancristoforo

          *

exhaustion
first out of the starting stalls
the racehorse put to grass
     — Lee Nash

          *

Thoughtstorm
looking for 
a reset button
     — Stefano Riondato

          *

the burnt coffee
he drinks anyway —
dark days
     — Jessica Malone Latham

          *

overwhelmed
blaming my muse
for writer’s block
     — Cezar Ciobika

          *

grounded worker bee
the parched sizzle
of the coffee pot
     — Jennifer Hambrick

          *

major tournament 
kings and jacks look alike
at the forty fifth board
     — Paul Geiger

          *

storm-cracked branches 
in old heaps of wreckage; 
my office, again
     — Timothy J. Dickey

          *

burnout
smiley emoji a face
I once owned
     — Alegria Imperial

          *

unfinished day
agreed to defer
fixing targets
     — Srinivasa Rao Sambangi

          *


Next Week’s Theme: Man v. Machine

Send your poem using “workplace haiku” as the subject by Sunday midnight to our Contact Form. Good luck!

kacian_jimFrom October 2014 through April 2016 Haiku Foundation president Jim Kacian offered a column on haiku for the London Financial Times centered on the theme of work. Each week we share these columns with the haiku community at large, along with an invitation to join in the fun. Submit a poem by Sunday midnight on the theme of the week, from the classical Japanese tradition, or contemporary practice, or perhaps one of your own, which you might even write for the occasion. The best of these will be appended to the column. First published 5 October 2015.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. The topic, burnout, brought our the best set of haiku I’ve seen on Haiku in the Workplace. These were the two that stood out for me:
    .
    lunch bell
    a leaning tower
    of coffee cups
    — Enrique Garrovillo
    .
    driving to the office
    I wonder if this road
    could lead me to Rome
    — Maria Tomczak

  2. Dear esteemed poet,
    Greetings! A very educative,innovative column and immensely pleased to go through each and every
    work. All the more eager to know next week’s theme.
    with regards
    S.Radhamani

  3. Excellent set of haiku!
    .
    This really touched a nerve, as to who hasn’t left paperwork, or something else invaluable, on the train, or at the train station?
    .
    .
    paperwork left
    on the train
    to the coast
    .
    [Marion Clarke]
    .
    .
    kind regards,
    .
    Alan

  4. Great set this week – I loved David Dayson’s ‘hairline cracks’, Pat Davis’ ‘home from work’, Olivier Schopfer’s ‘touch switch’ and especially Gail Oare’s ‘sideways skid’.

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