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re:Virals 1

Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. Our first poem for consideration was

     greener than autumn light
        on wind-bent reeds
         the teal’s wing
             — Martin Lucas
               (Earthjazz, Ram Publications, 2003)

June Dowis felt fully engaged by the poem, commenting “This haiku instantly puts me alone pond side, or at least in silence with someone else pond side. This strikes me as a deep in thought moment, where you are trying to figure out yourself, the world, and all of the sudden you focus on beauty that is right in front of you; and then, for the moment, it doesn’t matter if you resolve your thoughts.” Paul Geiger felt the poem could use some sharpening, and suggested “I think greener clashes as a comparative to autumn light (yellowish). I’d like ‘bright green in autumn light’ for line 1.” But our most incisive commentary was received from Allan Burns, who indicates this is one of his very favorite Martin Lucas haiku. Here are his comments in total:

Perhaps what first grabs our attention here is the unusual syntactical structure, beginning with a comparative adjective. This is quite different from the familiar adjective-plus-noun haiku opening move (“winter moon,” etc.). And it suspends meaning in a way that motivates us to read on.

The first image, “autumn light/ on wind-bent reeds,” is very much of the painterly “now,” although “wind-bent” potentially introduces a significant minor-key aspect of change and transience. In conjunction with the explicit seasonality, it situates “the moment” in a broader network of time and forces.

Without a cut (or with just a very slight one at the end of line two), the last line reveals the more intense element of the comparison: It’s the teal’s wing, or specifically the iridescent patch on it, that’s “greener.” So we have here the expected juxtaposition of images but in an unusual form: comparative, inverted, and climactic. The format on the page narrows to the dominant image.

In North America, we know this species of duck (Anas crecca) as the green-winged teal; in the U.K., from which our poet hailed, it’s known simply — as named here — as the teal, or common teal. (Subspecies on either side of the Atlantic are field-identifiable: The European variety, for instance, lacks the vertical white line on the side of the breast but has a bold white wing bar.) The smallest duck in those ranges, barely half the size of a mallard, teal are common dabblers on lakes and ponds or along rivers and seashores. The male’s plumage is less remarkable overall in autumn, but the green wing patch, or speculum, remains brilliant year round.

The emphasis on that patch might well lead us to imagine the teal is in flight, for that’s when it’s most obviously displayed. If so, the haiku is more dynamic than it might initially appear. Then again, the bird may simply have stretched a wing. . . .

Ultimately, this is a poem of evocation, requiring reader participation in the scene and the feeling it elicits, with more to experience than to explain. It provides that tingle in the spine of “being there” that is one of the most characteristic and highly prized aesthetic attributes of this brief, immediate genre. At the same time, the careful composition, which is not merely a transparent window, provides its own pleasures of sound (dominated by the “long e” vowel and nasal consonants), rhythm, and, as noted, unusual syntactical structure. It’s this spontaneous-seeming and successful combination of content and form that makes this an outstanding haiku.


As this week’s winner, Allan gets to choose next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.

Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!

re:Viral 2:

     forest skull’s
     sockets hold
     my eyes
          — John Martone, forest skull (dogwood & honeysuckle 2007)
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