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re:Virals 108

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

     lisant sous les chênes

     un mot quitte la page

     . . . une fourmi noire!

     reading under the oaks

     a word leaves the page

     . . . a black ant!

          — Damien Gabriels, Sur la pointe des pieds, Editions L'Iroli (2008)

Lynee Rees confesses to bringing her punctuation “baggage” with her:

As readers we bring our own baggage to a text. Our comprehension and our response, both intellectual and emotional, tend to be coloured by our own experience of language and life. And that can be very enriching — although sometimes it isn’t.

I suppose that in an ideal world we would be completely objective: we’d approach every text without preconceptions and the interference of previous knowledge and preferred practice. And I am encouraging myself to do that with this haiku because my first response is one of irritation with the exclamation mark. Other readers will be less critical of it, I’m sure. But, for me, I feel as if the writer is directing me to respond in a specific way.
I once asked my 6-year old granddaughter what she thought an exclamation mark meant and she leapt into the air with both hands spread and said: “SURPRISE.” And perhaps the ellipsis contributes to my annoyance? Another ‘flag’ that slows us down ready for the big revelation?

I really do like that second line though: “a word leaves the page” suggests a number of ideas to me. It might be something I really need to hear, or something that has given up trying to persuade. There’s loss. But strength too. And I appreciate the comic juxtaposition of realising that my brain is playing a trick: that where I might search for profundity in life there might only be the pragmatic.

Of course, there’s no right or wrong with regards to the use of punctuation in haiku. And my opinion is just that: my (very subjective) opinion.

Ajaya Mahala returns to comment of his selection from last week:

The haiku is about those enjoyable distractions. To go near an oak to read a book indicates the innate desire to run away from the monotony of the home, where the mind gets crammed up with thoughts, and gets constructively distracted by the outside ambience.
Since someone is immersed in reading, their eye contact is with the black letters and words. These black letters are mere carriers of ideas that take the reader to the realm of thoughts. A black ant, which might have fallen from the tree onto the page, runs away and affords the reader an opportunity to pause and think, saying: “There are other things to look at.”
The brain has to relish every bit of creative substance at a leisurely pace, and distractions of this nature make the process of assimilation easier. The reader can then go back to reading with much more interest.

The same author has written another “distraction” haiku, which is somewhat similar:

     réunion de travail —
     un petit nuage blanc
     passe à la fenêtre
     work meeting —
     a small white cloud
     passes in front of the window
          — Damien Gabriels (Marelle de lune, 2008)

In this haiku “a small white cloud” has taken the place of “a black ant.” Both these fascinating distractions appear for a short time and depart the scene of serious business quickly.

These haiku remind me of my college days. While writing my examination papers, there would be rain outside on some occasions. I would pause my pen for a while, and look at the rain outside. This eases tension and makes you refect on more important stages of life. After all, life is more than writing examination papers!

As this week’s winner, Lynne 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:Virals 108:

pig and i spring rain
— Marlene Mountain, Frogpond 2:3-4 (1979) 

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Thanks to you both, Ajaya and Lynne, for drawing my attention to Damien Gabriels’ haiku, which I’d not seen before, This has been playing on my mind:

    reading under the oaks
    a word leaves the page

    . . . a black ant!

    Not a letter, but a word. Most lkely, a one-letter word. The only one-letter word I can think of that a black ant resembles is: the lower case ‘i’…the ant’s head & body looks like that. 🙂

    I find it interesting, anyway. 🙂

    — Lorin

    1. Thanks Lorin. That’s an interesting take on the nuance of word versus letter in this poem.

      1. … then I wonder what a single letter word in French might be? Maybe the abbreviated j, as in j’hésite?

        – Lorin

  2. Thank you, Lynne. I’m delighted you read ‘slow’ in both of its (intended) senses. 🙂

    Ah, yes, Ajaya, the Moritake haiku is a classic of the pre-Basho ‘elegant’ style, but I think the ‘as if everything is in place once again’ element is not so much ‘missing’ in the Gabriels’ allusive haiku (& my non-allusive one) but not intended to be there in the first place.

    The famous Moritake haiku needs to be read in context of the (yet older) Japanese proverb:

    Romaji: Rakka eda ni kaerazu, hakyou futatabi terasazu

    Literally: Fallen blossom doesn’t return to the branch, a broken mirror can not be made to shine.
    Meaning: What’s done is done; “There’s no use crying over spilled milk”
    Notes: The ra in rakka is the kanji for otosu (to drop/let fall), but can also be read as ochi (the punchline of a joke) and is also the ra in rakugo (traditional funny story telling).

    – Lorin

    1. In Japan graffiti (raku-gaki/落書き) is literary called “fall-writing.” I think it’s a tragedy that the Japanese script has such great potential for use in graffiti and yet the western graffiti style using roman letters seems to dominate in Japan.
      Now you’ve got me wondering which Japanese “word” most resembles an ant . . . ?

  3. I smiled at Lynne’s story of her niece: “. . . she leapt into the air with both hands spread and said: “SURPRISE.” And perhaps the ellipsis contributes to my annoyance? Another ‘flag’ that slows us down ready for the big revelation?”

    Yes, we’ve become used to minimal use of punctuation in EL haiku and it can seem old-fashioned and a mark of over-emphasis when we come across it. We’ve become used to the implied cut, or the simple use of change of syntax to denote the cut in haiku. Yet such punctuation has its uses. Something that neither Lynne nor Ajaya mention is that Damien Gabriels’ haiku is (clearly, imo) a new allusion to Arakida Moritake’s (1473 – 1549) famous ‘butterfly’ haiku, the one that inspired Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’.

    rakka eda ni kaeru to mireba kochoo kana

    Un fleur tombee
    Remonte a la branche!
    Ah! Le pappillon

    A fallen blossom
    returning to the bough. . .
    Oh! a butterfly!

    The kireji , kana (from Wikipedia):

    “哉 / かな kana: emphasis; usually can be found at a poem’s end, indicates wonder”

    In the case of Damien Gabriels’:

    lisant sous les chênes
 un mot quitte la page

    . . . une fourmi noire!

    reading under the oaks
 a word leaves the page

    . . . a black ant!

    to my mind, the punctuation, imitating the kana emphasis in Moritake’s haiku as it does, serves to indicate to the reader that this is intended to be an allusive variation. I find the ‘flagging’ successful in context.

    This one of mine, which shares an experience and a scenario with Gabriel’s haiku, was not intended to allude to any previous haiku:

    slow day
    the ant keeps returning
    to stanza one

    (Commended, Haiku Presence Award 2010)

    – Lorin

    1. Thanks for your insightful response, Lorin. Lovely to read your words here. I was aware of the idea of allusion, and the challenge of reproducing Japanese techniques in EL haiku too. The difficulty, for me, is the line between appreciation of tradition and slipping into archaic practice. Although that line will waver between haiku readers and writers, I know.

      I enjoyed your haiku: there’s such as strong implicit relationship between the human experience and the ant. We are all one.

    2. Thank you, Lynne and Lorin for the wonderful insight that you both have given to the haiku. The butterfly haiku quoted by Lorin is fantastic. The magic of the haiku is that the butterfly comes as nature’s recompense for fallen blossoms as if everything is in place once again. This aspect is missing in Damien Gabriels’ haiku as well as in Lorin’s own ant haiku. In case of the former the ant leaves the scene. In contrast, the ant in Lorin’s haiku is going to enter a scene , that is, stanza one with an element of human prediction lent to the happening. Therefore, allusive variation, if there is any, is at the physical image level only and not in the dynamics. All the three haiku are stand-alones.

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