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re:Virals 125

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

     in a room
     with no windows
     drawing stars
          — ai li, still two one (1998) 

Marion Clarke sends us a comment from an office with a window:

Initially this suggested that the narrator is attempting to escape a form of claustrophobia. However, the notion that he or she is “drawing stars” is interesting. Are they literal or imaginary stars? Perhaps it is an astronomer talking to an audience or a university lecturer drawing on an iPad to add detail to a presentation on the cosmos?

On the other hand, this could be about a person unused to being indoors who has ended up working 9-5 in a windowless office, doodling until home time!

Bob Aspey meditates on the meaning:

There is some evidence that doodling aids memory, possibly by letting the doodler stay in the moment by preventing the mind from wandering. Some promote doodling as a form of meditation, a tool to support mindfulness exercises.

And so we have ai li’s poem. Perhaps it is a meditation room, no windows to prevent external distraction. Inside: simple decoration and a few pieces of comfortable furniture; nothing to excite, just calming colours. Inside, too, someone sitting quietly, meditating.

But even in a windowless, colourless room, there are distractions. The mind wanders, constantly swirling away on the stream of consciousness, ever having to be reined back from the day’s problems, always trying to cling to that still, calm spot.

Perhaps the practitioner in ai li’s room is trying this as a way of limiting internal distractions, perhaps doodling freestyle, perhaps colouring in pre-drawn stars. Either way, the poem carries a sense of peace about the process:

in a room
with no windows
drawing stars

Clayton Beach explores the narrative:

This poem is an excellent example of storytelling with great economy. ai li is the inventor of the cherita, a 6-line narrative poem in the haiku/tanka tradition, but even her haiku are imbued with a sense of micro-fiction narrative reminiscent of her signature form.

ai li leaves us with just the essential details, just enough to pique our interest and ask us to construct a story that explains the ku. The “room with no windows” suggests imprisonment, or at the very least claustrophobia, and the unmentioned subject allows us to fill in the blanks as to who is in this dismal place. Is it a child in an abusive or loveless home? Is it a woman stuck in a terrible marriage? Or is it a prisoner sitting on their cot, dreaming of freedom? Confinement dominates the atmosphere. Depending on the reader, any one of these solutions might satisfy the image and add resonance, or perhaps it is something else entirely.

Finally, the action, “drawing stars,” signifies a sense of hope in the darkest hour, a yearning for freedom during oppression, wanting to see the beauty of nature and the infinite, divine cosmos from a place of uninspiring blandness and restriction. Perhaps it is even a metaphor for the soul longing to see the divine in a world that so often assaults us with the soulless and banal. That the subject of the poem is seeking and creating what their heart desires, even when it is unseen and distant, offers us hope and suggests that what we seek is always within reach, if only we turn inward.

Lynne Reese appreciates the generosity:

There are two things that immediately strike me about ai li’s haiku:
1. A strong sense of containment, perhaps even imprisonment, from the image of a room with no windows.
2. The concrete images at the end of each line – room, windows, stars – that anchor me to the real world.

The idea of containment/imprisonment is a subjective response; the room could as easily be a cellar where someone has chosen to be. But surely there’s a sense of longing, or aware, in the third line, a longing for the exterior world that has been denied, for the night sky, for beauty and peace and freedom, that reinforces that idea for me.

But if this is about imprisonment why don’t I feel any distress or sense of restriction? Perhaps because of those three concrete words at the end of each line. Poets place (or should place) words at the ends of lines for deliberate and conscious reasons. And these do feel consciously placed. Room. Window. Stars. I am in a room. I look out of a window. I see stars.

The poet, or the narrator in this poem, has allowed me to experience the night sky regardless of the limitations of their personal situation. Can there be greater generosity than this? To offer the gift of beauty from a place where beauty has been denied?

The poet ai li discusses her “spirit of place”:

in a room was written in one breath.

I write all my short form poems in this way, without drafting, because it enables me to tap into the very essence of the moment.

This haiku empowered me at a time in my life when I needed to find faith and much needed optimism. The 8 words serve as a reminder to myself about how I was able to overcome a situation I happened to find myself in. By using lateral thinking, I wrote myself out of inner captivity into the magical world of genius loci.

My selected haiku remains close to my heart and soul and I would like to thank Danny Blackwell for his sensitivity of selection.

As this week’s winner, Clayton 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 125:

     long before I came
     long after I leave
     blossoming pear 
          — Johnny Baranski, Lilliput Review #191 

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. I read ai li’s haiku as others have, with ‘drawing’ meaning making the images of stars on a piece of paper. Yes, ‘drawing’ can mean attracting. It can also mean pulling something behind one (as a horse draws a cart). In context, though, I rule these other possibilities out.
    ‘in a room without stars’ , someone remembers stars, has faith that stars do exist even though they can’t be seen under the circumstances, and draws them. I have been in those ‘rooms without windows’. (not literally!) Implied metaphor is part of the haiku toolkit if haiku is poetry, as I believe it is. ai li’s poem superbly addresses a human issue and the human spirit, in a nutshell.
    Meg makes a good point about the current trend towards the preference, of some who write haiku commentaries and essays, on multiple, even myriad, interpretations. Do myriad interpretations reveal a better reader? Does this fashion for breadth of possible interpretations over engagement with the poem lead us astray? Where do we reach the point where the reader can make anything they fancy of the given words in context, the more diverse readings the better, and be applauded for it? At what stage does a haiku become, for such readers, more like a Rorschach test than a poem?
    Or when does the little boy in the old children’s story point out to the admiring crowd that, actually, the Emperor isn’t wearing fine new clothes, but, having been deceived by the fraudulent tailors, isn’t wearing any clothes at all?
    – Lorin

    1. What I have come to, for now, is the reckoning that if a writer wants a reader to rule out certain readings he/she would do well to use dashes or other means to make the intended reading clear.Composers of music do this, though perhaps not all, or all the time.

      In some cases this might be awkward. On the other hand, then, if a writer wishes a poem to be ambiguous or to offer multiple takes, well, we have seen how this can be done.

      On a bit of a side note, someone ( I forget who) once spoke of how many people who comment on haiku say that they like a given poem because it reminds them of something, perhaps from childhood. I suppose all forms of art have something in common with Rorschach test. And numerous writers have said “I like it that there as as many ways of reading my haiku as there are readers” or something similar. But there are limits, right? I too “ruled out” my second reading of ai li’s haiku. However, the fact remains, the poem itself did not.

  2. Another poem with no clear direction as to how it should be read. As I see it, there are two different and yet perhaps connected ways of reading this. The first which takes the word “drawing” to mean the act of sketching; the second way of reading it takes that same word to mean “attracting”.
    Those who have commented here have taken the first possibility, and if they considered the second, have not mentioned it, or perhaps rejected it as implausible or not making sense.
    I suspect the poet also wishes the poem to be read with
    “drawing” as sketching, or rendering in an artistic way. Of course I don’t really know.
    Now in 1998 when this poem was written I was only ten and reading other things. If I had read it then, I probably would have read it as “in a room with no windows (I am) drawing stars”. And probably most people who read it then read it that way too.
    So the thing is, in recent years, a lot of haiku writers have chosen to write poems in very open ways. Poets who write one line haiku have espoused the merits (one may question that) of multiple interpretations, multiple and layered meanings inherent in their work. Even contradictory meanings.
    Even though such techniques as zeugma have been employed for a very long time offering two readings of the same poem, I believe this sense of reading a poem in any number of ways has become more evident and more utilized in recent years.
    So, having been educated in new ways of reading and writing haiku leads me to read this poem in the way the writer probably intended, but also in a way she probably did not. (Again I can’t be sure about that).
    The second reading is one which is intriguing to me:
    it implies that windows can *attract stars*. I do not dismiss this as fanciful. If the “room/with no windows” can be understood either metaphorically or literally, then perhaps “windows” can represent consciousness, and “windows/drawing stars” can imply some sense of awareness itself attracting them. That might be a child’s point of view. (I open my eyes— there they are. I close my eyes— they’re gone). And anyway, Japanese gendai poets and their English-language followers have pretty much said the fantastic is definitely within the purview of haiku.
    So, to summarize a bit, even though I think the poem here is meant to be read as commentators have read it,
    the language itself gives me another possibility. The writer could have given direction by including a dash after the second line. That would have precluded my second way of reading it.
    So what is reader to do these days? With no clear indication of how a poem should be read assume the writer was open to or aiming at ambiguity and multiple meanings? Or take it upon him/herself to decide how a poem is to be read?

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