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
long before I came long after I leave blossoming pear — Johnny Baranski, Lilliput Review #191
Marietta McGregor finds humility here:
Haiku that touch the heart often have a strong sense of wabi-sabi, and that is certainly the case with Johnny Baranski’s poem. The poet is present in the moment, looking upward into the glorious froth of a pear tree in full flower. At that instant, he is struck by the past, present, and future, simultaneously. Beginning and ending, as all living things must, will happen without our having any control over the time and place. Andrew Juniper, in Wabi-Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence describes wabi-sabi thus: “an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty (. . .) an aesthetic sensibility that finds melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things.”
Baranski’s poem is an appreciation of the short-lived beauty of the world. The haiku reflects humility, an acute sense of our small role in the long play of death and renewal. It conveys the melancholy of reflection, while at the same time we feel the poet is at peace with his place in things, change as they must and will. There is the somehow deeply comforting sense that nothing lasts, and yet everything goes on. We are not being passed by, but are merely passing through the continuum of existence. The poem, with its deep sense of wabi-sabi, reminds us of our place in a fragile world. Tomorrow, the pear blossom will be blown away on the wind. Johnny Baranski is no longer with us, but his haiku remains. The pear will continue to blossom.
Linda Weir is motivation by the ancient force:
While haiku is short, it can express so much in so few words. Here Jonny Baranski gives us a ‘carpe diem’ poem, reminding the reader how fleeting life is as each of our lives is like the blossoming of a pear—beautiful yet short. And that the force of life is also long, while each being (tree or person, etc.) has a short existence, life itself is an ancient force. That living things were here long before this moment of seeing a pear tree in bloom and will remain long after the poet, reader, and tree are gone. Get out there an experience the beauty—seize the day!
Clayton Beach finds this ku to be a fitting elegy:
long before I came
long after I leave
I chose this ku by Johnny Baranski to celebrate his memory. He passed away late January of 2018. Johnny was one of my first mentors in haiku and we quickly became friends. He was a core member of the Portland Haiku Group, the kukai I belong to, and a frequent contributor to many prominent journals in the world of English language haiku.
This ku is ironic in that it takes a sign of the ephemeral—the spring blossoms of a pear tree—and juxtaposes them with the idea of the eternal and unwavering, implied by the focus of the ku on the blossoming pear as tree, which is there both “long before” and “long after.”
Read literally, the ku could merely mean that the speaker stopped to admire the blossoms and passed by. However, in the context of death and the fleeting nature of human life, something long associated with the blossoms of flowering trees in Japanese poetry and the haiku tradition, this could be read as saying that the speaker’s life is more fleeting even than the blossoms, or at least, like the blossoms, our lives come and go, while the tree is ever constant and undying.
The ancient tree could be taken to represent God, the soul, Buddha nature, Gaia, the universe or whatever concept of eternal life force that the reader believes in or chooses to see, while like the blossoms that come and go, our human lives bloom from the earth and return to it after ever so brief a time—ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I’m not aware that Johnny was able to write any jisei, or “death poem,” but I found this work of his a fitting elegy to the man himself.
Johnny had a deep Catholic faith and it comes through in his poetry from time to time. He graduated from Loyola University with a degree in English Literature, and quickly became involved with the Catholic pacifist resistance to nuclear proliferation and the Vietnam War, which eventually landed him in prison for non-violent protests. Imprisonment, redemption, and faith were frequent topics of his poetry, in addition to the usual subjects of haiku like the seasons and nature, but he also had a lighter, more playful side, often pushing the envelop of the haiku far into the bawdy reaches of the senryu tradition. I will always remember and admire his humor, kindness and dedication to the haiku form. Johnny was a genuine haijin and wonderful friend.
John Levy appreciates the sacrifice:
Reading this haiku the same week I read about Johnny Baranski’s death makes the poem especially moving for me. I learned of his death from the February 2018 issue of John Martone’s online magazine otata, which is dedicated to Baranski and Baranski is the lead-off poet in the issue with ten poems (and four of the ten refer to jail or prison).
I sometimes thought I should contact Baranski because I, too, have written about jail and prison. As an assistant county public defender in Tucson for over 18 years I would guess that I visited the local jail at least 5,000 times because I visited clients at the jail almost every working day, frequently making two trips a day and sometimes returning at night. Before being a public defender I had worked as a solo criminal defense lawyer for several years and visited clients in prison. So I felt, and still feel, a kinship with Baranski’s many compassionate and remarkable poems about the experiences of those who have been locked into those buildings. Unlike him, however, I always only visited, never stayed overnight.
I didn’t contact him, however. Now I regret it. I wish I had at least written him a fan letter.
I didn’t know why he was so familiar with jail and prison. From his poems I felt certain that he had spent time in such institutions and I wondered if it was because of some crime he had committed, maybe in his youth.
Of course I was wrong. I only found out the reason this week. His obituary in “The Oregonian” states:
“Many of his poems were written while serving time in prison for acts of conscience including nonviolent resistance to war and the Trident nuclear weapon system. He lived his life with humility, friendship and love in service of the Gospel of Christ. A devout Catholic, Johnny served the poor for many years as a member of the Catholic Worker Community in Portland.”
Probably many readers of reVirals knew Baranski and about the actions that led to his arrests and imprisonment. So perhaps only a few readers of this feature on the THF website did not know about his admirable devotion to the anti-war movement and his protests of the nuclear weapon system.
The poem under consideration steps in and out of time, in and out of eternity. Just as each of us has done and will do, along with the pear tree and its blossoms.
The particular form of repetition, anaphora, is not unusual in haiku in English. What makes the poem moving (literally, in this case, moving through time as well as emotionally touching) is the sense of authenticity. I imagine the poet near or under a blossoming pear tree and experiencing a sense of time and timelessness along with a fellowship with the tree and its blossoms.
George Oppen’s “Five Poems About Poetry” begins with a poem entitled “The Gesture.” Here is the poem in its entirety:
The question is how does one hold an apple
Who likes apples
And how does one handle
Filth? The question is
How does one hold something
In the mind which he intends
To grasp and how does the salesman
Hold a bauble he intends
To sell? The question is
When will there not be a hundred
Poets who mistake that gesture
For a style.
Baranski’s poem could not have been written by a person trying to sell a bauble. Nor could his other poems have been written by someone with the intention of passing off a doodad or gimcrack. He is one of those poets who did not make the mistake Oppen condemns. And not only did he write remarkable poems that make clear his genuine dedication—and work—to grasp and to value, his activities with the peace movement demonstrate that he was fully committed to a life of conscience and was willing to make enormous sacrifices.
He will be missed. I hope and trust that long after he has passed on his poems will be read.
As this week’s winner, John 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!
the sky's blue gong an orange in my hand — Peter Yovu, Imago (2016)