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
first warm day the ground gives a little —John Stevenson, requiet enough (Red Moon Press 2004)
Danny Blackwell shares in the joy:
There is a long tradition of writing about the “first” in Japanese haiku—first snow; first sky, or dream, of the new year; first whatever, of this and that . . . and so on. Usually this is done with compound nouns using the word for first—“hatsu” (初)—followed by the object to which it refers. This haiku by John Stevenson seems to fit in well with this tradition. There is a sense that the first warm day (one might suppose in transition from winter to spring) alters our perception of the world—in this case giving the impression that the ground “gives a little.” That is to say, the world seems softer, easier—more receptive. It could be more literal, however, and refer to the ground actually becoming softer due to the phenomenological changes from one season to another—the ground being more grassy and soft, for example (instead of cold, hard mud).
I like this poem for its subtlety. It can be read in the most Japanese tradition and fulfill some of the essential requisites purists tend to clamour for: the syntax creates a natural break (kire), separating line one from line two and three. And the line “first warm day” functions as a seasonal reference. But, more importantly, it says something. It is not a mere, lifeless, ascetic, sketch. It is not some cold, objective observation. It speaks to the joy of spring, without being explicit or having any strong authorial voice to tell us what to think or feel, and the poem allows us, therefore, to share in that joy as if it were our own. And who among us has not, at one time or another, lived this experience?
As this week’s winner, Danny 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!
PECES VOLADORES Al golpe del oro solar estalla en astillas el vidrio del mar. FLYING FISH The solar gold clash smashes into splinters the sea’s glass. — José Juan Tablada, El jarro de flores (1922) (Translation from the Spanish by Danny Blackwell)
This Post Has 6 Comments
I think this is a poem where shades of meaning can be found, and perhaps unlike other recent selections for re:Virals, one does not need to reject or stumble over any of them. At least that’s how it works for me. There are, as Danny Blackwell notes, different ways to read “gives” here.
Gives as yields, for one thing. But another sense is the more active one of “offering”, as a gift.
In this sense, there is a certain irony to “gives a little”. Yes, the yielding is a gift and maybe a promise of something more. But it is also just “a little”, and in upstate New York and in the Northeast of the U.S. in general, Yankee ice-bitten realism forbids one from expecting too much.
Thanks for the comments, Meg. And for picking up the other readings of “gives a little.” Please feel free to use the contact box and submit a comment on the Tablada poem for next week’s re:Virals.
Thanks, Danny. For some reason I prefer to hang back and comment after the fact.
Thinking about it, the reason I comment after the fact is that I enjoy getting a discussion going. Unfortunately, once a given re:Viral is archived and the link disappears, so does the conversation unless someone is willing to dig up the link. But I suspect few people do this. Out of sight . . . .
For future reference anyone that wants to read previous re:virals this can at the top of the webpage and select:
features>Virals and find all the previous entries.
Hi Meg – yes, the idea of ‘gift’ is something that struck me in this haiku too. And I think the line breaks John Stevenson has created capitalise on this.
The verb ‘gives’ is given prominence at the opening of the 3rd line and separated from its subject, ‘ground’, on line 2. This encourages other ideas: giving as in ‘gift’, the ‘little’ gift we are rewarded with as we realise spring is on its way.
In addition, placing a word or image (the ground) on a line of its own naturally draws attention to it so as poets we need to be sure that the attention is deserved. Here, the weight we apply to the word ‘ground’ as we say/read it parallels the imagined physical weight the haiku wants us to experience: the change of the season we detect when the ground ‘gives a little’ to our footfall.
One of my favourite haiku.
Comments are closed.