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re:Virals 163

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

     fields flooded 
     beneath the surface, somewhere 
     the river bends
          — Christopher Herold, Woodnotes 17 (1993) 

Alan Summers finds nuance:

A nature/natural history haiku with a hint of mysteriousness at first. Just like trees, the rivers are not only above the ground. I always puzzle why our blue planet is called Earth, when Blue or Water might be more accurate.

What of the river beneath the surface? The term is actually ‘groundwater’ and yet much of it happens underground. The water from rainfall and snowmelt moves underground, slowly, slowly: It passes through various formations called aquifers that are permeable rock which contain or ‘transmit’ the “ground” water.

It’s quite possible that, as an American, the author Christopher Herold may know that groundwater supplies drinking water for over half the population of his home country, and for almost all of its farming community. That’s a vast body of water, and an invisible one that shifts and coils around the U.S.A.

So what we see on the surface is only an inkling of what is happening. Perhaps if we shorten the word ‘inkling’ into ink, the dark liquid of an old machine called ‘pen’, that far more happens under the surface of a haiku, as well, where it wends its way around the world via the Internet, or to use an old term again, as it ‘surfs’ the internet.

The double poetics of the opening line, via both alliteration and inversion, instead of ‘flooded fields’ starts to suggest this will be a literary incursion into something that makes the world go round, metaphorically. We can perhaps tell this is an early haiku due to the use of the comma, and contained within the ‘middle’ of the middle line. The comma, for haiku, is little used in the 21st Century, which is a bit of a shame, as it creates its own bridge of nuance:

“The Bridge of Nuance is a term I created when I looked at how we often undermine our own haiku by leaving out important bits of grammar. A haiku builds up its meaning, or atmosphere or mood, just like any good piece of writing or film direction will do. From the opening line the poem starts to span a gulf or valley, it lifts words and transports us over that space, just like a bridge is designed to do. It’s as if we arc our words over a chasm, and they can fall if we do not pay attention.”
Quote from: “How a house passes along the train of haiku” by Alan Summers (March 2018)

The opening line kicks off, and both the trick of reverse ordering of the phrase and the alliteration, moves the poem into another alliteration. Again, it’s much more than just a poetic device for its own sake, it’s a vehicle of meaning, as the flooded fields are taken below the ‘surface’ somewhere. We have a great hook because I feel we want to know what lies beneath: and what lies below a river flooded river but the same river, in a different form. We never really lose the river, and the loss of the surface ground is, thankfully, at the moment, only going to be temporary. But as so many sailors know only too well, the river is always there, in its many forms.

There is the third alliteration spread over the last two lines, and ‘beneath’ and ‘bends’ equally notch up the tension and mysteriousness. Alliteration can easily be overdone, even with three words starting with the same letter, but a triple set of this poetic device in such a small piece of a poem is outstanding.

As this week’s winner, Alan 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 164:

     it’s not me he punches the window in anger
          — Robin Anna Smith. 
Poem taken from the Haiku Foundation feature Haiku Windows: Broken Window, ed. KJ Munro (February 2018)

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Reading the haiku’s opening lines up to the comma as a continuous thought points perhaps to a psychological situation. Perhaps it is a haiku of grieving. After the comma, the situation for the grieving person is bound to change somehow. One adjusts (the river bends) somewhere in its flow. The flooded fields (the psyche) and the river (of life) is all below the surface. Although grieving is often a visible condition, often it is not. Perhaps it wasn’t grieving, perhaps it was a life changing event for the author, which may not be so visible to others.

  2. it’s not me he punches the window in anger. By — Robin Anna Smith.

    This is a moving ku and you can’t imagine how anyone could mistreat someone in that way. How great the anger? How great the fear? I’ve never been a battered person but continue to be baffled by someone accepting this without question. My husband was a policeman for near 30 years and how often he told stories of women who would not allow the laws to help them. Police show up and suddenly she’s attacking the police so they won’t take her torturer away… baffled beyond belief…

  3. The use of the comma in this haiku is interesting. Many editors today dislike punctuation of any kind. Apart from following the trend in contemporary poetry I feel this is linked to the concept of juxtaposition and break points. The fashion today is for break points to be provided by line endings (apart from in one-liners). Punctuation should not be needed. In a poem of three lines this leaves a choice of only two options. The result is homogenised 3-line haiku with similar rhythms and either a 1-2 or 2-1 line structure. I am of course including much of my own work in this. Some people, such as Christopher Herold here, rebelled against this and put the break point in the middle of a line. Without punctuation this is still possible but is more open to (mis)interpretation by the reader. In my view, haiku with different or innovative structures, as well as thoughtful use of punctuation in all its forms, are refreshing. Perhaps this sort of thing was more accepted back in 1993.

  4. it’s not me he punches the window in anger

    I find this a really powerful haiku. The linear force of the punch is enacted by the lack of line breaks. At the same time, the complexity of the various meanings is facilitated by the one line presentation and the fact that the two words “he punches” work in a rich and ambiguous way.

    What meanings do I see? The primary meaning seems to be that instead of punching the “woman/speaker” (it could be another man or a child, but I’m leaving that aside) the “man” in the poem punches the window. The implication is that the “woman/speaker” has been punched in similar circumstances, or fears she might be. This terror is well captured by the ambiguous grammar – a moment where both language and conventional time breaks down.

    Another possible meaning is that this haiku captures a moment of insight when the woman realises it is not *she* who is to blame (“it’s not me”), *he* is the person who punches in anger and that is his responsibility. (This taking on of blame is common experience of women in such relationships.)

    A third possible meaning is that this haiku reproduces a drama in which accused by words or a look, the “woman” asserts “It’s not me!” whereupon the “man” punches the window, perhaps as a form of intimidation (together with the anger). Again this kind of interpersonal dynamic is not uncommon where there is domestic violence.

    All in all a great deal is packed into these nine words!

  5. Dear esteemed poet,
    Greetings! Doubly happy to go through your analysis and comments,pointing
    out the “nuance ” in the write. Also how beautifully brought out the “triple set of” alliteration in this haiku ; how the opening line kicks off ,and one alliteration moves the poem into another alliteration etc.,
    More about formation of aquifers .
    Further your take
    “We can perhaps tell this is an early haiku due to the use of the comma, and contained within the ‘middle’ of the middle line. The comma, for haiku, is little used in the 21st Century, which is a bit of a shame, as it creates its own bridge of nuance:” is really amazing and we gain to know indeed a lot more about this.

    Finally, yes. “the river is always there in many forms” capturing another image in this format.
    with regards

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