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
gunfire the length of the playground — John McManus, Modern Haiku 45.1
Lorin Ford finds allusions:
John McManus’s haiku is not the first and probably not the last to be based on Jim Kacian’s classic, well-knowngunshot the length of the lake (Jim Kacian, Harold G. Henderson Haiku Contest 2006)
I believe this is a clear and successful case of honkadori. While Jim’s haiku (in my reading) evokes an alertness bordering on fear, through the clear and unmistakable way that the sound of gunshot carries over water and the suddenness of finding oneself exposed to an unseen shooter while out in the wild (. . . and here I’m reminded of ‘Deliverance’, a novel by that other American poet, James Dickey, and the subsequent film.) John’s haiku is set in the heart of suburbia. We hear the sound of gunshot in Jim’s haiku. It seems to be the only sound or the dominant sound in a quiet place. We automatically scan the length of the lake to determine where the shot or the few shots came from.
In John’s haiku, we may hear ‘gunfire’ as well as see it on a TV screen but it is most likely the repeated sound from an automatic weapon and it covers the length of the playground. (For anyone on the lake in Jim’s ku or in danger on the playground in John’s, the length of the place and the distance to be covered to escape being shot might also occur.) The playground is most likely a school playground. The horror of the very idea of gunfire in a playground, let alone the reality of it strikes home.
Wikipedia gives a list of the “the ten deadliest school shootings in the United States since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado”:
Their last entry to date is Marysville Pilchuck High School, in Marysville, Washington, USA on October 24, 2014. Perhaps news of this shooting, on top of all the previous school shootings in the USA, even inspired John to write this haiku and include it in his MH submission. In any case, by changing just one and a half words, John has changed not just the physical setting from that of Jim’s haiku but also the social surroundings and the implications.
By 2014 the news was clear: school-kids in the USA were more likely to be shot dead by one of their own in a schoolyard than city people exploring the wilds were likely to be hunted by inbred hillbillies. And right now, in 2018, it is clear, after the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15th and the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka that no place is sacred enough or has good enough gun laws for people to be safe from shootings. Playground, mosque, church, children, mothers, old or incapacitated people . . . anyone can become a target, anywhere.
Paul Miller is stopped short:
McManus’ haiku is an obvious reference to Jim Kacian’s monoku “gunshot the length of the lake” which placed second in the Haiku Society of America’s Henderson Contest in 2005. However, they are very different poems.
Kacian’s plays with an expanse of sound, the way a single event, a single brief sound—the crack of gunshot—lingers because of the hillside surrounding the lake. In Kacian’s poem the shot, the lake, the hills, the listener, all come together in an interpenetratable echo. In the reader’s ear that shot still rings out, never quite disappearing. It is a commentary on the life of a moment.
McManus’ poem asks: what happens when that gunshot leaves the hills and enters the neighborhood. When a gun goes from being a tool of hunters to something more dark. This is a great use of the vertical axis Shriane speaks of in his landmark book Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho. What is remarkable to me is the different effect of essentially the same sound. While Kacian’s is ever growing, McManus’ stops us short—illustrating the way a life has come to a sudden ending. A powerful haiku! Yet it wouldn’t be as powerful without the reference to Kacian’s original
Robert Kingston revises his thoughts:
My first thought on this, was of a headline to a news article.
Both at home and in America, stories appear all too often of the childhood casualties, each hammering home the same question, why?
As for John’s ku, I question if the impact could be improved by including line breaks at: gunfire/ the length / of the playground
Further thought would suggest that John has it right.
To present as a monoku sets a scene as one long line, just as a bullet travels, so too the noises and emotions of the pending terror set to unfold in the extended associates ears.
From a different perspective, looking at the playground in a commercial or humanitarian sense. We release a whole range of images. From the initial manufacture of arms, through the politics to the emergency and charitable agencies left to pick up the pieces.
A sound poem, that truly lives up to having many layers.
As this week’s winner, Lorin 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!
brief bio i become a bit posthumous — Jim Kacian, afterimage Red Moon Press (2017)