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
still winter field… the repeated bark of a solitary crow — Bruce Ross, among floating duckweed (1994)
Judith Hishikawa takes the perspective of the bird:
Crows fly high and see far off. They have a habit of warning other creatures on the ground of dangers seen from above. Chinese tradition has a special three-legged crow as a connection with the sun. In this case, it seems that the crow is deploring the desolation of winter as seen from its perspective. Matsuo Basho wrote:
on a withered branch
a crow is perched
an autumn evening
kare eda ni
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure
In my neighborhood in Vermont, the local crows loved to hang out at the dump near the county airport on the top of Pudding Hill.
Radhamani Sarma reflects on the loneliness of the crow and the spectator:
In the first line, “still” denotes absolute silence in the winter field, intensified by gloom or fog or frost. “the repeated bark of/ a solitary crow” is just a vivid record of the crow’s cawing. Yet here the poet uses a strange phrase not applicable to the crow. “repeated bark” is usually associated with the sound of a dog, whatever the reason or mood. Here, the repeated “bark” of the crow highlights its irksome cawing. Crows don’t have seasons; they are at all times birds. In this specific winter field, the crow, in its solitary mood, isn’t pouring out a melody but a bark, emphasizing the intense gloom.
“winter field,” “the repeated bark” and “solitary crow” express a vast, expansive arena. In summer and spring, a crow’s cawing gathers, but now in the winter field, in its stillness, no gathering occurs, for the solitary crow continues without any group or its pals.
The language of the speaker is that of an angry spokesman reflecting on the loneliness of the bird, who knows the speaker is in the same predicament.
There is also a lesson for humans of philosophy: In jubilation, all partake, but in suffering, none comes to the rescue. The spectators are mute witnesses, while the sufferers are lone sufferers like the solitary crow.
Cezar-Florin Ciobîcă focuses on the wintry scenery:
The snowy field looks like a huge sheet of paper that someone should try to write something on, but hesitates. The atmosphere is frosty, dull, the intense white of the snow blinds him, and inspiration has left him. The only element that animates this landscape is a crow that cries, crunching the air. It’s written down here in print that the bark of a crow gives the impression that something bad or unpleasant is going to happen. If we extrapolate, it is clear that the author, who probably reached a respectable age or lost a beloved person, suffers enormously because of loneliness that overwhelms him. Therefore, he screams like an expressionist poet seeking to free himself from negative energy and to find some solutions or the right way to enlightenment.
At the phonetic level, some consonants suggest discreetly that we are dealing with frozen scenery where only a crow haunts. On the other hand, the vowel “i” highlights the apathy of the background, and “a” increases the noise emitted by the bird. Its shrill bark follows you long after you’ve read the poem.
We can say that the sound of one color can make you go insane. Beware!
Mary Stevens finds harmony in a crow’s rough call:
Two words are particularly striking in this haiku. The first, “bark,” surprises: Along with the preposition at the end of line two instead of the beginning of line three, it sets the reader up to expect a dog in the next line. The word “caw” would be another option — and seemingly a better one because it’s more precise and onomatopoeic to that animal. Both animal sounds are abrasive and would interrupt a still scene. Why did Ross make that specific word choice? A poet of such experience and quality writing had to be going for more than quick, clever shock value.
The other powerful word is “solitary.” Dogs bark out of excitement or aggression in response to another being. Crows, too, vocalize in response to others: to attract a mate, scare off a predator from its nest, or intimidate prey. But this one is alone in the landscape.
It may just be singing.
The image of the still, winter field is beautiful and calm. The crow’s calls contrast in our human judgment of the sound as abrasive. There is another contrast in the monochromatic field and the black bird. But, similar to Basho’s crow on the bare branch, the image is all of a piece: In a spare, harsh time of year, a roughly sung song is perfectly harmonious.
As this week’s winner, Mary 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!
I chucked the urn too — R. P. Carter, Frogpond 33:3 (2010)