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re:Virals 229

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

     I chucked the urn too
          — R. P. Carter, Frogpond 33:3 (2010)

Paul Miller offers some food for thought about the poem:

I think this poem illustrates the importance of the haiku’s two-part structure, because this poem feels like half a haiku, and after reading it, I feel a bit unfulfilled.

The poem suggests that after spreading someone’s ashes (at least that’s how I read it) the poet then “chucks” the urn as well. Yet, I don’t know how the poet feels about it. Is the poet happy by the deceased’s demise, as perhaps suggested by the choice of “chuck?” Or is the mood somber, and the discarding of the urn meant to remind us of all that was lost by the deceased’s death, the “chucking” done in frustration?

This is where an additional element (say, a seasonal reference) could help guide the reader.

Garry Eaton finds the poet eschewing ceremonial tradition:

There’s urns, and then there’s urns, Carter seems to be saying. There was the Grecian urn memorialized by Keats. The ashes it may have contained were unimportant, and receive no mention in the poem. There was also the jar in Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar,” probably just a Mason canning jar, which the poet co-opted for a different type of ritual, placing it on a hill in Tennessee so it stands out, not for its beauty in representing a grand tradition of mourning, but for a utilitarian plainness that “made the slovenly wilderness surround that hill.”

Carter’s effort is more candid. It brings us to a moment just after the ashes have been ritually poured, when the bearer needs to decide how to dispose of the urn, perhaps a Mason jar, or a tomato tin. Clearly, this is not an expensive urn, or one with any particular sentimental associations, despite the recent death. And it reminds us that we are sometimes asked to do things that we would not otherwise do, and do not always perform them according to protocol, though they seem to call for a more respectful treatment, either in poetry or in disposal of the corpse. From this perspective, I am also reminded of W. C. Williams’ poem, “Tract,” in which the poet urges citizens to eschew the ceremonial tradition of mourning that emphasizes the wealth or importance of the deceased, and to let the bones of the human condition plainly show by taking the plain pine coffin to the cemetery on a rough, open, wooden wagon drawn by an ordinary carthorse.

By these comparisons, one can clearly relate this haiku, in all its honest plainness, to a long and complex tradition of memorial poetry, including elegy, which like a good haiku it plainly contradicts, to black, humorous effect. For contrast who remembers Lycidas?

Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his wat’ry bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.

Lycidas, by John Milton

Robert Kingston encounters a touch of suspense and amusement:

It could be a key line from a “some mother’s do ‘ave em” scene.

Ah yes! Here are images of the lovable character of Frank Spencer played by the exceptionally talented Michael Crawford. An accident prone husband who, though trying to be the master tradesman, inevitably ends in or with a pile of mess.

In this scenario, I could visualize him standing among the broken pieces, with an array of facial expressions of both confusion and befuddlement, attempting to piece the urn together in front of a disgruntled crowd.

Alas, I think R. P. Carter has intended a touch of suspense and amusement to what for many is a serious moment. The “aha” moment, I believe, is tucked away in the discarding of the urn along with the ashes. Carter captures well the fakeness of symbolism and materialism, choosing instead to harness the most precious things from a loving relationship in the safest of places: our heart and mind.

Cezar-Florin Ciobîcă discovers emptiness in the moment:

This is a disturbing scene that upsets the reader. The urn keeps the remains of a loved one, a relative or a close friend. Before scattering ashes, the people present at the funeral take their farewell for the last time from the one who has passed away, patting the urn. Somewhat upside-down, the poet seems to say that he chucked the urn too, but nothing happened, because he felt nothing, he heard nothing to give him any sign that things would be otherwise; hence, the great disappointment of one who hoped for a miracle in receiving a subliminal message.

What remains behind are the memories that such a moment triggers in each participant. The soul of the dead one is not there, it cannot be held captive in a container, because it flew to another realm.

The final adverb “too” accentuates, on a phonetic level, the impression of emptiness, and reminds us of an old biblical quote: “vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas” (Ecclesiastes 1.2)

Lynne Rees uncovers a sense of story:

I’m initially hard-pushed to call this a haiku, at least in the traditional sense. Where’s the kigo? Where’s the juxtaposition? Is the single declarative sentence too direct a statement for the subtle understatement we associate with haiku poetry?

But what I do respond to is the powerful sense of story in Carter’s five words. I’m reminded of the “alleged” Hemingway six word short story: “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” It has the same compressed power that can be unpicked to unravel a family story of a complicated parent/child, or spousal, relationship, a story of death, of saying goodbye, of anger or resentment or indifference. This compression would allow me to write a 1,000 word story to precede this handful of words. I can fill in the spaces with a whole gamut of behavior and gripping human emotion.

But Carter chose not to do that. He/she gives us the final bow. And it’s here that the haiku moment resides: with a brutal honesty.

Margherita Petriccione is impressed by the brevity of the line:

Even if, in contrast to the poetics of a haiku, this writing is expressed in a past time, it still presents itself with the immediate impact of a moment really lived. There is makoto (“authenticity”) in this experience, and there is karumi (“lightness”) in the thrift and simplicity of words. The extreme brevity of a monoku appears as the only possible form; one cannot imagine this haiku otherwise expressed. But what makes it a work that remains impressed, one of those haiku that you would like to have written, is the way, after a moment of skidding, it hits you violently in the heart. It is like a thin blade that penetrates deeply and lets the spirit of the reader and writer find a communion without words, the sharing of an uncontainable pain. A gesture so immense in its agony, so indescribable, is there in the detached simplicity of a few words. Because what makes this work even more valuable is the detachment in narrating the dispersion of loved ashes, and the impotent launch of the now empty urn.

As this week’s winner, Margherita 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 230:

     no telegram today
     only more
     leaves fell
          — Jack Kerouac, Book of Haikus (2003)

This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. This poem is about letting go.
    He has let go of the person, the ashes and then the urn itself.
    Complete, total abandonment of body and mind.
    In Zen it would be Enlightenment.

    1. “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art. ” – Susan Sontag, from Against Interpretation [1964]
      ( . . . just sayin’ )

  2. I thank Theresa Cancro for taking my writing into consideration. I found all the assumptions and studies on the words in the various comments very interesting. For me who am a simple spirit, the haiku in question was a transmission of sensations, something that strikes straight and goes to the heart. Authentic immersion in poetry. I haven’t asked myself any more questions.

  3. Read the poem as if it were signed by W.C. Williams, and see if you like it. You will find yourself surprised he could write anything so callous. It’s low comedy, and needs a serious note to create tension with our ideals.

  4. I have read each response, and brave myself for mine…it is not going to be easy.
    Being born in a culture where we cremate those who have passed over…or to put it bluntly…those who are dead, and go the next day to collect the bones, usually in an earthen pot, which is then chucked or broken after the ashes are disposed in the Ganges or other holy rivers…( we have a rather pagan approach…) I have to say that the entire process is the process of grieving, the acceptance sets in once the pot is broken, then reality sets in.

    This is a poem where culture plays its chords and loudly too in the reader’s mind. When I read the poem for the first time, I knew I would have to say this. And it is not what the poet says.
    But I am one of the readers and the poem is compete only with the participation of the reader. And this is my pov.
    There is nothing as horrible as that moment when the ashes disperse and we hear the sound of the earthen pot crack on the ground, it cracks through our sanity, it makes the grief break us like thousand and one million shattered pieces of shatter-proof glass, still together but not whole at all. It is just a full circle. Nihilism even, maybe…existential nihilism.

    I do not know what the poet had in mind. I also am aware that this is not the usual haiku with its usual format. It does not bother me. Some poems say more by not spelling out everything. Or, the silences speak.
    This is that kind of poem. The reader has to walk further and listen to the silence.

    For me the most interesting word is: too

    What is the narrator saying?
    That she/he has let go of the contents of the urn as well as the urn?

    that the person is gone ( did I read that in your response Ceasar? )
    the person is gone and why keep the ashes or the urn or the urn with the ashes in it?
    is the narrator saying this to someone else, sharing a pithy moment and reaching out:
    you know, I chucked the urn too.
    Man, it was hurtful to watch the urn and not have her/him yapping off at breakfast while I read my newspaper/ while I fretted about calories …
    I miss her/ him so much and the urn there made me hurt more each day, …

    I don’t know anymore. Somethings are difficult experiences to grow out of. For me it is the acceptance of loss. Because…I chucked the urn too, I needed to let go, and move on.

    1. “For me the most interesting word is: too

      What is the narrator saying? ” – Pratima
      Whatever else may be made of it, one thing is clear and that is that the narrator is saying that , he “chucked” something other than the urn as well/ also/ too.
      To me, the most likely other thing to have been “chucked” is the ashes. It is the register of the word “chucked” that draws attention. I imagine that an Indian boy who laconically declared that he’d “chucked” his grandmother’s ashes in the river would quickly get an outraged clip across the ears from his father or mother.

      1. I am not sure that the other thing to have been chucked is the ashes, though that possibility is high. What if it was a sea burial or something like that and there was no urn, just that there was the normal routine of urn and ashes in urn. So what the narrator is then saying is:

        There were no remains, so there is no question of the urn, is there…

        This is what makes it interesting, this discussion.
        However far-fetched my this take, it still remains in the realm of possible readings.

        Yes, to the word -chucked – and the tone it spreads into the environment of the poem. As a verb, it suggests rejection as in relationships among other things.
        It could be a way of saying: the relationship is dead and nothing remains, not even the ashes of memories ….so why do I need a urn( in the mind, not on the mantel)

        hmm, interesting 5 words …no….

        Is that humor, irony or helplessness, …I dunno,

  5. Terry Jones, the English director/ actor who played Mandy, Brian’s mother in the film ‘The Life of Brian’, passed away recently and I can easily imagine this line in a Monty Python sketch:
    I chucked the urn too
    — R. P. Carter, Frogpond 33:3 (2010)
    I can build my own Pythonesque sketch around it. It’s the clash of register, the low slang of the verb “chucked” paired with the sedate, high tone of “urn” which gives the impression of irreverence., creating shock. . . perhaps comic, orperhaps rebelliously, deliberately nasty if spoken to someone who was grieving. . (But for me, more the former. . . by choice more than anything in the line itself?)
    I’m with Lynne Rees, in that when I first read it I thought of the famous “story in six words” challenge, associated with Hemingway (rightly or wrongly). Like a “story in six words or less” it engages readers and allows each to puzzle out and create a backstory of their choice. This “story in 5 words” can (and has) elicited a variety of sketches or stories from commentators. No doubt, it stimulates the imagination. But what makes it a haiku ?
    Nothing I’ve read, either in the published commentaries above or in the comments on this thread, has helped me find an answer to this basic question. I actually have a copy of Frogpond 33:3 (my 2nd issue of Frogpond!) and R.P. Carter’s piece is on page 1. The editor of the issue was George Swede ( Now I feel like I’m getting somewhere a little) who in 2014 released his book, micro haiku, some examples from which Aubrie Cox selected for this review:
    So we know that, as an editor, George Swede deemed R.P. Carter’s one-liner to be a haiku (or senryu? It’s all about “human nature”. But Swede’s minimalist haiku quoted in Aubrie’s review don’t really give me any insight into whether R.P. Carter’s line/verse has a place on the haiku/ spectrum.
    Perhaps I need to re-read Jim Kacian’s ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ (Modern Haiku 43.3, Autumn 2012) where I find George Swede’s
    at the edge of the precipice I become logical ( from A Snowman, Headless 1979, Fiddlehead Poetry Books)
    There’s the “precipice” there, though, a thing not of the human world, with which the persona of Swede’s poem interacts, whereas in R.P. Carter’s line there is only the human world: “I” + the human artifact, an urn, which contained the ashes of a cremated human.

    1. Hi Lorin,
      Thank you for an interesting comment and links.
      Haiku or not? I am with you and Lynne Rees in not knowing for sure. Though I did find another layer to Carter’s poem through reading Jim Kacian’s essay.
      From my novice perspective, I had considered the poem having its foundation in death, indicated a winter kigo. Adding to this, Jim’s essay title “the shape of things to come” and from within, Virginia Brady Young’s poem,
      at twilight hippo
      the river
      opened up a perspective I had not considered; reincarnation!
      everything in born and returns to Earth
      Of course this creates a new dilemma for me as I would consider reincarnation to feature as a spring kigo!
      The more I think on this poem, the more it open up.
      I chucked the urn too
      — R. P. Carter, Frogpond 33:3 (2010)


  6. I chucked the urn too.
    I want to feel, about any poem that something made it important for the author to write it. Even a fiction must come from a compelling truth, or it will come across as abstract, disconnected.
    And while it may not be the main reason someone writes poetry, I also think an author likes the idea that at least a few readers will also consider it
    important (enjoyable, intriguing, eye-opening . . .).
    I like puzzling over the poem’s “meaning” or meanings. A lot resides in the word “chuck”, as Paul suggests. “Toss”, “discard”, “oust” are some words that come up in one dictionary. Also “dismiss” and “have done with”. To me, the word also implies throwing forcefully. In any event, it would not seem that the urn in question was carefully placed somewhere, but was gotten rid of.
    The “too” is important, of course. One can imagine a number of things that might have been chucked along with (prior to) the urn. Someone’s remains would at the top of most lists, I suspect. I suppose it could be the author’s own feelings that were the first to be chucked followed by the ashes/urn, but that seems a stretch.
    To me, it’s pretty clear the chucking is done as rejection— anger, disgust, even hatred— of the deceased. But that’s because I see that all important word as referring to a forceful dismissal.
    Here’s the thing. I’ve written at some length about a poem which I feel was important for the author to write. And while, as I said, I enjoyed puzzling it out, thinking about the word “chuck” and so forth, for me its“meaning” is soon exhausted. Like many haiku I read, I feel that it could
    be part of series of poems which it might amplify, and by which it would be amplified. Maybe a seasonal reference as Paul says would do the same. I tend not to think in those terms.

  7. Thanks, everybody, for your analyses of this poem. When I first read it, it moved and challenged me, and it still keeps cycling around for me. My understanding of it is enhanced by your various points of view, and I am grateful.

    Does anyone know how to contact Carter? He/She might like to see the various interpretations.

  8. re:Virals 229:

    I chucked the urn too
    — R. P. Carter, Frogpond 33:3 (2010)

    This wonderful monoku by R.P.Carter,can be viewed in many perspectives, such as literary, philosophical and practical,
    delving into the meaning of ephemerality of life.

    The first person take monoku “I chucked the urn too” with an
    emphatic note, brings out the literary purport that the speaker
    voices that he threw away or discarded the urn which carries the burnt ashes of the person who has left for another salient abode. “ The urn too”also refers to this after life all compressed in urn, by way of ashes, being discarded. Out of vexation, this utterance comes out of sheer desperate helplessness experienced in this life. Here,he carries the real
    thinking /perspective /from the point of view of the spokesman.

    Next from philosophical point of view, one has to imagine, the soul of the dead enters into the urn, (vessel) which has all ashes; after relinquishing body soul discards urn,too,note of
    Disgust and despair.

    Not only “ to shuffle off this mortal coil, but also the mortal remains, carried by the urn,- decision of the philosopher in poet.

    Viewing metaphorically, urn, sacred vessel carrying ash, meant for storing, or immersed in water; Soul sits, gaining life, reliving in the urn; but the poet” chucked the urn too” implying why do I care for the sacred ash, meant to be preserved?

    Stretch of life, flesh, living, all aspirations- now compressed in one small urn, embodiment of sacred preservation, now -nothing.
    At the end of life, abrogation and negation of everything in its totality, the meaning of this content.

    1. yes, what is after? who knows? I like the way you view the poem, metaphorically.

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