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
no telegram today only more leaves fell — Jack Kerouac, Book of Haikus (2003)
Sanela Pliško is reminded of stark situations:
Many poets have their favorite word(s) and favorite kigo. Reading Jack Kerouac’s haiku, I always felt that falling rain and leaves were his inexhaustible resource of inspiration. This haiku reminds me of the inevitable situations that start with faith and hope, go through anxiety, peak, and eventually acceptance. No telegram? Or, as we could translate the telegram today: no phone ring? no letter? no sms? no e-mail? no message in the inbox? Any message would be better than – nothing. And when nothing comes, everything seems as leaves falling, as a day that endlessly repeats itself. Autumn began, but slowly, slowly …
Cezar-Florin Ciobîcă contemplates mortality:
A simple poem, but one that gives off a gloomy atmosphere.The poet is alone, eagerly awaiting news from someone, but in vain. Instead, nature gives him a message that probably deepens his anxiety and grinds his emotions. Autumn leaves mark the inexorable passage of time, which causes the poet to meditate on his destiny as a mortal being, on his past and on the days that remain to him.
At the end of the poem, “fell” accentuates the image of the decline and leaves a bitter taste, reminding us of Virgil’s verse: fugit inreparabile tempus (“it escapes, irretrievable time”).
Mary Stevens explores the message on the page:
I can’t help but associate waiting for a telegram with being ghosted by a text message. Waiting to hear from someone is a universal human experience, making Kerouac’s haiku as relevant today as it was even before his time, when messengers would run from town to town delivering correspondence, written or spoken. Read in this way, “only more leaves fall” refers to a context greater than just the autumn in which the poet was living. It makes us consider the repeated autumns over the eons in which human beings across cultures have waited for information and connection from those far away. Like leaves falling, this human condition of waiting is ordinary, and common.
But the correspondence between telegrams and texts is not perfectly equivalent: While the content of a text is usually brief nothings of where people are, whom they are with, what they are doing (pictures of what they are eating!), and the emojis representing their feelings about all that, telegrams were more rare and delivered weightier news. Since autumn kigo create a tone of sadness, loss, or loneliness, falling leaves could signal the sadness of not hearing from someone. Or it might suggest this sense that the speaker awaits something heavy. The similar images of the small piece of paper that is a telegram and the dried leaves falling tie to each other and to the meaning of the poem in such beautiful ways.
As another angle, knowing that Kerouac was a writer recalls the sense of “leaves” as a metaphor for sheets of paper. For example, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass had a double meaning of pages in a book of poetry. Viewing the haiku through this lens, Kerouac might be saying, “We continue to wait for news from afar; in the meantime, we keep doing the ordinary: we write.” And this sentiment he captured on the small piece of paper that is a haiku.
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!
low winter moon: her cheek curves the shadow of the crib bar — Ruth Yarrow, Lit from Within: Haiku and Paintings (2016)