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re:Virals 28

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

     by firelight
     listening to the silence
     of things we can't see
          — Larry Gross, Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku (1993)

Larry Gross’s fine poem prompts Marion Clarke into a flight of fancy:

Quite a cosy atmosphere is evoked in the first line, which could be describing a fireside scene, either indoors or outside. In line two we are almost thrown a riddle — how can we listen to something that’s not there? Then in the third line, there is a suggestion of something other-worldly around the fire with us, perhaps the ghosts of ancestors. However, the author doesn’t use the noun ‘people’, he says ‘things’ we can’t see, ending this ku on a much darker note than it opened.

Then again, he could just be describing a hedgehog snuffling about for beetles!

But it has a more personal resonance for Kathe L. Palka:

This poem immediately puts me in mind of a little piece of my father’s folksy wisdom I’ve always tried to carry with me: You don’t know what you don’t know. And a related piece of wisdom I’ve often heard: A wise man knows what he doesn’t know. I didn’t connect fully to the breadth of meaning in my father’s little saying until I was a new young undergraduate, eager to learn and a bit full of myself. After expressing my surprise to a wiser friend in discovering that there were whole avenues in academic research and study of which I had been previously completely unaware, my friend replied with a wry laugh, Yup. Whole books have been written about stuff you don’t know.

So for me this tiny poem by Larry Gross is about awareness of our limitations, our own unavoidable ignorance and the fact that the universe and our small place in it, no matter how connected to it we may be, is ultimately beyond our complete understanding and experience. In terms of the language of the poem, firelight can be thought of in this context as the range of our direct human experience and knowledge. Wisdom is then our awareness of the silence in which things exist beyond the firelight — beyond our full knowledge. So while at the surface this rich haiku describes people around a campfire or hearth listening to the silence of the night, knowing that there are creatures and objects quietly living/existing beyond the reach of the firelight — metaphorically it is about much more. A much broader range of human existence. It is about the wisdom in awareness and also perhaps our acceptance of how great the “unknowable” is beyond our individual abilities and experiences.


As this week’s winner, Kathe 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 28:

     Holding the water,
     held by it —
            the dark mud.
          — William J. Higginson, The Unswept Path (2005)
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