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re:Virals 281

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’m writing a list
     Of all that had to perish
     To keep me alive
           — Pat Hull, Haikuniverse (2021)

Radhamani Sarma uncovers the strong contrast between living and dying:

Preparing a list, be it for a ceremonial function, wedding, a book release, bibliographical notes for a Ph.D. thesis, can be a pleasant task indeed, though ultimately cumbersome. But here in this senryu Pat Hull, ironically, mentions a list of items meant to be destroyed to keep the persona alive.

The speaker begins with a present continuous statement using an affirmative, assertive tone: “I’m writing a list.” This ongoing act encompasses so much by incorporating the word “list.” It speaks of a heavy heart, agony, a pained soul, and bitterness, frustration stemming from an angered soul. All of this is expressed in the second line, “Of all that had to perish.”

Upon reading and rereading the second line, we see that it could also apply to the speaker’s troubled moods, e.g., fury disturbing domestic harmony, or words of violence erupting like hot pellets causing chaos. Even a headache, ailments, body pain, prolonged disease, and cantankerous cells might be eating him alive, resulting in total annihilation.

A strong connectivity is established with the concluding line, “To keep me alive” — obviously a strong contrast between life and death, living and perishing. At times, the people around us are harmful and villainous. We wonder why they would behave in such horrendous ways. The persona, in most general terms, utters a wish that all that is venomous, cantankerous should come to an end, either by eradication or calamity, natural disaster, even endemic violence.

To recall the predictive saying of Wordsworth, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” — peace and serenity once prevailed. Gone are those days, when innocence and fear and faith in God were a must, the daily ordinance of the order of life. These days, with fast moving technology and belief in the acrobatics of laws, most people have scant respect for others’ lives and feelings, resulting in a dilution of values.

Finally, one can vouchsafe that the blue firmament, stars, the ocean and earth cannot perish, for they are salient and have provided Nature’s bliss for us, ever since the creation of God.

Suraj Nanu grasps the fleeting nature of existence:

This is a beautiful 5-7-5 haiku, to be read in a single breath. There is no kigo or seasonal word, no kireji, but it encompasses the nature that unfolds to the universal nature. The haiku starts with “I’m.” First person ‘ku are not rare in English-language haiku, and sometimes this brings an extra dimension. In this highly personalized and author-centric ‘ku, the poet “is writing a list.” The list of “what” and “why” he writes are the questions that arise, and the answers come straight away in lines two and three:

Line two: Of all that had to perish
Line three: To keep me alive.

Simple, as it seems. Japanese masters also used to write in the first person (I know only through translations), though rarely, but this leads inevitably to the estuary of nature. One such haiku by Hokushi (1665-1718) comes to my mind; it starts with “I” and ends with a seasonal reference:

I write, erase, rewrite,
Erase again, and then
A poppy blooms

In our poem, the poet sits in a closed system of his own world and broods over the ephemeralness of nature, in true Zen transient spirit. Despite all, this Zen ambience heightens the poem to the level of a true, classical haiku by its own rigor.

The poet is writing a list of all perishable things in the universe, an impossible endeavor to accomplish, of course. But he is writing. During the course of his task, the poet (along with the reader) awakens to the reality that the list is unending and that there is nothing unperishable. But he is doomed to continue, to keep himself alive. The koan here: Who is the “I” who writes? Is that “I” to be listed or not to be listed in his writing? Who is the “I” he tries to keep alive?

The Zen master asks, “What is your original face before your parents were born?” This question reverberates in our haiku, and a thoughtful silence engrosses our soul.

In his exceptionally brilliant philosophical text, “Tractatus,” Ludwig Wittgenstein writes: “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself, it is the mystical.”(6.522); and, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent…” from the closing passages.

The deep silence that was brought to me by this haiku is still lingering within me, and I, too, am writing a list of all that had to perish, to keep me alive.

As this week’s winner, Suraj 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!

The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy.

re:Virals 282:

     so tiny
     beneath the silent pine —
     mouse bones
          — Laurie D. Morrissey, Wales Haiku Journal (2020)

This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. I wonder how many readers and writers of haiku actually think of haiku as something *written?* I don’t remember ever seeing a statement about a haiku like “it is very well written”, or “so and so is a skilful writer”. But they *are* written, right? I once tried leaving a piece of note paper out among some mushrooms in the forest hoping to come back and find a haiku. When I returned, it had been nibbled by something with little teeth, and rained on. (I actually thought it was pretty good).

  2. What I can imagine is that the writer had an experience of overwhelm in feeling how many have sacrificed themselves for others and wanted to express that experience in a more or less direct way.
    However, this haiku, or statement, or journal entry does not do a good job of it. It is not well written. The focus ends up on the writer himself, and does not ramify beyond.
    “All that had to perish” is a very dramatic line. (“Perish” usually refers to people who have suffered through some event and died. It does not refer to *things*, so I am puzzled by his use of the word “that”.) To write a list is to quantify as well as to name, and in the face of some “all” who have “perished” seems absurd, and unbelievable.
    But as I said, the writer may have had a very deep experience of the suffering of others, and one may applaud his sensitivity and intent. But intent, for a writer, is only the beginning of exploration. It takes work to bring it to life, to make it real for others. To make it matter for others. More than a journal entry.

  3. It seems to me that we are all tangled up in terminology in an effort to tie down just what a haiku is. For me, the poem by Pat Hull holds more of the essence of haiku than many haiku I have read that follow all the formatting requirements for traditional haiku. It is that open door to another level of meaning and context that is what haiku is all about. The juxtaposition is subtle yet striking and the 5-7-5 syllable count is unobtrusive and natural. We each have our own requirements for what we are willing to consider as haiku, but I definitely put Pat’s into the yes column for me.

    P.S. Alan, or anyone else who might be willing, can you show us any examples of Japanese haiku that are similar to Pat’s? Do they exist?

    1. Hi Peggy,

      The Haiku International journal has a lot like Pat Hull’s haiku. It’s print journal, so in the meantime here’s some of Basho’s haikai verses in various translations at their website:

      For contemporary haiku, Fay Aoyagi’s blog is incredibly useful to see what might be the norm of writing haiku in Japan:

      Fay Aoyagi biography

      Fay Aoyagi (Japanese: 青柳飛; born Aoyagi Fusae 青柳房江, Tokyo, Japan), immigrated to the United States in 1984.

      Professional interpreter and haiku poet writing in Japanese and English.

      She is a member of Ten’I (Providence), a Japanese haiku group led by the late Dr. Akito Arima in 2000. Fay is also a member of Haijin Kyokai (Haiku Poets Association in Japan); as well as Aki (Autumn), a Japanese haiku group started by Yatsuka Ishihara (deceased) and currently led by Masami Sanuka) in 2008.

      Fay is a former Haiku Society of America President (2016–2019), and involved with the Haiku Poets of Northern California (coordinator of the HPNC rengay contest since 2003), among other organizations.

      She is the author of three award-winning haiku collections, Chrysanthemum Love (2003), In Borrowed Shoes (2006), and Beyond the Reach of My Chopsticks (2011), and curates the blog Blue Willow Haiku World, presenting her translations of contemporary Japanese haiku.

      Aoyagi is the co-compiler of the Haikupedia article “San Francisco International Rengay Contest.”
      She resides in San Francisco, California USA.

      1. Here’s a book review of “Beyond the Reach of My Chopsticks” published by Scottish journal Notes from the Gean:

        Fay Aoyagi and Beyond the Reach of My Chopsticks – A Haiku Collection Review

        Fay’s first two collections are available to be downloaded from the THF’s Digital Library:

  4. I believe Pat Hull might write more in the style of Clark Strand.

    Best of the Haiku Challenge (January 2021)
    Announcing the winning poems from Tricycle’s monthly challenge
    By Clark Strand (FEB 04, 2021)

    Here’s Pat Hull’s winning verse with commentary by Clark Strand:

    Summer Season Word: Summer Sky

    summer sky waiting
    until its page is ready
    to be turned over

    —Pat Hull


    “The best haiku are often deceptively simple. You have to read them over a dozen or more times to take in fully what they have to say.

    On its surface there isn’t much here: just the figurative comparison of a summer sky to the page of a book—possibly a novel. The word “waiting” suggests a late afternoon sky approaching evening over the course of several hours.

    This poem offers an opportunity to think about seasonality in haiku. Sky is sky. But there is an enormous difference between a winter sky and a summer sky. The quality of sunlight is completely different, for instance, as well as the length of that light. The continental U.S. ranges from 14 to 16 hours of sunlight at the summer solstice. If the year were a novel, summer would be right in the middle of it.

    The phrasing of certain haiku gives them a feeling of inevitability, as if their syllables were always destined to fall into place in a certain way. This is one of those haiku. It has that quality that the Japanese haiku master Kaneko Tōta (1919-2018) called “the beauty of finality in this world where nothing is final.”

    In popular idiom to “turn the page” on something means to put it behind us. Clearly, the poet has something like that in mind. But he has given the slightest twist to that familiar expression so that it becomes more than a mere cliché. The summer sky isn’t turning its page “on” the day, it is waiting “to be turned over.”

    For all its simplicity, this is an extremely complex haiku. After repeated readings of it, I am left with three koan-like questions:

    Who is it that turns the page of a summer sky?

    What does it take to become “ready” for that turning?

    How many more pages are in its book?

    The poet hasn’t offered answers to any of these questions. (Haiku poets don’t do that.) Rather, he invites us to consider them for ourselves.

    As a final note, you have to marvel at use of figurative language here. The poet has taken a vast, slow cosmological event—the rotation of the Earth over the course of a summer evening—and reduced it to the flip of a page.

    Because it relies so heavily on an English language idiom, this haiku would be impossible to translate well into Japanese. This is worth considering because the reverse is true of good Japanese haiku.

    Japanese poets exploit their language to its fullest in writing a haiku. It is therefore important to remember that when we read a Japanese haiku in English, we are reading a translation, not a poem. The study of Japanese haiku will never tell us what an English language haiku should sound like. We will have to discover that on our own.”

    Clark Strand is a former senior editor at Tricycle.
    His books include “Seeds From a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey” (Hyperion; 1st. Edition [Feb. 1999]) and “The Way of the Rose: The Radical Path of the Divine Feminine Hidden in the Rosary,” co-authored with his wife, Perdita Finn (Random House [Nov. 2019]).
    He teaches the popular group “Weekly Haiku Challenges with Clark Strand” on Facebook.

  5. The question is what makes a haiku a Haiku. The 5-7-5, kigo, kireji etc. of the technicalities, or the context and the mood it creates. If both the ends are met, it stands out as a perfect one. But, I am for the latter, where the haiku-moment it creates shall be given the prime stand. ( I am a novice in this genre, and my arguments may be amateurish.)

    1. Suraj – your comment ‘what makes a haiku a haiku?’ pre-supposes that it’s a ‘haiku’ in the first place! If you’d asked ‘what makes a few words a haiku?’ your comment would be appropriate… On the other hand, if it means anything, a ‘haiku moment’ is not created by three lines of words – it exists just before the writer is moved to write.

      ‘I’m writing a list of all that had to perish to keep me alive’… is as bald a statement of fact as

      I’m writing a few words
      about a few words
      that perish as haiku

      – no ‘haiku moment’ there, simply 17 syllables masquerading as ‘haiku’… Done in the left side of my brain; true haiku come from the right side of the brain. The left side of the brain is expert at stringing words together for, say, a diary entry or a newspaper article; the right side picks up patterns & contrasts intuited by the other-than-conscious mind.

      ‘the hardest part is the memories come again and must be forgotten’ is another bald statement of fact, with which I happen to agree but a haiku is NOT a statement of fact. The left side of the brain does statements of fact.

  6. I’m writing a list
    Of all that had to perish
    To keep me alive
    I find myself wishing someone other than me would write something about what is so depressingly wrong about this bit of writing. I can’t be alone in that assessment.
    I will just say that I am very happy that Suraj Nanu has offered
    what to me is a corrective. How beautifully it opens.
    I write, erase, rewrite,
    Erase again, and then
    A poppy blooms


    1. I guess that this poem takes us to the question of what makes a haiku. It is 5-7-5, which for some people is all it needs, but there is no seasonal reference, no break into two phrases, no juxtaposition. However, the content does give an opportunity to explore a deeper question than simply form, which for me, is where haiku should lead us. I do appreciate the way Suraj has pulled it apart and then connected it to a lovely haiku from the traditional lineage.

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