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