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re:Virals 29

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

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

Scott Mason finds the balance poised in this classic haiku:

One of the miracles of life is its sheer improbability. With all our ability to see light years away and eons ago there’s only the slightest evidence of life elsewhere or before. The conditions must be just so, their balance so delicate.

These thoughts bubbled up as I once again savored this classic haiku with its two earthly elements in perfect suspension. How strange and wonderful it is that such a circumscribed poem — an exemplar of “interpenetration” if ever there was one — should so expand one’s consciousness. But such is the quantum potential and the glory of this, our most atomic, poetic form.

And Marion Clarke related it to the small elements of our daily lives:

I get a real sense of reverence in this haiku. Taken literally, the narrator appears to be in awe of the fact that water, this life-giving source, can be contained in the mud and he is blessed to be holding it. Although I don’t know the background of the ku, it could have been written while standing at a watering hole somewhere in Africa.

Metaphorically speaking, I read mud as the problems or darkness in our lives and the water within represents those small chinks of of light that keep us going, against all odds.

While Pratima Balabhadrapathruni relates it to the cosmos:

The Mantrapushpam, a Vedic chant, states implicitly that the cosmic water is the creator and perpetuator of heat and therefore light, and therefore life and all matter that originates from heat and light and water.

In this haiku music is created by the alliteration provided by the ‘hh’ sounds. It benefits from the sound quality of the word ending with a ‘k’ and a short word ending with a ‘d’. There is also a hint at the cyclic nature of life emphasized by the repetition of ‘holding’ and ‘held’.

The speaker in the haiku cites water and mud. Water salvaged from a puddle, when left aside, will eventually cradle a layer of sediment.

The puddle is contained in the mud, and some mud dissolves into it. Neither suffers a loss of identity. Nevertheless, neither escapes the influence of the other. Perfect because of the inherent harmony. Could I call it perfect YinYang?


As this week’s winner, Pratima 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 29:

     along the roadside
     Dixie cups
     of summer wind . . .
          — Michael McClintock, Nest Feathers: Selected Haiku from the First 15 Years of The Heron's Nest (2015)
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