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re:virals 3

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

where the battlefield
narrows to a cattle path:
the dew on the grass
          — Nick Virgilio, Selected Haiku (Black Moss Press 1988)

In this instance we have a commentary from the author himself, “A Journey to a Haiku,” reproduced in Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku from Turtle Light Press (2013).

A Journey To A Haiku
By Nicholas A. Virgilio

In a corner of an old graveyard in Camden, N.J., there is a small lot of bare, hard ground trampled by trespassers. One day while passing by on a bus, I was impressed with this lot which triggered a poetic experience that, in turn, started trains of thought concerning the destined anonymity of most human beings. One of the early attempts to express the experience was:

the grassy graveyard . . .
not a blade where children played,
near the battleground

This graveyard is not really “grassy.” And “near the battleground” is a construct of the imagination. Some months later, I imagined a poem with a plantation setting:

the plantation ruins:
a bulldozer levels
the slave quarters

Somehow, a short time thereafter, the Camden graveyard experience began to fuse with efforts to compose the “plantation” haiku. After several versions, I composed:

near the battleground
where children play in the grass:
the graveyard of slaves

Then the ‘poem,’ with one foot in Camden, N.J., and the other on a southern plantation, planted both feet south of the Mason-Dixon line:

near the battleground,
where cattle graze in the grass:
the grave mounds of slaves

After a few attempts to strengthen the weak second line with either “where cattle graze in bluegrass,” “where cattle graze in waving grass,” “where cattle graze in flowering grass,” or “where cattle graze in crab grass,” I decided it was impossible to really strengthen this line. I tried rearranging the lines. As the poem evolved, I sensed that “battleground” and “grave mounds” should be near each other. This occurred after the change from “the graveyard of slaves” to “the grave mounds of slaves.” “Battleground” and “grave mounds” is the major relationship; “cattle” and “slaves” is of secondary importance.

This, I think, is the best version; the “picture” and the poem are improved:

where cattle graze
near the grassy battleground:
the grave mounds of slaves

The second and third lines suggest what is truly important:

near the grassy battleground:
the grave mounds of slaves

“where cattle graze” justifies itself when the reader compares “cattle” to “slaves;” this line also introduces the peaceful mood of the poem.

Now consider the version that begins with “near the battleground” This line is vague, since it really doesn’t put the reader in a particular place. And it could mislead the reader into thinking the war is still going on. “where cattle graze in the grass” is trite, compounded by the unnecessary “in the grass.”

This second line acts as a barrier over which the reader must leap in order to connect “grave mounds” with “battleground.” In this version, the third line “the grave mounds of slaves” practically carries the entire load, and makes the poem. Of course, any poem should not depend for its very life on one line; the reader may lose interest before he gets to it.

Let us reexamine what I consider the best version:

where cattle graze
near the grassy battleground:
the grave mounds of slaves

We began with a real graveyard experience in Camden, N.J., and transformed it into an imagined American historical “picture” haiku with a setting somewhere in the South. Thus, the journey takes us from a small lot of bare, hard ground to “the grave mounds of slaves,” and destined anonymity.

But of course neither are poets automatically the best judges and interpreters of their own work (and some are notoriously poor), nor are we compelled to take a poet’s word in such instances as anything like final. Ultimately we must trust the words on the page, rather than any sort of agenda that might be offered in addition to these words. Raffael de Gruttola offers his insight into the poem:

Virglio’s haiku summons a brief moment of retrospect and reflection in as much as the calamity of war and destruction is so real in contemporary life today. Weather we focus on violence in its many forms or succumb to the many instances of violence on television, the streets of our cities, or the battlefields of the world today.

Here the juxtaposition of cattle paths and the dew on the grass speaks also to the common place in the history of wars on our planet from time immemorial. The prophecy here is that unless we find another planet to live on we may be the recipients of continual cataclysmic episodes which have been man-made.

Our winner this week is Dan Schwerin, who writes:

The best haiku layer and resonate like this one from St. Nick. The colon in this classic throws our attention forward to the dewy now. We who walk North American soil connect leaves of grass with the battlefield and hear the elegiac Whitman. Among humankind war is a season. This poem gently laments how we “narrow to a cattle path.” Three images move in and co-habit this small poem with plenty of room because we are kept moving from one image to the next, drawn to the honest minute particulars — the only way to view the battlefield.

Thank you, Jason, for taking us to see an old friend who told us the truth.


As this week’s winner, Dan 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:Viral 4:

birdsong editing my dream diary
          — Julie Warther, Hedgerow 47
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