Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly commentary feature on some of the best contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. This week’s poem, proposed by Alan Summers, was:
64 crayons white the least used
— Margaret Walker
From the “Getting it Wrong” haibun
Babylon Sidedoor journal (January 2022)
Introducing this verse, Alan writes:
Many of us will have had at one time a big bumper pack of crayons, and it might seem obvious that the white crayon would be less used: One of the most used crayons would be black followed by brown. If you read the haiku purely in a literal linear manner it is what it is, but if you add that element of allusion, we can discover the actual root of the haiku in question.
Looking at this as a free-standing monoku, “64 crayons” immediately codes for childhood and Crayola’s sets of wax crayons. Unless drawing on black paper, it’s obvious that the white crayon would be less used – though maybe not least: perhaps for highlighting, perhaps correcting. Clearly the line is not intended to be that simple, but is meant to evoke thought by association, and in the contemporary social context that suggests skin colour. However, the applicability is far from clear, and somewhat risky. The “64” set me thinking….there are so many colours from black, the absence of all colours, of all light, to white, the presence of all wavelengths equally balanced. You see how risky the analogy could be?! On your screen right now, you have 16,777,216 different colours in the RGB color space. Black is represented by (0,0,0) and white by (255,255,255). I prefer to think of colours, including skin colours, as a cause of celebration that there are so many. Somewhere in the rainbow, my colour.
Then examining the monoku in the context of closing its haibun, it made perfect sense, in a reflective way: a slightly wistful juxtaposition with the circumstances now recalled from childhood. The “white crayon” now used for highlight, for correction. A tricky topic, well handled, with economy. In the haibun, setting these hard questions in the past is one way of putting them at a safer distance, prompting reflection on whether segregational laws, administrative measures and attitudes have since changed and by how much. They surely haven’t gone with the wind.
Lakshmi Iyer – the canvas holds all the colours:
Lovely poem, and more striking is the poet’s intense and deep thought on ‘white’; the colour that is in all and yet unseen. Some consider white to be a colour because white light comprises all hues on the visible light spectrum. But, white is just a shade. The main colours are red, green and blue and the rest is history. It is a mix and match series. When these three colours are used in equal proportions, we get either gray or white. White is the lightest color and is achromatic (having no hue). White objects fully reflect and scatter all the visible wavelengths of light. This goes to say that white is everywhere. It’s just a matter of how we perceive and reflect this understanding. White may also be that colour that blinds us. And for the blind, it remains a word to spell. It is the canvas that holds all the colours. So technically it is universal!
Marcie Wessels finds beauty in variety:
Fall is synonymous with back-to-school. The first day is always filled with such hope and promise. Nothing represents this fresh start better than new, unopened school supplies. As a child, I always enjoyed shopping with my mother for a new pair of shoes and a new outfit but school supplies were what I loved best. With the teacher’s list in hand, I’d race down the aisle adding each item to the cart – pencils, glue, scissors, and crayons – even though, it was the smaller, less expensive box of 8 or 12 colors, which was always recommended. I always coveted the box of 64 crayons precisely because of its variety. Coloring with a box of 8 crayons is fine for a rainbow but ask any child and she will tell you that its impossible to create a self-portrait with such a limited palette. A limited palette limits the imagination.
Read out of the context of Walker’s haibun, this monoku, in its most literal sense, is about creativity. It is about coloring the page with the most vibrant of images. A blank page conjures an infinite number of possibilities. Why leave it white or color it with “blue” from the box of 8 crayons when you could use “cerulean”, “cornflower”, “turquoise” or “robin’s egg blue” from the box of 64?
Read within the context of Walker’s haibun this is a powerful reflection on systemic racism in the American South. Walker could have chosen “colored pencils” or “paint” for the final line, but she chose “crayons”, one of the first writing implements given to a child. This is such a powerful choice. It suggests to me that there is hope. Perhaps it lies with our children or grandchildren. But perhaps it lies within, with our covetous inner child, the one who looks at the world with an open gaze and an open heart. As Walker’s haibun reminds us, the beauty of the world comes not from one color but from the variety of colors, our many shades and hues.
Peggy Bilbro hesitates:
This poem has me standing in the middle, not sure which way to jump. Is it simply about a kindergartner’s choice of crayons, or is it about the qualities of light in white and colors that an artist sees, or is it a social commentary? So let me say a bit about each possibility. As a child — and still to this day — I have preferred colors. They bring a painting to life and tell you about your subject. Green grass! Red tulips! Blue sky! Orange tabby cat! Each so carefully sketched out against the white of a sheet of paper in an effort to reproduce the colorful world of childhood. However, as any artist knows, color is brought to life by the lights and darks surrounding it. White seems the absence of color, but it is the collection of all colors combined into one. It is only when light is broken out by a prism that we see all those separate colors. In this case, it is the artist who functions as the prism bringing out the colors of the rainbow. Then we come to the question of social commentary. Is this a way to say that the world and humanity are made up of many colors, many individual faces, and voices, and songs? If this is a social commentary, why is the white unused when it is usually people of color who are left out of so many images of our culture? Perhaps this poem reflects a wish for all peoples to have a presence, and a desire to return to our childhood when we only saw the beauty of individual faces, without intrusion of racial biases. Or maybe the poet just likes the colored crayons. However, I can’t read this poem without thinking that there is more to it than a preference for the colored crayons.
Rhadamani sees the monoku in the context of the powerful haibun “Getting it wrong,” where the author’s commitment to inter cultural racist views takes us deeper into psychology. From a child’s or painter’s point of view, when all 64 crayons are applied, merged into a drawing, white may not be prominent or useful; but white lurks in the background, nevertheless.
Marion Clarke is intrigued:
Because the poem refers to a box or carton of 64 crayons, I’m assuming that the person narrating is a child. Children typically use white for snow and for clouds, but apart from these subjects and with such a wide range of colours available, I don’t imagine that a child would automatically reach for a white crayon. So on a literal level, yes, it might be the least used. However, if we consider that the crayon might also be a metaphor for a white person, if it is the least used, can we assume that this is a black child speaking and that he or she lives in a non-white area, so they wouldn’t use any white crayons when drawing people? When I checked out the haibun to see the context, I saw that this was in fact the case, although it’s from the point of view of a white child. A very interesting and intriguing haiku.
Sushama Kapur – with flying colours, colours flying:
Crayons. Usually used by children to colour picture books or their own drawings. 64 is a full set with multiple shades of each colour. Generally speaking, out of all the colours, white remains mostly unused. Why would that be? Perhaps because the paper on which the drawing is printed/made is white? Or that there are fewer white objects in the surrounding that a child could replicate? Reading the monoku for the first time, any reader might perceive only these facts.
But is this actually what the poem is pointing out? Or is there an underlying thought/ message?
For me, I see satire in this statement. The world view of a black woman writer/ poet, living in a society dominated by its white population. Of a social milieu that might exploit and subjugate according to colour of skin: black being at the receiving end. Add these points to the one liner, and then it seems to be saying: isn’t it ironic in a full set of 64 crayons (metaphorically, the society), the colour white (being of course the colour of skin, plus closed mindsets) is the least used?
Although this poem is part of a haibun written by Margaret Walker called: “Getting It Wrong”, it stands on its own – showing attitudes that refuse (even today) to change for the better. Interestingly, the haibun is written from the point of view of an innocent white child who (in her own words) is “out of step with reality”. In an untampered world, what matters to her are the right things: friendships and equality and freedom and such… The text/prose in the haibun is peppered with just the opposite instances, which the child is slowly becoming aware of. The piece then becomes a severe indictment of a society that gives incorrect nurturing to its children, who in turn, may eventually adopt the same rigid stances of discrimination.
Is such a society successful in doing this? Sometimes, no. Unfortunately, many times, yes. And that is when the white crayon remains unused.
Margaret Walker, the author of the monoku and its haibun, responds:
I am honored to have “64 crayons” chosen for “re:Virals. Many thanks to Alan Summers!
This haiku simply appeared in my mind one morning. I scribbled it on a nearby piece of paper, but it triggered childhood memories that prompted a haibun.
When I was a young child the “64 Crayons” box from Crayola was a coveted toy. A new box with its unbroken, tips not yet blunted, paper untorn crayons, each with its own special spot in the box. A medley of glorious color! After only a short time it became obvious that the white crayon was the only one not yet blunted, torn or broken. Rarely, if ever, used.
I leave further interpretation to the reader.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the best commentary this week, Sushama Kapur gets to propose the new week’s poem. She has come up with two monoku, and as an experiment let’s take two-for-one. You’ll find them below. We invite you to write a commentary on either one; or to take the pair and compare them with a commentary focusing on their techniques. Your commentary 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, which take their place in the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentary’s author gets to choose the next poem.
Anyone can participate. Simply use the re:Virals commentary form below to enter your commentary on the new week’s poem (“Your text”) by the following Tuesday midnight, Eastern US Time Zone, and then press Submit to send your entry. The Submit button will not be available until Name, Email, and Place of Residence fields are filled in. We look forward to seeing your commentary and finding out about your favourite poems!
cemetery stroll all the parallel shadows
— Matthew Markworth
Prune Juice, Issue 34, July 2021
bone-coloured moon the shape of forgetting
— Ron C. Moss
Heron’s Nest Volume XXII, Number 4, December 2020
or compare them with focus on technique
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I was interested to learn from Margaret’s note that the 64 crayons monoku welled up from her subconscious, prompted recollection and meditation, and led to the haibun, rather than another way round. Insight into the creative process is always fascinating. Thank you, Margaret.