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 Melanie Alberts, was:
the other owls
know what it means
— Tim Cremin
The Heron’s Nest September 2021
Introducing this poem, Melanie writes:
Mystery surrounds us. From babyhood to the present moment, we are making sense of the world. I remember touring a modern art museum with a group of people from an army base. One particular soldier knew I liked art, so asked me what each painting meant. He didn’t have to worry about making sense of the abstracts, because I somehow knew all the answers. After a while, I started to ask him what the art meant, and by then, happily, he had caught on. There is no meaning. That said, my hope with this haiku is that one of you brilliant owls will explain it to me!
So refreshing to find this charming verse standing out among the haiku that roll off the conveyor belt. It may break with current conventions — telling the reader what not to do, and then making a statement — but when I saw it, I was caught immediately. I think Issa would have loved it, with its warm humour (it brought to mind his “don’t worry, spiders….”). I’ve tried and failed to write about the nuances of animal communication, with donkeys understanding donkeys and the like; but owls! Of course! Not only is an owl’s hoot full of mystery to us, but the owl as a symbol has accumulated a pile of associations in the human mind — knowledge, wisdom, ghosts and death, a bird of omen. All coded in three letters. I wish I’d written this one.
The opening line, “don’t worry,” immediately brings us readers in, and perversely opens up space for us to worry…are we worried? Oh – should we be worried? What about? An owl hoots — that haunting sound implied — what does it mean? We want to know. And then we are given no answers, except that it’s alright, we do not need to know, but the answers are known to somebody – other owls. The experts. The owls get on with their business, and we can get on with ours untroubled. Again, I get echoes of Issa, who talked to the animals, as they just did what they do — ducks quack on New Year’s Day; bugs sing as their branch is borne downstream. Beyond that, the verse prompted me to think of how much we rely on the wisdom of experts for things we don’t really understand. Of late, the epidemiologists, and those who produce a vaccine from messenger RNA; or those who know how to make and launch the James Webb telescope and interpret its results; the scientists who detect and explain climate change. The wizard who fixes my computer. The oncologist. We let the owls get on with it, reassured that they know what they’re doing. Don’t worry…
What a surprising haiku! The speaker is telling someone not to worry — but who is this person and what might they be concerned about? We learn in the next lines that ‘it’ refers to an owl. However, the speaker is reassuring this person that it’s okay, because ‘the other owls know what it means.’ But what do they know and what does it mean? Intriguing…perhaps this refers to a call or hoot, or a particular behaviour. Then I thought of an owl sanctuary that is open to the public.
The body language of owls is very expressive; if an owl feels threatened, it might pull in its feathers and its ear tufts will stand up. When relaxed, however, its plumage is loose and fluffy. When protecting their young, owls often take a defensive posture, fluffing up their feathers to make themselves appear bigger and the head may be lowered with the wings spread out and pointing downwards. So I thought that this might be an owl expert explaining to a visitor — in my mind, a worried child — that there is no need to be concerned about the behaviour of a particular owl, because the other owls know what’s going on.
So, this haiku speaks to me of connection; connection between the birds, and also between them and this person who cares for them. It is an environmental poem.
Ha! I won’t worry then. I’ll leave it to the owls. I enjoyed this intriguing senryu. At first I wondered who was speaking and to whoom (sorry). Was it somebody just learning to speak owl and not sure if they’ll be understood? I have often wondered about bird languages and if they all understand each other.
Owls symbolise many things across the world and in different cultures: wisdom, good fortune, bad luck. The owl’s hoot is sometimes thought to be a bad omen — meaning that someone will die soon. In my mind this is a parent talking to a child who has just heard an owl hoot in the night and is worried what it might mean. Comforting words to dispel superstition.
The world of owls… sentiments, time honored beliefs, nocturnal rhymes, owls from afar and their look at night — topics of nightmare. Tim Cremin’s senryu starts in a personalized, conversational tone, as if one to one, “don’t worry.”
One might infer that some plot, mystery or case is going on, wanting more evidence or proof, a solution. Or from another point of view, the speaker might be recalling a crime, consoling the victim with the thought that there are owl witnesses watching and recording. Any number of interpretations can be expanded.
Joshua Gage — maddened and intrigued…:
The imperative in the first line implies a speaker and a specific audience. The second line seems to imply that one or the other is an owl, and that there’s something lost in translation between the speaker and the audience. The ambiguity here, though, is quite maddening. Is the speaker a human comforting an owl companion, assuring them that even though the human doesn’t know what the owl’s communication meant, the other owls do? That’s a very warm, human-centered view of it, almost like the owl is a pet.
Alternately, is the speaker an owl, speaking to a human, and reassuring them that the other owls in the area knew what the communication meant? That’s heavy animism, and while certainly part of the haiku tradition, maybe too much in this haiku. Maybe it’s two birders talking to each other, and the one assuring the other that, even if they don’t know what the owl meant, the other owls did? Perhaps we’re at Hogwarts, in the West Tower, at the very top in the owlery.
All of this ambiguity makes for an intriguing haiku. There’s a sense of comfort in the first line, but after that, the scene gets murky, and the reader is forced to invent an interpretation that’s clear for them, perhaps, but not for others. This is an interesting technique for haiku, and one that works if it’s done well.
Author — Tim Cremin:
Exciting! I always enjoy reading re:Virals and I can’t wait to see what people write.
The poem arose on a walk one night as I listened to an owl’s majestic call periodically break the dark silence. To my human ears, it sounded as though it was meant to communicate a message, but what message? Was it a mating call, a warning to rivals, an expression of owl joy? “Don’t worry, the other owls know what it means,” I wrote in my phone. I worked on it from time to time, trying to replace “don’t worry” with a different image that would make it a more orthodox haiku, but I kept coming back to the words that occurred to me in the moment.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the best commentary this week, Joshua has chosen 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, 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!
stuck in bed another day moon
— Lori A. Minor
Whiptail, issue 1, Transitions, 2021
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.
A difficult choice – Ann may have come close in essence, but Joshua posed some critical questions – which, I think, the haiku passes. Thanks to Tim for responding with his comment on the creative context. His short bio is here in the Haiku Registry with a few haiku, and a few more at the Living Haiku Anthology, gentle in tone with occasional touches of warm irony that appeal to this reader:
watching a candle
— Tim Cremin
Frogpond 43.3, Fall 2020
(Yes! – unobtrusive rhyme… sweet syncopated rhythm…)