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 Ann Smith, was:
a long walk
to the other side
of the owl
— Peter Newton
Wales Haiku Journal Winter 2021-2022, January 2022
Introducing this poem, Ann writes:
There is an owl sanctuary near us (in Wales) where they have one of the UK’s smallest owls – a Little Owl – which they have named Goliath. I love the picture that this haiku conjures up for me and look forward to reading what others make of it
I appreciate haiku/senryu that show originality, among others that sometimes seem to come off a conveyor belt. And verses that make me think, and smile. This one departs from the current diet of “fragment and phrase” divided by a clear kire or cut. It’s a sentence or half-sentence that could easily be the title of a book, almost but not exactly a statement, but one that leaves plenty of space for a reader to ponder its mysteries. At one and the same time it could capture a real experience, and symbolise another.
Although there is no grammatical break, the linebreaks prompt reflection on each line, and create a shift to the “other side of” the unexpected “owl.” The owl, in a way, provides a perceptual gap instead of a formal ‘cut.’If it’s read in one go, “a long walk to the other side of the owl” conveys to me someone whose attention has been caught by an owl’s call, and follows, trying to see the bird, which constantly recedes, luring the seeker onwards and onwards. But read it one line at a time, and we can have: “a long walk….to the other side” which on its own would simply imply a long and possibly tiring life leading to the “other side” of the Styx. But then we have the disjunctive owl. What are we to make of the owl – and its “other side”…? As in Tim Cremin’s haiku that we recently considered, the owl carries a deal of association as a night-time bird of ill omen (hinting again at the sub-theme of life and death) and as a symbol of knowledge and wisdom. The owl (fukuroo) is also a kigo or season word for winter, adding a further subliminal dash of seasoned experience, ageing and perhaps of approaching death.
Thus as I see it, we have the individual — or the collective human race — led on through the dark by a mysterious call that constantly recedes, in continual plodding pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, perhaps never finally getting to its “other side,” as long as we live. Peter is an haikuist of considerable talon. Risking blushes if my reading is way off the mark, I look forward to his comment.
How can one walk to the other side of the owl? Is it past the tree where the owl calls? This evokes for me the Doppler effect of a passing train, or in this case passing the owl. Is it simply that the poet walks past the sound of the owl as it fades into the distance? Or perhaps it is the anthropomorphic question repeated by the owl. “ Who? Who? Whooo?” Does the poet finally arrive at the other side of that question, perhaps now with some knowledge of who he is, no longer required to answer the owl. He tells us it has been a long walk, a long journey to come to that knowledge. Or perhaps he has decided that the question is no longer relevant for him as he moves down his path. His long walk has taken him past that question to face other dilemmas along his way. Whatever the answer to all those questions, Peter Newton has given us an intriguing poem.
As I read this verse, “a long walk to the other side…” marks the poet’s journey into his own space of thoughts. What is the other side? And … why? Well, that is defined by the presence “…of the owl’.
A long walk or a long drive has been a stress reliever for many of us. To walk into the woods empty handed or with no thoughts whatsoever. The poet wants to have a personal space of his own, even without the disturbance of any living being, animal or bird. Hence, “to the other side of the owl.” Here, line 2 is acting as a pivot.
I feel that the poet wants to to get past, to avoid, even the owl. Most of us hate being watched or stared at, because it is such a distraction. When it is impossible to change the course of the river, just be the change! Changing direction is the only good option left. Why can’t we be the change — as Dr Abdul Kalam says!
The maxim that the reader completes the poem applies here. Beyond the literal interpretation of walking around and around the owl whose head is rotating as the speaker circles and circles the bird, the connotation of cycles is suggested–moving through the seasons as they continuously spin. In both, the poem indicates that we never really get “to the other side.” Rather than a tone of futility, though, I sense an upbeat and committed curiosity about what might be discovered on the other side of that owl, or any other wonder, seasonal or otherwise, that can be imagined.
The poem is also really nicely rhythmically balanced, with the three one-syllable beats in L1 and L3 mimicking walking steps. The result is a sonically pleasing rhythm that compliments any and all meanings of the poem.
At first glance, this poem seems simple; someone walks around a large tree to try and see an owl better. I’ve done this many times, trying not to frighten the bird.
A deeper reading, however, leads to questioning what the owl could stand for. In Western cultures owls are associated with autumn, with the dying of the year. Walking to the other of the owl (the year) is going into spring, into the rebirth of the year.
It’s now hot summer in India, you cannot even walk in day time, but the evenings are pleasant with a cool breeze, if you have a mind to take a walk. Possibly the poet imagines a walk is essential, for the very first line, “a long walk”, takes us miles. Yet the continuation to the second line, “to the other side” seems to augur some premonition, stemming from the image of the owl. The nocturnal bird is not a good omen or sign. Perhaps to be avoided if the walker cares for his life, longevity, peace… The owl’s hoot is an ominous warning, we infer that for an undisturbed, free walk, it’s better not to go as far as the bird.
Patricia McGuire – a journey to the other side of the haiku:
As an editor I read many brilliant poems, but I don’t always agree that they are haiku. To put this in context what I look for is simple language, a poem in which every word counts, a seasonal reference and that aha moment, which makes the haiku interesting. It goes without saying I want to read the poem in the present tense.
At a visceral level I enjoyed this poem. It is written in ordinary, down to earth language, it is well crafted to make sure every word has a place in the poem, it has a seasonal reference, the owl, it’s in the present tense but at first I wasn’t getting that aha moment.
I felt that the poem’s seasonal reference was important to that moment, but how? The owl in traditional Japanese haiku is a winter reference. What does that bring to the poem? It’s in winter, so what? Delve deeper into the symbolism of the owl. In western culture the owl is a symbolic of wisdom or death. The symbolism of the owl is relevant. Winter, as a seasonal reference speaks of the end of days, doesn’t it? As humans, the journey to our end of days leads us to greater knowledge, greater wisdom, and of course we are all heading relentlessly towards death.
Having made that connection the poem has its aha moment. Now it speaks to me of the journey we as humans are taking to achieve wisdom or inevitably death. Now it is definitely a haiku.
It was, at least for me, a long and involved walk to the other side of this owl. Thanks for taking me on the journey Peter.
Author Peter Newton comments:
I don’t often talk about the making of my poems. Origins are hard to trace and, usually, no one asks. Also, the process of poem-making is organic. The poems just seem to pop up after I’ve been tilling the soil and paying attention. Eventually, when the conditions are right, a line comes to mind.
As for the commenting of my poem, “a long walk,” I would say this:
There’s a great book by Rebecca Solnit called Wanderlust; A History of Walking. I’ve been reading it for a while now.
It’s a long book with type that’s too small making each page seem like a journey in and of itself. So I keep it on the pile where I can dip in and out as the mood strikes. Like the act of taking a walk, reading her book is a place to return to—even if that place is a moving target. A state of mind. It is the reverie Emily Dickinson refers to in her poem:
“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.”
This is how my haiku “ a long walk” began to germinate. Many months before it was even a word.
a long walk
to the other side
of the owl
In good weather I like to take a walk after work. Over the years it has become a routine practice. I walk around the neighborhood down around the apple orchard, past the golf course or into another neighborhood where there’s a large open field. A clearing that has somehow been spared development. Some of the white pine trees around its edges have grown to a hundred feet or more. A stand of hemlocks looks like a monument to treedom. Imagine all the animals that call that place home.
When I go for my long walks I don’t know where I’m going until I’m walking. It’s that old adage about the journey not the destination. I have no destination in mind. Whether I go left to the orchard or right to the open field doesn’t really matter. The goal is to let go of the day and stretch my legs after sitting for so long.
On my walks I also write. Not with a pen and paper, though occasionally I might jot something down. I work through the things I’ve been thinking about. Poems are the catch basins, the little filters through which everything flows. What I keep returning to is what can sometimes become a poem. Where do I go on my long walks, someone asked me once. Nowhere, I said. You know, just around. And then I thought of a better answer. And the last lines of my poem were written.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the best commentary this week, Patricia 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!
Nightfall boy smashing dandelions With a stick
— Jack Kerouac
Blues and Haikus, 1959
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Our thanks to Peter for an enlightening comment on his poem and creative process. Very glad we asked!
Peter Newton’s short bio and some of his many haiku may be seen in The Haiku Registry. He’s been writing haiku and other forms for over twenty years and is widely published, awarded and anthologised. Peter, frequently an innovative haiku poet (included in the anthology Haiku in English — the First Hundred Years), was featured in the Mann Library’s daily haiku throughout August 2010.
He is an editor of tinywords.