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 Mark Gilbert, was:
— Julie Schwerin
Stardust Haiku, issue 52, April 2021
Introducing this poem, Mark writes:
I’m choosing this haiku because it is quite distinctive, and quite striking. I don’t feel it is easily pigeonholed at all, so I’ll be interested to hear others’ views.
Julie Schwerin is an accomplished haiku poet who has written many fine verses, including in linked forms, that I study and admire. A characteristic of the genre is the space left to the reader to bring their own meaning. This verse conspicuously leaves plenty of space, possibly too much, and I’m looking forward to readers’ commentaries as they fill it. I feel inadequate to do so – for me, amongst the alliteration there’s a single image here, the setting sun — a thing, so that’s where I must start; and where I end is with it setting somewhere beyond my horizon. I could supply all sorts of ideas/things/places to fill in the notional dotted lines, if pushed, with or without the sun; but really I’m missing something, somewhere — missing a connection, a communication. Perhaps that’s the point – the mystery, with time running out, is the thing you think must be there, but that can’t be found.
One benefit of acoustic schemes in poetry is that if it sounds right, it sounds true. In haiku we avoid full rhyme, but there are other ways of making haiku resonate in melody as well as in meaning. This haiku by Julie Schwerin is an exquisite interweaving of soundscapes. The most obvious is the alliteration of the initial /s/ in four of the six words. There is also the end-to-inner-rhyme of “from” to “some” and to “some” again, this finally capped by not only the assonance in the word “sun,” but also the fact that the final /m/ and /n/ are both nasal continuants which differ only in point of articulation. I’d add to this that the second part of the compound word “something” also ends with a nasal continuant, /ŋ/, which itself differs from both /m/ and /n/ by place of articulation. If we listen to the compounds “something” and “somewhere,” aside from the repetition of the first root word, the acoustics of the second root words are similar in that both have continuants as initial and final consonant sounds. There is one more echo: the “-ing” of “setting” subtly picks up on the “-ing” of “something.” The trope in this haiku (beyond juxtaposition) is located in the balancing contrast between the two prepositions. Imagine taking away all that acoustic loveliness (please pardon me for this atrocity): from an object/ to a place/ the sun goes down. If the meanings don’t match exactly, the cacophony of my horrible version doesn’t match at all. I’ll leave to others who comment to discuss the meaningfulness of the words in Julie Schwerin’s poem. As for me, it’s all about the music.
I struggled with this poem. Is it a haiku? It’s structured as you would expect, it speaks of nature (although you possibly know I prefer a seasonal reference), but the problem for me comes from the phrase element of the poem. I understand the words but what do they mean? Should haiku contain such ambiguity?
It felt to me as if the poem was about the beginning of a relationship, the something, and as the sun sets on the evening the couple were going to explore whether this relationship would be going somewhere, maybe even literally… Possibly I’m way off base in my analysis, but that is the problem when part of your poem is just too ambiguous, isn’t it? It’s a bit like catching fairy dust and making wishes.
How much better to give your reader some gentle clues along the way, just enough that they can feel there is a good chance they are understanding your work:distant lightning... swapping pheromones on a rooftop bar — Alan S. Bridges, Frogpond, 45.1
Is this a similar story told with enough clarity for you to get the idea without intellectual struggle? And a seasonal reference too!
What captures the reader’s attention immediately in this haiku is the sibilance. The strong “s” sounds in “something,” “somewhere,” setting,” and “sun” makes for a quiet auditory experience that enchants reader’s ears and lulls them into a false sense of security until they recognize how depressing the content of the haiku actually is.
We know L1-2 are different than the sun itself because that would be a very weak, one image haiku with mere description and minimal juxtaposition. So the “something” and “somewhere” must be one in the same, and must be different than the sun itself. Readers are left to assume that it’s the speaker in the poem, thus there’s a ennui or existential depression resonating through this haiku. The speaker is “something” in the beginning, though readers don’t know what that something is. It could be how the speaker is defining themselves currently, but we know that it’s less than human, as it’s “something” not “someone,” and the speaker is then in crisis.
However, they move from “something” to “somewhere,” as though defining themselves not by who they are or what they’re doing, but simply by where they’re located. They are now not even an individual to themselves, but simply one of a makeup in a vast multitude of a region. There’s something to be said about the Buddhist nature of this, the idea of a person unbecoming themselves in a moment of enlightenment, but a more Western interpretation speaks to an identity crisis that’s reinforced by the image of “setting sun.” This person is not in place of internal peace, but cold darkness. Their identity, their “thing-ness” is fading away like the light of day, leaving them empty of themselves in the dim twilight of “somewhere.” It’s a haunting poem, and the sonic elements serve to lure in the reader softly, possibly gently, before the overwhelming nihilism of the poem fully consumes them.
The missing words for me in this incredible senryu are those in capitals: “from BEING something/ to GOING somewhere / setting sun”; I would read “setting sun” on two levels: the actual path of the sun, having shone brightly and gifted day to those places, is now going somewhere else (other half of the planet) to do the same there; and with its departure darkness will fall, here. The second level might be metaphorically alluding to human life. Each person (the sun) becomes “something” while living life, which when the time comes, “sets” (dies), and goes “somewhere” else (after-life).
What is wonderful about this poem is its palpable sense of positivity and acceptance, especially in the first two lines. Being part of a seasonal cycle is a given fact to anything living; everyone(thing) is born, lives and dies. However, the living part can be rich, fulfilling and meaningful: it can be “something” worthwhile. This would make the person almost contented at the end of life. Doesn’t always happen, of course but that is outside of this poem’s periphery.
Visually too, it so happens that the lines of this poem diminish in size as one reads them. Line 1 is longest and Line 3 the shortest. From blazing with life to becoming a steady glow at the end. For me, the many little surprises and connections in these six words welcome several revisits, each time adding something new to a framework that is dynamic.
Haiku tend to focus on specific, concrete images. Here, the poet starts out with the unspecified pronouns “something” and “somewhere,” indicative of a general statement or abstract principle derived from specific instances. This is tricky territory that haiku rarely venture into, but in taking us there, the poet provides a fresh perspective on a well-worn image: the setting sun. It is an image that activates many associations and metaphorical meanings embedded deep within us and accumulated over the course of our evolution. Like the haiku form itself, sunset is a brief, fleeting moment; the embodiment of ephemerality: something is here one minute and gone the next. And we experience time in such a way that, once it’s gone, it’s gone. But here the gone-ness is expressed in terms of place (“somewhere”) rather than time, which seems to allow for the possibility that the past still exists in some inaccessible place, just as the sun still exists after sunset, but in a place beyond the range of our senses. This formulation of time as place also seems to echo what physicists tell us: time can be thought of as fused with space in a four-dimensional continuum called space-time (i.e., time is another form of space). Wonderful how a haiku can blast you off — in a flash you’re traveling across all of time and space!
Just viewing from my balcony , typing my haiku and reviral comments, to the red-colored sun setting in summer – a sight of beauty and wonder coiled into questioning. Science, Nature, technology and super power compressed in an astronomical system. Detached, one can interpret this as an individual perspective: “After all my domestic commitment, chores, from early morning till dusk, till the end of the day, with red embers slowly disappearing behind the hill”…. to… “somewhere” deeper into conscious and subconscious levels. Where the sun disappears to, we know only from the saying of experts: we believe.
My reader resistance was at full power when I first read this haiku. Then various thoughts and images flooded into my mind including a timelapse video of the sun rising, crossing the sky and setting in all its glorious colours — 24 hours in 9 syllables.
Another image that arrived was the butterfly of chaos theory – a tiny thing, a tiny movement which can lead to a large effect in a different place. Then the day ends and night comes as it always does. There is a lot of mystery in this haiku. So much room for the reader — nothing is stated (except the setting sun). And although the setting sun is symbolic of endings, death and darkness — it is a positive image that is conjured up: there is SOMEthing and there is SOMEwhere and the sun will rise again tomorrow. .
The most inviting element of this poem is its openness to interpretation. The first two lines suggest a poem-worthy event or encounter (“something”) which literally or figuratively moves the speaker–to another place on the map or internally to a new awareness, or both (“somewhere.”) The narrative vagueness works well here, as the reader may flesh out the “something” and the “somewhere” with her own life experience, while appreciating that the poet is also communicating about a personal experience; we need not know exactly what. (Save that for a long-form poem!) So, while the poem can be appreciated as personal to the poet, it also becomes so to the reader. This represents a kind of lyric generosity, an invitation to contemplate what “somethings” have moved this reader to the “somewheres” in my life.
The syntactic and sonic similarity of the first two lines creates a pleasing three-syllable pattern: sequential prepositional phrases with an echoing sound pattern. The music of these lines is then enhanced by the three-syllable third line, “setting sun.” And the placement of that third line, which I’d consider a kind of kigo – not seasonal but diurnal – is really effective. The setting sun as the last line enacts sunset as the last event of the day, and also works as a metaphor for the latter part of one’s life — an “at last” experience which only heightens the possible meaning(s) of the preceding lines
Matt Cariello :
Although this haiku has an abstract quality, it’s actually grounded in our everyday lived experience. Both “something” & “somewhere” can be pronouns or adverbs, & so have syntactically complex functions in the phrase. For example, “something” can be the unspecified thing (pronoun), or the modifier of an unspoken action (adverb), as in “from something (amazing).” Similarly, “somewhere” can be an unspecified place (pronoun), or an abstract state of being (adverb), as in “somewhere (else).” The from/to construction denotes time passing as things change from one state to another.
All this is almost entirely unspoken in the poem:
from something (pronoun: thing; adverb: amazing)
to somewhere (pronoun: place; adverb: else)
(we observe the movement of the) setting sun
The sun is something until it’s unseen – then it shifts to a not-thing, somewhere else, a change of state. It starts out as a real thing, but then becomes an abstraction. But of course it doesn’t. It’s always somewhere & always something, just out of our sight, until it isn’t again. This poem is a map for the way we chart the world.
Mark Gilbert elaborates. Frog or toad? — we can’t be sure:
I regard this as an example of a ‘fuzzy’ haiku, in the sense of fuzzy logic, or in the context of scientific measurement where there is a margin of error. We are observing something real, but it is blurred, or fuzzy, or indistinct. It may be too far away (in distance or time). Perhaps it will not remain still. It may be a frog, but we may not know what species it is. Or toad. But the writer is being honest in presenting what they can see. So the act of writing, of remembering or recording the experience, is part of the haiku itself.
I feel the writer is being true to their experience, or their thoughts. Perhaps the actual words are – like the actual experiences – too harrowing to repeat. ‘Setting sun’ might be the context, or the trigger.
I don’t feel this is written as a ‘half haiku’, which are common nowadays, for the reader to fill in the gaps with their own experiences. It may be pushing the boundaries of this type of haiku to see how far it can go. I think it requires a different kind of analysis to the way most haiku are interpreted.
Julie Schwerin – author’s comment:
So I did blush a bit when Keith informed me that this poem would be discussed in the upcoming re:Virals. I had just pushed send on an email to a beginning poet who had asked for some comments on his poems. One of the suggestions I made was to lean toward specificity in haiku as opposed to generalities. This is a poem of generalities, for sure! I may have commented to this other poet, “Can you name an activity or a specific place?” The idea of the poem however, is that I couldn’t name an activity I’d participated in that day or the places I’d been. The sun was setting and the whole day had passed by while I was in a mindless haze. This haiku was written while I was experiencing grief and was numb to my surroundings. But the poem has come back to me many times since then on ordinary days when I realize I have not been intentional with my time or have been living in a reactionary manner rather than proactively or mindfully. I look forward to hearing how readers internalize this poem for themselves. I hope it’s more gentle. For me, it holds sort of a sardonic self-recrimination.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the best commentary this week, Mark 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!
to the cellar
— Alice Frampton
The Heron’s Nest, Volume XX, Number 1, March 2018
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Julie Warther Schwerin is an associate editor at The Heron’s Nest. In March 2021 Julie was interviewed in THF’s “New to Haiku” advice for beginners series. She is widely published, and many of her fine senryu may be read here.
An interesting and challenging choice – thank you, Mark. I learned a lot. On review, each commentary added something. One theme was initial struggle or, as Ann pinpointed it, “reader resistance.” Another, the sibilant alliteration: but can musicality alone make a haiku/senryu? Those who brought their own stories or second images to the verse, including me, seemed to find they wouldn’t fit well, or the fit was loose, and sometimes the process looks to have been rather heavy going. Cue Mark’s further comment on “fuzzy logic” in haiku. That rang a bell, and as it gives us another way of appraising such verses, is adjudged the best of several observations. It could be argued that a characteristic of many acclaimed examples of the genre is that they lack certainty. Equally, that total uncertainty is chaos. Somewhere along the spectrum, the setting sun.
And many thanks to Julie for her own comments, which arrived after nearly all of our commentaries were entered. Enlightening — and no need to blush! It’s always so valuable to have the poet’s genesis of the poem, which changes the way one then approaches the lines.