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 Harrison Lightwater, was:
— Ernest Wit
Frogpond 45:1 Winter, 2022
Introducing this poem, Harrison writes:
I like the plain economy of these few words that stir the regrets many of us have about the inviting paths that we decided not take, or the realisation too late in life of our vocation.
A contemporary haiku of image + thought as compared with the traditional two images juxtaposed, and one where the ego is present albeit in a universal way. Instances of this approach seem to be on the increase.
Geese are often indicative of a season, generally with a clue as to whether they are leaving or returning – the season differs from country to country, and indeed from species to species, so it may be a questionable season word. In this haiku, which is for an all-season reflection, it doesn’t really matter. We are not told whether the geese are leaving or returning… Use of “wild,” and the ability of geese to fly, encodes freedom, and their migration to and from far-off places is also evocative for humans. These two plain words bear a weight of associations.
The honk of geese in flight leads to a double meaning of “calling,” but there is more to this verse than a pun. The poet reflects on a missed vocation, and the use of “I” makes it personal to the reader who is nudged to insert their own “I” and associated regrets. I guess few readers are wholly satisfied with the course their lives took, and many hanker after a different one, imagined to be more fulfilling, somewhere else, more exotic perhaps. That’s perhaps the way to fretfulness rather than acceptance and inner tranquility. After all, the geese that fly away will come back here in six months’ time.
Lastly, the verse is crisp, no word wasted, and has a pleasing rhythm to it when spoken. I enjoyed it.
I read the first two words of the fragment and on instinct, look up. For me, the words “wild geese” immediately conjure the unifying V formation of these migratory birds flying together in the sky. The vast blue above me is empty right now, but I could imagine! Of course “wild geese” would not necessarily mean flying ones. They could be the ones flocking around water bodies, weaving their honking calls and cackles with the echoing sounds of moving waters.
The next four words of the phrase are many layered. What is this reflective statement about? Seeing the beauty of so many wings cleaving through air in unison, or the flocks resting together, perhaps the poet wishes he were a naturalist, or a wildlife photographer, or just a bird watcher with a hobby. Or does he wish he had the time “to stand and stare” at the many many small natural wonders waiting to be discovered in our surroundings? There is perhaps a regret in the phrase, almost a wistfulness of the ‘actual living’ that may have been lost while being inexplicably caught up in a daily grind.
This six word haiku packs a punch and leaves the reader wondering about priorities in life. A deep reflection like this one may well have within it an opportunity for change – and new beginnings. After all, let’s not forget you live only once, and time does have a habit of whizzing past …
Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese takes me to that state of awareness and realisation that we should welcome life’s struggles at any cost and live life to the fullest.
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
I stated the above poem to recall that moment which Ernest must have thought of, whilst writing this poem. A beautiful minimalist poem:
Line 1 has a strong image of the wild geese representing autumn, change, apprehension, transience, and migration.
Line 2 & 3 brings a sad tone in his voice of missing his calling. What is the calling? Why has he to announce it now looking at the wild geese? Is this a period of contemplation; self realisation, to come out of his shell of self pity and ignorance. Have the geese sent him a green signal? Maybe yes?
This poem in fact is a universal truth to all of us. Let bygone be bygone! The wild geese return to their home. So why not dive into the natural beauty of life and swim in the ocean of enjoyment.
This supremely economical six-word haiku conveys poignant regret in so few words that its complete backstory could easily be forgotten, or at the very least, overlooked. We have a kigo as the fragment which is immediately recognisable. The appearance of the geese is memorable because we imagine they congregate in numbers large enough to be notable, thus we see them as they begin to migrate, or they remain in our thoughts when they have already departed. The phrase swings the poem’s meaning from the avian into the human sphere and the personal world of the poet. Communications between members of the departing flock when they know it’s time for their seasonal transition trigger a deep sense of loss, of unrealised possibilities that may never be revisited. We miss the wild geese when they finally leave, just as we miss the things we wish we had done but never could do, or didn’t manage to achieve for whatever reason. The ku also works as a monostich reading several ways, in each case conveying the immediacy of the squandering of time.
A moment in time is many things to many people, but there are seasonal markers like the arrival or departure of wild geese that allow us to label time — give it a name, a colour, a texture, a mood. Then there are other allusions that spring to mind — Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese… And just like that, you think about your place in time, mull over the space you take up: wondering whether you are someone who can spread your arms wide and hold yourself like a bird — free to call the sky your home; or you are this other person who shrivels inside the tiny space between the shoulder blades and mistrusts everything? If at all, at this point, if you are pushed to ask yourself these questions, then certainly you have missed your calling, for you may not be who you say you are. Maybe it is only in that moment of time, when the wild geese cry, that you truly discover how fragile your own sense of self is and how much you wish, you could be the wild geese that know how to navigate through life.
I am not the greatest fan of haiku or senryu in which the personal emotions of the poet intrude forcefully into the work. These works are too self indulgent for my taste.
There is a fine line between the use of aesthetics to create emotive responses whether joy or sadness and indulging your own mood. As Otsuji says, “When one is overwhelmed by sorrow, that sorrow cannot produce a haiku. When one is joyful and immersed in happiness, that feeling cannot produce a haiku.” (Kenneth Yasuda, Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature and History).
The sentimental content of this poem may forge a verse that is likeable, because it appeals to a common denominator of the human psyche. In this case we can all identify with the idea of regret. However, this does not a haiku make. “In such haiku, the expression of visceral emotion is all too reminiscent of the presentation of transparent feeling and empty social exchange in the media.” (Bruce Ross, The Essence of Haiku on the NZ Poetry website).
I’d like to give you an example of work that has managed to illustrate how we can evoke emotion without the ego of the poet being in full view.
Alan Summers has a written a haiku which is on an especially emotive subject, but the ego is contained, the emotion restrained and yet the Sabi aesthetic gives the poem gravitas. We can identify the emotion, the poet is giving us clues without obviously being in the poem.
almost a friend
Alan Summers, Azami #28 (Japan, 1995) ed. Ikkoku Santo : The Temple Bell Stops: Contemporary Poems of Grief, Loss and Change (2012) ed. Robert Epstein
When we write haiku shouldn’t we aim to eliminate the self, the ego? In so doing “eliminating the physical barrier between” ourselves “and nature”. See Thomas Lynch’s essay, Intersecting Influences in American Haiku.
As Gabriel Rosenstock says in his book, Haiku Enlightenment, we should not interject anything of “our personal or egoistic needs between” ourselves “and the experience.”
In essence this is a lovely poem… but is this the direction we want to take the haiku genre?
Sitting near my balcony in India; wishing to be by a pond or river to view geese and listen to their honk.
Ernest Wit, in the first line of his haiku compresses so much. Bird calls and the migration of birds in seasons create a serene mood. The poet establishes connectivity, but there’s possibly a missing link with the following two lines:
As the poet tunes in to the honk, is he so deeply engrossed that he misses his official responsibility, or commitment to his office? Does he simply feel deprived at the thought of no longer being able to hear the geese as they move farther and farther away? Or would he rather be somewhere, someone else? Or even, are there now missed calls on his phone?
Barbara Sabol – connecting a natural event with personal emotion:
The appeal of this haiku is its direct and immediate connection between a natural event – the overhead calling of geese – and the longing their cries engender in both speaker and the universal “I.”
Traveling well beyond this speaker’s vantage point, the birds’ cries amid their arresting flight pattern connote a larger elsewhere–other journeys and opportunities not taken. This harkens to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and the inevitability of having to choose one path. In this haiku, though, the tone of regret and resignation comes through: a person feeling tethered to their choices; perhaps having chosen a dead-ended path.
The placement of “my calling” as the third line adds another layer of meaning to the poem. The phrase commonly refers to a person’s profession, what they are “called” to do. Here though, “calling” works as rich double entendre, with the speaker’s lone voice calling for a different kind of life, drowned out by the honking geese who enact the freedom he longs for.
This is a rich sensory narrative in just six words, suggesting fall when geese migrate south in great numbers. I feel the chill of changing temperatures, hear the wild honking overhead, and am also struck with the wonder, and maybe also a touch of envy, of the elsewhere of their destination.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the best commentary this week, Barbara 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!
in a desert stream
the years wear on
— Victor Ortiz
Acorn #48, spring 2022
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Particular thanks to Patricia for grasping a few nettles, in a well-argued contribution generalising from this verse to aspects of the current haiku trend.
Where relevant to the poem of the week, readers’ reasoned views are invited on the penetration of the ego in latter-day haiku, the growing preponderance of “image plus thought” as contrasted with “two image” verses, and the apparent increase in lyrical and sentimental haiku. Is this distorting the genre’s traditions, or extending them? Or outside them? There are precedents in the tradition by e.g. Basho and Buson for notes of lyricism (or were they enhanced by translators?). And by the likes of Issa, Shiki and Ryokan, to name just three, in use of the first person. Views can be included in your future commentaries or added in the comments below. Let’s see how it goes. I know you’ll keep it respectful.
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto
— Basho tr. Hirshfield