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 Sushama Kapur, was:
in the beginning
he was just pretending
to sound grumpy
— John Stevenson
Frogpond 45.1 Winter 2021/22
Introducing this poem, Sushama writes:
An intriguing senryu. Several visuals flash before my eyes. Where do habits begin, and why? I can imagine this being a beginning of a novel. Looking forward, with much interest, to reading the commentaries.
I wonder whether many editors would have taken the time to consider this verse had it been submitted by a fresh unknown. It’s a single sentence, a statement, barely contains an image, no real ‘cut,’ written in a past tense… John Stevenson is a true master, able to let go the handrail of procedure in order to embrace the spirit of the tradition. He has his own, distinctive voice. Quite a few of his haiku and senryu are in the form of a sentence. His verses are a delight.
From the suggestions in this senryu, the reader supplies the completion and the present: juxtaposing “in the beginning he was…” with a mental “but now…”; and “just pretending…” with “has actually become grumpy.” It has universality — many readers can relate in some way; and there are layers to contemplate. There is the obvious one of developing grumpiness with age, the accelerating bodily pains and memory lapses, the growing irritation as the world that you grew familiar with changes yet again. Then there is the obverse of “positive thinking,” or “neurolinguistic programming,” or whatever the coming generation’s version of it turns out to be: that through repetition you may actually become what you sound like. I went on to think how, for example, marital relations can deteriorate in a cycle of grumbling at each other, that may begin as teasing humour, but gradually becomes an entrenched, bitter, hurtful habit. The opening line “in the beginning” also invokes Genesis (or the gospel of John…), and if you are a believer it’s not too fanciful to suppose that the Almighty humoured his human creation to begin with, but by now is seriously annoyed with us. Storms, fires, floods and plague.
Altogether, hats off. And thanks to the editors of Frogpond, too.
Thank you Sushama for choosing this senryu which I enjoyed a lot.
Well, this is the Old Testament in senryu form. It is about God’s wrath when the perfect world that he created falls into evil because we humans disobeyed his rules. He pretends to sound grumpy at first – very strict and handing out lists of rules, but then his pretend grumpiness turns to real anger when we flout his commandments.
The lord thy God is a grumpy God — author Becky Pippert wrote:
“God is a God of wrath precisely because he is a God of love. He loves his creation and when he sees it being destroyed, it bothers him. He’s not happy about it. He desires better for us, because he loves us.”
I notice that this is written in the past tense – or maybe not: in the beginning he was just pretending to be grumpy but NOW – in the present – he is properly vexed.
Although I think John intended to lead us down the bible route with “in the beginning,” another interpretation is that of an argument between two people (husband and wife – or some such) which begins as a bit of fun a bit of teasing, but rapidly turns sour and becomes serious because of misunderstanding.
So maybe it’s not about the bible at all. Anyway, John’s senryu made me chuckle and I enjoyed it.In the end he was just pretending to be Grimm
John Stevenson weaves a straightforward senryu, but despite the mode of presentation being absolutely very straight, there is so much to be culled out by readers. This could be one of many situations – a father admonishing his ward, a doctor with a patient, or even the call of a crow initially misinterpreted by a human listener. I also think of Goldsmith’s Man in Black, despite his goodness, projecting otherwise to the world.
Marion Clarke – our lessening grip of control…:
Oh, this made me smile! Upon first reading, I imagined a grandfather playing with his grandchildren, perhaps feigning sleep to begin with, pretending that all the noise from the little ones playing has wakened him from his slumbers…then settling down into another faux sleep for a repeat. But then the game goes on too long and he really does resent the noise and the children don’t understand, so they keep playing the game. Of course this is all bound to end in tears!
How many of us have had this experience of eventually becoming annoyed with someone (or even a pet) for a particular behaviour we once encouraged. Is this a reflection on our impatience, or wanting everything to be as we would like it—both having our cake and eating it?
Then, on rereading, things took a biblical turn, as the first line of the senryu echoed the first line of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Is this a nod to the creator who has perhaps become angry at man’s treatment of the earth…although I’m not sure what “pretending to be angry” might refer to, so perhaps not.
Then my thoughts turned to a darker place. Could this refer to domestic violence, where actions that were once considered cute come to annoy, resulting in physical or mental abuse? This has gone in a circle back to my first reading, how a person might become grumpy, or downright angry, when they no longer control a situation.
So I think this senryu is about our lessening grip of control, in our lives and relationships and of our anger, and the sometimes devastating effects of this loss.
As always, much food for thought from a poet whose work I admire very much.
Author John Stevenson comments:
Most of my haiku remind me of the circumstances in which they were composed, anchored as they tend to be in my physical surroundings at the moment of inspiration. But my senryu often come out of a series of thoughts and, as a result, their origins are less memorable. I don’t recall a lot about this particular poem’s creation. I believe I was thinking about an uncle and about how I thought I would never be like him when I got old; not understanding before experiencing them myself the processes of aging. One thing I do remember relates to the crafting of the poem, rather than the inspiration. I’ve been thinking, in recent years, about the marshalling of context in these tiny poems. One means of accomplishing that is to include a readily recognizable idiomatic phrase. “In the beginning” is the opening phrase of the Bible books of Genesis and John. While my subject matter is clearly not a deity, my belief is that the less exalted people and things are also parts of the divine.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary judged best this week, Marion 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 chosen commentary’s author gets to pick 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!
sunrise darkens the face I dream with
— Peter Yovu
Sunrise, Redmoon Press 2010
P.S. You might like to read Disordering Haiku by Peter Yovu…
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John Stevenson needs little introduction. His short bio appears in Haikupedia.
He’s the author of many superb haiku and senryu, with acute observation, a fine sense of detachment without being too Olympian about it, and a warming, humble, reflective sense of humour.
There is a feast of his haiku to 2014 in the Living Haiku Anthology.
Frequently going beyond current conventions in haiku and senryu to the heart of matters, John Stevenson writes in its true spirit. In a comment elsewhere, Alan Summers wrote of Stevenson’s latest anthology, My Red, of which Alan was one of the consulting editors: “How not to write haiku but make them more haiku at the same time!”
The results are penetrating, and often philosophical. Among the many to be savoured:a bit of birdsong before we start our engines — Upstate Dim Sum - 2002/2, 2002 daylight as the exception it is — Acorn - Number 26, 2011 pretty sure my red is your red — Roadrunner - February, 2009
Lately, John won the Touchstone Distinguished Books Award for My Red: The Selected Haiku of John Stevenson (Edited by Randy and Shirley Brooks. Taylorville IL: Brooks Books, 2021), which also placed first in the annual Haiku Society of America Awards. It is reviewed in Frogpond 45.1. In the book, John comments:
“No one has the authority to tell you what an English-language haiku should be, especially not me. This is an open question and still in the process of being answered. But….I can tell you something about what I like in a haiku. I like to see a simple but well-made poem that registers first as a clear sensory image and then suggests “something more.” If that “something more” resolves quickly into some particular thought or insight — an answer — that is less satisfying for me than if it remains an indefinite stimulation of intuition. I prefer this, not because I value the senses and intuition over intellect but because I believe that, once the rational mind is engaged, it tends to dull and even overpower any further input from the senses and intuition.”
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This poem reminds me of Antonio Machado’s proverbs (which are not haiku).
The eye you see is not
an eye because you see it;
it is an eye because it sees you.
To talk with someone,
ask a question first,
then — listen.
is an ugly fault,
and now it’s a boring fault too.
in the beginning
he was just pretending
to sound grumpy
— John Stevenson
It’s the 4th line, specifically the first name in the 4th line, in relation to the first line of this ku, that caught my interest.
“In the beginning was the Word . . . ” – according to the Gospel of John. (John 1:1, King James Version)
Beyond that, John’s ku seems to be the opening lines of a story. What happens next?
Dear Marian Clarke,
Hearty congratulations for being this week’s winner. Your observations , also
quoting from Bible etc;
“Then, on rereading, things took a biblical turn, as the first line of the senryu echoed the first line of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Is this a nod to the creator who has perhaps become angry at man’s treatment of the earth…although I’m not sure what “pretending to be angry” might refer to, so perhaps not. ”
Very interesting indeed.
Dear Keith Evetts,
Going through your observations, a rare chance of knowing distinction between between senryu and haiku in clear coinage. Also further remarks
“it made me think. In haiku there’s generally a season word or phrase to anchor the verse, not only in a time or season of nature, but also with its accumulated associations and tradition. In senryu, without such device, the verse is somehow to be anchored in the experience of the reader. Universality might itself suffice — an experience widely shared. But in this case, a recognizable idiomatic phrase is used. That, too, carries a weight of accumulated association and tradition (and also might run a risk of cliché): a “third axis.”
Dear keith Evetts,
A pleasure indeed going through John Stevenson’s observations in distinct terms, with quotes therein ; thanks for this wonderful notes and opportunity
Many thanks to John for the author’s comment, and in particular: “I’ve been thinking, in recent years, about the marshalling of context in these tiny poems. One means of accomplishing that is to include a readily recognizable idiomatic phrase.”
It made me think. In haiku there’s generally a season word or phrase to anchor the verse, not only in a time or season of nature, but also with its accumulated associations and tradition. In senryu, without such device, the verse is somehow to be anchored in the experience of the reader. Universality might itself suffice — an experience widely shared. But in this case, a recognizable idiomatic phrase is used. That, too, carries a weight of accumulated association and tradition (and also might run a risk of cliché): a “third axis.”
So well known to readers brought up with the Bible are the words “in the beginning” that here, they may dominate and direct readers’ interpretations more than the author intended (“my subject matter is clearly not a deity”). As I doubt religion, and am of an age to be a grumpy old man — but try not to be — for me it was the human condition that prevailed over the divine. But evidently for some other readers the associations of the phrase “in the beginning” — especially placed at the beginning of the verse — are so strong as to make their reading of this senryu Biblical.
I learn from this: interesting to think about this technique but needs watchful handling. Were the first line to read: “to begin with”….., or “at the beginning”…., what would the effects be?
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