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 Matt Cariello, was:
thistledown children drifting away
— Lorin Ford
Frogpond 37.3, 2014
Introducing this poem, Matt writes:
I admire this poem for its economy and often use it as a teaching tool. Its metaphoric maps are innovative and precise.
“thistledown children” can be read in at least two ways. We can read a cut after “thistledown” (“thistledown – children drifting away”) or read it as modifying “children” (“thistledown children, drifting away”), a minor semantic modification, but important. Either way, the first two words invoke interconnected metaphoric maps: “thistledown” as a botanic reference to the way seeds from thistle plants burst from their pods, drift away in the wind, and eventually reseed, and the major conceptual map attached to “children,” which invokes the way they burst into our lives, grow, then slowly head off to live on their own (hopefully).
Both thistledown and children drift away because they must. Four words invoke an entire ontological structure of life
To Matt’s intro I’ll just add: the poetry. As well as each well-chosen word bearing a weight of association, their combined effect is lyrical and musical. “Thistledown” is a delicious word to savour on the tongue. Already it contains two evocative thoughts – the thistle and the down: sharp prickles and softness. We can take thistledown as the separate image and insert an implied cut; but read metonymically with “children” it also becomes an adjective that delicately conveys the tender bitter-sweetness of parenthood at this time. “Drifting” again is a sweet word to say, and stirs the consciousness: little by little, willy-nilly (but one hopes the children by now have some means of propulsion and steerage). And finally “away” – capping three trochees with an iamb does subconsciously lend an air of finality. The line as a whole is songlike. Any rhyming poet will be itching to take it as a first line. A lovely ku.
Two of my five thistledown children came back.
I had to look up thistledown to write this. The association of thistledown and children intrigued me initially. I gathered later that children are as agile and free as the thistle seeds. They can run around in all directions in a few moments just as the thistledowns can drift here and there in a few milli-seconds.
There can be another connotation which is grown-up children drift away from their parents either for higher education or for finding a job. This is just like the thistledowns separating and migrating away from the parent plant. They may be blown far away in due course.
All this could also mean, emotionally, the children have drifted away from their parents as they grew up. We sometimes drift apart from our elders in our way of thinking and the manner in which we go about doing things.
Also, did the poet see a group of children playing? Was there a quarrel between the little ones? As they quarreled did they walk away from each other, angry, and not wanting anything to do with each other? Did the poet witness this very scene? Is this how she composed this haiku? Is this the drifting of the children she’s referring to in her poem? So many ideas and questions come to my mind. I really enjoyed decoding this one.
M. R. Defibaugh:
Minimalist and to the point, Lorin Ford’s monoku uses thistledown as a late spring or summer kigo to suggest the writer has a soft place for these children, likely her own, thistledown being the feathery hairs of a ripe thistle flower. Such terminology implies that these children are now adults who have grown distant or moved away, mirroring the drifting of the seeds. Dandelion seeds wouldn’t have conveyed the pain of their separation from the parent like the bite of a thistle. It is particularly effective because it also offers the literal scene of children wandering off the beaten path, where thistles might be found, further contrasting their innocence with the harshness of the outside world. There is even an idea of “thistledown children,” which is now representative of children who have moved away, a perhaps unintended benefit of the one-liner. Ultimately, the parents’ love for their children and wanting them to blaze their own trail prevails over all hardship and pain.
A beautiful monoku with a wonderfully thought-provoking visual image. Deep into its picture, there is so much to be visualized: what are / who are “ thistledown children” — soft, white airy threads attached to thistle seeds carve an easy path as they are blown away. As “children drifting away” the depiction enhances the beauty of the verse.
Sébastien Revon: thanking Mum:
To write a story with four words you have to have confidence in your skills. To open a world of interpretations with four words you need to have mastered those skills. This haiku has to be one of the closest to that in all haiku I ever read.
Reading the haiku for the first time I was “cradled” by the alliteration in “d” which brings a very soft tone to the music of the poem. Even though I didn’t know what thistledown is, the haiku was enough with the last three words for me to connect the dots:
something “makes” children drift away… “children drifting away” alone speaks a whole story everybody can relate to. We have all been children, we all have drifted away and then I suddenly thought of children who have remained children forever, the ones who drifted away too early.
I finally went to look up the meaning of thistledown. The method of seed dispersal that the prickly members of the genus Asteracea use to propagate their offspring…
Yes, this haiku is a metaphor. I like the challenge because it is so difficult to succeed in remaining haiku while using a metaphor. But I feel like I am not true to the poem if I simply say it is a metaphor. I cannot quite find a suitable word for what it represents and the feelings it manages to create. Of course then, we can analyse and say the monoku offers a cut just after the first word, which could be seen as a kigo. But it’s not just a metaphor; something more gentle, more subtle. I feel like the poem is unfolding literally as it is read and said out loud, like the departure of a parachute seed, like a hand that reaches out to me.
It is a poem of hope and sadness altogether with a considerable amount of ma within it. Children are meant to grow up and break free from their “nest”. For me, the pivotal word is “drifting” because of all the meanings it can carry. The hopeful and the sad. I have to mention the importance of the “ing” in it, the process that reverberates with thistledown which is a process too. “Away” is a perfect ending on its own even without the previous word. We are all going to go away. Where? Does it matter?
To finish, I would like to say that it feels now that I had that very same poem in me since very young. The difference is I never managed to speak it. Lorin Ford did and I thank her for that. She’s almost the age of my mother. It is like I’d say:
Author Lorin Ford:
A fact: on a fine, calm day, spring through summer, one can see thistledown drifting on a light breeze against a blue sky. Thistledown, which carries the plant’s seed, might be milkweed thistledown or it might be thistledown from the Scotch Thistle, that great pest introduced to Australia by our Scottish ancestors. The down carries the seeds and seeds are the plant kingdom’s version of “children in utero”, so to speak.
It could be as simple as that: a short observation that fails to be a haiku because it lacks the essential cut / kire and might also be dangerously close to the edge of overt personification, which is a classic haiku no-no.
But there is a cut, implied. If readers infer a cut after the first word (” thistledown // children (are) drifting away”) then we do have a haiku. Prompted by the sight of thistledown, which literally drifts through the air, a reader might be put in mind of the common figurative meaning of “children drifting away” from their families. (What each reader makes of that will depend on their individual experience of family and, I dare to say, also on the extent to which a tanka-like sensibility might influence their readings of haiku.)
In one-line haiku / ‘monoku’ (as in all haiku) the cut’s the thing, whether it’s the one cut as in this haiku or multiple as in some other one-liners.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Sébastien 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. Out-takes from the best of these 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!
the chickadee chirps
the chickadee chirps
— Françoise Maurice
Haiku in English, The Mainichi, 27 June 2022
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A Grande Dame of English language haiku and renku, up there with the best, and a frequent contributor to this feature and its predecessors, Lorin Ford is widely published, anthologised, and awarded. Her masterly work is well worth study. There are many examples if you search, two of them being the Living Haiku Anthology and her book “what light there is” in the THF Library here.
Lorin’s approach to haiku may be found in this article: “Why Haiku?”, 2018.