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 Amoolya Kamalnath, was:
a boy with his ear
to the bucket
— Brad Bennett
The Heron’s Nest, Volume XXIV, Number 2: June, 2022
Introducing this poem, Amoolya writes:
Is sugar season about Christmas or is it just about any sweet or is it something else which is a delicacy but not had everyday? This boy seems to be very fond of this sugary temptation. On an another level, is he eagerly awaiting some good news? I’d like to revel in the different interpretations this sugar season might bring about.
Given that the author resides in Massachusetts this must be the extraction of syrup from the sugar maple, acer saccharum, generally in spring when the sap rises. The poet has caught the anticipation, perhaps the impatience, of the listening boy to taste the syrup and/or take pride in the achievement of its collection. It might even be the first moment of his first attempt to tap the maple — a skill satisfying to a young hunter-gatherer. He will want to show his Mom. Well composed, concise, sweetly alliterative seasonal reference, enough information and suggestion for the reader to make deductions, with no verb needed. Ting!
Nice to read and know about sugar and the sugar season. Here in India, during January, the beginning of year, sugar cane — a prosperous symbol of religious festivity in every household, an auspicious start. Starting from September the sugar season abounds in activity related to the sugar industry.
Brad Bennett interestingly weaves a write with a boy in the center. In the sugar season, it’s needless to mention impact on human beings in general. Here in the second line, a boy is mentioned and how he puts his ear to the bucket: with candid vigor and humor, the poet takes the boy to the bucket, leaving the conjecture to the readers’ fertile imagination.
Maybe the boy drinks sugarcane juice, abundant, beyond surfeit; perhaps his loving mother enjoys the scene, caring dad gives an allowance for some more sugar cane juice, cups more and more into boy’s mouth, overpouring beyond his ears; from mouth all though to his ears, imagine the impact!
Another conceivable inference is that the boy filled with desire dips his face almost with his ears touching the bucket where sugarcane juice is stored to the brim. Young boyish thrills, boyish pranks, and buoyant.
Some quotes in general on sugar: “There’s no problem too large that sugar can’t solve.” “Call me cute and feed me sugar.”
I’m guessing that sugar season has something to do with getting that sappy substance from maple trees to make the sought-after syrup poured on hot pancakes on cold mornings. And that this places the haiku in the colder seasons in my hemisphere…(northern). Though I have never gone tapping, I have studied and painted watercolour scenes and hung calendars on my walls with images depicting buckets hanging from trees with blue shadows and heavy leather boot prints in deep snow… now going to wiki to help the journey into Brad Bennett’s haiku…
What is the “sugar season”? — In the USA, synonymous with maple season, the time to tap specific trees for sap.
When does the season begin? — February-early April
Best time and conditions to tap? — Right before the target trees go to budding. March is considered the ideal month for sap flow; in general when the day temps are no more than 40 F(5 C) and nighttime temps no lower than 20 F (-5 C). The maple season can last one day to one in a half months and may be intermittent.
How is tapping accomplished and what tools are required? — A drill to drill the hole, a hammer to tap a spile gently into hole, (a spile directs the sap into a bucket while insulating the hole from contaminants and provides the hook to hang the bucket) a bucket often made of metal these days holds the sap, and its cover keeps debris
out during collection.
Can any tree be tapped for syrup? — Any species of maple tree, birch, beech, walnut, alder, box elder, butternut, Japanese walnut, buartnut, sycamore, linden, ironwood, hickory, elm, palm, poplar.
Tapping into Bennett’s haiku: a boy is placing his ear to the bucket… he is listening for a sound, the sound of the run of sap to begin… those starting plink, plinks of drops into a metal bucket… and the time between them, to get an idea of the rate flow of sap. For me the moment captured here reflects the current tender spiritual state of the universe…. aren’t we all waiting to hear good news? Something good to make it easier to feel our inner calm… something to fill the sweet tooth of our collective consciousness and widen our enlightenment while tapping into our souls! Haven’t we all been having our ears to the bucket? I don’t think so! Is Bennett telling me through the boy’s behavior to hang up my bucket and just wait? I don’t think so!
Tapping in deeper, I believe a message is how do i go about finding truth: do I first find the best time and the best source, have adequate tools… then do I become more active and informed about reality; listen, experience the truth for myself… hearing the story first-hand from nature (or the original source) and engage myself on relying and being directed by truths from life experience not trickled down from rumour?
Bennett’s haiku, written in shasei style, a sketch from life, to me becomes a model for life. If I had personally gone collecting sap myself, I wouldn’t have had to go to wiki.
As I read this, I find myself with a list of questions. What is “sugar season”? Where is this taking place? Why? What’s in the bucket? How big is the bucket? What colour is it? Does it have a lid? Who carries it and empties it? Where is it emptied? Where does it go? What happens then? Why is the boy listening to the bucket? How old is he? What does he expect to hear? Does he hear it? If not, what does that mean? Who else is around? All I know is that it relates to sugar somehow – sugar cane being harvested maybe, somewhere hot? Or sugar beet, somewhere colder? Or some kind of cooking activity involving sugar? How is it possible for 3 lines to prompt so many questions? I’m really hoping for answers as I feel I want the whole story of this teasing snapshot!
A. J. Anwar:
I really enjoy reading commentaries in re:Virals, listening to the colorful minds of the commentators about the way haiku arrive to them. Having said that, I usually prefer to just read the commentaries instead of writing one. This one is an exception.
Reading this haiku brought me back to childhood moments, particularly the playful part. I have to admit I am not familiar with any “sugar season,” the context of this haiku. But I imagine this has to do with sugar cane harvests. Or is it more about “maple sugar season” in Massachusetts, the state where the poet resides?
Nevertheless, when a haiku is offered, a reader is free to experience it the way the haiku speaks to him/her. That’s why I am picturing more of a boy helping his family’s home industry business in sugar processing. Perhaps, he is tasked to transport the extracted juice from one place to another, by using a bucket.
Now, picture a boy with a bucket over his shoulder walking carefully, his right ear to the bucket wall and the sugar liquid inside swayed in a rhythm. He has to measure his pace in order not to spill the content. For me, trying too hard to dissect this haiku is not necessary, because the imagery I prefer is simply about a boy listening to an unlikely music of the sugar season.
As a boy, I myself might not be happy doing that kind of work. And yet, if one must, one has to find something to make a joy of it one way or the other. A lot more other things may have been in the boy’s restless mind, as a life of growing up is upon him, and he is doing the best he can, even if reluctantly.
I have read some other haiku by Bennett online and always love them. Like other seasoned haiku poets, he has an awesome skill to make things simpler yet deeper and deeper the more you come back to them. A good choice for re:Virals by Amoolya Kamalnath, a delight to anyone who reads it.
Madeleine Basa Vinluan:
I see a person remembering his young days especially the pleasures of his own sweet season. Putting his “ear to the bucket” he digs into himself and remembers his good harvest memories that he has preserved in this bucket. But when he remembers he also recalls the temptations, and even hardships, that came with his sweet season. This is the result of having “his ear to the bucket” which also hints of his desire to gain back the happiness of his “sugar season” in whatever way he can and whatever the cost. Somehow, he still sees himself as that boy enjoying his youth! The poem, to me is an expression of the yearning for happiness common to people past their “sweet” days. Beautiful, expressive poem.
This haiku is a pleasure, it sets you in a very original time, sugar season, the great imagery with the boy with his ear to the bucket has you joining him, waiting for the sweet stuff. A wonderful haiku, sweet all around.
When a first read doesn’t grab me it is often because I need to sit with it a bit longer. I am so glad I returned to this lovely haiku to give it a chance to take me on an interesting journey.
My journey began where it often does, with a literal look, and I wondered why a boy would have his ear in a bucket? Fortunately the first line “sugar season” took me elsewhere and I was in Quebec, Canada for the Maple Syrup run. I imagined a young lad from many years passed being charged to “keep his ear on” or check the buckets that were attached to the tapped tree to make sure the precious golden syrup did not overflow. These days I expect they rely on newer technology and not child labour.
I recalled a recent experience of seeing an older woman hugging a tree – she told me that if she breathed slowly with the tree and connected deeply enough for long enough she could sometimes hear the sap flowing inside it.
And with that memory I wondered if the boy in the haiku also had the gift of hearing the sap flow. I imagined it was very serious work for him with the great anticipated reward of pure sweet gold on his hotcakes!
Finally I see and feel the gifts of this haiku. I ponder the lessons learned by the boy and me: lesson of work and reward; that sweet things are worth waiting for; and especially that communicating with the trees is a sweet and precious gift!
Thank you for this lovely haiku and the journey it took me on!
Though at first I imagined “sugar season” as indicating the season for cane-cutting, when sugar cane is harvested and sent to the mills and local kids get to suck the sugar juice from the freshly cut canes, I thought again and considered the 4th line + that “bucket”. I’d say “sugar season” here in context is definitely a Northern North American “season” : that of extracting sap from the indigenous maple trees and then concentrating it by boiling it down
The boy may be listening to the drip, drip of maple sap from a tree into the bucket, and I imagine he’s looking forward to the time when the sap is processed to maple syrup (which is sweet). It’s as likely, though, that he’d be listening to the thicker liquid that’s been boiled down. This process happens in what they call a “sugar shack”, which is warm from the boiling process. I imagine the boy is looking forward to the time when the sap is processed to maple syrup (which is sweet).
A very nicely done haiku which says just enough for readers to enter and infer the natural season (winter/spring edge) and the boy’s happy involvement in the whole process of making maple syrup. Pancake day isn’t too far away, I imagine.
Rupa Anand – unstated yet vivid sensory scope:
Thank you, Amoolya, for choosing this rather unusual poem. It opens with a kigo, the traditional seasonal reference that defines the season the poet wishes to highlight. It almost immediately catapults the reader into what is happening here. The two words of L1 took me, presumably, to sugarcane harvesting in India, as we have a lot of that in this part of the world.
However, L 2 and 3 were the real indicators of getting the geographical location right. I read in his interview with the Haiku Foundation in October 2021 that the poet, Brad Bennett is a member of the Sugar Maple Haiku Group. Bingo! So, that set the location in the US and the period of the maple syrup season as February to March when most sugar makers begin harvesting sap from maple trees.
Pure maple syrup is a natural and nutritious sweetener, a smart choice to use for topping off pancakes, ice cream or as an addition to family recipes. Did you know it takes 30 to 50 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup? Maple syrup is boiled down and concentrated sap. To tap a maple tree, you will need, among other things, a bucket with a cover (to keep things from falling in). Google videos depict traditional galvanised buckets hanging from maple trunks. The procedure for sap-tapping has many technicalities. Warm days are essential for the sap to run up from the roots and cold nights for the sap to run down back. It is this up and down movement that enables sap collection into containers or buckets. Then, later there is the method of boiling the sap to convert it into sweet maple syrup.
Lines 2 and 3 begin in the middle of things, so to speak, activating the experience of the moment. By way of language, there is brevity, simplicity, and an everyday charm to a hobby, obviously well understood and enjoyed. The tone is sincere, and there is both the subjective presence of the poet and the objective observation that I felt in this poem. The boy with his ear to the bucket could be a hired hand, or the farmer’s son assisting in sap collection. Perhaps, he has been instructed to put his ear to the bucket to determine the flow of sap? I’m a little unclear on this as he can open the lid and peep in. The sensory possibilities are vivid in an unstated manner. I can visualise the drip-drip of the sap into the bucket! Pancakes, anyone? On the flip side, I may be wrong.
Author Brad Bennet comments:
The Ipswich River Audubon Sanctuary in Topsfield, Massachusetts, USA is one of my favorite places to walk. It’s a great spot for birds, and I’ve seen deer, coyotes, muskrats, beavers, and otters there. They also tap sugar maples and boil their own syrup in a sugar shack on site.
One morning during late winter, I was walking past a stand of tapped maples when I heard the plink of a drop of sap in the nearest bucket. I started wondering if they all sounded the same. So, I walked around the grove, listening to each bucket’s sound, noting that they did, in fact, make different tones, perhaps because of the varied levels of sap and the angles of the buckets. The music of sugar maples. I first came up with this haiku:
a singular pitch
to each bucket
But I wondered if it left too little dreaming room for the reader. Later that morning, I walked past the maples again. I observed a family checking out the sap buckets, enjoyed one boy’s curiosity and glee, thought of different kigo (perhaps “sugar season” might be a little more novel and alluring than “sap season”), and came up with the haiku published in The Heron’s Nest:
a boy with his ear
to the bucket
Perhaps the boy in the poem is following Basho’s advice to tap into the dynamic, creative energy of nature, otherwise known as zoka. Thanks, Amoolya, for choosing my poem!
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Rupa Anand 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. All with respect for the poet. 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!
in my own skin
— Annette Makino
Frogpond 40:2, 2017
The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy.
Gratitude to all the readers who contributed such enjoyable commentaries this week. Hard to choose. Such valuable and rare feedback to a poet.
Brad Bennet, an elementary school teacher in the Boston area for over twenty years, is The Haiku Foundation’s co-chair of Education resources and also haiku and senryu editor for Frogpond. He won a Touchstone award for his first chapbook “a drop of pond” and his second, “a turn in the river” was nominated. His bio and some of his haiku may be read in THF’s Haiku Registry.
Brad’s views and advice on haiku appear in the series New to Haiku (October 21). In March last year he presented a workshop for Poetry Pea on Euphony in haiku (a subject I was pleased to see given some prominence).
Now for a little ramble. Readers’ reactions to Brad’s haiku, as with several verses that we’ve had in recent weeks, illustrate the importance that context may have. Sugar season means different things to different readers around the world. In North-east America, early spring and maple sap. In East Anglia, UK, autumn and the sugar beet harvest. In India, sugar cane and the winter season. In the Caribbean, all year sugar cane. A verse where readers outside the region, unfamiliar with maple syrup and the “bucket” clue, may have to do some research to arrive at the poet’s moment. But we all know about boys, and about sugar.
Taken to extremes, there are several examples of haiku in the literature where a less-than-universal meaning or appeal for readers is altered, diminished or lost without notes on the context — and whether a poem should need, or stand without, notes is an interesting subject. For me, a prime example is Shiki’s:
kaki kueba kane ga naru nari Hōryū-ji
persimmon eat bell of comes right after Hōryū-ji
There are various finished translations of this, often billed as Shiki’s greatest (with splendid alliteration in the romaji and no cutting-word, as far as I can see, but an implied pause before the final placename). For example:
I bite into a persimmon
and a bell resounds –
(tr. Janine Beichman)
as I eat a persimmon
the bell starts ringing
at Hooryuuji Temple
(tr. Susumu Takiguchi)
I confess it meant little to me before all the context of the haikuist’s reputation, his liking for persimmons (and eating a ripe one myself), his ailment and approaching bedridden death, and the Buddhist temple of Hōryū-ji. What if a healthy Fred Bloggs submitted:
“right after I bite into an apple a bell sounds — Wells”
… would it be acclaimed best-of-the-net?
… would it do better with a note that Wells, in Somerset, home of the cider apple, has a fine cathedral?
Leaving you with the questions…