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 Amanda White, was:
of the herd
— Eva Limbach
Failed Haiku issue 76, April 2022
Introducing this poem, Amanda writes:
Eva’s haiku evokes the Eliotesque relevance of a modern world and within this condensed offering manages with the deft selection of key words to portray the complexity and at times meaninglessness of human relationships personal, societal, global. We reassess the themes of a wasteland and the philosophical and political reference to the herd. It invites us to question ourselves and our world – that most corrosive yet compelling draw towards contentment.
Poet Eva takes two established phrases to set up a nicely-balanced and economical verse to which all can relate. Again I ask myself: is this cliché, intertextuality, “third axis,” “depth”…? At any rate, it works. My rammeled mind immediately pictured goats munching their way through a rubbish tip.
In the context of land, “waste” originally meant the uninhabited wilderness; then unfarmed land in nobody’s ownership (the commons) and latterly the term “wasteland” evokes any scene of barren land, or land “wasted” in its newer sense — rendered uninhabitable by some agency. It also, for anglophone readers of a literary bent, references figurative uses from Trollope onwards, above all T S Eliot’s poem of disillusionment, harsh satire and judgment, The Waste Land: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust….”
“The contentment of the herd” summons up the collective of grazing animals, especially farmed animals, unconscious of their ultimate fate. “Herd” was also used by Nietsche to describe a morality that he argued was against natural instincts: human individuals were becoming, as he saw it, “a smaller, almost ridiculous type, a herd animal, something eager to please, sickly, and mediocre.”
In the current conjuncture of human-induced climate change, overpopulation and consumption, exploitation and pollution, it is all too easy to visualise Eva’s wasteland. Are we content to graze the Earth to the point where it becomes uninhabitable? There is a strongly implied criticism and a call to action. Or should we let go of resistance and accept the way things are, and be content while we may? To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them?
Amidst all the epiphanies induced by fireflies or geese or Grandma’s home cooking, there’s surely a place for harder-hitting verses like this.
Good haiku, to me, make me imagine, think and feel. Eva’s poem does all that in a lovely way.
Eva evokes images of wide-open land, perhaps prairie land in pioneer times, in this week’s haiku. “Wasteland” to some, perhaps, but treasure to a herd in search of land on which to graze, roam and live. The same could be said of my homestate of 31 years, Colorado. Early explorers to Colorado in the Long Expedition characterized Colorado as a desert unfit for farming. For decades, pioneers avoided Colorado, other than in search of gold and other precious natural resources. Later when the Fremont expeditions came here, they sent word back east that Colorado was, in fact, rich in farmland, and the tide turned. Countless people and herds settled here on wide-open prairies. In what had formerly been thought of as wasteland they found a home, land, farming and ranching … in a word: contentment.
Eva’s haiku tugged at this theme for me. One person’s waste is truly another’s treasure. I’m not sure this was her intent – are we ever sure?
The haiku also got me thinking about how our language is becoming a wasteland! As a teacher and writer, I abhor the use of lower case i (except when emulating ee cummings), the deterioration of grammar, acronyms that no one over 15 or so understands, and “lazy” spelling (e.g.. your for you’re). These have budged into schoolwork and even “journalistic” print in an insidious way of late and are hard to eradicate for even the best of teachers. Or editors, it appears. Many people’s minds have just shifted to text-speak. They’re so familiar with this format of abbreviated, casual, on-the-fly communication that they have forgotten how to edit or how to filter their thoughts. Eva’s use of the word “wasteland” captures this phenomenon for me. “Contentment of the herd” speaks to this as well. So many people have become complacent with language. It is sad and frustrating for those of us who still see a need to communicate with clarity and for a true purpose. Sometimes it seems that this tendency creeps into haiku too. What do others think?
And so, Eva’s enigmatic haiku could mean a thousand things. Or this. It made me think, wonder, question and feel. Truly remarkable.
When I read a haiku, I usually seek for one thing: emotion(s). I particularly like haiku that leave me with mixed emotions. Here, in this senryu, I feel like only my reason, the rational mind, has to work. I find it quite unsettling. So I guess and think it is a politiku.
I first wanted to clarify the definition of wasteland: “an unused area of land that has become barren or overgrown” or, “a bleak and unused or neglected urban or industrial area.”
So how could a herd be content with that? If we imagine a herd of bovines or ovines, we’d think that they’d rather “enjoy” finding a piece of overgrown land to feast on. For me, the obvious political implication is that we, all of us, are the herd and then, all of us seem content with this wasteland. Surely not…I personally take this statement as a sarcastic and gloomy one. Our planet is becoming a wasteland that we are responsible for. We cannot be content with that, so this senryu works on the opposition of two layers of meaning depending on who is the herd: an animal or human one. The animal herd will be happy with the wasteland, taking the “overgrowth” meaning of the word. By opposition, the human herd cannot be content with the definition of a wasteland in its “neglected” sense of the definition.
The human herd knows the direction it is taking towards a land being literally wasted. Nevertheless, our leaders and financial deciders have no interest in changing that, because it is not profitable to reduce our negative impact on Earth. When all will be wasted eventually then the land will have become a wasteland, available for other species. There will be nobody left to be content.
Is this a senryu? Is this a haiku? I think it is a haiku and I hope I’m right. In just 6 words and 9 syllables, the poet has conveyed such a deep meaning. Assonance and half-rhyme have been employed in this ku. A question that came to my mind is, “Can the article ‘the’ be used twice in the same ku?”
A wasteland is an unused area of land that has become barren or overgrown. The poet captures the image of a herd of cattle invading a wasteland where there could be overgrown grass or wild plants and chewing on them. As they eat to their heart’s content, they leave the place to go and rest or to go back with their cowherds.
A wasteland was able to give such contentment to the cattle herd. Are we humans contented ever? We all want something more, at whatever stage of life we are in at present. We are never contented. We want to amass more wealth, property etc. Someone who doesn’t own a house or a decent bank balance is looked down upon by others, generally. Even they themselves feel unworthy and strive hard to climb up the ladder and in the process, some become greedy and greed has no end to it.
Another way to see the ku would be that the cattle go to a barren land and are just content to laze around chewing the cud. Sometimes people are contented with unproductive or useless things and don’t want to progress and this could be a herd mentality where some youngsters see other youngsters whiling away their time (to them, enjoying life) and follow the same path being content with that. They want an easy-going life and don’t want to work for any progress. They expect freebies from the Government or from other people and are just happy to continue living that way.
On the whole, I think this poem sends out a strong social message.
Rupa Anand — a deep dissatisfaction and disconnect with nature.:
“April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land …”
These opening lines of that famous poem The Waste Land by T S Eliot leaped at me upon reading this brief, stunning, heavily laden nine-syllable poem. L1 — wasteland
conjures up a plethora of things – dry, arid, parched, infertile land uncultivated, barren land; illness, difficulty, trials, tribulations, discontent, brokenness and loss. And lack of integrity, no spiritual evolution, intellectual decay. L2 contentment — and yet, despite everything the valuable ability to see the glass full. There is a deep sense of acceptance, of living in the NOW. L3 of the herd — it could be the migration of the wildebeest in the Masai Mara; a herd of elephants, cattle or antelopes in search of better grazing, food and water.
Juxtaposed here is the attitude of animals versus the attitude of humans forever complaining, cribbing, not accepting life’s presentations, wanting to change the world, so on and so forth). With animals, there is an unquestionable acceptance of life as it unfolds. They accept, adapt, adjust and do as nature intended them to do in any given situation.
This poem brings to my mind Upanishadic content- the dualism present in life; our likes towards what we consider conducive and our dislike towards that which is not; our mental attitude towards and the non acceptance of harsh situations; a deep dissatisfaction and disconnect with nature. Compare and contrast our responses with our animal brethren and see their joy and happiness as the realities of life and living happen in their lives. An enjoyable poem with deep import.
Author Eva Limbach:
A tiny statement. We live in a difficult time. Worldwide wars, conflicts, corona, climate change and so much more. Although each individual complains, society lives on as if there were no tomorrow.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. Very difficult to choose just one. 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.
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at the base of a redwood lessons on perspective
— GRIX (Robin Anna Smith — pronouns they, them)
Frogpond 44.2, 2021
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Amoolya wonders whether this is a haiku or a senryu. On the one hand it is ostensibly about nature. On the other, it has no kigo or season, and by implication its target is the human condition. So, I’d say senryu — but how much does the label matter? Amoolya also asks whether one can use the definite article twice in a haiku. My answer would be: if it is essential to avoid distorting the meaning, then yes. But if a more elegant, equally natural way may be found without the repetition, choose that. There are shades of meaning. Alan Summers’ clear exposition with examples is well worth reading at: http://area17.blogspot.com/2018/03/the-definite-and-indefinite-article-how.html
Jennifer Gurney moves from the general to the particular “wasteland” of our much-abused English language. Over the decades we have stripped our tiny poems of capitalisations, punctuations and sometimes grammar. Frequently I see mis-spelling in edited haiku journals; and sometimes, the wrong word from the wrong root misused by hapless poets. The problem is compounded by the deterioration of written language in mainstream media, by text-speak, and perhaps by a focus on spoken rather than written information. Those who despair and comment are accused of pedantry. But when words are used inaccurately, carelessly or in ignorance, are not thoughts woolly too? There’s a transmission loss. Your views?! Meanwhile, Allyson Whipple’s workshop on punctuation in haiku, for Poetry Pea, is worth a look.
Mind you, there’s a silver lining. One of my favourite sequences:
in the truck’s breeze
after hot sex
a higher fence
the new guy brags
about his RPG
the grand canyon
the double-parked car
is a cop’s
rain on both sides
of the house
the cherries blooming now
in the far north
the fallen politician’s
the neighbor’s teen
too old for Halloween
the crows louder
than the woodpecker
— Michael Dylan Welch
Frogpond 31-3 Fall 2008