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:
I wake with my head on
a stranger’s shoulder
— Jenny Shepherd
Haiku Dialogue, The Haiku Foundation, 16 November 2022
Introducing this poem, Amoolya writes:
Has this happened to you? I’m sure many of us can relate to this delightful and humorous senryu. Either our head on someone’s shoulder, or even vice versa. How would you react to the situation? Would you find it embarassing or funny? Would you laugh it off? Waiting to read the various responses.
A fine senryu recounting an experience, it scores highly on warm humour, humanity, universality and plain words. Written in the present tense, it brings the reader into a scene which, even if you have not done this yourself, is immediately authentic.
We could reflect on the possibilities. The lines do not tell us whether the stranger was a man or woman, elderly or young. Would it make any difference to their reaction, or to the speaker’s? Possibly. But possibly not. There’s scope for meditation, for reflection, too. Over all, to place your head on someone’s shoulder implies affection and trust; as does offering your own shoulder to some stranger’s head. Yet we are wary of strangers, and we warn our children of “stranger danger.” Here, fatigue has caused the poet/reader to drop their guard, and look! — it turns out that the stranger is helpful, caring and tolerant, after all. That we should have to travel such a long distance to discover this…
Neat, simple and effective.
I love the imagery that Jenny’s haiku evokes: intimacy with a stranger-turned-friend by virtue of travel proximity. Although in Jenny’s poem, one can imagine the awkwardness that experience might have caused, other travel situations can have more positive outcomes.
Her poem immediately called to mind a friendship forged on a plane ride years ago that I’d all but forgotten. The woman beside me and I talked nonstop for the entire four-hour flight, which I never do. As we were landing, she asked for my address. I was happy to share it with her, because by then we were friends. To my utter delight, a few weeks later, a lovely book on canning arrived at my door. A hard-to-find book that I mentioned in our hours-long conversation.
Jenny’s haiku gave that really sweet memory back to me. Guess it wasn’t truly forgotten after all. Loved your haiku, Jenny!
A relatable and humorous poem from Jenny Shepherd.
This happened to me once, on a flight from London to Dublin. It was highly embarrassing since this is only a 45 minute flight—but it was after a Christmas party!
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step,” said Lao Tsu. To achieve our goals and our dreams, we need to begin somewhere. Living in this fast-paced world, we are all caught up in a race, a competition. We never stop to ponder whether what we are doing is what we really want. The pressure of winning and only being taught to look at results leads to being overwhelmed, causing depression and anxiety. When we stop overthinking it makes the path much clearer, easier, and more importantly, enjoyable. If we stop overthinking, we begin enjoying the little moments of life that help to constitute a successful life. Jenny didn’t overthink her fatigue. Sleep came, she slept, and she awoke!
Jenny’s charming senryu of just under 17 syllables tells me just this! The poem is easy, direct and informal and in the first person. We don’t know where the poet is coming from or where she is going or why. Judging from the number of miles clocked, initially, I thought it could be a trans-Atlantic flight. But Google informs me that from the UK (assuming the poet lives here) to New York is 3,256 miles. So this is further out! Readers can do their own mathematics and guesswork. Possibly, she may have been tired packing for the trip, or the flight may have been delayed or her body fatigued after the six-thousand-mile flight. We do know that she was tired enough to fall asleep and rest. And awaken to find her head on a stranger’s shoulder. She shows no embarrassment, just an objective observation. It allows insight into another person’s temperament. The stranger must have been a nice, accommodating chap (oops!). Or a lady, or a teenager or just anybody for that matter to permit such extensive nodding. The reader may fill in the blanks pertaining to the gender, age, and nationality of the ‘stranger’. There’s dream space that the poem offers. It’s, I presume, an economy flight, as business or first-class passengers do not have the luxury of such close encounters!
This senryu has human content, related to human behaviour expressed in a humorous manner. It is essentially an observation, albeit a personal one, with nothing profound or sublime about it, unlike a haiku. Well, Jenny, since you presumably were well-rested after the journey, I trust you didn’t suffer the proverbial jet lag or fatigue on arrival.
This is such a sweet senryu that describes a brief moment in the haiku/senryu tradition but also implies a much longer passage of time. The break is after the first line where time is not mentioned – just distance. So it’s a long haul flight (from London to Hong Kong maybe) and hours may have passed.
Then comes the waking moment, the aha moment (or in this case the uh oh moment or the ha ha moment) with the realisation that the writer has been sleeping on a stranger’s shoulder and who knows how long the stranger has had to sit, quite still, so as not to disturb the sleeping poet? The verse is full of gentle humour and the scene it describes could be from a romcom. I imagine the smiles and embarrassment of both parties and I want to know what happens next.
I read these three lines and now a whole film is playing in my head…
Harrison Lightwater — natural and subtle with plenty of space:
It is pleasing to see lines that do not rely on contorted disruption to contrive some poetic effect (real or imagined). It is not easy to find good ones in the ordinary words that Basho advocated.
In this sketch from life there is no obvious juxtaposition of two or more images, no fancy decoration, no seemingly profound personal insight by the writer (such as: six-thousand-mile flight/the goose in me/takes wings). What there is, is facts in harmony. Line 1 sets up the phrase that follows. “Six-thousand-mile flight” shows any reader who has flown a distance many things. We are taken out of our home environment, we are trapped on a plane, time has slowed down. “I wake” follows, showing that the writer had fallen asleep, naturally, but the word has plenty of acquired meaning beyond the physical one of returning to a conscious state. Shock, horror! A social sin has been committed. With a “stranger”! That word too carries some warning. (What went through my mind was: “how very English!” I don’t know whether the poet is English, and maybe I shouldn’t admit to stereotyping, but would not be at all surprised.)
Now, we are not shown what happens next, so we may indulge in some pleasant speculation putting ourselves either in the writer’s position or in the stranger’s, or both at once. We are shown, again by inference, that it is okay. We assume that the writer is inoffensive, and we see that the stranger has not repudiated this act of unconscious trust. What can we draw from this?
Thank you Jenny. I enjoyed reading and thinking about this senryu, and I think it’s a very good one, natural and subtle, with plenty of space. Please don’t tell us you made it up!
Author Jenny Shepherd:
This incident came immediately to mind when I saw the word Encounters, as part of “the Good Wander: The Art of Pilgrimage” sequence of themes.
I was on my way to Hong Kong and Taiwan for the first time in ten years, when I was about 26 years old. In those days, they were much longer flights, and it was impossible to stay awake. I had actually chatted a little bit with the handsome young man next to me, but was mostly engrossed in reading ‘Midnight’s Children’ for most of the flight. The shock of waking on his shoulder has stayed with me ever since, but oddly, I have no memory of how he reacted…
I think the main issue with writing it was my concern that the kireji was at the end of the first line, rather than the second one. I did consider changing the order to:
I wake with my head
on a stranger’s shoulder:
but it just didn’t feel right, as I felt I needed to “set the scene” by showing it was a very long flight, not just a train or bus journey, so I had some excuse!
Concerning the choice of words: I am a fan of alliteration and assonance, so I liked the repeated “s” in “six”, “stranger” and “shoulder”, and the assonance of “mile” and “flight”, and “wake” and “stranger”. There was also something about the repeated “er” endings of “stranger’s shoulder”, as well as the rhythm of that phrase, which I felt was important.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, and an entertaining one it is, Harrison 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!
a heron’s flight
— Goran Lowie
Wales Haiku Journal, Autumn 2022
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Jenny Shepherd was raised in Taiwan, where her father, a missionary and professor of English, was also an accomplished poet who wrote haiku in the 5-7-5 format. Jenny followed suit. She subsequently worked for the BBC World Service and various charities. Settled in London, she is a member of The Poetry Society, and runs the branch in her area. She is also the newly-elected Communications Officer of the British Haiku Society. Her haiku and senryu may be viewed in the Haiku Foundation’s Haiku Dialogue, Poetry Pea and Scarlet Dragonfly Journals, and Blithe Spirit; and haibun in The Haibun Journal and Failed Haiku.