Skip to content

re:Virals 379

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 Jennifer Gurney, was:

fourteen billion years
that’s all it took
to make today

— H. A. Sappho
Cold Moon Journal, April 19, 2022

Introducing this poem, Jennifer writes:

This is one of those poems that stops me in my tracks – to think, to reflect, to absorb, to enjoy. I invite you to do the same. I look forward to reading the musings on this elegant poem.

Opening comment:

This is one of Cold Moon Journal’s nominations for a Touchstone award, I think.

The universe is calculated to be 13.8 billion years old, and if you are a determinist, you wouldn’t have things any different from the way they are today. The thought isn’t new. I and countless others have reflected on it many times before. These lines test the conventional principles of what constitutes a haiku/senryu as contrasted with an aphorism, and I am curious to see how readers may evaluate them. For me, everything hinges on that word “all” — and then, it’s up to the reader to do the work.

Amoolya Kamalnath:

A haiku more like an aphorism. Does this go from large to small? Yes, a huge time period of fourteen billion years of the earth’s evolution from what was to what is. It only took that long to make this day. A long past to the present moment. There’s an irony or soft sarcasm in this more or less statement-like ku. The approximate age of the universe is fourteen billion years and this day needed all those billion years to become what it is at present, in the now.

The first line is long to show the lengthy time period and the lines get successively shorter until the line with ‘today’ is the shortest denoting the comparatively shorter time period.

ChatGPT chatbot:

In response to a short series of open questions from re:Virals:

“The phrase “fourteen billion years that’s all it took to make today” does not contain any specific image or sensory detail, but rather conveys a single idea or thought about the age of the universe. Haiku is a form of poetry that is known for its focus on imagery and sensory detail, often drawn from nature. Haiku typically aims to create a specific, vivid image in the reader’s mind through the use of concrete language and sensory detail, rather than simply conveying a single idea or thought. The phrase you provided does not include any specific sensory details or imagery, so it would not be considered a haiku in that respect. Additionally, haiku often incorporates a “turn,” or a shift in perspective, at the end of the second line, which is not present in the phrase you provided. Overall, the phrase does not adequately conform to the conventions of haiku. Neither is it a senryu. Senryu is a form of Japanese poetry that is similar to haiku but tends to focus more on human nature and emotions, rather than nature and the seasons as haiku often do. The phrase “fourteen billion years that’s all it took to make today” does not follow the thematic conventions of either form.”

Note: I have tried in recent conversations to wean ChatGPT’s AI off the strict syllable count of the traditional Japanese form where ELH is concerned. It prioritises 5-7-5, but has learned:

“There is no one “correct” way to write a haiku in English. Some poets choose to follow the traditional syllable count and structure very closely, while others take a more freeform approach. Ultimately, the most important thing is to create a poem that evokes emotion and captures a moment or feeling in a concise and evocative way.”

Sébastien Revon:

I cannot help but think of Basho’s haiku when I read Sappho’s haiku.

summer grass
all that remains
of warriors’ dreams

Natsukusa ya/ Tsuwamono domo ga/ Yume no ato

In Basho’s haiku we can see the kireji ya after L1. I almost read Sappho’s haiku as identical in its construction.

I think this verse is a haiku in the sense that it brings me into a state of contemplation and that contemplation already starts at the end of L1. This haiku has the mark of a modern verse as we only know recently that this world is supposedly fourteen billion years old. That simple fact in the verse just makes me smile and leads me to think that it has some political dimension to it.

Then we have that very important use of the past tense with “took”. L1 and L2 bound together bring me already in a state of tension. What will L3 say? I attach a great deal of importance to the timing of haiku reading. At the end of L2, I feel that my reading time is suspended, that something is gonna come and that I’m reading the verse in a slow motion. Time is slowing down just after the word “took”. That effect and the impact on the verse is more dramatic than if the word “takes” had been used, I think.

Then L3 is a proper aha! moment. Of course! The tension is resolved and the contemplation can really begin. I can start over from L1 and I seem to be engrossed in reading it again and again. Obviously there is no kigo in this verse but there is, I think, a juxtaposition just by the simple opposition of L1 and the word “today” in L3.

For all these reasons I consider this verse a haiku.

I can now discuss about the result of my contemplation. What is “today”? Is it the actual day I live in or is it as well any other day that will or has been a “today”, and this for the next billion years when the verse will have to be written as “fifteen billion years…” Just thinking this way makes me dizzy. What is today made of? All the micro-events that took place along the last fourteen billion years to make today. And if the verse was written a billion years ago, when no humans were there? Today would have been a dinosaur’s today. This haiku, at this stage, marks the time of humankind. We are here. It is us.

The verse makes me wonder about the nature of the concept of time. If we look at it through a scientific lens, time is not such an easy concept. But with this verse the concept itself becomes poetic. When I find poetry and contemplation in a verse, this is enough for me to call it a good verse.

Harrison Lightwater:

Made me smile. I might post this truism on the office noticeboard to cheer up my co-workers on January 2. Along with the motivational slogans already there: “Remember to think outside this box” and “Monday is the first day of the rest of your life.” A classic of its kind. Grateful to the author.

Best wishes to everyone and thanks to the Haiku Foundation.

Mark Gilbert — fourteen billion years in an instant:

An attempt to write a haiku about a single moment, “today,” but in this case the moment is very long, as old as the universe itself. To place our separate lives, concerns and complexities into the context of all the accidents, collisions, evolutions and random events which have caused us to arrive at this point. To remind us that everything we see and experience is connected to everything else in history. And of course tomorrow is a totally different day. To do it in ten words, to talk in terms of the physics of time, without using metaphor (a butterfly’s wings, anyone?), and without poetic artifice, so that it can be enjoyed by readers unfamiliar with the conventions of English language haiku. And a haiku that is open and thought-provoking. For instance, fourteen billion years may sound like an unimaginably long time, but it depends on perception. It might pass in an instant, if one was asleep. I think it achieves all that.


Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Mark 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 haddock
poaching in warm milk
first light

— Alan Peat
Wales Haiku Journal, summer 2022

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.


From Otoliths online, where you may read H. A. Sappho’s longer poem “Gone Under The Umbrella:”

H. A. Sappho is a native of Los Angeles with expat time spent in Prague, Berlin, and Hanoi. His baseline interest is archetypal psychology. His work can be found in About Place Journal, Adelaide, Eunoia, and in nine self-published books of poetry and prose collectively named the Puer Cycle.

A.I. is catching up fast, although ChatGPT’s own haiku are somewhat high school. It is not yet equipped with the ability to walk and see for itself nor is it free of human supervision. We are familiar with the idea of robots learning to think like humans. But I also wonder whether human intelligence is learning to think like robots.

This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. fourteen billion years
    that’s all it took
    to make today

    — H. A. Sappho
    Cold Moon Journal, April 19, 2022

    Wow! A ‘headline haiku’, and in 2022! (I’d thought that fad had come and gone long ago.)

    It takes me back., though. While I’ve never been fond of ‘headline haiku’ I admit to having liked ‘computer haiku’. . . several decades ago, now. Hey, they’re still online! :-) Brings back memories.

    With searching comes loss
    And the presence of absence:
    “My novel” not found.

    The Tao that is seen
    Is not the true Tao, until
    You bring fresh toner.
    Stay the patient course.
    Of little worth is your ire.
    The network is down.
    A crash reduces
    Your expensive computer
    To a simple stone.
    Three things are certain:
    Death, taxes, and lost data.
    Guess which has occurred.
    You step in the stream,
    But the water has moved on.
    This page is not here.
    10,000 Things
    How long do any persist?
    Explorer is gone.

    Server: poor response
    Not quick enough for browser
    Time out, plum blossom.

  2. Mark Gilbert: “But is haiku poetry?”

    It astonishes me that some people (though perhaps not Mark, I can’t be sure) do not regard haiku as poetry.

    Matt Cariello: “On a linguistic level, haiku make meaning in the same was as do poems, via use of basic conceptual metaphors that operate in automatic ways.”

    The last word I would use in relation to poetry is “automatic.” Am I a romantic in this, a pre-artificial intelligence idealist?
    Perhaps Matt will expand on this.

    Perhaps Lorin will help out.

    1. By “automatic,” I mean that there are certain innate, unconscious, and unavoidable metaphors by which we live, that are revealed to us by the way we use language. Poets use these metaphors in old or new combinations to articulate that which is tacitly, experientially, known.
      Take a look at my essay in Modern Haiku from 2010:
      Also see

    2. Meg: I think we are all romantics.

      full moon
      two independent robots
      fall in love

      What’s your view of the poem under consideration? We seem to have an engaging variety.

      1. I don’t have much useful to say about this week’s entry.

        fourteen billion years
        they all come down
        to flowers

        Or breakfast, maybe.

    3. Wish I could help out, Meg, but can’t think of anything that’d be helpful. Of course I agree with you that haiku is an acknowledged form of poetry, as is the sonnet, the ode, the villanelle, ‘free verse’, etc.. . . (and like any other form of poetry, some haiku . . .and senryu . . . are excellent and some are really awful, and there’ll be different opinions as to which is what.

      But I think Matt’s ” . . . basic conceptual metaphors that operate in automatic ways” relates to the metaphors themselves, which are part of any language culture, rather than to poems, where (I hope!) authors select the metaphors they’ll use, sometimes well and sometimes not. Whomever initiated the adage “a rolling stone gathers no moss” didn’t do it automatically.
      (Ah, I see now that Matt has added comments here on the thread)
      I can hardly wait for next week to see what readers make of Alan Peat’s ‘poached fish for breakfast’ ku.

      1. “Whomever initiated the adage ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’ didn’t do it automatically.” True. It’s origin is probably based on observations of the natural world. But the way we understand this *as metaphor* is inherent in our conceptual systems. We know – without even thinking about it – that the adage really has nothing to do with stones and moss. We know that it’s really about people: a person (the stone) who is always active will never be encumbered by limitations (the moss). We can do this because everyone already understands that a specific instance has a generic parallel. The process of moving from specific to generic is how all proverbs work, and how all poetry works. Conceptual metaphors aren’t created by poets (forgive me for quoting myself here): “Poets ‘extend, compose and compress’ conceptual metaphors within the parameters of language, and our reading of and ability to engage with poems depends on how we interpret and understand these manipulations as we read.”

        1. ” We know that it’s really about people: a person (the stone) who is always active will never be encumbered by limitations (the moss). ” – Matt
          Hmmm . . . I’ve always interpreted the adage this way : the stones that roll about gather no moss and the person who “rolls about” here , there and everywhere in their life gathers no wealth, no steady friends etc. and cannot stay and rest. Moss is a lovely cushion.
          “Poets ‘extend, compose and compress’ conceptual metaphors within the parameters of language, and our reading of and ability to engage with poems depends on how we interpret and understand these manipulations as we read.” – Matt

          Yes, true :-) And W.B. Yeats does a superb job of spelling it out for us in his ‘High Talk’.

    4. I was just aiming at the idea that haiku is ‘above’ poetry. One of the worst insults I’ve seen aimed at a haiku is that it is ‘just a free form poem’. There’s an awful lot of effort put into labelling haiku as ‘not a haiku’, the use of checklists etc. I don’t see this in the wider poetry community (as much).

      1. I’m probably revealing my dunderheadedness this week, but Mark, by “above” poetry do you mean “better than”, “purer than”, or something like that?

        Just to say, too, in relation to what Matt says, I tend to think that poets have more interest in the *unknown*, in what can only be suggested or inferred, than in what is or can be known. But I may be quibbling. I’ll give his essay a read.

        1. Yes I do mean ‘better’ than. I’ve certainly seen it suggested by certain haiku poets that haiku is different to poetry, or separate from it, or that isn’t merely another form of poetry, like a limerick or a sonnet. It’s so much more than just a form of poetry, seems to be the inference. This seems to be related to the idea that haiku can’t be defined, unlike other poetic forms. So yes, I have seen this attitude (apologies I don’t have any specific examples to hand).

  3. I see it like Matt (and the chatbot — thank you for that, must investigate!). It is hard to see insight, creativity or poetic value added to the known fact. The irony is the redeeming aspect of the statement, for me. Maybe not haiku, but is it what Keith has called “zappai?”

    Was the writer approached for comment? I saw from the short bio that his interest is archetypal psychology, and I do wonder if this might even be an experiment to see how “the haiku establishment” reacts?

    1. Yes, it is rather zappai, I think. See: “The Distinct Brilliance of Zappai: Misrepresentations of Zappai in the New HSA Definitions”
      —Richard Gilbert & Shinjuku Rollingstone, Simply Haiku 3.1, 2005, for a well-argued exposition on zappai, their context and merits.

      And “A Certain Tightness in the Chest: Sarasen (salaryman Senryū) on 3-11, Covid-19, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, And Other Such Catastrophes”
      —Adam L. Kern, JUXTASeven, A journal of haiku research and scholarship, ed. Ce Rosenow et. al., The Haiku Foundation 2021 pp 11 – 87, for the current state of zappai in Japan.

      I did approach H. A. Sappho, who politely declined to comment, on the grounds that “poets commenting on their own poems is like caging sunlight” (a view with which I have sympathy, but it perhaps doesn’t help the craft of poetry).

      On experiments in haiku, there is of course an article some haikuists might prefer to forget (but which appeals to me as a scientist by formation) in an old edition (2006) of Simply Haiku: “Modern Haiku: A Second-Class Art” by Kuwabara Takeo, Translated by Mark Jewel. Available in the THF Library here. The author chose ten haiku by well-known poets and five by unknowns, removed the names, and tested them on readers….

      1. Richard Gilbert’s article is interesting where it argues that zappai in Japan are part of a rich tradition including haiku, senryu and other forms. Outside of Japan I feel there’s a ‘narrowing’ going on with haiku, instead of an ‘opening up’, a desire to keep it ‘pure’ and untainted.

  4. ChatGPT’s definition is pretty good – maybe it should be up on The Haiku Foundation homepage?

    1. Alas, ChatGPT is hung up on 5-7-5 but after I challenged it on English Language Haiku and with translations from Japanese masters into English, it acknowledged that “I go/you stay/two autumns” was a famous haiku. It then blew a fuse asked for specifications of haiku in English. But it learned in a matter of ten minutes. To get these rather good comments on haiku thematic and structural conventions I had to ask it a series of open questions on aspects of the genre, using the verse under consideration for its analysis.

      I’ve seen a number of media articles about AI and the arts, where almost invariably the human critic dismisses the robotic AI as inferior. They are, I feel, missing the point: which is the amazing speed at which AI is developing and improving. It took Big BLue about fifteen years to beat the world champs at chess; another five or so to beat the Go champion. Set that against the, say, five and a half thousand years in which human written language developed. I wouldn’t be smug about AI’s present limitations.

      1. “It learned”. Did you use the carrot or the stick?

        Seriously, it would be relatively easy to feed it 100,000 published haiku to teach it how to write a publishable haiku (this is already done with pop records). It would probably take a few milliseconds for it to learn.

  5. It’s a stretch to call this a haiku. There’s no imagery, no cut, no kigo, no metaphoric resonance. The line breaks are obvious and there’s no sense of using language to make meaning. In other words, there’s no poetry. The only thing interesting is the ironic “all,” which gives it an epigrammatic quality.

    1. No kigo, no imagery, that’s right. No metaphoric resonance maybe but there is a resonance between the verse and me.
      No cut? Saying that, for me, is like saying “summer grass” Basho’s haiku has not cut.
      I’d be curious to read a translation of this verse in Japanese. If I was competent in that field I would put the kireji ya after 14 billion years like a ya as well after old pond in Basho’s frog…

Comments are closed.

Back To Top