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.
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.
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.
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.”
I cannot help but think of Basho’s haiku when I read Sappho’s haiku.
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.
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!
poaching in warm milk
— Alan Peat
Wales Haiku Journal, summer 2022
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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.