Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly commentary feature on some of your favorites among the best contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. This week’s poem, proposed by Patricia McGuire, was:snow on reeds the hush of a barn owl across the fen — Christopher Jupp Poetry Pea Journal 3:22 (Judges Choice) 2022
Introducing this poem, Patricia writes:
This haiku is one of my absolute favourite haiku from 2022. It is a proper haiku, not a short poem masquerading as one. It has a kigo: snow indicates winter. In this case snow is on the reeds. This elevates the kigo and adds another dimension. It has a cut: a short pause, but it’s there, after the first line, creating a hint of juxtaposition. The phrase element has rhythm. Sometimes I think this has gone out of fashion in haiku. The sound is beautiful. All those “s” sounds connect throughout the haiku.
I imagine Christopher watching this scene, walking across the fen, perhaps composing as he goes along. It has authenticity, and a certain melancholic feel. I would like to know whether and how other readers think he has achieved it.
A haiku well rooted in tradition. Four visual elements, snow, reeds, owl and fen, carefully arranged in subtle juxtaposition. Each is relatable to the others. There is no disruption: the whole arrangement of distinct elements combines in harmony. Toriawase. There is the silence of the snow, the owl’s flight, and the still waters of the marshy fen; the whiteness of snow and owl. These bind the elements together. There is chiaroscuro — I assume it is night, from the owl, and we have the dark waters; there is action. A hint of mystery, a touch of awe. A fragment of a story about to begin, in plain words, without verb or adjective. No direct presence of the poet, no sentimental nor sententious thought, no indeterminate pronoun.
This is an artistic verse in the manner of Buson. I would compare it with the likes of:
mist among grasses,
—Buson (tr Rosenstock)
There is a similar, unspoken feeling of faint sadness in Christopher’s haiku. Instead of the acceptance conveyed by Buson’s beautiful haiku, we are left with a sense of haunting expectancy by the snow, the bird of omen, and the still fen.
Well composed and crafted, I’d say.
Christopher Jupp’s haiku provides lovely imagery both visually and auditorily. In the winter, when the world is covered in snow, sounds and sights are often muted. Each image in this haiku – snow, reeds, barn, owl, fen – can be seen insularly and also together. The visual of reeds sticking up out of the snowy ground, with snow also capping them above their tubular stems, is a stark contrast. White on brown against white on top of brown. A lovely layered look. The quiet sounds of the barn owl across the fen gives an echo-y feel to the haiku. And another stark visual image of the implied red barn across a snow-ensconced field. The owl is either gently hooting or perhaps just fluttering its wings from afar. Barn owls are pretty magical creatures, with their heart-shaped faces, their swiveling heads and their haunting calls that sound very shriek like. This one is not shrieking, though, because it’s described as the “hush of a barn owl.”
Each image in Jupp’s haiku reminds me of the lake that I walk to almost daily in Colorado. There are barns, owls, reeds, a field and my little lake. It’s not actually mine but it feels that way. For nearly four years now I have journeyed there in every season and have many moments like this one that Jupp describes. One winter day, as I was gazing at a red barn dusted with snow, an owl swooped right in front of me as I hiked on the path. A few moments later, a horse and rider passed me, and the sound of jingle bells danced in my ears. It was just days before Christmas. These magical moments stay with you, just like Jupp’s haiku will.
On reading this haiku I thought well, this is a pleasing sketch or composition, which makes no demands. Its parts work together to draw a clear picture. It ticks the boxes of season, cut, and form (2-3-2 beats). The words are uncomplicated. The viewpoint is detached — there’s no ego in it. It reads and sounds well, with its long “reeds” and “owl” satisfyingly closed at the end of the verse by “fen.” The one concession to Byron is the rhapsodic “hush.” For me this isn’t overdoing it and is a good change from worn-to-death “silence,” it’s conveniently shorter, and reads better. It could be used in class.
While the haiku is a sweet description, isn’t it a bit short of insight? Many experts argue that an “aha” moment is another essential in haiku. Where is it in this one? Although silent snowy reeds are put with a mostly white and silent barn owl hunting in winter, which makes a nice little painting, is there anything more? Does the last line add something apart from a wider setting (“reeds” already suggest waterside)? Does the phrase make you see the fragment in a new light? I hope other commentators will help me out in this.
All said, I enjoyed the scenario and don’t want to be a Grinch. There’s a lot of good about it.
I wanted to say aaahhh as soon as I read this, as the focus zooms out from the snow-tipped reeds via the wings of the swooping owl to the vastness of the fen. Beautiful.
I like the visuals in this. Most owls makes their sounds at night whether they be the who who I’m familiar with or the blood curdling scream. Now we see the reeds, that could clatter, held quiet by snow, the owl silenced by either day or lack of prey in this weather. For me, the absence of sound is as loud in its own way as an actual sound. There’s a meditative feel in the silence. The haiku is well written.
This is a haiku with snow as kigo for winter and L1 setting the scene. The second word depicts silence or death. A significant snow cover leads to starvation of barn owls. This is a major cause of death of the species. Now the image painted is a poignant one. There is rich imagery with a strong juxtaposition. It shows, doesn’t tell. It evokes the feelings in the reader with so many questions in the mind about why and how the described event occurred. This ku also answers three questions – what, when, where. L1 answers to when, L2 to what and L3 to where. A fen is a low and marshy or frequently flooded area of land.
The barn owl is a bird of open country, usually at altitudes below 2,000 metres (6,600 ft). This owl prefers to hunt along the edges of woods or in rough grass strips adjoining pasture.
There are so many windows in a haiku. Through our culture, experiences, and realization capacity we enter it. I personally think the mood we are in when we read the haiku too plays a part. To get the real depth of a haiku we must not go through it in haste. When scanning a haiku you go into meditation for a moment. At that moment you and the poem remain and all the surroundings fade away. For this to happen the poet who writes the haiku should be talented enough. The reader too is open enough.
Now let us look at this poem. The poet draws a picture in front of us. From our five senses, the poem touches the visual perception. By writing the first line as “snow on reeds” he takes us to the place and time where this story happens. It suggests that we are in the latter part of the winter. There is some snow left on the reeds. Misty surroundings. While reading these words we almost feel the chilly weather.
Then we come to the second line: “the hush of a barn owl.” Since owls are nocturnal creatures we know that it is night. In haiku, we say plenty using only a few words. Barn owls are usually seen within the hours on either side of dawn and dusk. But why use the word hush? I assume the keyword in this poem is “hush.” Without making any sound the owl is present. Owls symbolize wisdom, knowledge, and insight into hidden things.
Now we come to the third line: “across the fen.” This completes the picture. In the end, the poet has left us with a vast room to think more and more. A beautiful haiku keeping with the rules. I enjoyed it very much. After writing this I closed my eyes for a moment and the vision I got in my imagination was almost tangible.
Jonathan Epstein – a perfect haiku:
A noiseless winter scene. On its way to a nearby marsh (UK: fen) a heart-faced white barn owl flies in silent pursuit of its prey, possibly sighting a particular small mammal or setting out on a destination known to be a reliable food source.
Christopher Jupp’s haiku is a sumi-e painting in white (snow, owl), black (reeds) and gray (overcast sky). The images engage our senses — sight (snow, owl, fen), sound (the noiseless flapping of owl wings) and touch (cold snow).
We are adjacent to or near a fen, a wetland with a tremendous diversity of water plants and animal life — birds, insects, frogs, voles, shrews… If you are the owl’s prey, you will likely only feel (not hear) a brush of wind just before the owl’s talons sink into you and carry you swiftly back to its hollow in a tree “across the fen.” The softness of the owl’s wing tip feathers make its flight noiseless; hence, “the hush of a barn owl.”
The peaceful, snowy wetlands is soon to be witness to the dramatic death of a small animal as “nature” contributes to its population balancing act.
This is an everyday occurrence in the wilds. It is the calm of “all quiet on the western front.” The “enemy” is on route, the innocent, unknowing prey has been sighted, and a life is about to end. Such is the way of the world. “Nature red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson). Totally natural on the one hand, horrific for the unsuspecting “victim.”
I tally the words that contribute to the quiet beauty of this scene: snow, reeds, hush, barn owl, fen. The final word, “fen,” tips the balance. It references a complex, self-contained world positively teeming with life. It’s a word I associate with 19th century gothic novels— connoting (for me) something mysterious, at least from my American point of view. The poem would lose its subtle ‘yugen’ quality if the synonym “marsh” had been used.
In the quiet, seemingly static world painted in this poem (no verb is used), a scene of winter calm, action is quietly in process — the owl is in flight and one-pointedly fixed on its next meal — and I am in the holy presence of a perfect haiku.
Author Christopher Jupp:
This haiku was written in celebration of a highly memorable bird, place and landscape: a fenscape. For me the fen in question is very specific – having grown up in Cambridge, the fenlands of Cambridgeshire were one of my regular haunts as a budding amateur ornithologist in childhood. I have regularly returned. Though a starkly flat landscape, in compensation the fens offer big skies, an often entirely straight, open horizon line and distinctive lowland and marsh flora and fauna. In the winter they can certainly be bleak but with moments of sometimes unexpected beauty, such as the silent delicacy of snow balanced on the feathery tops of reeds, the hovers and glides of a barn owl in flight…
Around the time of writing I had been experimenting with the re-translation of some classical Japanese haiku into words of only one English syllable each. I tried the same procedure in this haiku and although I didn’t succeed, the exception, ‘across’, I felt, was serendipitous. Like many of my haiku, its form – 3,6,4 – is relatively faithful to classical style and a cutting pause is implied at the end of the first line. This is one of the very few haiku that I’ve written that took very little editing. The main changes after initial conception were 1) using ‘hush’ to replace ‘flight’ – this added an extra sense, audition, on top of the visual parallels and harmonies between snow on reeds and a barn owl’s plumage (it also echoes that unique quietude of a snow-blanketed landscape) – and 2) attention to the spatiality of the imagery in the order of its presentation ‘on’, across’, ‘fen’. After comments in a haiku workshop that both ‘hush’ and ‘across’ were “good”, I was ready to submit to publication without making changes.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Jonathan has chosen next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it (either version; or compare the two). 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!
deep in the tidepool a child’s gaze — Gregory Longenecker Frogpond vol. 43:1 winter 2020 and THF Haiku of the Day May 2022 and an earlier version: lingering in the tide pool a child’s gaze — Gregory Longenecker First Place, Haiku Poets of Northern California, San Francisco International Competition 2019
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Are there “rules” in haiku? Do we need a handrail of procedure? I prefer to think of principles to strive for, rather than rules to comply with. How about you?…