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 Greg Longenecker, was:in a room I never go in the ticking clock — Robert Epstein Modern Haiku,Vol. 53:2 Summer 2022
Introducing this poem, Greg writes:
A few things attract my attention — a room is different from other rooms; it has a click, a ticking clock. The poet never enters that room. Why? Fear? Neglect? Is it the clock itself or the ticking? Time trickling down to zero? To death? A very intriguing haiku
By a psychologist and poet often preoccupied with the darker sides of life, death, pain and grief, appealing to our melancholic, atrabilious side, at face value this verse conveys a reluctance to contemplate the passing of time with its inevitable end. It might be seen as the very opposite of Zen acceptance. It could be positive, in terms of focusing on the present moment rather than on beginnings or endings. It might be the British “stiff upper lip” — a refusal to wallow in emotion about something adverse. But for me the merit of the lines depicting a dusty unvisited room, a ticking clock, and the poet (or any of us), is that they are open to manifold interpretations by the reader, bringing their own dreaded or disused ‘rooms’ to mind. It could be a situation, a particular painful memory, locked away and best forgotten (“we may think, better not addressed — the tenderest parts hurt more when pressed“), or some foreboding that we may feel is best left undisturbed. Perhaps a love affair is going well, better not to examine and dissect it.
However, my own interpretation is of that half-remembered death. I do visit that room from time to time (and my first poem published was “Clock”). If you would like to contemplate this, well, morbid subject: two fine poems from the tomb’s anteroom are Edward Thomas’ Old Man (“…I have mislaid the key…an avenue, dark, nameless, without end“), and the uncompromising head-on Aubade of Philip Larkin. (“…what’s really always there: Unresting death, a whole day nearer now…“). On a more upbeat note, the lovely, dark snowy woods of Robert Frost await those who keep their promises, and those who don’t. And if you are half in love with easeful death, and want to leave this waking dream on a high note, Keats’ nightingale is there for you. Ah, and then there’s Saigyō “let me die in spring/under the blossom… There is quite a lot in that dusty room.
Robert Epstein’s haiku “in a room” is sparse in syllables but deep and broad in meaning. On a literal level, he could be talking about an actual clock that is tucked away in a room no longer used. It could be a room in a very large house / mansion where furniture is draped in white cloth, like in Downton Abbey, when the lord and lady of the house are away on holiday. Perhaps it is a Grandfather clock, or a just quite loud clock that he is keeping for sentimental reasons, but the ticking is loud and annoying. I experienced that when visiting my dad. For some strange reason, he has a clock in the guest bathroom. It’s very loud and directly across the hall from the guest bedroom.
But I suspect Epstein is talking about a figurative clock in the room that once belonged to someone beloved. I experienced that sense of loss both with children growing older and the pain of separation and divorce. An even sadder meaning could be the loss of an infant, and this room was the nursery. And the ticking clock could mean the limited time left to start a family; one’s biological clock ticking.
If he is not going in the room that has the ticking clock, he is likely shutting the door on heartache, avoiding it. Why touch the bruise every day if there is a door to be shut on the pain? An evocative haiku.
in a room I never go in –
An expression that most of us must have faced in our growing up years or in life’s most sensitive stages – that door to the room which we fear to open and look in to see ‘the ticking clock’ that has sealed in our mind the feeling of insecurity and loneliness; the worst case trying to escape from the scene that once had shattered the happiness, joy and world’s best moments.
There are memories which signify an important turning point in our lives and others to which we just don’t want to be connected. Such is ‘the ticking clock’ that keeps on reminding oneself about that moment that surpass time and space, beyond the quantum of solace, beyond the magnitude of one’s understanding of acceptance and rejection. ‘Clock’ is imbibed in every cell of ours. The truth is that howsoever we forget time, time never ceases to forget our actions. And yet time heals, time seals and time yields!
A beautiful poem by Robert Epstein. The narrator has withstood the time ticking every moment of his life. He has overcome the fear by writing down his agony, pain and surpassed all emotions.
I read this poem twice to sink into its implied content. To me, it’s a sad, honest, enigmatic and metaphorical poem.
L1 the room seems to point to three factors: an illness of the body, a state of mind or a physical room. A physical space or a mental construct, it’s a debilitating one, where it seems the battle is lost and it is a matter of time before life ticks away. The ‘where’ of a poem.
L2 the poet could be reluctant to accept the fact of this illness, who so ever it may be. The ‘when’ of the poem. It’s painful and stressful. The cut is here at the end of L2.
L3 The ‘what’ of the poem. A ticking clock. Not stopped, not showing the time, but ‘ticking’. Racing, perhaps, towards the end. Isn’t it that every moment after our birth, we are hurtling towards our death?
Short and brief, a 12-syllable count, the lines pack a wealth of emotion. Do they show non-acceptance and avoidance? To me, it’s a metaphor showing the transitory nature of our existence and the surety of our physical death. Do we know that nothing ever dies, only changes form?
The verse starts with a preposition. The repetition of ‘in’ and the assonance repeating twice in L3 mimics the clock’s ticking. This is an open-ended ku with the kire at the end of L2.
The clock is ticking. We are ageing. Our cells are dying by the minute but we don’t want to address our and our body’s pressing needs regarding our health. We overlook or continue to neglect until… It could also mean a person with a terminal illness has very little time on this earth but doesn’t want to ponder about that.
Is this a death awareness poem Robert is known for? (Robert Epstein, ‘Checkout Time is Noon: Death Awareness Haiku’ Wasteland Press, 2012; and ‘Checkout Time is Soon: More Death Awareness Haiku.’ Middle Island Press, 2018). Or is it just an ironic take on life itself? The poem could mean different things for different people based on the stage of life they’re in. It could also mean an adult or a child doesn’t want to look at the clock which reminds them that time is running out, may be for preparing for an exam (I would identify with this one the most having written so many exams, sigh!) or a sporting event, it could also be for a bride before her marriage, especially in countries like India, where they leave their parental home and go live with their in-laws after the wedding. It could be that a child doesn’t want to be reminded, on Sunday evening, about going to school the next day.
Beginning with a where (in a room/ I never go in) and going on to the why (the ticking clock), with an imperceptible pause before it, the humourous twist at the end is an Aha moment. There is a sense of immense urgency in the words of the fragment, and used in the context of the verse is such an inspired choice. Curiously, the preposition “in” begins and ends the phrase: IN a room/ I never go IN. As a sentence, the verse could actually read: “I never go in a room with the ticking clock” or swapping “a” with “the: “I never go in (in) THE room with A ticking clock
So what room is this, and why the reluctance to enter it? It could be an actual room tucked away out of sight, in a large and sprawling house where this odd / whimsical behaviour may be possible to sustain. But in a small house, perhaps the movements would become restrictive, and surely the noise of the ticking clock would, in fact, become louder? However, is it really a reference to an actual house, or is it about metaphoric rooms inside the person’s mind, with the ticking clock symbolically standing for Time. Could it be that he has consciously decided to not think of his Time on this Earth, and is perhaps trying to live moment by moment? There’s a certain wryness in tone as he states this fact. The reader would empathise, being mortal too.
The intriguing question is what is it that has brought this on? The verse says, “never”, a state that could be difficult to be consistent about given the fluidity of the environment (the mind!), unless it has taken root as a wonderful habit. Everyone in life knows about sudden turns in fate and fortune, in health, in events we have no control over, like wars or natural disasters or pandemics et al. And ageing, a course of time when aches and pains emerge, when a positive outlook helps to remain head above water. Thus, a moment is all we actually know and have. To live in it fully, to savour it and not think of what may or may not come, seems to be something worth cultivating. Whatever the reason that has triggered this state in the person, it could be an enviable one to be in, where the ticking clock may well recede in the maze of the mind, to hopefully fade away in a fog of forgetting.
The scene: An “I” is in a room it never visits. It’s a strange or at least unique room, for why would one not enter it? Suddenly, a sound breaks the silence — a clock ticking.
This memento mori poem, as loud and clear as an old grandfather clock, is a wake up call to face our mortality.
I like the Edgar Alan Poe alone-in-a-dark-cellar effect of the ticking clock. Ticking clocks are common in Edgar Alan Poe tales, so the allusion is likely intentional. In Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” the narrator hears the imagined heart beat (a.k.a. our “ticker”) of the man he murdered and buried under the floor boards. The heart beats louder and louder until the man can take it no longer and confesses to the murder.
I sense a deeper layer in this koan-like poem. The I “in a room/I never go in” has already contemplated death possibly through the guidance of a spiritual master. As a result, “the clock ticking” no longer brings on the terrors of a Poe tale. For the poet there is no need to enter “the room I am never in” — as thoughts of death no longer unsettle him.
This poem gives insight into two levels of death awareness. One is a peaceful state — for those like the poet who have faced their mortality. The other is a potentially unsettling state for those of us who do not confront their fears. The poem urges the latter to face the sacred event of death head on. Our life depends on it.
Lorin Ford — all metaphor:
Robert Epstein’s image of the never-entered room and the ticking clock in that room is as plain as the nose on my face but it’s “all metaphor,” as Yeats reveals in his own great poem High Talk (from ‘Last Poems’). Yeats’s stilt walker is as real as Robert’s ticking clock (and vice versa). A “ticking clock” indicates that “time is passing” but without entering that room we can’t tell what time the clock-face is showing. Perhaps we don’t really want to know what time it is, in relation to our lives and inevitable deaths?
On the literal level, we probably wouldn’t hear the ticking of a clock through a wall or door of a closed room, even if we tried. We’d have to enter the room the clock was in. Here, the I of the poem (Robert or whomever) knows the clock is ticking, but never goes in to see what time it is. Prefers not to know. I’m probably the same. We’re aware that when we no longer hear this clock ticking, our time will be up.
I have a wind-up alarm clock. (really. . . it has a green metal case). I prefer it to battery-powered ones that fail to ring the alarm when I most need it, and to electric models that stop when the power goes down. Only wind-up, mechanical clocks tick, and each tick marks another second passing, as we’re all aware.
Even as I post this, that ticking clock . . .
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, which I hope will open up further discussion of metaphor in haiku, Lorin 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!
leaflight — Allan Burns SxSE 16.2, 2009 (collected in 'Distant Virga', Red Moon Press, 2011, featured in 'Haiku in English -The First Hundred Years, W.W. Norton and Co., 2013 and "Where the River Goes'', Snapshot Press, 2013.)
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A poem and ancillary details of Robert Epstein appeared here last year:
https://thehaikufoundation.org/revirals-357/. There’s a good deal more in Julie Bloss Kelsey’s interview with him in July 2021 : https://thehaikufoundation.org/new-to-haiku-advice-for-beginners-robert-epstein/
An essay, The Transcendent Function of Haiku, by Robert Epstein, appeared in Frogpond 43.2 of spring-summer 2020. (essay free to read/download).
Lorin’s commentary raises the interesting topic of metaphor in haiku, and characterises this week’s poem as “all metaphor.” Lorraine Ellis Harr’s somewhat controversial attempt to lay down rules for haiku and senryu in 1972 stated baldly that “Haiku ISN’T simile or metaphor. Simile and metaphor turn haiku into English-poetics.“. The HSA definition of haiku (2004 —since when it seems this notoriously impossible task has not been revisited) notes that simile and metaphor are “commonly avoided.” However, I tend to go along with the view that all the layers in haiku that go beyond the literal are metaphor, and that’s how they often work. Matt Cariello’s treatise The Contiguous Image: Mapping Metaphor in Haiku is well worth re-reading. Michael Dylan Welch has further comments and reading: https://www.graceguts.com/essays/metaphor-in-haiku. There are numerous discussions of the place, and trends in the use, of English poetic devices in English-language haiku. cf Haiku & Western Poetic Devices
by Karen Peterson Butterworth, 2004.
Perhaps we could/should distinguish between real images used as metaphor, and fuzzy abstract concepts. In this week’s poem the images of the room and the ticking clock are very real, as Lorin says, even though they may have been imagined by the poet. For instance, I was at once taken back to childhood, visiting my grandparents’ house. Although just two small rooms and a kitchen downstairs, the front room was kept for best, with a dining table occupying much of it. The room was very little used. And there was a half-grandfather clock…with the chimes disabled.
Nowadays time passes silently.