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 Lorin Ford, was: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.
Introducing this poem, Lorin writes:
There have been one-word haiku since Cor van den Heuval’s somewhat controversial “tundra” but there are also one-word haiku that result from the elision of two words.
Allan Burns’ “leaflight” is a superb and nuanced example. Do we see, from below, sunlight filtering through leaves of trees, “leaf light?” Do we see a flight of leaves which have become translucent under a blue autumn sky? Is “leaf flight”, suggestive of “swallow flight”, like twittering birds gathering under a blue autumn sky?
This is a lovely microhaiku in two elided words that produce more than two separate ones. It draws on and juxtaposes sensory images, there is a separation in the mind between them, and the whole prompts and satisfies meditative thought. The compression helps the focus and intensifies the experience. We’re in nature, and by implication in the autumn. And — it’s original, and has lightness.
A detached leaf gliding downwards in sunlight is a lovely thing to contemplate. Here we have the leaf, so light as to be almost weightless, in flight rather than just falling, so there’s suggestion of a breeze, too; there is action; and a reader can picture the sunbeams filtered through the branches overhead, playing on the leaf as it twists and glides. What might appear to a skim reader as just a piece of clever wordplay in fact opens out to a wonderful haiku. The essence is that it draws the reader, in a subtle way, to a rewarding contemplation and meditation.
As I sit here perusing the Haiku Foundation website, it is about two hours before sunrise on this almost-spring morning. I am enjoying a cup of tea before I bundle up (I’m in northern New Jersey, U.S.A.) and go out to listen to the male red-winged blackbirds near my favorite pond. So I scroll through the Virals and what do I find… “leaflight” by Allan Burns, which so perfectly describes why I love the moments just before sunrise when the world is suffused with color and promise and anticipation and (this time of year) birdsong. Leaf light, even though there are no leaves yet (but buds! the promise of leaves!). And then, looking at Burns’s haiku, I see the embedded word “flight,”–again, all the birds I hope to see/hear at the pond in two hours. The play of light on the water. The light forming leaf-like impressions and patterns as the sun rises behind a line of trees on the far side of the pond. Thanks to Allan Burns, I am already there. Always there.
I’ll be the first to admit that this one was incredibly challenging. I had to read it five or six times before anything came to me. Lea flight? Leaf light? Leaf flight? And then, after stepping away and returning, the magic of this seemingly simple poem descended and took hold of me..
It is 10 years ago. I’m sitting on a boulder near a creek in Colorado in the fall. I’ve been hiking and have stopped for a rest. It is warm and sunny, although I’m in the shade looking out at a spectacular scene. I look up and a gentle breeze blows the golden Aspen leaves, making them shimmer in the sunlight. A solo leaf breaks free and slowly falls, quite literally dancing as it swirls from the high tree top to the earth far below. I am transfixed. Hypnotized. I am somehow both leaf-covered tree and dancing leaf and spectator – simultaneously.
Leaf light. Leaf flight. Leaf dancing. Well done, Allan Burns.
In general I am not a fan of one word poems. It often seems that the writer is expecting the reader to do all the work, and they seldom lead me anywhere. However, this poem intrigues me. It is a portmanteau that brings together two words full of potential individually but together opening out into a world of possibilities. It leaves me asking myself if I am seeing light sparkling off the edge of a leaf, or light filtered through the leaves, or perhaps even a winter leaf that has been narrowed to its skeleton with the light piercing the openings. Perhaps the leaf is blocking the light, thus its initial position in the poem. I can even find a deeper possibility. Perhaps the final word is flight, not light and that leaf has broken loose from its anchor to fly free. All of this and more is simultaneously present in Allan’s poem. However, I see more in this one word than just multiple images. It gives me a shiver of aha, leading me to ask if I am the leaf or the light, do I reflect light or do I block it, am I ready to let go and fly. This is a poem that intrigues and challenges and opens to new insight with each reading. I absolutely love this poem and will be savoring it for the lovely taste of possibilities it offers. Thank you Allan Burns for writing it and thank you Lorin Ford for bringing it to our attention.
“Leaflight” is a portmanteau – two words combined to make one. As such, it retains the meaning of both the words of which it is composed: “leaf” + “light” = “leaf/light.” However, because of the way these words work in English, this combination also creates a third meaning (seen visually) that adds a verb: “leaf/flight.” So we have three words and three metaphoric maps, with their associated entailments: “leaf,” “light,” and “flight.” We see the leaf, the light and flight simultaneously. Essentially, this is a three-word haiku, not a one-word haiku, because we register all three meanings.
It could’ve been written
but the combination of the three words into “leaflight” acts to compress our thinking into one moment instead of three. It’s a chord instead of three distinct notes. Very clever and deeply evocative.
Pondering Allan Burns’ one-word poem published in 2009, I note that “leaflight” is a coined word and not an entity, like Cor van den Heuvel’s one-word haiku, “tundra.” Burns’ word is a compound noun written as a single word. As such, the second noun is the focal point. Thus, ‘leaflight’ can be understood as the light of a leaf/leaves. A second reading is also possible as well as intended — leaflight as the flight of a leaf/ leaves. In neither reading do we ‘see’ a concrete nature image (leaf), as expected in haiku.
Albert Einstein won a Nobel Prize for positing that light has a dual nature. Either we see it as a particle (photon) or as a wave (movement of photons) — though it is both. Since Einstein’s time, light has been photographed to show it as both particle and wave simultaneously.
Considering the dual nature of ‘leaflight’ as either light or movement – and both — this one-word poem reminds us how our limited human minds can perceive only one side of a coin at a time. We therefore miss the unity in all things and perceive life as a duality. Perhaps leaflight is a metaphor to remind us of the light and unity in all things.
Sushama Kapur: stretching the limits, a beautiful poem:
How much can one word convey? With every reading of ‘leaflight’ I get the sense of silence in a space full of the streaming light, an expanse almost sacred; the wonder of looking at leaves touched by sunlight passing through their patterns; of an interplay of translucent colour, green, yellow, amber, touched by luminosity. And because the second word in this compound word is ‘light’, I can imagine the lightness of a leaf twirling down to the ground carried down by a summer breeze, by wind in stormy weather, or falling naturally because it has to, during autumn. On first reading, four words became visible in this compound word almost immediately: leaf, light (opposite of dark), light (opposite of heavy), and flight. The repetition of the ‘l’ sound in the middle makes it a tongue-twister of sorts, the stress automatically falling on ‘f’ in the middle before ‘light’, because of which there is an automatic pause here.
Can this be called haiku? It jolts the reader into a kind of willingness to believe in stretching the limits of genre. Recently, I saw a picture clicked by a friend of just such a moment as “leaflight” in the sunset hours, and who would have thought it would carry in it an experience of a beautiful poem, lodged in as mundane a moment as stopping by a traffic signal at dusk?
Author Allan Burns:
While I was hiking along a creek in Colorado in the autumn, “leaflight” simply flashed through my mind and I immediately saw a little something in it because of the way it lends itself to two different readings that both applied to the scene around me. When I think of this one, it tends to move back and forth between those readings, somewhat like a Necker cube. It could be seen as an extremely compressed modern haiku because of the seasonal reference and the way the two readings might be understood as taking the place of a conventional cut. Haiku master Nick Virgilio, who created a number of these minuscule “runtogether” compositions and no doubt helped to inspire my own, referred to them as “weirds.”
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Sushama 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!
boundaries her therapist newly single too — Reid Hepworth Prune Juice, Issue 37, July 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.
Received after the deadline, Amoolya Kamalnath comments:
“A lyrical one word poem with alliteration and soft f and hard t sounds. Leaflight (leaf/light) is a noun defined as sunlight passing through tree leaves (during nightfall and sunrise) and the ambient effect produced by such light (https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Leaflight). The word is derived from the Japanese word, “Komorebi”.
Komorebi (木漏れ日) roughly translates as “the scattered light that filters through when sunlight shines through trees”. It is made up of three “Kanji” or Chinese characters: “Ko” means tree or trees. “More” means: something that comes through, something that shines through or seeps through. “Bi” means: sun or sunlight. (https://thekomorebicollection.com/pages/komo-what)
Komorebi is especially noticeable when the sun is low, and mist or smoke can add to the effect. Claude Monet’s Garden Path and The Olive Tree Wood in the Moreno Garden are two paintings which capture the beauty of the interplay of light and shadow and this interplay can teach us that both are parts of the same coin and both the states will come to pass eventually. Also, light makes way through the shadows, similarly, opportunities do knock on the door and there is happiness interspersed with sadness (https://happiful.com/what-is-komorebi/).
Leaflight can be broken as lea/flight where lea which is an open area of grassy or arable land is juxtaposed with flight – something flying in the air above – large groups of birds or insects, aircraft.
Allan Burns has made substantial contributions to haiku. His short bio and selected poems are in the Foundation’s Haiku Registry . You may read his book Earthlings in the THF Library.
There’s a recent article, Experimentation with One-Word Haiku, by Pravat Kumar Padhy, Frogpond 45.3, 2022; offered by the HSA as free to read online.
Although this week’s “leaflight” is really two or more words blended into one, no discussion of one-word haiku can omit mention of Cor van den Heuvel’s groundbreaking “tundra” which remains controversial. I think that the word tundra, a single though not a simple image, is not, on its own, a haiku. However, when placed in the comparatively vast whiteness of the empty page that surrounds it…we have a juxtaposition. It works for me as a minimalist haiga. There’s substantial comment on it, including by Cor van den Heuvel himself, in the Pradhy article cited above. You will find many opinions on “tundra” online, including Michael Dylan Welch’s The Territory of Haiku.
This Post Has 25 Comments
Thanks, Lorin! 🙂
leaflight brought to my mind too the ‘sunlight filtering through tree leaves’ image the moment I read it. The morning sunlight used to filter through the leaves (including the tender golden-brown ones) of our neighbour’s wood apple or bael tree (Aegle marmelos), which I got to visualise daily for a period of time – the most magical moment of the morning for me those days.
Thank you, Keith, for mentioning my essay on One-word haiku featured in Frogpond, 45.3, 2022. The spirit of poetry in its minimalistic exploration continues to excel with innovation. I experimented with writing single-word haiku envelope haibun, ‘Beyond Horizon’ using single-word haiku (Drifting Sands Haibun, issue 13, 2022, edited by Adelaide B Shaw). Scientifically no entity stands on its own. Everything functions with respect to others, and what we literary name as juxtaposition (assimilation or contrast), from electrons, protons, and neutrons to DNA structure and to the galaxy. In the one-word poem, ‘tundra’ by Cor van den Heuval and ‘shark’ by Alexis Rotella, Jim Kacian says, “In both of these examples, a single word is arrayed against the solid whiteness of a whole page. Both depend upon context (or lack of context) for their impact, and so are more visual than one-line in function.”
Even a dust particle, with reference to space, retains the law of physics. A dot of light in the tunnel reveals its presence due to the art of juxtaposition of the background. The uniqueness of ‘One-word haiku’ with some distinct reference epitomizes poetic spell and posits sublime depth (yugen). I feel an image for juxtaposition is needed for One-word haiku to excel the single-word effectively and create literary spirit in the minds of the readers.
My apologies for a typo I did not see at the end of my commentary.
The sentence should read as:
“… jolts the reader into a kind OF willingness …”
I have dropped the “of” in the text.
Sorry about this.
Thanks, Sushama: I have made the amendment.
Although I liked ” …a kind willingness to believe…” as neatly representing the goodwill with which readers in this delightful haiku community approach the more recondite poems.
Thanks Keith! 🙂
Yes. it makes sense both ways.
Although I would feel unqualified to say something like that about an experienced poet.
*Yes, it makes sense both ways.
Thank you, Lorin, for picking this haiku. I loved thinking and writing about it!
Thank you, Keith, for selecting my commentary. To tell you the truth, I would have been loth to pick up a winner this week. Reading everything written on this light and beautiful word / minimalist haiku has been a wonderful revelation. It’s often that I look up at this interplay of leaves and light and feel peace permeating around me, in me.
Sushama: yes, it’s often difficult to decide among several fine commentaries. Mindful of the judgment of Paris!
Great to see the boundaries of haiku explored, and interesting that this was done in 2009. Today the response is mainly to poke at it and dismiss it as not being sufficiently ‘haiku’. This is the response of most editors, which is why there is so little exploring, a shame for a form which is so inherently simple and flexible.
As Allan Burns’ collection was mentioned, here’s a short review of Earthlings by myself published by the British Haiku Society’s journal Blithe Spirit (Vol. 25 issue 2, 2015)
Earthlings – A review of the haiku collection by Allan Burns
leaflight by Allan Burns isn’t in this collection.
A lot of one word haiku and a one word renku (Gene Murtha and John Stevenson, not sure if there was a third hand?) have abounded. I see I’ve only committed a few 2-word haiku, never a single word.
leaf light flight Abbas Ibn Firnas
Our willingness and desire to mimic other things that fly is often fascinating, sometimes successful! 🙂
I’ve always been skeptical of one-word haiku. As readers, we are asked to imagine all possible contingent meanings available to the word being used, and that strikes me as an academic exercise. Very few single words interest me that much!
Additionally, a one-word haiku offer scant metaphoric mapping. “Tundra,” for instance. The best we can do is gather knowledge about that particular biome, apply the generic is specific metaphor to human life, and conclude that “the human condition is like a tundra, with limited capacity for growth.” Of course we also see the poem in relation to the blank page, which visually mimics the condition of the tundra. But don’t we already see all haiku in the relation to the blank page?
A one-word haiku would have to evoke a complete metaphoric map, which is, by definition, the implicit comparison of at least two things. That one word would have to have distinct but potentially overlapping meanings. Take, for instance, the word “room,” which can be read as a specific noun (the bed room), a non-specific noun (having enough room), or as a verb (we room together). Put that on the page
and we see the room around “room,” which adds another visual dimension. We read “room” as both large and small(er), a space we occupy with others. “Room” then becomes an example of the human condition, in all its vagaries. Clever, yes – but is that a poem?
I must admit when, years later, I discovered that tundra “the coldest of all the biomes” was anything but naively thought of as white and frozen and nothing more, then I found the single word ‘tundra’ poem confusing if just on a white background.
Regarding ‘room’ which is fascinating, but not sure it would qualify as a one word poem, unless by a big name poet in haikai literature or other poetries, purely as a writer-reader we could get a lot out of it:
Without the “r”:
noun: oom; plural noun: ooms
a man, especially an older one.
used as a respectful and affectionate form of address to an older man.
or as room:
noun: room; plural noun: rooms
space that can be occupied or where something can be done.
“there’s only room for a single bed in there”
I wrote a whole haiku/tanka bun around the bedroom aka “bed” room:
Is room a thing or a place?
From Middle English roum, from Old English rūm (“room, space”), from Proto-West Germanic *rūm (“room”), from Proto-Germanic *rūmą (“room”), from Proto-Indo-European *rewh₁- (“free space”).
Cognate with Low German Ruum, Dutch ruimte (“space”) and Dutch ruim (“cargo load”), German Raum (“space, interior space”), Danish rum (“space, locality”), Norwegian rom (“space”), Swedish rum (“space, location”), and also with Latin rūs (“country, field, farm”) through Indo-European.
But I feel we know ‘room’ and nothing else on the sheet “of paper” of whatever hue, isn’t really enough.
leaflight needn’t have a coloured background to the sheet of ‘paper’ and simply white could work as we have ‘light’ as well as ‘flight’ (into the sky, autumn sky?)
If I read “room” in a publication with “haiku” in the title, I assume that it’s a poem. If I read it in a dictionary, I assume it’s part of a definition. If I read it without any context at all, I’m at sea on a raft with no paddle.
Matt: no, I don’t think “room” as a word on its own is a poem…
I do think that part of the essence of haiku is the focus, the meditation, the introspection and discovery that a verse produces. And in other forms of meditation, in say yoga, a single word or even a single sound can, if focused upon, provide detachment and open up contemplation. But ” Om” isn’t poetry. The teeming tundra in freezing latitudes juxtaposed with a blank white page just about makes it, as a haiga, for me. But “shark” doesn’t, unless perhaps the page were made a gradient of sea-blue. Maybe “room” in letters large enough to fill a page? There surely has to be some juxtaposition, some separation of images, however minimal.
Poets should explore the boundaries, though. Just as Reinhardt explored black on canvas. Then maybe we find out where the boundaries are. And whether we want to go there.
I didn’t say it was a *good* poem!
“A one-word haiku would have to evoke a complete metaphoric map, which is, by definition, the implicit comparison of at least two things. That one word would have to have distinct but potentially overlapping meanings. ” – Matt
Yes, Matt, as this compound word by Allen Burns does, I think : leaflight
leaf light X 2 : a). light (opp. of dark)
b) light (opp. of heavy)
(this last ‘lea’ is spelt otherwise in American English, I believe : ley , so Allan probably didn’t intend it.)
Yes, it does map because it’s not really a one-word haiku but two- or three-word haiku, expressed as portmanteau.
Yes, a ‘portmanteau’. 🙂
Apologies, Keith, I’ve just discovered I hadn’t posted my comment so here it is…
On approaching minimalist haiku like this, I tend to look at its construction before absorbing the content, almost as if it were a concrete poem. With this one, the words ‘leaf’ and ‘light’ placed side-by-side jumped out, a combination that took me down a forest path with sunlight flickering through the foliage of trees, their leaves backlit by the sun so that they glow. This is what ‘leaflight’ conjures up for me.
However, upon rereading, I saw the word was also a combination of ‘leaf’ and ‘flight’ with F as a pivot letter. This evoked another scenario, suggesting a leaf being carried on on the wind on a breezy day in autumn. In any case, it is amazing how much can be evoked in the arrangement of these nine letters.
Thank you, Marion. Aha! — the pivot… Nice.
You know, I think the collected commentaries really bring out so much about a poem, even a tiny one like this. Thank you, everyone.
There was a time, mainly in the ’90’s I think, when most issues of the prominent haiku journals featured word mashups. Most of them come across as puzzles to be solved and while often very clever, are simply not as elegant, organically true, or memorable as “leaflight”.
Here are two examples from the Summer 1994 issue of Modern Haiku:
buddharmastery (Martin Mikelberg)
Decemberepairmanothermostat (Emily Romano, who was prolific)
I want to add that *Montage* edited and created by Allan Burns, is the haiku anthology I would recommend above all others.
Thank you for adding my commentary in the footnote! 🙂
Thank you for picking this one word poem, leaflight, by Allan Burns. I enjoyed reading and writing about it.
Thanks, Amoolya, and that’s a very interesting piece of research you’ve come up with! 🙂
While I wouldn’t usually take note of a definition proposed by one person in an urban dictionary, in this case and with the help of the interpretation to/from the Japanese, it seems to fit very well indeed. Following that, I found a Wiktionary page on 木漏れ日 • (komorebi) , “sunlight filtering through trees ”
I know that sunlight filtering through leaves of trees was one of the images I first found in Allan’s haiku. ( I enjoy lying on my back and looking up to see these rays (“komorebi ” ?) filtering down from the top branches of old oak trees in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens and also recall doing the same in a cherry orchard in Gruyere (Victoria, Aust.) . . . long ago now. )
I don’t think we have a word for that phenomenon in English, or if we do, I don’t know it.
One thing I’m sure of is that Allan’s ‘leaflight’ is permeated by the kind of lightness that Basho was exploring and advocating with his concept of ‘karumi’ : https://www.wattpad.com/199293397-haiku-notes-basho-poetic-values-lightness
The two terms, “komorebi ” and “karumi” do seem to go together, don’t they? ( In the same region of the map, as Matt might say)