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.
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.