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 saw, unusually, a pair of poems, chosen by Harrison Lightwater:power lines in a long row the road to Rome — Jerome Berglund Asahi Shimbun, Haikuist Network, 6th January 2023 and/or: casting a long shadow over the crowd below church spire — Michael Buckingham Gray tsuri-doro issue 12 November-December 2022
Introducing these poems, Harrison writes:
I chose these from a list that Keith keeps in case of eventualities — such as busy me being unable to put my hands on a good verse in the short time available. They stood out as a brave pair of poems illuminating the dark side of those who purport to represent the power and the glory.
These are hefty poems in admirably detached words that read well, dealing suggestively with the realities of secular and religious authority. Taking religion first — and the Rome poem too could be read in that way — in nearly every religion based on a humble and usually indigent prophet, their earthly leaders have subsequently adopted the habits and the trappings of power: fine raiments, costly ornaments, and magnificent buildings ostensibly in honour of their god, paid for by their flock. With Buddhism a possible exception (let me know), religions have sanctified war, torture, oppression, slavery, and the murder of heretics or apostates, often by vile means. They use fear (of hell, of excommunication, of death even) as well as notions of reward to motivate and control their worshippers. These things are the other side of the good they profess, and undoubtedly do also. The shadow of the spire, or of the dome.
I used to visit Antwerp, where there is a Catholic cathedral (Our Lady) with a very tall spire that took over 170 years to build. I would think about the workers who died in its construction, about the comfortable bishops who oversaw it; and about vanities — Ecclesiastes being a favourite text. On the one hand, it is admittedly magnificent. On the other, it casts a long shadow. Protestants sacked and defiled it in 1566. Religions remain divisive, and some exclusive, in several places round the world today. The word ‘crusade’ is still in use. Peace and goodwill be among you.
And so to Rome… Jerome’s verse, anchored as it is to the old expression “the road to Rome,” links the repetitive visual image of unattractive roadside power cables with the essence of authoritarian power. It remains of relevance pari passu with other like situations we see today.
To and from Rome the lines of power stretched long and straight during the Empire, and established too the ascendancy of the Roman church in Europe and thence beyond. In today’s Britain we admire the Romans for their enduring roads and bridges, their villas, baths, advanced civilisation, and their impeccable Latin. They provided stability, order, and protection against incursion by ‘barbarians.’ But generally we overlook the brutalities of their invasion, occupation, and colonisation. Roman roads were built long and straight for military purposes. Britons were enslaved.
Taken together, powerful poems, far removed from cherry blossom and butterflies.
What a rich set of poems on which to reflect this week. The clear visual imagery of parallel power lines stretching infinitely into the distance, leading one to Rome, was captivating. As was the idea of the spire casting a shadow over the throngs below. Initially, I was drawn to the idea of modern technology leading to an ancient city, where “technology” once meant aqueducts and coliseums. The new definitely exists alongside the ancient, much more so in Europe than in the United States, where I live.
My mind then tried to find a thematic link between the two poems. I landed on the commonality of Rome and church spire, which led me to think about Pope Francis’ recent hospitalization. Undoubtedly there were crowds outside his hospital, praying for his recovery. How wonderful that he is home at the Vatican for holy week and Easter celebrations. Having been raised Catholic, I have a deep-seated respect for the tradition of the church and the position of the Pope. I was one of the lucky ones to get to see Pope John Paul II land in Denver when he was here 25 years ago for the World Youth Day. Nearly a million people came to see him during that event.
Going back to the individual poems, I really enjoyed all of the assonance of the first. The author stretches out the poem by the long o’s of row, road, Rome and by the elongated imagery of the never-ending power lines. The second poem creates a somber mood with the long o’s of shadow, over, below and the imagery of a shadow being cast on the crowd.
Berglund and Buckingham Gray wrote two very evocative poems and it was an interesting challenge to read and understand them side by side.
My Latin teacher, Mr. Frerichs, would be so proud of me remembering this: “All Roads Lead to Rome” refers to Milliarium Aureum, which was this ancient monument from which all distances in the Roman Empire were measured. Berglund’s poem hints at that phrase. Juxtaposed against the power lines, one gets hints of something darker. I’m not sure if there’s a parallel between resource monopolies vs. centralized power as alluded to be the Roman Empire. Alternately, “Rome” here could be the church, and this is some commentary on Catholic power struggles. This could even be an allusion to the rows of Crucified martyrs lining the Roman highways.
The struggle with this poem, to me, is that L2 seems to add little to the poem. It’s a line used for sound (“Row” echoed later in “road” and “Rome,”) but makes little sense. It’s not a clear link-and-shift or pivot style haiku, nor is the juxtaposition clear. The images and allusion speak to something deeper, but readers aren’t given enough images to understand.
Jerome Berglund’s haiku is a multi-layered poem that can take us on a complex journey of time and place. There are many ways to interpret this poem: religious, secular, metamorphic, and philosophic.
Initially, with my childhood Christian upbringing, I was struck by flashbacks of images from television shows that depicted religious interpretations of the “road to Rome” that could lead to God. Moving to the present, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine the Rome of today would include power lines, electric lights, and busy tunnels.
Conversely, in L1, do the power lines refer to intellectual, military, or technological powers that control or contribute to various levels of society? What initially was simply a quick flashback to childhood Christian stories developed one layer after another the more thought that was invested in it.
Thanks for this mental exercise, Jerome Berglund.
At first glance, commenting on two separate haiku seemed a monumental task. However, they began to meld for me, both thematically, and through the chosen wording. The “o” words – power, long, shadow, crowd – create a grounded , somber, yet expansive feeling in both haiku. Both poems create vivid linear images – the power lines, the church spire – within spacious outdoor environments. For some reason I picture these images in black and white. In the first haiku, the reference to ” the road to Rome” brought to mind the saying ” all roads lead to Rome.” I pictured someone walking , perhaps with a burden on their heart, looking up at the power line and then consoling themselves that whatever choice made, it would all be the same in the end. This same scenario could be applied to the second haiku; now the person looks up at the spire ( perhaps imagining a Higher Power), releasing the tension of decision making.
Power did seem to figure into both haiku, in both its positive and negative aspects. Throughout both haiku, the intricate systems that we humans create, center prominently. Our electric grid, the Roman systems of roads, language, and culture ( still figuring prominently in Western culture) the systems of Christianity and churches. Yet, there is much “white space” and sky to connect us to the more ethereal and abstract realms. These two haiku, from now on, will remain linked together for me.
Peter C. Forster:
The “power lines” open Jerome Berglund’s haiku/senryu with two meanings already. The ugly structures carrying electricity cables along the roads, and the notion of political “power” itself. Then its continuation “in a long row” suggests time as well as spacing, as we swish past the poles or pylons one by one. The third line picks this up with an ancient expression: the road to Rome…drawing us to the power of empire, emperors and popes. The lines present an unrelenting network of power from the past to the present, and suggest that it has an ugly side. I remember the row of crucified slaves along the Appian Way in Kubrick’s old movie “Spartacus.” Tied together by half-rhyme and assonance, power, row, road and Rome, the verse has a sonorous ring like a deep bell tolling.
Michael Buckingham Gray’s haiku/senryu also opens ominously with “long” — a “long shadow” cast over “the crowd below,” the ordinary folk. Then this shadow is revealed to be from the church spire — towering above them. Is this just a metaphor for the threat of hell and damnation, or something more? Conditioned by Berglund’s lines to think of power and empire, that fits too into the context of the church. Faiths have their uglier side and their authorities have exploited power in their search for supremacy. The will to power is everywhere. Many awful things have been done by men in the name of a god, to gratify the lust for power or grandeur, however disguised, of a leader, or to expand the influence of a church even by war (“onward, Christian soldiers”), or to suppress competition or dissent.
Serious themes. Long-lasting, not transient, and without humor. Some people who put faith in church or government could find them uncomfortable. The two poems go as well together as church and state. I appreciated the pairing.
Both the verses have an ‘o’ assonance and the word long. The first verse reminds me of the proverb, “All roads lead to Rome.” The power lines are almost like the roadways, they connect the different electric poles across a place just as the roads connect the different parts of a place. The roads lead to an important square or building, mostly in the city’s centre, likewise the power lines lead to transformers in substations and to the point of supply. The power lines too cast shadows on the road or the people on the roads but are narrow in diameter and are long (parallel) and can bisect another larger shadow.
Berglund’s is a short verse of 10 mono-syllable words. The fragment comes after the phrase and there is no verb. L1 is shortest and L3 is the longest conveying the long journey to Rome.
In verse two, something is casting a long shadow, so it’s high up and huge. L3 reveals the suspense, i.e the object. This shadow is almost conical (converging into a single point). It’s a long verse of 6-6-2 or 14 syllables but containing the same number of words (10) as the first verse. L1 is the longest and L3 is the shortest. The fragment comes after the phrase, starts with a verb and has two prepositions in L2. Long shadow is elaborated in a lengthy line which almost seems like it is casting its shadow on the line below. The church spire tip is almost the narrowest point of the whole structure which reflects in the third line being the shortest.
As a child, whenever we used to travel, what fascinated me the most were the power lines that ran along the length of the highways. I would follow them, never taking my eyes off them as they ‘ran’, now up, now down depending on the terrain. I would admire how taut they were and to what lengths they ran. And then, a pole would come up where the lines could ‘rest’, but just a while before ‘running’ again. Jerome’s ku reminded me of this childhood memory.
Patricia McGuire: detached observation, or a judgment?:
This week I have a question rather than a comment. But first let me create a bit of context. Harrison has nominated two poems for discussion this week, both of which in my reading, are speaking to the same subject. I’m pretty sure that Jerome speaks of the power of the church and if so, it’s clear which one, whilst there is an element of mystery about Michael’s.
Jerome, at least for me, gives us a detached observation, we have a long line of power lines, and a road to Rome. He leaves us to read into his juxtaposition whatever we want. He is not offering us a judgement. Michael on the other hand, and I should stress this is in my reading and perhaps not what he wanted to achieve, guides us a little more than Jerome. “Long shadow,” whilst an observation, has something of the sinister about it. Juxtaposing long shadows with the church spire hints at an opinion — something not in Jerome’s power lines.
So what’s my question?
Should haiku poets be aiming for a poem which observes and allows the reader to formulate their own opinion, Jerome’s poem; or do we use the haiku to more blatantly address issues, which I think Michael has done, albeit in a gentle manner?
Maybe nobody cares, but I’d be very interested to know the opinion of other haiku enthusiasts.
Author Jerome Berglund:
Over the last year I’ve been making frequent trips with my family to support an aunt in Iowa courageously combatting Parkinson’s disease, and on the 500 or so mile roundtrip route one familiar sight travelers cannot help noticing again and again are recurring patterns of distinctive poles and power lines of varying shapes, which — depending on the particular ones you are scrutinizing — bear anything from passing resemblance to an overt unnerving similarity to a column of towering wooden crosses. The image becomes more disturbing for history buffs familiar with the Third Servile War, in which enslaved persons revolting under command of onetime gladiator Spartacus found themselves captured, and 6,000 victims aspiring for liberation were summarily crucified along the Appian Way (“queen of the long roads” as the ancient critically strategic artery was famously known) between Capua and Rome.
I reside in Minneapolis, a city which throughout recent times in the global spotlight has become infamous for, its name all but synonymous with, brutal suppressions of proletarian unrest, associated with enormous inequality and disruptive gentrification creating powder kegs of confrontation whose sensational explosions are capitalized on by both prevailing political parties opportunistically, rendering our citizens and their city collateral damage exploited by each side’s leadership — amplified by respective media polarities to a fever pitch — to win votes, fundraise, and further divide working class neighbors ideologically along partisan lines. The horrors of two thousand years past continue to haunt and plague our present, sanitized and rebranded with their modern Orwellian flavoring. With the Washington Post tallying 1,176 fatalities due to deadly force by law enforcement in 2022, the American Civil Liberties Union that same year determining 800,000 prisoners in our nation had been forced to work, with compensations ranging from 13 to 52 cents an hour, such statistics truly inspire the conscientious citizen to ask themselves why constituents continue to elect representatives who permit these atrocities’ perpetuation, what we might do to promote freedom and security equally across our country and correct these vile repetitions of antiquity’s worst injustices.
Author Michael Buckingham Gray:
Two things came together to make the haiku ‘casting a long shadow’. The first was coming across Joseph Massey’s ‘television light’ haiku:television light lies on the American lawn
This haiku made me think about the broader social implications of light and shade. And the second, was watching a large gathering out the front of a church one day, covered in shadow.
So my first draft read:
But this was rejected by an editor. Often, I write and leave a lot out, asking the reader to join the dots. After that poem was rejected, I revised it. I rounded out the details, and worked to keep the alliteration, to arrive at the current haiku.
Thanks to the poets and all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Patricia 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!
An empty plate Smashing it Autumn clearer — Masaya Saito Ash, TELS 1988
Note: this also appears later in Snow Bones, Isobar Press, 2016 as:An empty plate
smashing it autumn clearer and the first (Ash) version was a poem selected for "Haiku in English – The First Hundred Years” (Kacian, Rowland and Burns, Norton, 2013) p.1
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.
A graduate of the University of Southern California’s Cinema-Television Production program, Jerome Berglund spent a picaresque decade in entertainment before returning to his midwest home. Also a photographer of repute, Jerome’s original haiku and shahai are widely published and you may track them on his website. He’s authored and published several collections, and latterly edits the paid-for journal Heterodox Haiku.
Michael Buckingham Gray is a poet, writer, and creative writing tutor whose work has appeared in journals, magazines, and newspapers including Presence, Meniscus, the Fortnightly Review, and the Mainichi Shimbun. His work has also been profiled by PerthNow, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Haiku Commentary. Here’s the link to his website.
The week saw several engaging commentaries including Jerome’s own impassioned comment and Peter’s commentary. Newcomers who take the plunge and send in commentaries are welcomed and congratulated. It was not easy to award the golden apple, especially when one commentary echoed my own thoughts; and when one was very tempted to discover what Jerome’s own choice for next week might be. In the end, re:Virals is a place to examine some questions concerning haiku as well as to extol or criticise individual verses. With a pair of verses that were fairly easy to interpret, Patricia’s wider question is pertinent and yes, we do care! How would you answer it?… To what extent is the choice of “shadow” and “below” a judgment, or an observation? Do they nudge the reader gently towards an interpretation, communicating it, or are they a shade too explicit? Shadow is as frequently used in contemporary haiku as other words with an emotive trigger or ‘a message’… like ‘grey’ or ‘rain’ or ‘mother.’ And if the conclusion is a judgment rather than an observation or reflection, then is that formed in the mind of the reader or of the poet? Jennifer’s reading shows that there’s more than one interpretation of Michael’s poem.
Over to you, imagist poets.
This Post Has 25 Comments
in a long row
the road to Rome
— Jerome Berglund
This has been nagging at me— or my desire to comment has— and I seem to have given in. A great deal has been offered in some of the comments here, things worthy of discussion.
What I mostly want to say is that I find the writing here rather fuzzy. Though we know what sort of “lines” the writer is presenting, to describe them as being in a “row” does not give one a vividor clear image. There is not enough distinction between a “line” (of any
sort) and a “row”. They mush together.
(I would add that the rather insistent long O’s don’t help matters.)
The fact that one can see through the fuzziness come up with a picture (of power lines along a road all the way to a city) does not, to my mind, dispel or negate these concerns. In casual discussions, someone may struggle to make a subtle observation, and failing at it, may offer an approximation, saying “well you know what I mean.” That is all well and good in conversation, but is rather off-putting in poetry, which must stand on its own.
And the thing is, there are ways this haiku could be changed for the better. (I find that when I can do that with my own writing, unexpected nuances and undertones often emerge.)
This may not please some reading this, but there you have it.
“Fuzzy” is a good way of describing it. Redundant might also apply. Also, I think it’s important to note that, based on Jerome’s writing, “Rome” is allusive and not real. So it’s an image of “power lines all the way: allusion to history.” We’re not even in Italy, so there’s so much that could’ve been tweaked to make this a stronger poem. This might speak to the content vs craft argument, as well.
This one’s pretty judgmental, Patricia:
daimyô no tako mo warukuchi iware keri
even the kite
of the war lord…
(Dear Issa, thank you for your submission. We regret…)
We’re given the thought, and can imagine a kite rattling and snapping in the wind. And in context given by Lanoue, “Issa reflects the popular antagonism toward an often cruel and authoritarian elite. Even the New Year’s kite of a provincial lord (daimyo) evokes grumbles.”
makete kara daimyô no kiku to shirare keri
losing the contest
surprise! the lord’s chrysanthemum
” I’d be very interested to know the opinion of other haiku enthusiasts.” – Patricia
Ok, Patricia, I’ll respond as well as I can.
“Jerome, at least for me, gives us a detached observation, we have a long line of power lines, and a road to Rome. He leaves us to read into his juxtaposition whatever we want. ” Patricia
I worry about the idea of an author leaving anything so open that readers may read whatever they want into it. (Not that Jerome has done this!) I worry about it because currently popular phrases (in certain circles) such as ‘dreaming room’ spring to mind. When Dennis Garrison long ago coined the term ‘dreaming room’, in association with the cut in haiku, I don’t believe he had anything comparable with a Rorschach test image in mind. (Lorin)
” Juxtaposing long shadows with the church spire hints at an opinion — something not in Jerome’s power lines. ” – Patricia
That a church spire (or a tree or a father etc. etc.) casts a ‘long shadow’ is an observation, not an opinion. Jerome observes that there’s a long line of power lines along the road to Rome. If literal long shadows and (electricity) power lines are all there is to both of these verses, then of course we have two stated observations, nothing more. But there is more: both of these haiku/ senryu rely on readers finding the secondary readings allowed by the figurative meanings of words: “power lines” in Jerome’s and “long shadow” in Michael’s. (Lorin)
” Should haiku poets be aiming for a poem which observes and allows the reader to formulate their own opinion? ” – Patricia
“Opinion isn’t worth a damn” (a common idiom that strikes me as a truism.) What readers do (or are supposed to do) is interpret the collocation of words that the author presents to them. Adult readers and those speaking a common version of a common language will of course be more alert to figurative meanings than young children or readers less acquainted with, for instance, a different regional dialect than that of the author.
(. . .and these are my opinions)
I agree that some of these issues arise from current trends in haiku, such as ‘dreaming room’. But I also feel there is too much emphasis on these secondary readings – those which some call ‘metaphors’ and others call ‘tropes’ or ‘cliches’. For instance, reading ‘long shadow’ in Michael’s poem as a metaphor for misuse of power or oppression is only one reading of many. If we just jump on these tropes it makes academic analysis a lot easier but it closes down rather than opens up the possible interpretations. It also ignores non-literal/literary responses. Similarly with Jerome’s poem. For me ‘power lines’ evokes lines of occupied crucifixes along straight Roman roads, updated to today (and the straight lines lead to power stations rather than a city in Italy). Others will have other responses. For others the poem will leave them cold. If the writer or critic ‘wants’ the reader to interpret the poem in a certain way, aren’t we back to ‘telling’ after all?
ah, to what extent do you think poetry or any other art is about communication? Albeit perhaps by subtle and indirect means. If we ‘get’ a piece of art, isn’t it ‘telling us’ something”? At one end, the didactic statement. At the other, the Rorschach test. Somewhere in between, haiku….
Or is the art solely in making us think, or in surprising us? The profound thought we hadn’t thought of before, but that we immediately recognise? Or the surreal disjunction/disruption that has us scratching our heads?
Firstly, telling has two meanings here:- ‘telling vs showing’ meaning verbal vs non-verbal communication in writing; and telling the reader what to think or feel when they read a piece. I feel this whole topic is very murky in haiku. For instance, I don’t think people use ‘show, don’t tell’ the same way it is used in prose writing.
I would say all of these and more (I would, wouldn’t I?).
Take an abstract painting of a blue square. Does this tell the viewer anything? I might argue that by definition it doesn’t. Does it communicate (to some viewers anyway), certainly. Can the viewer summarise their response in words? Possibly not. This might make it difficult to write about or produce an academic paper about, but that doesn’t mean it is a lesser work.
When seeing the blue square do you think many haiku readers would say “what a beautiful Spring sunrise”?
To your list at the end I would add non-verbal/non-literary responses perhaps summarised as ‘feel’. For completeness I would also need to add the cold, non-response or many readers/viewers. Of course haiku generally manages to avoid these people (who would be the vast majority I suspect).
“Take an abstract painting of a blue square. Does this tell the viewer anything? ” – Mark
Given that the viewer sees a painted blue square, it doesn’t seem to me that the viewer is told anything beyond “Here is a painted blue square: look at it.”
Beyond that, the viewer can decide whether the colour is a cold blue or a warm blue or a thin or thick blue square. The viewer can consider the texture of the painted blue square, the viewer can recall things they’ve experienced that were also this particular shade of blue and /or had a texture like this painted square has.
Beginning with a painted blue square it’s conceivable that one could imagine a clean square window to a blue sky. A blue sky might signify a mood to the viewer. The viewer might associate a blue sky with a clear and happy mood and go home to write a happy song:
Blue skies smilin’ at me
Nothin’ but blue skies do I see
Bluebirds singin’ a song
Nothin’ but blue skies from now on . . . (Willie Nelson)
or not. :-).
I Googled bishops’ palaces for the photos:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Episcopal_palaces_in_England and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palace_of_the_Popes and other religions with grand results. Pope Francis, the people’s pope, also disapproves of spiritual worldliness and vainglory. See the intro to CNN research into bishops’ lifestyles at https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2014/08/us/american-archbishops-lavish-homes/
After Lorin Ford’s mention of TS Eliot’s lines and Keith’s mention of the Betjeman poem Michael’s shadowy spire unearthed another memory that could even be an alternative reading:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
’Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
ah, Emily and the Seventh Seal. 🙂
Keats wrote : ” I have been half in love with easeful Death ” but it seems to me that Emily Dickinson lived it.
Fascinating discussion. A few comments:
The timing of this week’s poems was coincidental/fortuitous, but reading Michael’s poem in the context of Easter has an effect. And not necessarily a negative one — witness Joshua’s as well as some other responses — which somewhat gainsays Patricia’s assumption (which I too made) that there’s a judgmental element pre-ordained. Clearly, there’s scope.
Craft: the lack of a personal, individual viewpoint makes these verses seem to me more detached from advocacy and angst. Each is based on an observed image. “The road to Rome” is a third-axis, “depth” element that brings insight to the power-lines image. “Image plus thought” verses are increasingly common. In Michael’s poem there is perhaps just the one image or visual scene, but with three elements to it: the spire, the crowd, and the shadow, separated and arranged.
As Peter pointed out in his commentary, our response to the second poem is conditioned to some extent by reading the first. They make an interesting pair juxtaposed. If they have to be pigeonholed, then probably senryu.
I wouldn’t see some of the commentaries, including mine, as “anti-” religions, but as acknowledgment there is, not without irony, a negative side too to the way and manner in which humans conduct themselves in their name. I noted there is good they undoubtedly do. I do wonder what Jesus, this Easter, would make of the churches (and the palaces) created to pass on his humility, wisdom, humanity and forgiveness.
“the lack of a personal, individual viewpoint makes these verses seem to me more detached from advocacy and angst.”
Perhaps this is what leads to the misinterpretations and whatnot. Without a personal, individual viewpoint, do these poems build empathy for their subjects, change the opinions of readers, etc. Do they simply reinforce the beliefs of the reader due to their ambiguity? In other words, are readers who are naturally anti-religion going to read these as anti-religious or condemning religion, whereas those who are pro-religious will read them as enforcing religion? Does that make them more successful or less?
Again, a lot of people have talked about excessive spending and luxury on the part of religious leaders in these threads. A lot of folks have talked about abuse scandals. I don’t see either topic specifically addressed in these poems, so I continue to ask where these topics are and why people see them in these poems. Alternately, if the general point is that “Christianity is bad because history” (note that both poems are specifically targeting Christianity), then wouldn’t a specific allusion be more appropriate?
“the road to Rome” is an allusion, for example, to something that predates Christianity (and, in fact, the life of Christ). The idea that the phrase refers to anything Christian-related is a bit of a stretch. Now, others have posited that “Rome” here refers to the centralized power, the overreach of an empire, the desiccation of the environment, the oppression of people, etc. However, Christianity also criticized those things. So does the vertical depth read as Christianity or something else?
I keep thinking about Patricia’s questions, and I think this is my overriding question, that may not be answered by these poems (which is not a flaw, nor critique, just observation): Can a purely observational haiku create an emotional shift in the reader that will lead them towards empathy, as well as intellectual and social change OR do those haiku have to come from place of the personal?
Follow up question: SHOULD a haiku lead a read towards empathy, as well as intellectual and social change? Is that the purpose of haiku?
Some excellent points here, and addressing Patricia’s question, which I found difficult to respond to in the context of these two poems. I feel we are often encouraged nowadays to strip as much as we can out of a haiku, not to ‘tell’ the reader too much, to allow multiple interpretations, to present an ‘incomplete’ haiku and let the reader complete it using their own experiences. To expect such haiku to deliver an intellectual or empathetic shift in the reader in a certain direction is surely optimistic, and also would indicate that the haiku has failed in the objective of ‘not telling’ (the reader how to respond). The terminology I use to describe this kind of haiku/senryu is to encourage the reader to ‘think’. To present an image, for instance, that the reader may not be familiar with or may not have experienced previously, or perhaps would prefer not to be confronted with. Haiku are small enough to allow this (there is no first paragraph or chapter after which the reader can shut down the reading if dissatisfied – they tend to get to the end on first reading). So as well as wanting the reader to ‘feel’ (my first objective), I would like, sometimes, for the reader to think about something that they perhaps haven’t considered before. What they think, whether they enjoy it or reject it, whether it changes their opinions in some direction or not, is up to them and their response. In this type of haiku/senryu I suppose I’m hoping to open up their outlook in some way, not to change their opinions or positions. But I am hoping to have content that is meaningful rather than a haiku which works on purely a technical level and evokes feeling rather than thought (sympathy vs empathy). Thinking about senryu, however, I’m sure there is a history of ridiculing classes of people as well as individuals and the aim here is to change peoples’ opinions against those people, even if masked with humor. I agree that these two excellent senryu are not ideal examples to discuss these kinds of questions.
I’m not drawn to “should.” Can a purely observational haiku create empathy in a reader? Yes: “on a branch/floating downriver/a cricket sings” (the choice of “sings” — by the translator — seems to me an important part of the empathy created). I don’t think we can get away from the fact that particular words or images have acquired connotations, associations, and that’s often how haiku work: “rough sake/this cuckoo/this grove”…. from the champion of empathy.
Trying to define a purpose for haiku also seems likely to be fruitless. Aren’t there many purposes? Must they change the world, or promote its acceptance for what it is? Is the essence that they prompt reflection, meditation? Must they offer fresh insight? Are they a way of connecting with nature, the world, other people? Are they a shared greeting? A shared moment of beauty, of sorrow? A social critique? Etc. etc. Or “all of the above, but not all at once?”
Back to Patricia’s question: as so often, it may be a question of degree, a point along a continuum. “Shadow” has acquired meaning: contrast it with, say, “shade.” “Casting its shade/over the crowd below/church spire” has a different set of likely inferences, perhaps to do with elevation and superior callings, perhaps protection… So maybe the question is: is ‘shadow’ just right, or a little heavy-handed, too much of a steer in a particular direction? That we’ve had different responses from different readers suggests that it’s not too determining a word.
Whoops! Instead of copy-&-pasting:
in a long row
the road to Rome
— Jerome Berglund
I re-posted Michael Buckingham Gray’s “long shadow”. Sorry for the confusion.
So I’ll repeat my comments on “power lines” here:
“Though Rome is still the centre of the Roman Catholic Church (obviously) the political ‘power lines’ to Rome existed long before electricity poles and wires were thought of. Before the Vatican, before even the beginnings of Christianity, the political power lines of the known world all led to Rome. And out of it, at the Emperor’s pleasure.. Consider the exile of Ovid, an extraordinarily popular but often raunchy Roman poet. He was shipped off to “a cold place” (Romania, I think? ) for life, subsequent to his bawdy poem that connected the Emperor’s sister with a city gate associated with prostitutes. He just got too big for his boots. (But there, in a cold, backward country, stripped of elite status, far from his sophisticated friends he wrote his brilliant ‘Metamorphoses’ . . . ) ”
It’s very interesting the anti-religious, anti-Catholic interpretations. I thought the second poem was clearly a Passover/Easter oriented poem, and see no criticism of the church nor anything about pedophilia, abuse, etc. in it. The same with Berglund’s “power lines,” which implies a commentary rather than states it. However, the observation reads as purposeful commentary if this is an American Midwest journey. Again, both authors seem to want to discuss more than the initial incident or moment that inspired their poem, and I wonder if neither are truly observational.
This is NOT a critique, however, simply wonder if the later is stronger as it’s simply more an authentic moment, and readers are responding to that, whereas the last line of a Berglund’s, while a solid juxtaposition, is inauthentic and more desku based in authentic moments than true observation. Both techniques work, but they produce different moods in the reader.
Wow was your commentary appreciated and insightful Joshua, can’t thank you enough for valuable personal perspectives and your highlighting germane contextual and historical concepts!! Sometimes with the pieces one throws in ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ for the author is very curious if intentions and subtext are landing, how readers relate and track material and language employed. I think what always draws me to writing is the challenge I have off the page too of coherently communicating ideas and feelings interpersonally as well as more generally in hopes of facilitating changes on small and large scales (in family and social life, and also in offices and our larger culture). Trying to boil down a thought, win hearts and minds of public, capture things worth criticizing and correcting, particularly when we are constantly combatting misinformation from the media, government, industry. The micropoem makes for a phenomenal ‘sandbox’ for refining these understandings and skillsets 100%…
I love that these images and ideas, thanks to short form’s dreaming room and open-endedness, can be filled in individually with such a diversity of interpretations!! Really speaks to the complexity and ambivalence with which our modern man still approaches and strives to reconcile themselves with (if they don’t overtly reject) spirituality and organized religion. The beauty of literature and empathic examination of large, difficult questions if we approach them effectively (I think Patricia’s question of how best to achieve that is essential and worth very careful scrutiny often as we strive to make constructive poems that engage positively with larger audiences) is we can do so in a bipartisan manner engaging with wide demographics and eschewing the divisive rhetoric our electoral farces and news pundits promote and encourage. With different iterations of various religious institutions no less than governments and other infrastructures of our civilization, questions of what can be reformed versus that which would benefit from abolishing remain important to continue asking and carefully considering. As with our present day’s allocations of resources and boundaries being the result of generations of colonialism and displacement, I’m happy to see contemporary perspectives acknowledging and incorporating uncomfortable realities and background into their analyses of the role of faith and church in our contentious era!
“Trying to boil down a thought, win hearts and minds of public, capture things worth criticizing and correcting, particularly when we are constantly combatting misinformation from the media, government, industry. The micropoem makes for a phenomenal ‘sandbox’ for refining these understandings and skillsets 100%…”
Is that the point of haiku, though? I think the issue for me is that when someone tries to pack TOO much into a poem, it’s revealed in the final product, which I think it what Patricia’s questions lean towards.
Patricia’s questions ask more questions: Is your poem actually an observation, or is it an observation with a commentary added in? Is Michael’s poem an observation, or is it a carefully worded commentary? Are either of them actually haiku, either, or are they both pointed senryu? Furthermore, going back to things like Creeley’s poetic ideas that “form is no more than extension of content,” I start asking questions like whether or not certain content can be handled by haiku/senryu, or if people need more space for these ideas and discussions?
Here’s the issue, for me. I read something like Ueda’s “Basho and His Interpreters” or similar, and they all agree as to the scene and content of the haiku, and then discuss the various implications. With a poem like yours, we’re removed from the actual scene by the commentary of L3. Now, it’s possible that you’re travelling to Rome, Iowa, but the “Rome” you’re speaking of in the proverb is in Italy. So the actual moment of the poem is lost to the commentary itself.
The opposite is happening, I think, in Michael’s poem. It reads as pure observation, but hints at a social criticism as well. Possibly. If we take “shadow” to be ominous and not religiously symbolic (which also moves this poem from haiku to senryu, for me). Again, back to Patricia’s questions, can simple observation work as social commentary? Can an authentic moment juxtaposed against a proverb work as social commentary?
Furthermore, is the commentary actually present, or is it something that readers have to bring on their own?
What also intrigues me about these poems is the lack of the personal and individual. Neither of these poems deals with an actual moment of injustice, threat, abuse, trauma, etc. They are approaching these topics in the vague and, while not necessarily abstract, certain connotated and theoretical. I keep thinking about poets who deal with personal religious issues in their work (Rowan Beckett, of course, was one of the first to do this regularly, but others have touched on this) or other socio-political issues (Johnny Baranski, Marlene Mountain, etc.) as opposed to both these poems, which seem to approach this from the point of view of a group, not an individual.
Again, there’s history here that supports this approach, and I don’t want to say this is “right” vs “wrong” or something like that. I’m just curious as to HOW these poems want to work, on a craft level, what craft techniques they used, and if they actually are successful in conveying their themes. Also, I’m curious if the themes you’ve suggested are actually present in the poems, or if the reader is required to bring that knowledge to the poem itself. For example, a lot of folks (Michael, himself, apparently) read Michael’s poem as ominous and threatening, whereas I see it as a very uplifting, possibly comforting poem. Presented this closely to Passover, Holy Week, etc. this reads as a somber pre-Easter poem, but certainly not commentary on child abuse. I don’t see abuse, children, etc. in this poem. They’re not mentioned, so readers have to understand that this is the topic before they can understand the commentary. Contextual knowledge might be necessary, of course, as it would be for any work of art, but I’m trying to figure out if that context is so necessary as to be required. If so, are the poems truly successful. Also, is that context there were these poems presented individually. Alternately, I’m wondering how much of that context is necessary for appreciating the poem anyway?
These poems, as others have pointed out, work better together and inform each other, so it was a clever idea of Harrison and Keith to choose them to read together. I’m not sure we would’ve had the same interpretations if they weren’t presented together.
My interpretation of Jerome’s senryu is very simple. We may look up at the extensive power structures that exist in today’s world and think they are immutable, but look at what happened to the Roman Empire. Therefore it could have been written during most of the last two millennia. Interpreting ‘power lines’ more literally leads to a similar reading but based on our effects on the environment. An extremely powerful and subtle work.
Awesome interpretation Mark, well said, you wonderfully capture and articulate the potency and deeper meanings encoded deftly into so much of the (often Greek and Latin rooted) language we employ everyday, cannot help plugging etymologically into!! 😀 Gosh I appreciate how these commentaries make a person thoughtfully consider and reflect…
The week’s poems coincided with yet another report of decades of sexual and other abuse, by clergy in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. There have been 19 such reports, according to Bishop Accountability, the Catholic research and advocacy group.
Not confined to America, nor to Catholicism, the shadow of the spire.
In an era when much of mainstream poetry may have lost its way, some songwriters have taken the mantle. In this context, Nobel Prize winner for Literature Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” came to mind.
Horrifying and apropos indeed, seemingly universal problems particularly prevalent in religious organizations which are only exacerbated by hierarchical structures, power differentials and vulnerability of populations in economic insecurity and housing/sustenance challenges, patriarchal tyranny and claims of supernatural justification, all those factors weaponized to create spaces of coercion and depravity which unfortunately seem endemic to the conspicuous consumption and core subjugation driving capitalist systems. My parents’ generation were reasonably disillusioned with any church generally after all the unforgivable actions by leaders/their overseers, and more disturbingly continued efforts to cover up and protect abusers and hush up victims. For a brief window there seemed hope new management might clean things up, but by all indications a polite, articulate, well-spoken figurehead distracting from continuing patterns of malfeasance (as with faux progressives, political charlatans pretending to care for the citizens while ramping up war abroad and inequality at home) can almost be a more difficult situation to contend with because of confusion duplicity causes the public. Great call on classic tunes from the peace and love era of musicians, I also highly recommend the records of Woody Guthrie. If anyone is interested in learning more about these disturbing histories documentaries of Amy J. Berg including Deliver Us from Evil, An Open Secret, and Prophet’s Prey are excellent. An investigative series the Keepers (detailing Baltimore area predations and cover-ups by law enforcement, I wonder if isn’t directly connected to that report?) on Netflix is also highly recommended! Thank you for bringing this important information to our attention Keith. I hope our planet continues to devote serious attention toward prosecuting past indiscretions, preventing future ones, and doing everything in their power to support and find justice for those many victimized…
Sexual abuse of that sort not confined to America, Catholicism or Christianity of any stripe, either, nor is it committed by men only. Recently they brought this ex -headmistress back for trial and the verdict was ‘guilty’.
“Former ultra-Orthodox Jewish principal Malka Leifer has been found guilty of 18 sexual abuse offences against two former students. “https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/apr/03/malka-leifer-former-principal-found-guilty-of-indecent-assault-and-of-a-former-student
ah, the immortal Bob. 🙂 “. . . with guns in their hands and/ God on their side” still seems to be a contemporary observation of parts of the USA.
In Australia, we have an ABC TV program titled ‘Planet America’. It’s a fitting title. (I won’t risk upsetting the louder and more verbose North Americans by explaining why.) And it’s entertaining.
Meanwhile, back to the poetry pages:
casting a long shadow
over the crowd below
— Michael Buckingham Gray
tsuri-doro issue 12 November-December 2022
This haiku and the other by Jerome Berglund obviously make use of literal images that have acquired figurative meanings in our language and cultures. What is it to be “under the shadow of” something that represents a religion? Whatever that might be, this shadow of the church spire is paradoxically a sign that the ‘light’ (as in “the way, the truth and the light…”) is being obscured.
casting a long shadow
over the crowd below
— Michael Buckingham Gray
Though Rome is still the centre of the Roman Catholic Church (obviously) the political ‘power lines’ to Rome existed long before electricity poles and wires were thought of. Before the Vatican, before even the beginnings of Christianity, the political power lines of the known world all led to Rome. And out of it, at the Emperor’s pleasure.. Consider the exile of Ovid, an extraordinarily popular but often raunchy Roman poet. He was shipped off to “a cold place” (Romania, I think? ) for life, subsequent to his bawdy poem that connected the Emperor’s sister with a city gate associated with prostitutes. He just got too big for his boots. (But there, in a cold, backward country, stripped of elite status, far from his sophisticated friends he wrote his brilliant ‘Metamorphoses’ . . . )
It’s unlikely to be by chance that these two haiku appear here on re: Virals on what would be Good Friday in the USA and other parts of the world. (It’s Saturday morning, 8th April, for me as I write this). So, a quote from what may be the greatest poem in the English language:
” . . .
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
. . . ”
Such a paradox! Brought into focus by the great Old Tom.
Thank you, Lorin. A deep bow to Old Tom.
Not wishing to lower the tone too much, Jerome’s poem reminded me of Betjeman, for whom I have a soft spot, and his ironic poem “Inexpensive Progress,” of which some extracts:
“Encase your legs in nylons,
Bestride your hills with pylons
O age without a soul;
When all our roads are lighted
By concrete monsters sited
Like gallows overhead,
Bathed in the yellow vomit
Each monster belches from it,
We’ll know that we are dead.”
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