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 Beata Czeszejko, was:
— Scott Metz ea’s e Winchester VA: Red Moon Press, 2022
Introducing this poem, Beata writes:
One of the most important goals of poetry is to broaden not only the perception of the world, but also the ability to understand the world that surrounds us. And the answer of a poet is a text. Many questions appear reading this text, that demand answers.
Is it a haiku? Can we see many new words in this haiku, or maybe the old ones from our childhood e.g. “ea’. F” (sic!)?Can we understand the special play with words? Words and letters create many meanings, so we should read letters and the poem many times.
When a reader looks at words in Scott Metz’s haiku about “the so.Und” he or she sees many more ways to understand that text, perceiving one text is not only through cuts within words, but also the unusual way of writing words and using capital letters. This is how the acrostic poem was created. This haiku broadens our perception of words and poetry in general.
Have fun with this unusual poem.
Higher up the mountain, the path may become less accessible. Scott Metz is a significant pioneer of haiku in the English language, and repays study. This fascinating instance seems at least as much about exploring craft as about content.
The themes and conventions of traditional haiku, well worked over and well loved, can become dulled with time and repetition, and hard to emulate with any originality. A few undiscovered nuggets may be left to mine. But if the genre is to survive and thrive as poetry above and beyond a mindful way of life, and be more than a tribute act, it should grow and change, or find new ways of saying essentially the same old life-things that poets from the dawn of language have addressed, or set them in a new contemporary context. If it is to be called haiku, that new growth should develop from the roots of haiku. The poem before us fits that desideratum. Once reassembled, “the sound of the earth leaving the leaf” reads as a koan-like phrase, to be interpreted by intuition rather than analysis, steeped in the Creative force of the Dao (which Basho would recognise). Always a gardener, I see new growth pushing up out of the earth, moving it aside (an appropriate parallel for the poem, indeed), rather than a spent leaf falling. The sound and the movement are imperceptible to unaided human ears and eyes, but once mentioned by the poet we know they must be there. Somewhat strangely, the second and third hexagrams of the I-Ching came to mind — K’un, the Receptive Earth, and Chun, Difficulty at the Beginning: “The name of the hexagram, Chun, really connotes a blade of grass pushing against an obstacle as it sprouts out of the earth.” (Wilhelm’s translation).
And so to craft. With such a short form of poetry, the crux of which is prompting contemplation, meditation and insight, the first task is to engage the reader so that they don’t simply skim-read and move on. In re:Virals we’ve seen various ways to do this: with words of instant appeal, with unusual words, or mind-stretching juxtapositions, or with keys (sometimes clichés) that are universally known and loved. Here, Scott employs an unusual technique of breaking the phrase up. The reader, if not alienated and impatient, is slowed down and has to engage in order to piece it together. In the course of this, various elements (e.g. —, ear, Und, leaving/leaf, .F) acquire temporary or partial meaning — layers. Lineation, alignments, the import of punctuation marks, all play a part in this. We have, for example, “—the sound of the leaf” with the offset “the ear (the earth)” and “, leaving”. As with the complex reverberation of a large bell or gong, a mass of sound fragments, so we have a mass of meanings, allusions, some incomplete, some harmonious, some not.
I sometimes despair of obfuscatory cleverness, or of extremely disruptive and unrelatable elements conjoined with little apparent purpose beyond shaking up the reader’s brain to see what falls out. Not so here. I found the poem, its phrasing, its exploratory presentation and thoughtful devices, to be utterly absorbing. I’ve laid out some of my pension to buy the book (a rare thing!). Money well spent.
Scott Metz truly finds inspired and innovative ways to transport readers and the haiku form itself into our modern era! In describing autumnal imagery and its characteristic sabi or ‘rusting’ the poet ingeniously appears here to effectively infuse the very verbiage and punctuation with that spirit of erosion, disintegration, disruption experienced by plant and animal life about this cyclical stage of the seasonal process. Language itself mirrors the elements’ familiar intrusion, breaking things down, stripping away, separating and wearing upon the words and ideas, stunningly approximating concepts both literal and figurative consistent with Eastern traditions and the Zen Buddhism which so often informs and energizes haiku and senryu, notions about the transience and ephemerality of each fragile existence and their constant state of beautiful, bittersweet entropy and flux which creates suffering but also infuses each moment with meaning and value for its preciousness and finite quality. Metz makes a compelling argument for the capabilities of grammar and structure for augmenting and communicating seasonality, creating a new approach and potent tool for supporting the location of a piece in the temporal context, a fascinating mode and vector through which practitioners may satisfy the integral prerequisite of kigo in fresh and exciting new fashions. Kudos to Red Moon Press for recognizing the significance of such courageous exploration, the Haiku Foundation and re: Virals column for providing valuable space and shining a spotlight on such important permutations in the vast, heretofore under-utilized capabilities of the limitless potential waiting to be unlocked within the contemporary English language haiku!
This week’s poem by Scott Metz is very interesting. I needed to read it several times to catch all the words, given the atypical punctuation, capitalization and spacing. I don’t know whether I’ve ever seen a poem quite like this one. Lots of layers to unpack.
After several readings I came to: the sound of the earth leaving the leaf.
I got tripped up a bit on deciphering “the ear. Th , leaving” so it slowed me down. Which is sometimes helpful with poetry. I think life goes so fast in general, that to slow down with a poem is good. It makes you think more, feel more, contemplate more. And to just sit and be with a poem is a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the rest of one’s day. Although ultimately I came to that part meaning “the earth leaving” I believe we were meant to read it as “the ear” initially and to have to work at it to decipher the poem. The word “ear” is in the center of this poem and at the core of its meaning, so perhaps the poet actually built the poem around that toggle-switch word and created a word-puzzle-poem for the reader’s enjoyment.
I like that the poem is in the shape of an ear or a bended leaf or a branch. It’s up to the reader to decide, I guess. Which I like. I think it’s actually the shape of all three, because all three are present in the poem to me.
So what does the poem mean to me? I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. A tree, from which a leaf comes, grows in the earth. So the earth comes up through the roots and nourishes the tree. There might be a sound involved in that process of feeding, caring for, nurturing. A sound of love and sustenance. Like the gentle whisper of a parent to a child at bedtime. Or the sound of a lover stroking a loved one’s cheek. Soft, gentle, comforting. A murmuring, whispering quality to the sound.
I picture the sound the leaf makes, almost imperceptible, as it floats off its host – branch and drifts back to the earth, from whence it came. That sound would be even softer, like the sound of a wish made when blowing a dandelion into the wind. Or the sound of a prayer made just with the heart. Or the sound of a poem being born in the mind of a poet. Nearly soundless, yet still present. Perhaps a bit of a rustling nature to it, given that the leaf is ready to fall and must be a bit dried out. But hushed, quiet, contemplative, anticipatory.
There’s an interesting twist in this poem. The poet uses the sound that the earth makes leaving the leaf, versus the sound the leaf makes leaving the earth, even though it’s the leaf that is disattaching from the branch – tree – earth. So that part makes me wonder further. When the leaf dies and falls, or when a person dies, the sound of the earth letting go is not quiet. It is the sound of those left behind actively mourning our passing. And grief can be noisy, messy, painful, exhausting. Or it can be a gentle letting go. It all depends on the circumstances and the individuals at play. But the moment of the leaf detaching – or the moment that death of a person occurs – can be as quiet as a prayer, as hushed as a wish, as soft as a whisper. Before the noisy letting go occurs.
There are some cool sound elements in this poem. The long es in leaving and leaf slow down the poem and tie it together. There’s also a rhythm to this short, shape-ish poem.
of the earth
That’s how I heard the poem. The first two lines and the final line all have a stress on the latter part of the words. But in the third line, the stress is up front. Leaving. That could be the most important, or pivotal, word in the whole poem. The leaving. Stressing it differently brings attention to the word and to the idea of leaving.
I was also reminded of the magical Native American legend about how stars are born. In cottonwood trees, the legend says that stars are born up through the roots of the trees. They continue up through the trunk, out to the branches. And when a branch dies and falls to the ground and a person breaks it open, you can see tiny stars in the tips of the branches. Each time a branch is broken, the legend says, a star is released to the sky. At the beginning of each school year, I share this with my students and then we look at the night sky on our own, with our families, to try to find the new stars.
This is a concrete haiku which is looking at a huge body, the earth, and then closing in on a small object, the leaf.
The sound of the earth is known as Earth’s hum (these oscillations are due to ocean waves constantly crashing into continents. Ocean waves pound continents vibrating like a bell). The meaning of sound of the earth as given in Merriam Webster dictionary is audible deep-pitched vibrations accompanying an earthquake that are probably caused by the transmission of earth vibrations to the air.
Initially I gathered that the movement of the falling leaf was being depicted with the words having been arranged in a scattered manner. I wondered if the random punctuations and capital letters are intentionally dropped there to show the picturisation of the twirling of the leaf. However, I think the poem graphically illustrates how the earth’s sound leaves from the leaf, from bottom to top rather than vice versa.
The hyphen at the start of the poem increases the curiosity of the reader and the first line has only a definite article creating more suspense. The space between each line – is it necessary? Yes, else it would look very crowded and wouldn’t portray what it intends to. The poem reveals each word very slowly. The second word sound makes us inquisitive, then wonder what the sound of the earth is. Why the separation of ‘so’ and ‘ear’? Sound is heard through the ear. Is that why? But what about ‘so’ then? The comma before the word leaving can show hesitancy or even the way something leaves. The word leaf is divided into three parts. Why is ‘l’ in the same sentence as the, and why is there a fullstop after ‘ea’ and why is it ‘F’ and not f? The definite article ‘the’ has been used thrice. Could an indefinite article have been used instead of the third ‘the’? And we discover that this sound of the earth is leaving the leaf. How so? (So the poem starts at the bottom with F and ends on top with the hyphen). Is it an implied metaphor for a person’s soul going on it’s onward journey after leaving their earthly body?
In my final reading, I think it is as simple as it could be but with great impact. ‘the sound of’ is written in such a way that we can imagine or even hear the sound. ‘so’ is emphasized making the sound a little more than what it actually is. The next set of words is written on the right side of the page just like something/someone breaking away or leaving. So it could be a rumble of an earthquake? The last line is what happens to the small leaf after an event of this magnitude. It could metaphorically imply the heaviness (silence after all the noise) one feels with the breaking of any relationships and the consequences all the parties bear with it (focusing on the one person in question here). What happens to the leaf after the earthquake? What happens to a person after any relationship falls apart or after a loss? The splitting of the word ‘leaf’ represents the separation and brokenness.
Nairithi Konduru (aged eight):
This poem has eight words and nine syllables, the number of syllables is one more than the number of words. The word ‘the’ is repeated three times and there is alliteration in the and earth and also in leaving and leaf. There is a fullstop in between some words and also capital letters.
The poem could mean that it is fall at a park and one evening there are so many children that the sound of the earth is almost as large as an earthquake and the leaf can hear it all. The next morning it is so quiet that you can hear a pin fall.
During the day, the whole earth is so loud that every leaf can hear thumps, bikes, cars, shouting etc, however there is silence at night.
A leaf has fallen in a garden where a birthday party takes place. The silence after the party is over is what may have been written in the poem.
Can it mean that when a child leaves home for school, the house becomes silent?
Why does the sound leave? Is it driven away?
Scott Metz has given the reader a fascinating piece of “symbology’ to preoccupy the eye and mind once the haiku infringed his thoughtspace! So it was for me keeping my mind busy trying to break the code like Robert Langdon in Dan Brown’s ‘DaVinci Code.’ was supposed to do. Traditional Japanese-language haiku is written in vertical format making its appeal most venerable with a touch of Zen where Haiku has its beginnings. And here we have it all when eyeing the curiously hanging characters, neither Japanese nor straightforward English, hence arousing the inquisitive brainstorm the author may probably wished to trigger in everyone reading this with eye and mind wide open, like it was for me.
At first light we see a mind-boggling cut, a dash, and we tend to look further up to catch the previous line, if any, the authentic beginning we may have overlooked, but seeing none we plunge down all the way to the very end of the verse finding ourselves at a loss, lost in the middle of nowhere?
Symbolic presentation of:
‘the sound of the earth leaving the leaf”
with broken and grafted words like ,”so. Und* (for sound) and “ear. Th” (for earth) with ‘lea. F” (leaf) in the end may faintly show a pattern that would break the ‘code’ letting us find our way out of the woods but I felt it’s not going to end there. What with the overview we try and fail to fully grasp with the one liner I derived (as shown above) seemingly a strange phenomenon about the creation itself. Perhaps it’s the sound of the ‘big bang: that still echoes around us and every minute thing in existence escaping through the medium of a broken , rising and falling, distorted ,’so. Und’ emanating from a channel of broken, uneven ‘ear. Th’ and a fragile, long-suffering ‘lea. F.) The upper case characters U, T and F seem to carry a separate meaning around, as from word to word they definitely slide down till the whole thing ends with the last F. Whatever they tell us, the sound of silence our mind’s love has been distorted by this haiku replacing it with the sound of creation which can be anything
… or something like ‘Aum…’ which the Hindus say was the sound made when Lord Shiva created the Univers or perhaps it was closer to the enchanting theme music from Kubrick’s ‘2001-A Space Odyssey’ the masterpiece created by Arthur C. Clarke long after Lord Shiva!
What struck me first about this poem was the most obvious: the spaces, the enjambment, the capitals, the full stops, and an em dash where you don’t expect. The em dash especially intrigued me. What could the em dash indicate? What precedes the em dash? Much as I wanted to stay there and try to figure out why the poet has used all these unusual devices, I felt I might get my answers if I were to go beyond them. And so, I went on to read the poem, aloud, silently, aloud, silently… and every time, I had the same two images. The first one of a falling leaf, the other one of a dried leaf. Looking at the poem yet again, the ‘so’ reminded me of the Sanskrit word, ‘so-ham’ (pronounced ‘so-hum’, where ‘so’ means That (the universal consciousness) and ‘ham’ means ‘I am’. I am that leaf, I am that earth, I am that sound. Could the em dash in the beginning follow the words ‘I am’? It is said that when one gets into deep meditation, where all sounds are cut off and only the sound of one’s breathing is heard, that sound is ‘so-ham’. Inhale-exhale. The sound of ‘Om’ that pervades the universe. The sound that the ear does not hear. The sound of the earth leaving the leaf. I am that sound.
It’s fun looking at the effects of taking a haiku-like phrase and breaking it into unexpected fragments. In a way, that’s how much of our sensory information comes in before we make sense of it. The words “—the sound of the earth leaving the leaf” when broken up give you an extra word ‘ear’ which fits, and maybe a couple of others: ‘so’ and ‘lea’ which don’t seem to add much. The leading comma before ‘leaving’ didn’t add anything for me. The opening em-dash nicely marks the introduction of a fragment of a continuing experience, and the closing fricative ‘.F’ almost a satisfying expiration at the end of the verse.
I think the technique is very interesting. I’m glad it’s been brought to attention here. It’s something different, which is very welcome. The words once joined together are not too puzzling. My personal failure to gain much insight or emotion from them is not as important as the opening up of a new way of exploring words, of exploiting the space in a very short poetic form, and of extending the reader in unexpected directions. Scott Metz has carved the technique out as his own. What would it be like if all haiku poets adopted/emulated/imitated it?…
(Beata, the poem’s proposer, also furnished a full commentary just post-deadline):
Despite the strange way of writing this haiku about “the soUnd” by Scott Metz (from the top) this interesting haiku is not a poem that we can avoid or leave at the margins.
The first reading gives a question: is it a Japanese haiku – because it was written from the top…(and the words goes down)? And the second question appears immediately: should we – poets write haikus in this in this “Japanese” style? Maybe?
But the second look at the way the poem was written gives also an impression that we can see a way down of a leaf falling from a tree.
We can name it concrete poetry or a dynamic acrostic poetry too (because of the word order, capital and small letters appearing suddenly). But the main thing is the meaning that is hidden under the surface of the haiku.
Have you ever heard the sound of the Earth? I’ve heard it! It is a big hum of grass, of clapping of birds wings, rustling of leaves. But furthermore the sound of a magnetic field of the Earth…yes it can be heard! – of course in the special way. The “sound of the Earth”…Magnetic field of our planet is not something we can hear every day. It can not be seen either. But scientist at the Techincal University of Denmark have taken magnetic signals of the Earth- converted them into sounds that we can hear. And results were … scary. We could hear sounds like a ship or a huge space craft that could fall to pieces at any moment… Imagine! Those sounds above our heads! We know the Earth’s magnetic field protects the lives of everything on our planet (including us – people). But on Earth! – why could we hear that something is broken constantly? Those sets of crackling and breaking space rockets are not a pleasant sound and this could scare all listeners. And that is exactly why there is such an emotional response – he drops a leaf from his hand.
But we can see also that the author jokes… “ea.F” – every reader gets his or her “F” mark. Why? Maybe it is related to the things that matter to us all – our climate? We should hear the sound of our planet, the rustling of falling, dead leaves, the tragedy of the sixth extinction of animal species…In this way we are all responsible for a dying planet. Furthemore our generations failed the test and got “F” because we failed to protect our climate and animals. The unusual poem by Scott Metz reminds us not only to listen to the sounds that surround us, to observe – even such ordinary everyday images – as falling leaves …this poem reminds us to remember the Japanese roots of haiku (reading from the top) and that the word “leaf” contains “ea” that means “each” – you know “each of us” should live to understand and hear the “soUnds of our Earth.”
Author Scott Metz — more than an easy reading…:
I really don’t know how this poem came about, other than I have always been moved to write by leaves and our earth. Who knows, perhaps I was listening to David Bowie’s “Wild is the Wind” yet again and there was some cross-pollination. What I can say though is that it certainly did not come about as it appears in final form. Lots of fun was had with it. It took some playing around with, some experimentation, to see if I could give it more layers, more depth.
In a very basic way, I suppose one might notice an allusion (or a soft nod) to the work of E. E. Cummings (who, with Ginsberg, was the first poet I read with any serious interest), and perhaps a long, thin strand of web can be connected to his leaf poem.
For the last couple of years, I have been trying to play around with a few different, fun, techniques: spacing on the page, punctuation/capitalization (a kind of “found” appearance/feeling), and parallel columns (and vertical formatting in general). Nothing new poetically, but outsider kind of stuff for English-language haiku.
I see these techniques as forms of cutting, ways of messing around with juxtaposition, and playfully upending readers’ expectations as well as the consciousness of readers.
I really enjoy working with parallel columns as a technique (usually two, but sometimes three), inspired, for the most part, initially by some of Hansha Teki’s and Johannes S. H. Bjerg’s experiments (and now some of Robert Lax’s techniques too). I like how this opens a poem up to the possibility of more than a singular, clear, smooth (easy) reading. In the case of this poem that was chosen, the reader can choose two readings depending on their own reading experiences, and when (or if) they read it again, it can offer a different reading (and therefore a different meaning) altogether. I find it fun that it can offer simultaneous meanings and directions at once. My use of spacing, vertical structure and formatting, in general, has also been tickled and encouraged by a couple of quotes:
“. . . I came to think that the single vertical line of a haiku might well function as something similar to the ancient yorishiro, vertical natural forms believed to be sacred conduits channeling the power of the gods.”
from Well-Versed: Exploring Modern Japanese Haiku (2021)
and also this one from Robin D. Gill, from his book Fly-ku! (2004):
“Japanese haiku may typically be written in one line, but that line is vertical, and therefore resembles an object (in the French sense of an object de arte), whereas ours is but a horizon or, worse yet, a straight road.”
So there are visual, concrete elements to it as well. Nothing new.
The “found” element is another technique I play with here and throughout my poems now (but only when it adds, what I hope, is something meaningful to the poem, not just for the sake of experimentation). For clarification, this poem was not found somewhere and extracted from a different text. But it does, of course, give that impression, purposely. In a simplistic way, this technique, again, slows, pulls, twists the reader. But I am hoping that in the process of reading and rereading the poem, we will be tugged to ponder what words (or ideas, or thoughts) these pieces could be ending or beginning. What could that other text—that other world—be? These bits and pieces are invitations to readers, and I am hoping that they add something extra to the imagery, meaning/s, and the sensation/s I am attempting to create.
Lastly, the poem offers — with “leaf,” and “earth” — the possibility of being read symbolically or metaphorically.
Thanks to all for some excellent commentaries. A difficult choice to boil down. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned most valuable this week, Scott 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!
Poem for commentary:they have a list of demands redwoods — Cherie Hunter Day MILES DEEP IN A DRUM SOLO, Backbone Press, 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.
Acclaimed and innovative Scott Metz, co-editor of the Modern Haiku Anthologies (the latest just out), scarcely needs introduction. His basic details are in the Foundation’s Haiku Registry. His earlier book lakes & now wolves may be read in the Foundation’s Library. It was reviewed in Frogpond (2013). From that review:
In 2007 Modern Haiku published “The Haiku of Scott Metz” in its “Spotlight” feature. He began writing haiku in 1997 and ten years later was asked to share his poetic view:
“I was attracted most by their brevity, their oddness (of subjects and images), and their sense of darkness and loneliness as well as their ability to convey the deeply subjective within the objective (from and out of images)…. Two aspects of haiku especially interest me, free verse or freestyle haiku and haiku of the imagination….I’m also interested in the playfulness of language in haiku, those words and phrases and slang that make English unique and that can be used to engage the reader.”
His new book ea’s e is available (with distinguished encomiums) at Red Moon or via Amazon. A review by Pippa Phillips appeared in Frogpond, and the book received an Honourable Mention in the Touchstone Awards. Recommended — a glimpse of the mountain yet to climb by those like me still toiling in the foothills.
Oh, and the capital letters U, T and F in the poem? To me that’s a coded reference to Unicode Transformation Format — UTF is the standard by which text characters are rendered into binary code.
Lastly, the famous leaf poem to which Scott refers, way ahead of its time:l(a le af fa ll s) one l iness e. e. cummings (95 Poems, 1958)