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re:Virals 40

Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was

     Harusame ya hachi no su tsutou yane no mori
     spring rain —
     dripping down the wasp’s nest
     from the leaking roof
          Basho (tr. David Landis Barnhill), Basho Haiku — Selected haiku of Matsuo Basho (2004)

Jo McInerney appreciates the objectivity of Basho’s approach:

Basho’s ‘spring rain’ presents a moment of detachment, one balanced between indifference and acceptance.

The opening kigo is one of promise and life. Spring rain falls on warming earth. It stirs dormant bulbs and drips from swelling buds. However, such expectations are not so much inverted as firmly displaced in the rest of the haiku.

The rain falls on the shelters of humans and insects alike. The human shelter, at least, is inadequate, as the roof is leaking. Wasps water-proof their nests and this one is probably unaffected by the rain; however, it has its place in a chain of human discomfort. It acts as a conduit; the rain enters through the leaking roof before runnelling down the wasp nest and dripping to the floor.

There is a delicate interplay of unfulfilled expectations here. If the wasps anticipated additional protection from building under the roofline they have been disappointed. Human expectations of shelter have been doubly unmet. The roof is leaking and there are wasps under it. There is the potential to interpret this compounded misery as humorous; however, the haiku will not sustain this reading. Its tone is neutral, not deadpan.

The simple objectivity adopted within this haiku is interesting. There is no trace of authorial intrusion, not because Basho never overtly suggests an interested perspective, but because he has not done so here. The wasps are neither offered nor denied sympathy. The poet carefully observes the rain and its course down the wasp nest but he does not complain about the drips. Observation is all.

The reader is left to wonder why the roof has not been repaired and why the wasp nest remains beneath it. Perhaps this is the first heavy downpour of the season; perhaps the wasp nest has been previously unnoticed. Perhaps. The first possible explanation, at least, seems unlikely, as this is spring, not autumn rain.

The overall effect is of a human life in stasis. Someone, however briefly, is sitting like a watching stone. However, that is not the final effect. What this haiku seems to suggest, above all else, is the limitations of human agency and the extent to which all living things are at the disposal of larger forces.


As this week’s winner, Jo gets to choose 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. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.

Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!

re:Virals 40:

     retracing my steps
     the bread crumbs
     of her parting words
          Bob Lucky, Frogpond 37.3 (2014)

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