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re:Virals 404

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 Dan Campbell, was:

     beam by beam
     the old barn taken down
     to sky
     — Peter Newton 
     The Heron's Nest Volume XXV, Number 2: June 2023

Introducing this poem, Dan writes:

I selected this poem because barns fascinate me and many of my own haiku and art works feature barns. My grandfathers built their barns and they still stand and resemble arks waiting to be launched. I have many good memories of working and playing in barns and barns evoke nostalgia, harkening back to a simpler time and evoking feelings of connection to the land and rural traditions.

Opening comment:

Even for the majority of urban dwellers the barn is a symbol of potent traditional associations. We all love a barn. Thanks to Hollywood, we’ve been uplifted by barn raisings, but a poem about a barn disappearing is rare. Appropriate to the traditions of haiku, there’s something sad about taking down an old-fashioned barn crafted from good solid wood skilfully fastened with pegs, when times are changing to prefabricated galvanised farm outbuildings, like as not used to pack chickens beak to beak or keep fat pigs from exercising. The old ways are dying. That all that is left is sky carries also the thought that all that will remain of us and our works is the sky that was there before us.

I was very pleased when Dan put this forward, in part because it is an opportunity to bring to readers’ attention John Stevenson’s thoughtful views on English Language haiku in his commentary in The Heron’s Nest, where this poem was Editor’s Choice. I urge any who haven’t yet read them to do so.

I have a couple of comments to add. We’ve seen several times in re:Virals that to get a reader to focus attention on these tiny poems, rather than skim-read, it can help to have an unusual or unexpected word or turn of phrase: here, (taken down) “to sky.” It also makes “sky” rather than “the sky” a general, natural force, and a colour: brown becomes blue.

Next, this poem deals with time. We are so often told that haiku must be “in the moment” and never in a past tense; yet there are several that deal primarily with the past and with the passing of time. Haiku poets adopt various devices to get round this: here, the “one by one” technique is deployed to give a time sequence, the barn is “old”, and the past is also indicated by “taken”. The only things in the present are the sky and the absence of barn; neither of which is a moment, exactly. Of course, one can argue (and I will) that every haiku is in the past by the time it is written; and certainly by the time it’s published and read. I was interested to see in George Swede’s 1995 dissertation (p.55) that his Rule 6, that the haiku presents an event that is happening now, not in the past or the future, is “the only rule about which I have not had a consistent opinion.” As so often, attempts to fix “rules” in haiku founder on the rocks of precedent and exception — including this rule. We should, I think, retain an open mind.

Another tenet one sometimes reads is that haiku do not try to tell a story. This too is much honoured in the breach. They often picture a little story, or are fragments of a larger story, and this delightful, wistful poem is one such. The story of a barn, of the old rural ways, and pehaps of us and our works. Shall we say a haiku can be a cross-section through a story?

Jennifer Gurney:

I’m so used to thinking about barn raisings where a community works together to build a barn. I love the imagery of constructing the four walls of the barn and then, together, walking the walls upright (typically with ropes involved for leverage) to join the initial rectangular frame. It’s a powerful image and every time I see it in a movie, like The Witness, my heart lifts with the walls. And it typically happens all in a day’s work. That blows my mind.

The opposite – taking down a barn – is intriguing. I just now realized that I’ve never seen a barn being taken down, either in real life or in a movie, in the six decades of my life. That’s a rather startling realization, truth be told.

I have seen many old, even derelict barns. They just seem to play out their time standing or leaning on their own. Some become skeletons and you can see the sky through them.

When I retire, my plan is to move back to Michigan where I grew up and buy a small house on land, with a lake, and a barn. I would love to turn the barn into an art studio or school or space for live music. So the thought of taking down a barn is entirely foreign to me. Keeping it, refurbishing it, treasuring it, loving it … those are all in my wheelhouse.

But this poet paints a picture of taking down a barn in order to free up space to see the sky. And that, I could get behind. Of course knowing me, I would be carefully taking down each beam of the barn to re-use each one in art, somehow. Especially the red barnwood. The character and beauty of barnwood is unrivaled.

There is a sense of organization and forward movement in this poem that appeals to me. “Beam by beam” shows loving care, not a demolition project where it’s all just bulldozed to make way for “progress.” It also harkens that this is a one-person or a couple-of-people project, not a construction crew. It’s personal. This is their barn, or a barn that remains on property that they bought. The owners are taking it down themselves. With the end result being: sky. The final line leaves me as a reader satisfied. There is a sense of closure that is palpable. I know the purpose. And I can rest, knowing that the project is complete and the land has been returned to its original form. Land and sky.

Nairithi Konduru (8):

I find alliteration of b and n sounds in L1 and L2.

The beams in the barn were taken down one by one and were transported by airplane to some other state where it was sold off. There seems to be destruction and the place has become messy and unsafe. There is some mystery as to whose barn it is and why they are doing what they are doing. The stored grains or hay may have been transported elsewhere or they may have been discarded or abandoned. If there was livestock, they may have taken them along or sold them away. May be they posted about it on Facebook as everybody does these days. May be the farmer knows haiku and shared this haiku about his barn to his friends.

Ruth Happel:

My initial response to this poem was the idea of decay, thinking of the barn slowly falling apart as many country barns now do. But being taken down beam by beam implies an orderly process. Most likely, someone is carefully saving the beams, perhaps to reconstruct the barn elsewhere, or to use for another building. It carries an inherent message of the value of recycling, rather than throwing away the old. I really enjoyed the clever use of beam which refers both to the wood of the barn, and the sunbeams that slowly come in from the sky.

Amoolya Kamalnath:

This is a very visual poem but at the same time auditory too, the sounds of the demolition and machinery, the cries and the conversations of the people working at the farmyard and the cries/calls of the animal residents along with the rustling of the leaves surrounding the barn and some birdsong. There is an indulgence of the olfactory sense too though it is unsaid, the smell of mud and dung, etc.

L1 is heavy due to the consonance (b sound) which seems to represent the density of each metal or wooden beam as it is seen and as it is felt which slightly extends to L2 with the word barn and then the weight is toned down with it all being razed to the ground (consonance of n) and is now let free, out into the open air, to the vast sky. However, the element of surprise for me was that the mention of the the barn having been taken down ‘to sky’. I take it to mean the place which was once a barn is now an empty land open to the sky, to nature, to receive all that is being given to it.

Metaphorically speaking, I see this poem implying that an aged person is gradually declining physiologically, exhibiting frailty, and being on a ‘dwindling’ trajectory (having just completed attending a class on End of Life Care as part of a course on Palliative Care) towards his/her onward journey.

Helene Guojah:

I have taken part in the removal of an old cottage roof, slate by slate, batten by batten, and there is a moment when all the slates are gone, and the first piece of roofing felt is removed, allowing at last, the light to shine in and create dramatic shadows from the remaining purlins and rafters on dusty walls and floorboards, and you can stand within the walls and gaze at the sky as if you have never seen it before. Maybe, because of that, these three lines had already caught my attention in The Heron’s Nest.

Something is lost, something is gained, no wrecking ball here just a gentle observation of practicalities, sometimes so careless and hurried, carried out with thought for that which has gone before and that which is yet to come. Joy and regret conveyed so succinctly – beam by beam, the respect for the ancient timbers that have served their time and may still go on to have another life, the scars of their labours treated with care by the hands that remove them, until at last there is nothing but the vast expanse of sky, uncluttered by the man-made.

Usually we look up to the sky, yet here so beautifully, the old barn is taken down ‘to sky’ and with it my heartstrings, unashamedly, tugged.

Jonathan Epstein

In this poem we are present at the dismantling of an old family barn. In L1 we see the barn’s building block, the great timbers that we recognize in L2 as the framework of ”the old barn,” a vanishing landmark in an age of industrial agriculture. In L3 nothing remains of “the old barn” but “sky.”

The beams, separated from their matrix, are long, heavy, squared logs of oak, or whatever hardwood tree was growing near the property when the barn was built. This is not any old barn but “the old barn,” beloved by generations. It is ”taken down” carefully, “beam by beam,” its component parts arranged in an orderly way, to be repurposed or sold for re-use. A feeling of deep respect — of reverence — pervades, for the barn and what it represents. The poem is an homage to its life, a memorial for its death.

My imagination roams in the barn’s interior. Standing in its center, I gaze up at the ceiling with its cathedral-like pattern of interlacing planks and beams. Light beams shine through narrow spaces between rafters; rays of sunlight with swirling dust motes touch the barn floor and fill the barn with a silent sermon.

Images from the barn’s long and productive past flicker by: stabled horses with their heads buried in food buckets, cows docilely being milked, hay pitchforked up through the second floor door on a hot, sunny day. On the barn walls, hooks where worn work clothes used to hang, hand-hewn farm implements and garden tools with years of sweat embedded on wooden handles, dusty farm machines that plowed fields and mowed grass and fertilized crops; polished leather saddles, old harnesses and burlap bags bulging with grain. All are present as I witness “the old barn taken down.”’

Images of vibrant life arise as well, the hustle and bustle of work that went on in and around the barn from dawn to dusk as it changed hands in the family or through families for generations, if not centuries; the care and feeding of animals (children’s chores, perhaps); chickens clucking, ducks quacking, geese honking as they scurry in and out of the large open barn doors, chased by barking dogs. Cats napping half-hidden in the hay after a meal of barn mice.

I feel the anchor of continuity and tradition in these images as I witness the demise of this barn. The life of a noble structure and a way of life is passing away. The senses and emotions fill to capacity as I scan and contemplate this scene.

After the barn — heart and soul of a family farm — is “taken down,” where has it gone now that it is no more? It has gone “to sky.” L3 seems abrupt, a puzzlement at first. We have gone from building block (“beam”) to the building itself (“the old barn”) to the piece by piece removal of the building (“taken down”) to nothing (“to sky”). L3 includes no article — not “to the sky,” that all-enveloping, blue, life-essential, gaseous mix that blankets the earth. With “the old barn taken down,” the barn returns “to sky”— to the eternal, the infinite unknowable.

I salute the poet for the resonance and monumentality contained in this verse. As a memento mori poem of the first order, it immerses me in a complex scene of majesty, meaning and feeling — and leaves me at the doorstep of mystery.

Sushama Kapur

Space. That’s my first and instant experience of this poem. Next, movement: slow and careful, almost reverential, in “beam by beam”, one by one, and “taken down”, being disassembled, because of age. Where to? It’s natural progression of rest, i.e. “to sky”. Like the human progression of life – birth, living and death, going into an afterworld. This bringing down of sky, the vastness, to a space the old barn occupied is virtually freeing. Taking that space back to when the planet was what it was, before man entered, laying down roots and constructing structures for living and storage.

The beat in this poem, in the m and n sound, is the third thing that strikes the eye:

beam by beam/
the old barn/
taken down/

-and then comes the twist: to sky.

The upward movement from down to up, as the poem ends is apparent as we consolidate the meaning of all ten words together. This is a poem which would stay with you, in that image of light, air, breeze, energy, and what not, being restored, and where the freed ground would experience all these elements, naturally.

Ann Smith — not as old as the sky:

I like this poem. I don’t know if the poet is writing about a barn that, through neglect, has fallen down and been absorbed back into nature over a long period of time or if some deliberate human intervention is now taking place and those humans are methodically taking it down beam by beam. Either way I like the back to nature theme of the poem highlighting our impermanence and the idea of nature taking over – where “old” is old in our terms but not old in terms of planet earth and its sky.

I like the rhythm of the description as step by step, sunbeam by sunbeam, bit by bit, little by little the sky is once again revealed and becomes visible from that particular plot of land and the sky and that plot of earth are united again.
I also love the unexpected (and opposite of what we’d expect) expression “down to sky.”

My sister lives in a barn that was taken down to sky and potatoes grew within its roofless walls. She and her partner bought it in its wild tumbledown state and mantled it again so it now has beams and a roof.

Here I am enjoying dismantling a poem about dismantling a barn.

Author Peter Newton:

The Portable World

I write what’s around me. And, over time, what becomes part of me. Here in Vermont, I often pass by this enormous old barn from a once thriving dairy farm. Years have passed. The barn and I have gotten to know each other. We have both gotten older. Saggier. The closeness of the barn to the busy two-lane speaks to the fact that the barn was there before the highway. Easily, the barn is two telephone poles tall at its peak and well into its second century of existence.

I have watched the barn’s roof bow, its wood siding curl in the July heat. Snow sweeps through its long-absent doors. Nevertheless, the barn remains. Endures. Still functional, the roof keeps a pyramid of hay inside dry. But with each board that slips out of place, each slate roof tile gone missing, I make a mental note of its survival when I speed by.

For the purposes of my barn poem I think I have combined several barns that I have known over time. Not long ago, a smaller barn was for sale to the highest bidder. The lucky bidder spent a month last summer dismantling it to sell-off to the second-home builders. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of “old Vermont” by way of an exposed barn beam or two. Beam by beam.

One day, I passed the lot where the barn was. The mountains were everywhere in the background. And those Luigi Lucioni clouds one sees in Vermont. Google Lucioni’s landscape paintings and you can see what I mean. I think I was lost in those clouds before I realized that the barn was gone and there was nothing but sky. All I had to do was write it down.

I had told myself this poem over a number of years, never knowing I was building it in pieces. Line by line.

beam by beam
the old barn taken down
to sky

All I had to do was get out of its way. And let it be spoken aloud — which, once I did, like the tumblers of an old safe, the thought clicked. The door opened.

I repeated it again and again until I got home where I jotted it down in the kitchen. There were no rough drafts except the interchangeable words I spoke aloud to myself while driving. It had to sound right. At the same time, it had to do justice to the memory of that first barn by the highway, which is still there. I imagine it will stand as a monument to a way of life for many years to come. I’m just glad I have a few words as a way to carry that barn with me. Its cavernous, majestic and useful beauty was built to last.

Thanks for sharing this.


Thanks to all who sent commentaries. A difficult choice: but for simplicity and charm as well as sensitivity to the poem’s nuances, the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week is Ann. She 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:

     front row seats
     the long eyelashes
     of circus elephants
     —Valentina Ranaldi-Adams
     The Haiku Foundation Haiku Dialogue, 14 June 2023

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.

Excellent, informative comment from Peter about the inspiration and creative process in this poem, I think all will agree.

Peter Newton’s short bio and some of his many haiku may be seen in The Haiku Registry. He’s been writing haiku and other forms for over twenty years and is widely published, awarded and anthologised. Peter, frequently an innovative haiku poet (included in the anthology Haiku in English — the First Hundred Years), was featured in the Mann Library’s daily haiku throughout August 2010. His recent chapbook of haibun may be enjoyed online here: Part-Time Gods, Snapshot Press, Ormskirk, 2022. Peter is an editor of tinywords.

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. A great haiku that is really built up with care as the barn was probably. I really enjoyed John Stevenson’s commentary that Keith provided with the link. Many things to contemplate here.

  2. I was struck from the first reading of Peter’s poem with the phrase ‘taken down to sky’. Wow! What a wonderful visual *down* to sky, which is always *up*, not down! Only by that down effort can we move back up to sky. Thank you Peter for this fabulous inversion that just makes this poem.

  3. I enjoyed all the commentaries and am very proud that mine was picked. Thank you Keith. I have just now clicked on your link and read John Stevenson’s commentary in Heron’s Nest and learned a lot

  4. I see the barn as a patriarch, a protector. The beams are all the men in the family and they make the barn strong. Over time the men have passed away, one by one. Eventually the barn and the family name, are gone (to sky).

  5. I was do glad to read many comments so interesting, so moving… Nevertheless I could see a barn that was taken down “beam by beam” by a strong gale to the sky ( in my imagination – ofcourse). But maybe winds are not strong enough to take the whole barn? However a barn roof could be taken to the sky by a severe hurricane.

  6. Lys Browne adds a comment via the submission form:

    This ku begins with the strong trochaic foot and a spondee setting up a forward impulse from the first line. We are also carried along by the repetition in the wording ‘beam by beam’ which suggests sunbeam but also beam of wood’ and the idea of a building process.
    The second line develops this reductively; we get the image of ‘(an) old barn (being) taken down’
    The last line then sends us back to the beginning line, undercutting as it does the materiality of the barn with the idea of the barn, as building, being replaced by space and ‘ sky’.

    We are finally returned, as readers, to the initial association of beam wirh sunbeam. The effect of this is to give the ku a circularity while simultaneously locating it in the context of a such binaries as concrete/ abstract; closed/ open; down/up; life/ art. Therefore the ku remains ambivalent and open to a number of readings. The reader’s response is privileged. S/he writes the meaning/s .

    One reading, for example, may be that the juxtaposition of ‘the old barn’ in all its decay with ‘ (timeless) sky’ gives a mystical quality suggesting a higher power than the merely human.

    Ultimately, this ku remains open-ended and eschews any one interpretation wherein lies its success as a piece of writing.

    1. Just wanted to point out that this is called a “cretic” foot, and it’s one that’s used a lot in poetry when dealing with comparisons, so Lys is on to something here!

  7. How many consistently good haiku poets do we have? Perhaps__? Doesn’t matter– Peter Newton is one of them.

  8. Ann, a very nicely done commentary on Peter’s poem.

    My own experience of the American barn is limited to films, for instance ‘The Witness’, in which there is a barn building and raising in an Amish village and Harrison Ford’s character helped. That’s the kind of barn I imagined.
    I did read Peter’s haiku on the home page of the latest THN, but I hadn’t read the commentary page until prompted by Keith, here. I don’t recall having ever read a commentary by John S. in ‘Editors Choices’ before this and was very pleased to read this one.

    Yes, “beam by beam” suggests careful, piece by piece “de-building” rather than demolishing. With “taken down to sky” I imagine the big old barn has been on a hill or on a flat. treeless plain in dry country, big sky country. The sky isn’t just above, it’s ahead, it’s blue and it continues into distance.

  9. I had read John Stevenson’s commentary on the poem in Heron’s Nest, and I wondered where else this could go. Well, wow, kudos to all contributors for their wonderful insights and writing. I found them quite moving. Also, Peter Newton’s own description of his process was the cherry on top.

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