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:shaving above the ear to fly better — Barbara Anna Gaiardoni Bones: Journal for the short verse, April 2023
Introducing this poem, Dan writes:
This poem brought back memories of my own wishes about being able to fly. As a boy, I would wear a towel as a cape and pretend that I was Superman and I always answer “flying” whenever I am asked which superpower I would choose. The thought of spreading my wings and exploring uncharted territories is one of my favorite daydreams.
Dan’s choice is endearingly eccentric and well outside the constraints of classic haiku/senryu. Yet it meets many criteria. Brief with not a word wasted; detached and in plain speech; original, unexpected, engaging the reader, and prompting reflective insight. It’s also eminently readable, which is more than you can say for some of the more abstruse verses on the periphery of the genre. There’s a juxtaposition between an image, and an idea which is related to it. There’s quizzical humour. All in a single one-breath sentence.
And the reading? At first sight, a comment on social fashion: getting a fancy head-shaving pattern to “be cool, amazing and awesome” (Urban Dictionary: “fly”). This might prompt reflection on why people want to stand out from a crowd, or mark their identity of a group or a gang; on changing fashions, and on what happens when everyone does it. At least head shavings, unlike the ubiquitous tattoos, are easily reversible.
A wider theme, taking the verse more literally, has to do with belief and superstition. It’s a theme I sometimes address in senryu, so that’s how this one clicked for me. Here we have someone — anyone — adopting an outward practice in the hope or belief of enhancement. There’s just about something in it, as shaving hair should improve streamlining and reduce turbulence. You can, with a little good–humour, just about imagine a competitive hang-glider, an overpaid soccer star with a view to heading goals, or a champion sheep-shearer’s self-advertisement. But at bottom it is futile, a vanity, a wishful fancy, for we can’t fly at all. We have only dreams.
Shaving above the ear won’t make you fly worse, that’s for sure. Unless you are applying to work in a bank. It just might make you fly better. You can believe. Who has no superstition of their own, who is without belief?
Now I look forward to poet Barbara’s own comment to show I’ve completely misread this.
I struggled with this until I shared it with a Japanese renku friend, who pointed out it was like a Zen koan. That said (I take no credit for this insight), a few thoughts on this week’s featured ku….
If you tried to puzzle out this seeming conundrum as you would a haiku or senryu, you join centuries of Zen practitioners who learned through the frustration of TRYING that a koan — if indeed this can be so considered — cannot be solved by logic or analysis. Two well-known koan:
When you clap your hands there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?
If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
A comparison: Zen Buddhism gave us both haiku poetry and the koan. Haiku conveys epiphanies from observing nature. The koan, on the other hand, requires bypassing concepts and tapping into the intuitive mind. It is a launching pad to a temporary state of enlightenment. When a teacher gives a student the paradoxical riddle known as a koan, s/he is not looking for a particular answer: it is up to the teacher to determine if a student’s response to a koan demonstrates “awakening.”
Another haiku-koan contrast: haiku paints a picture with images (forms) from nature; the koan propels one beyond thought to a place where truth beyond forms is cognized; a truth obscured by conventional wisdom becomes clear. Solving a koan does not come by intellectual effort but by letting go of dualistic thinking.
What haiku and the Zen koan have in common: Haiku connects us to nature and brings us into harmony with it; a sense of oneness with nature occurs. In a similar way, “solving” a koan can bring about a state of stillness that dissolves boundaries. Again, as with haiku, a sublime inner harmony may occur as a result.
I don’t have an “awakened” response to Barbara Anna’s koan — or what appears to me as such. I may, after all, be in left field divining her intentions. Even so, “shaving/ above the ear/ to fly better” performs an invaluable service. It reminds us there are paradoxical truths our reasoning minds will never figure out. The relief this can bring us in our restless pursuit for Answers to Life‘s Essential Questions may just be enough to return us to a state of inner calm.
What a fun haiku!
Razor cut, smooth, clean lines. I thought of a male shaving his face in the morning before going to work.
L2: above the ear:
A haircut. A close shave above the ears could be any style of haircut, and could be for either male or female.
L3: to fly better:
“Fly” was my a-ha moment! The word fly is a slang term from the late 80’s for being cool, attractive, trendy. My son used the term quite often during his teen years.
I then imagined someone getting a nice fresh haircut, with a close shave above their ears, which improved their self esteem!
I enjoyed reading this haiku!
This haiku appeals to me for the way it allows us entry during a process. L1 suggests that the process of shaving is underway. L2 builds on this following the blade above ‘the ‘ear’. L3 three then offers the epiphanic line which suggests that that what is really being talked about is writing, editing so to allow the poem to ascend and ‘fly’ . In this reading L2 also seems to suggest that the poem flies beyond mere human language and hearing to enter the divine and the language of silence.
This senryu describes the simple act of shaving above the ear as stated by the poet. It deploys simple vocabulary describing a simple act. On enquiry, I discovered that shaving behind the ears is rather difficult and requires practice. Just pull down your ear and hold the razor close to your ear pointing upwards, and then shave going up until you get every pesky hair there.
What does it achieve? A bare, neat look, reminding me of cadets in the Defence Services in India. Others include professional footballers and soccer players. The lack of hair enables mobility, to run faster, move quicker and fly better ~ cutting through the air. By the way, Emirates Airlines uses the slogan ~ “fly better”! I will check on their pilots’ and crew’s hair idiosyncrasies the next time I’m in Dubai.
“To be more fly” is what I described to my mother when she first recited the verse to me. ‘Fly’ is like teenagers say “Don’t I look fly?”. It’s a stylish version of “cool” which is a stylish version of great. Here, a teenager is coming and saying, “I shaved above my ears. Don’t I look so fly?”
I’ve heard this expression long back in some cartoons I’ve watched and so it isn’t new to me.
A simple verse with assonance, this ku really flummoxed me initially. A single verb in L1, an almost daily activity for most men, this word had me gripped, to find out more. L2 took me by surprise because it is not everyday that hair is shaved off above the ears and is not common for everyone to do so. L3 was what I couldn’t fathom until I learnt from the internet that the North American meaning of ‘fly’ is fashionably attractive and impressive and the British meaning is knowing and clever. (My daughter told me, at this juncture, that she already told me this meaning when I first recited this week’s verse to her. I hadn’t paid heed to her thinking she was just saying something insignificant).
So the verse simply means shaving hair from the part of the head above the ear to appear attractive and/or knowledgeable. Who doesn’t want to look suave, that too these days? Imitating the appearance of celebrities (especially sportspersons and characters the filmstars portray in their films) is the ‘in thing’ nowadays.
I love the gentle humour of this and I learned a lot about the history of the “undercut” hairstyle while doing my online research. The style can be tracked through history and was worn by, amongst others, the Vikings, some Native Americans, and soldiers in the two world wars. It has seen a revival very recently in the UK due to tv series such as Peaky Blinders. The hair on the top of the head is kept long and parted (side or centre parting) while the back and sides are shaved very short.
The verse made me think of flying super heros such as Superman and Batman who’d need to be as aerodynamic as possible so I was surprised to find that neither, in their various guises, had true undercuts though the hair was slicked back and shorter above the ears. I read that the styles sported by Tom Cruise in Top Gun and particularly Richard Gere in “An Officer and a Gentleman” did as much for such cuts “as Brando did for T-shirts.” I imagine young men emulating these heroes and getting ‘pilot cuts’ to look cool* by
above the ear
and then the unexpected humour of the last line
to fly better
To be better able to fly with the ladies and get “up where they belong.”
*p.s. It seems that this really was one of the reasons for this cut – to stay cool
p.p.s. I know that women can have this type of hair cut too – and I note that ear is singular in this verse and there is such a thing as a sidecut where the hair is partially shaved on one side.
p.p.p.s. I’ve probably got this totally wrong
The military including the air force is well known for requiring extreme hair shaves on joining. To me this haiku could suggest both the belief that people joining the air force should be well disciplined, since this will lead to better preparation, or have an element of sarcasm since a close shave will have no effect on the ability to fly in a plane. It also hints at the possible use of another popular use of shave, to have a close shave which means a narrow escape from a dangerous situation. An additional meaning could relate to flying where the margin for error is unforgiving, and it’s important to shave right.
Peter C. Forster — haiku, but not as we know it, Jim:
When Bones first appeared in 2012 it was subtitled “journal for contemporary haiku.” In 2020 that was changed to “journal for the short verse.” In web searches, the title attribute is given as “bones -a journal for the short poem.” That seems to concede that much of its content is not haiku, even contemporary English Language haiku. I am wondering whether that applies equally to senryu, and whether the lines are now so blurred that we should stop using the word “haiku” except in describing verses that are incontrovertibly haiku (if they exist outside formal haiku)?
As a sentence of free verse, this one is not haiku as we know it, Jim, but it has some haiku-like features for the reader to fit together. A person who tries to make an impression and signal how cool they want to be seen, by affecting an unconventional hairstyle. Are there parallels with short poems?
I enjoyed thinking about it anyhow. It’s a truism that the best way to assert your individuality is simply to be yourself. Thing about truisms is they’re true.
Author Barbara Anna Gaiardoni:
The hair for women is an important part of their appearance, to feel beautiful and confident in their everyday life. Ergonomically cut ensures comfort and performance: a key element to fly high, too…a flight and a secret dream. An ancient dream completely outside of reality often guided by reason. An ancient dream for a New All–Female Science.
Thanks for choosing this secret poem.
Thanks to contributors who sent commentaries. We all gain from them. A close shave: by a head, Peter earns the privilege of choosing 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.
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Poem for commentary:gulls mobbing a crow — when all you do is tell the truth — Tony Williams tsuri-doro issue 16 July 2023
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After Barbara’s comment I resorted to the web and found Hair Adviser. I liked #2 of 50 Trendy Shaved Hairstyles for Women to Try in 2023:
“Shaved sides show a sign of rebellion, no doubt. On your bad girl days, show off the freehand razor cut design by pulling your hair back in a sleek glossy pony.”
I don’t want to be left out.
Peter’s question as to whether these ELH verses are now so far removed from classic definitions that we should stop using the words ‘haiku’ and ‘senryu:’ an alternative is to recognise all as haiku where they have haiku-like qualities whether or not they are in strict form. What do you all think?