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 Peter C. Forster, was:gulls mobbing a crow — when all you do is tell the truth — Tony Williams tsuri-doro issue 16 July 2023
Introducing this poem, Peter writes:
Just as the gulls are provoked by a crow, Tony Williams’ haiku is likely to provoke those who join the mobs of social media hurling abuse. This ku takes a risk and deserves some prominence and consideration, I believe. I am eager to see what re:Virals readers think of it.
I have tried to find an example of this type of verse, with its fairly didactic second part, among the works of the old masters and mistresses of the genre. So far without success. If you know of one, please pass it on.
Several bird species engage in mobbing behaviour towards other birds they deem a threat, and indeed towards other classes including mammals such as homo sapiens or the foxes. Sometimes the triggers for such behaviour are innate, as for example the shape or shadow of a hawk, but often they are learned by imitating the habits of older birds. Gulls and crows alike are known for mobbing. I think too of Hitchcock’s horror film, The Birds.
Tony Williams, however, introduces a completely different kind of threat from that of the predator or the egg-robber: the truth. Now, birds are not known to be in the least concerned with truths as we like to think of them; and so the verse, having begun by recording a natural phenomenon, leads us to consider its parallels in human conduct. I’m sure many are shocked by mob behaviour, lately the barrage of invective unleashed in the media, not least social media, at those whose views are unpopular with a group. This applies pretty equally to liberal progressives, often illiberal when it comes to differing views, and to reactionaries whose own hysteria is just as prevalent, sometimes among them militant Christians whose charity seems in short supply. It’s a symptom of alarm, of the growing polarisation, this reluctance to debate soberly; this fear of a disconcerting truth. It’s reinforced by the comfort and protection of belonging to a group — a shared identity, part of the bird colony. Are you a gull or a crow? White as a gull or Black as a crow? Southerner or Northener? Democrat or Republican? Hawk or Dove? One of Us or One of Them? Signal you belong by imitating the cries. Drive off the interlopers.
Your flock, right or wrong. Although line three appears to take “the truth” as a given, the verse also begs the question of what is truth anyway, and whose. Views differ in this era of post-truth politics and platforms. But if serious discourse is blotted out by screaming partisan frenzy, are we ever going to get closer to it?
Sometimes self-righteous mobbing can lead to the destruction of the target individual’s life, for something they said when they were seventeen. A shrieking, vindictive mob is a chilling sight whoever is doing the lynching or the stoning, is it not?
This ku appeals to me for how it undercuts the writing process in a tongue-in-cheek manner. L2 and L3 subtly ask what is ‘truth’ when, as foreground by the reductive bird imagery in L1 you get such little credit for your efforts.
This ku covertly suggests then, that writer-intention should rather be to tell lies, which relates more closely to the provisional nature of language within which we exist as humans.
L1: gulls mobbing a crow – is written in 3rd person perspective, describing the many against one; the deafeningly noisy squelching the one. L2&3: when all you do is tell the truth – the writing perspective changes to 2nd person. This change in perspective draws me in to feel how it takes courage to speak up against the outspoken flock. Much appreciated
Mobbing behavior is generally viewed as a defense by groups of birds protecting themselves from larger birds that might attack them or their nests. They join together in a bird mob to chase away a potentially dangerous bird. With their aggressive chase and often loud calls, they convey to a potential predator they are aware of it. This discourages any bird looking for an easy meal. It will most likely move on after losing the element of surprise.
Research has shown the alarm calls of many birds have converged. Because of this, many species will recognize this vocalization as a sign of danger. Their similar calls allow birds of many species to communicate and join together to form a larger and more effective mob.
In this haiku, the reference to gulls mobbing a crow refers to the most common interaction between the two species. Occasionally the tables are turned. There is an incident several years ago where a gull actually killed and flew off with a baby crow. Nature follows rules until it doesn’t.
Sometimes I feel sympathy for crows and hawks being chased. The relentless pursuit must be irritating. But the vulnerable small birds are telling their truth. They face peril every day from other birds and must join forces to protect their homes from all threats. I’m sure the poem could also be interpreted beyond avian biology, to include the consequences of telling the truth. We are not so far removed from the animal kingdom.
Tony Williams tells it again!
It was recorded, in the most read book of all, that Pontius Pilate asked the King of Jews, brought before him, this question: “What is Truth?” And obviously he didn’t wait for a reply, perhaps because the World (as we know it now) was still brand new at the time, the time when history was about to begin the new era, the Anno Domini year count which would begin immediately after Pontius Pilate washed his hands in water disowning what was going to happen before his very eyes. So the truth was, even then, “taboo” for some indiscernible reason and best left to remain in the dark, unspoken of in the open. For the “crime” of uttering the truth or the “truth apparent” slaves had to suffer the excruciating fate of having the tongues cut off in cold blood, as we’ve seen in “Roots.” I don’t know in which year A D. these events took place but I guess not knowing the “truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” is no offence here, as here’s no life and death matter to please or displease an ego-stricken bunch. But the fact remains the “truth” if let off amidst such a crowd or at wrong time and place gives rise to another bitter truth, we all know what, as we see and hear about them in the news on a daily basis.
In such a truth-fearing world we are watching this single black crow who still dares to “tell the truth” while the haikuist watches it from below. And the gulls mobbing it, in my very private opinion are some of the luckiest beings – birds, animals or humans it wouldn’t matter for the simple reason that they are hearing the truth! A rare occurrence!!
Jennifer Gurney — groupthink:
To me, the words mobbing and truth stand out most in this haiku. When groupthink begins, it’s hard to stem the tide of mob mentality, and truth can get run over, quite literally.
In this poem, gulls and crow could mean any number of things. They are clearly the villain and the hero, but could mean far beyond the literal meaning of gull and crow.
The one I thought of immediately was the situation of two Connecticut teenagers charged with killing a helpless egret at Ocean Beach earlier this month. And the lovely young boy who held a memorial service in the bird’s honor.
This poem could also be referencing whistleblowers and public shaming or could be a historical reference to Jim Crow laws and ongoing racism that permeates our society today.
I love how a good haiku makes me wonder.
Author Tony Williams:
Firstly, my thanks to Peter C Forster for choosing my haiku, and thank you too for the opportunity to share my thoughts…
This haiku, a simple observation in Nature, was an attempt to be both a comment on how unpopular a dissenting voice can be, and a reminder that a prescient message about climate change, antibiotic resistance, the AI singularity and the like, can be drowned out and diminished by a motivated ‘mob’.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Jennifer 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:twilight the silence between notes — Alasdair Paterson Blithe Spirit, vol. 33, number 2, May 2023
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Tony Williams found haiku in 2020 and he became hooked. In his first year he received honourable mentions in the Irish and New Zealand international competitions, and a first place in the Gerald Brady memorial contest for senryu. Since then he has been awarded several other prizes and has been published widely. Tony lives in Scotland, UK and enjoys nature, and a bit of vegetable growing. He is a member of the British Haiku Society and the Haiku Society of America.
If you have time and an inquisitive mind:
“Conspiracy Theories Aren’t Just For Conservatives” — data based article in the Washington Post.