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 Jennifer Gurney, was:twilight the silence between notes — Alasdair Paterson Blithe Spirit, vol. 33, number 2, May 2023
Introducing this poem, Jennifer writes:
I am drawn in by this pithy haiku, with its sparse eight syllables. But don’t be dissuaded by its brevity, for there is a world in there for the exploring. In that magical time of gloaming. In the space of silence between the music of the evening.
Twilight, silence, and spaces between are well-used haiku tools and retain their power in this economical verse. Here, “notes” could be anything from a bird to the pipes of Pan (twilight being the faery hour); and also, of course, the notes between thinking time in the notebook of a scrupulously attentive haikuist. For me, the season is spring and the notes those of a hopeful blackbird. As the moon rises in the half-light, the intervals between the bird’s notes grow longer and longer, until it too falls silent. But then, that is/was the scenario for my own little jisei as things stand, so that is how my reader’s mind is primed..
There are several generally accepted meanings of twilight. One describes the time of day, the dim light before sunrise or after sunset, when the sun is below the horizon. Another refers to a poorly defined intermediate state, perhaps most vividly illustrated by the tv show, The Twilight Zone. And finally, it can refer to decline, often used to describe an older person in their twilight years.
The ambiguity of multiple meanings this haiku might reference leads to a wide variety of interpretations. On first reading, it made me think of day’s end, when nature slows down. There is literally more silence between notes as birds call less frequently. I have always loved to be outside at this time of day, as the earth seems to almost exhale. I enjoy watching the changing light and listening as animals transition from day to night.
The second and third lines, focused on the silence between notes, suggests a sense of space. To some extent we all live in a liminal space. We move between who we are and who we might become. There is perhaps a need for silence, for distance, to allow ourselves to find a way for discovering our own melodies.
As I read some more, I also thought of it as a reference to an older person. Their world is generally growing quieter. There are fewer obligations, no hectic schedule to fill their days. They also have steadily lost friends and family, so there is more separation, a silence created by no longer having the many people who used to fill their emotional lives. This might resonate especially for me having lost both my mother and my sister in the past two years. Growing older, I feel a sense of time slowing down, and speeding up at the same time, with the approach of twilight.
I’m sure there are many ways to interpret this haiku. But one of the great aspects of haiku is that each poem is like a prism. Everyone brings their own perspective, and one poem can become many. I feel slightly different every time I read this haiku, and enjoy each nuance.
This poem brought back memories of my boyhood in rural North Carolina when I would sit on the front porch in the evening to listen to the hoots of owls. Like a symphony, an owl’s hoots possess a mystery and complexity that have captured the human imagination. The hoots of an owl are not merely random vocalizations but rather a carefully constructed melody. Each species of owl possesses its distinct hooting pattern. The Great Horned Owl, for example, produces a deep, resonant hoot, resembling the opening notes of a grand symphony, while the Barred Owl’s hoots evoke a more rhythmic and melodious pattern, akin to the gentle cadence of a waltz.
As crucial as the hoots themselves, the moments of silence between hoots play a vital role in the owl’s symphony. Silence acts as a musical rest, providing time for the owl’s call to reverberate through the night air, allowing other individuals to respond and interact. Moreover, the silence between hoots enables owls to listen attentively to the responses of potential mates or rivals, helping them interpret the ever-changing environment around them.
The hoots of an owl resonate as a symphony of nature, reflecting the complexity and beauty of the natural world. Just as a skilled conductor guides an orchestra, owls deftly communicate and hunt through their hooting patterns and the critical moments of silence between hoots. By appreciating the symphony of owl hoots and the power of silence, we can gain a deeper appreciation for owls and their music.
Twilight- I associate with the visual senses. Silence and notes more typically I associate with auditory senses. In this poem, notes also suggests that which is noticed. The silence between suggests to me the deep spiritual response, from within, after the senses have been saturated, perhaps. Beautiful poem.
The poet packs the weight of the poem in a mere handful. The alliteration of the i sounds asserts strongly the words it’s associated with and then a palpable silence after L2. The short and long e sounds and the sole o sound make for the melody.
The word twilight can be read in different ways:
a) the low level of light when it is late in the day, b) a state of gradual decline when the end is near, c) a way of life that involves illegal or immoral activities, and is on the edge of normal society.
There is a lull during the twilight, be it that time of the day when everyone is calmer including the sky or even getting down the steps of one’s career into a life of retirement, so to say. It is a time to reflect, to adapt to the changing circumstances, to let go and let be.
Is the poet talking about the silence between the chirps of the birds returning to their nests or the silence between the notes heard from a neighbour playing the piano, both scenes playing at dusk? The silence could also denote certain phases in dementia, an empty nest situation peppered with phone calls and/or visits, scanty conversations due to a variety of circumstances. It could also be a couple engaging with each other. A phase of withdrawal in between being active in whatever activities is another possibility. Whatever it is, there’s a pervading silence between what was and what will be, the focus is not on the work but the non-action, the in-between.
During twilight’s brief period following sunset, no shadows are cast and objects appear silhouetted, a time of tranquility and mystery. The poet’s image of this metaphoric stage of life is one of deep harmony —“the silence between notes.” The word “notes” implies music, though emphasis rests on “the silence.” We may think of “the silence between notes” as alternations of silence and sound, emptiness and form. An all-pervading peace reigns in a profoundly quiet mind. Such is the goal of yoga, of meditation, the grail for those who seek a stable inner calm to replace the volatility of everyday life.
The visual effect of the lines reinforces the image of enduring harmony — each line slightly longer than the one before; steps that descend into one’s interior. Assonance, too, plays a role. The three long i’s in ‘twilight’ and ‘silence’ balance the three steps down (inward). The o of ‘notes’ seals the phrase and contains ‘the silence,’ which symbolically rests in the poem’s — and the poet’s —center. “[N]otes” without an article indicates mind activity in general, squarely placing focus on “the silence.” Silence is the source and essence of this transcendent state. The sense is not of a fleeting moment — a haiku moment or an epiphany —but of a lingering state of mind, a mind that has ceased its clamoring; a mind anchored in equilibrium.
As a soft, steady rain slowly sinks into soil until the earth is fully saturated, so too does the power of “the silence” described here suffuse every atom of the poet’s being. An exemplar of what a tiny poem can be — immense.
Ashoka Weerakkody — a haiku moment strikes in semi-darkness:
What a meditative mood this passing moment creates in its wake, was how my mind initially took note of Alsdair Paterson’s haiku, as the imagery complete with the sound of a softly awoken harp string faded out. But the momentum it hit me with, took me by surprise a fraction of a second too late, by the time it had vanished from my radar like the Concorde leaving behind only the sonic boom that trailed.
I had often thought of present day haiku as a kind of matchstick, ready to be struck for light and thrown off like a disposable something used once and thrown once! Perhaps a curious child would be keen enough to pick one up and keep it in a collection that would stay on for some time with him, as it’s not a hindrance, though its spark is gone leaving only a residue of its effect, a burnt stub. But on the subject of haiku, they can be later spoken about and admired in a new light —yet it would be unlikely to happen. In place of those disappearing masterpieces, new haiku are born, and they are getting even better, soul soothing and enlightening. Knowing the wonder they left in our minds, that magical haiku moment that went viral …all these keep the memories alive. But not all haiku come to that, and like that used and thrown matchstick, many go into hibernation no sooner they premier and the curtain falls! The exceptions are many nevertheless: like the very first haiku we hear famously about – stirring the waters of the old pond – we shall always preserve that in our cloud memories even if no other space is left, making us ‘dispose’ of most other master pieces.
Coming back to the present study then: is it the synchronization of two entities lying along the passage of time? Yet the baseline differs from that of twilight to silence. Two spaces contrast with each other but the scales where these spaces belong are vastly beyond comparison. Twilight is that ‘no dark/ no light’ space we encounter before sunrise or after sunset, morning or evening any day. It may last for an hour at least (depending on the given earthly fix) and that interval between day and night may soon be over and the mind settles down to the reality of the present. Hence the twilight wouldn’t sharpen our minds to focus upon the flow of time that takes with it a chip off our lifetime. The haikuist hears the silence even as he talks about the notes that emanate perhaps from the strings of a musical instrument that can be anywhere around, and certainly music is so time sensitive, and creates its optimum effect at particular hours in a day. The mystical tones of a harp come into mind as we slowly fit into the semi-dark surroundings, and then the haiku moment strikes! The silence between tones becomes the micrometric replica of twilight. The tragedy of shortening lifespan made simple by scaling it down to silence between notes!
A haiku worth adding to the memory space in a safe file!
Author Alasdair Paterson:
I’ve always had a special feeling for twilight, that time of ebb and flow, of melancholic reflection, re-examination and even yearning. I don’t think I’m alone in seeing the gloaming this way. Writing a very short poem about it – 5 words – is a challenge, to create the mood you’re seeking to convey but also leave space for readers to make it their own. What notes are you hearing – saxophone, piano, violin, voice, birdsong? If music and life are also made up of silences, what thoughts do we fill them with?
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Ashoka has chosen next week’s subject, which you’ll find below. You may take the poems separately, or jointly. 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(s) for commentary:h(AI)kudepression pills for craters on the moon — Marilyn Ashbaugh, USA Prune Juice issue 39, April 30, 2023
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Scottish poet and retired university librarian Alasdair Patrson’s wikipedia page gives his short biography and selected publications.
Several meritorious commentaries shouldering each other this week. Ashoka has lately provided some increasingly stimulating ones, and now, finally the golden apple…
…and you know I sometimes go on about mainstream poetry that has lost its way and much of its music, while the real poetry of my generation has been written by the songwriters. Well, just listen again to Paul Simon’s lyrics of silence and darkness in The Sound of Silence. You can hear every word, glory be! And glory be! There is rhyme!