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:on the tip of the bird's beak a drop of rainbow — Earl Livings Shamrock, issue 47, 2022
Introducing this poem, Dan writes:
I read and then re-read and then re-read this poem. What a creative gem! Through haiku, we learn to hear the whispers of leaves, to taste the rain, and to notice a tiny rainbow with a poet’s eye. Haiku is a meditation, a mindfulness, a practice of being present in the ever-turning wheel of existence.
Two parts, semantic cut (inversion), season word, a bird and a prismatic rainbow, fusion of sun, rain and sky: what more could the readers of re:Virals want?
For me, birds and rainbows have been smaller birds disporting themselves in a sunlit birdbath, or shaking off raindrops after a spring shower. Then, distant birds seen apparently flying into a rainbow, summoning up childhood thoughts of Judy Garland: “Birds fly over the rainbow / why then, oh, why can’t I?” We have a lot of rainbows between showers and sunny periods in spring, but for some reason ‘rainbow’ is held to be a summer word. I have seen and photographed a rainbow in a dewdrop, and in raindrops on a plant. I never saw a rainbow in a drop at the end of a bird’s beak. It’s the kind of thing I’d overlook until, say, processing a photograph afterwards. This tiny detail makes a beautiful image in the mind.
Rainbows are an universal sight and their presence is an honour to the five elements that make it possible. The drizzling rain passing through sunlight evolves a rainbow. The sky is a home for it. The air gracefully moves the leaves to allow the rainbow to slip through it and highlight the whole phenomenon. The fire in us; the urge, inspires our words to poem it. So too likewise L 3 ‘a drop of rainbow’ on the ‘tip of the bird’s beak’ manifests that in its flight.
A visual treat to imagine and express it from ‘zooming out to zooming in to zooming the innermost’, isn’t it? Lets think about the ‘tip of the beak’ as one focal point and then to bring the rainbow even to the minutest -zero level is all about this masterpiece, haikuiing. I would conclude that haiku is not just about picturizing and placing them in phrase and fragment but also how best we arrange the phenomenon in the most aesthetic way. Creating a rainbow from a drop of water and then putting it back into that same drop on the tip of the bird’s beak is the intelligence of the poet. Photography also plays a major role. The poet must have shot a picture at the end when the rainbow was slowly diminishing and it chose to be ‘just a drop’. Applause!!
This haiku brought up many images for me. One was almost literal, thinking of the mythical bluebird of happiness flying through the sky. In this interpretation, it was bringing back a piece of the rainbow, a raindrop from a passing storm. Another was the thought of a hummingbird, its bill wet from foraging on flower nectar, and the amazing rainbow iridescence of the bird reflected in the drop. Yet another idea is the colors of the rainbow being displayed in the colorful beak of a toucan. In nature everything is connected, so it is easy for me to imagine how a bird and a rainbow can be joined in the endless cycle of life.
This is a haiku with rainbow being a summer kigo. The short o sound and the b and p sounds make it lyrical. The verse spreads out like a rainbow with L1 being like the tip and L2 imitating a beak. This riveting verse starts with a preposition, the definite article ‘the’ is repeated twice and the type of the bird isn’t mentioned (was the bird at a distance or was it a fledgling?)
The bird hasn’t been identified in the poem. Is it because it was at a distance when the poet saw the bird? Was the bird a juvenile bird and hence difficult to identify what species of bird it was? The juvenile or adolescent bird getting ready for its first big flight into the sky, trying to fulfill its dreams of catching up with the rainbow, of soaring high into the sky.
There’s a sweet spot in the middle of summer when fledglings have left their nests but aren’t yet sporting full adult plumage. This interim plumage called “juvenal”, applies to birds in their juvenile phase. Birds in this juvenal plumage can be very difficult to identify in the field and hence the poet may have referred to the bird as ‘the bird’. Different species fledge at different times, but most songbirds and smaller species fledge from late June through July. (https://www.audubon.org/news/birdist-rule-57-its-summer-watch-out-juveniles)
Or is it a colourful prey like a butterfly that is left hanging from the adult bird’s beak?
Nairithi Konduru (aged 8):
The poem may be speaking about a bird with a rainbow-coloured beak, for example, the keel-billed toucan which has many names such as “sulfur-breasted toucan, keel toucan, or rainbow-billed toucan. This is a colorful Latin American member of the toucan family. It is the national bird of Belize. The species is found in tropical jungles from southern Mexico to Colombia.
Maybe a bird flew through a rainbow and then a raindrop fell on it.
The bird could have bits of its food hanging from its beak.
My mother read out and explained to me Ravi Kiran’s haiku from Wales Haiku Journal –
in the talons
of a fishing eagle
a glint of dusk
This prompted me to think that there could be a metaphor in this haiku too. It could be that a bird is carrying food for its babies which are the rainbow 🌈. Rainbow is a summer season word, my mother told me.
Chloe Chan — look closer and find something special:
This is a haiku that is simple and short and elegant. As a birdwatcher, I can say that the art of looking for birds is often about looking closely and seeing what is hidden or barely noticeable. It can be tedious, but it’s always worth the feeling of euphoria when a new species is spotted.
This poem perfectly represents the joy felt by looking closer and finding something new and exciting; the “drop of rainbow”. Rainbows are a symbol of happiness and hope, something bright and colourful after rainy weather, a reward for surviving the storm. Those sky-rainbows are large and obviously noticeable; this tiny one on a living, breathing bird is discovered not because one made it through the rain, but because you looked closer and found something special.
The detailed description of the location of this drop further signifies one’s journey into the tiny details around us that go overlooked. I also appreciate how the writer has phrased the haiku so we are left with the afterthought of a small rainbow; giving the impression of slowly “zooming in” on this image.
Author Earl Livings:
My thanks to Dan for picking my haiku for discussion this week and to the members of the re:Virals community for taking the time to respond to the poem. I look forward to reading their comments.
My wife and I have been living for 20 years in what is termed a ‘leafy suburb’ of Melbourne, Australia. Our large backyard has apple, plum and lemon trees and the neighbors behind us have plenty of tall gum trees. At various times of the year, we are blessed with magpies, lorikeets and noisy miners during the day and bats and tawny frogmouths at night. To encourage our daytime visitors and provide them with relief during the hot summer months, we set up two bird baths of different sizes and heights in the middle of the lawn. One of our joys is to watch from our kitchen window the birds take turns leaping from one birdbath to the other, diving in again and again, and flying to the washing line to shrug and fling water from themselves and fan their wings dry.
Early in the pandemic, I resolved to write at least one haiku a day and, because of lockdowns, the birds and their antics featured greatly in my project. The selected haiku came out of this period. The first draft named the bird I was viewing at the time and the second draft introduced the rainbow image, which was triggered by the memory of similar birds frolicking in the birdbaths during a summer shower, the rain and the splashes of water sparkling in the sun:
on the tip
of the still magpie
on the tip
of the magpie’s beak
Neither version felt right to me. Something about the rhythmic structure of the lines and the awkward repetition of ‘rain’. Four days later, the final version came to me in one of those zen-like moments of inspiration that one tries to encourage when writing haiku. I like the way the syllable count of each line increases by one as if the poem is leading the reader deeper into something. I also like the way the first two lines are end-stressed while the third line ends with a soft stress, a type of release. In addition, every word is a single syllable except for that important last word. The other soundscaping element was the use of the plosives (‘t’, ‘d’, ‘b’, ‘k’ and ‘p’), with the last ‘b’ softening into the ‘ow’. This soft ‘o’ sound contrasted with others in the poem, the hard ‘on’, and ‘of’. It seems to me there is a sense of precise observation leading into an insight or revelation, a twist of perception. I’m sure readers will discover and unravel their own meanings for the poem.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Chloe 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:plein air painting-- I fill my brush with the sky — Carole MacRury Honourable mention, 2023 Betty Drevniok award, Haiku Canada
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Thank you, Earl, for the comments on its origin, drafting and revisions.
Earl Livings is an Australian poet and haikuist. His bio and some of his work may be viewed online on his website.
The system tells me that this is my hundredth post in re:Virals. I crave your indulgence.
I’ve been trying to sort out my thoughts on the questions that have come up in recent weeks; and recalling Lorin Ford’s comment (with which I’m in tune) “I’m not sure anymore what is a haiku and what isn’t;” and Peter Yovu’s (likewise) “For me, to experience something as a *poem* is primary. If, following that, it is useful to see that it is or has the qualities of a haiku, then I am happy to go in that direction.”
There have been many attempts to define English Language haiku (ELH) in terms of rules – many, many rules. Those doing so generally get into difficulties. When these rules are applied by editors, they have led to a stream of pretty uniform haiku. In many cases they re-hash familiar memes and offer little by way of fresh insight. This fosters the dull comfort of familiarity. From time to time haikuists, including some who comment here, chafe at the uniformity and say they seek innovation, and that haiku must progress.
At the same time, when I read, re-read and study the verses of the old masters, I find a wide range of material and styles, I think more than I find in contemporary haiku as published in the mainstream ELH journals. Their verses include haiku without cuts, single sentence haiku, haiku that make statements or are authorial in some way, aphoristic haiku, haiku that conspicuously rhyme (as opposed to the rhyme occasioned by the restricted range of Japanese endings), haiku with single real images, haiku set in the past, haiku with three (or more) elements rather than two.
I often wonder whether today’s editors would accept the hokku/haiku/haikai of the greats, and conclude that, because of the conventions that subsequently have been imposed on the genre in the English language, they often would not. At least, if submitted without the great name attached. It seems that far from encouraging haiku to flourish, the scope enjoyed by past masters of the genre has become diminished by an accumulation of arbitrary stipulations in the present day. Even in days of yore, we read, for example, Buson’s appreciation of his own teacher Hanjin: “He used to say that adhering strictly to the regulations in haikai art was not mandatory.” And: “My poems are in no way the imitation of Basho’s style. I take pleasure in changing the poetic manner from day to day, following the whims of my imagination.”
According to Dolin and others, “haiku” was a term first used by another pioneer, Matsunaga Teitoku (1571—1653), and not as some suppose by Shiki. Part of the problem seems to derive from the notion that haiku are confined to the parameters of the earlier hokku of the renga. Yet many of the verses that we love, from Basho himself, idiosyncratic Issa, Chiyo-ni, Buson and others were not formal hokku, but observational or reflective verses written on the hoof, as part of travel journals or diaries, or composed afterwards, away from the field, or composed for friends. As they were not strictly hokku (because not for a renga), it is perhaps unsurprising that we find many examples among them that do not conform to the tight specifications of that kind of verse. They preceded Shiki, himself a strong advocate of reform in a scene that he and other creative poets felt had become sterile, and a breaker of some of the so-called “rules.”
After Shiki, some of his pupils continued to conform to rigid, conservative haiku, notably Kyoshi as editor of Hototogisu; others such as Hekigodo, his companions and inheritors, broke away to write more freely. I think they had grounds to do so, continuing the much wider traditions of the great haikuists who preceded them. From what I can gather, the haiku scene in Japan remains divided.
In ELH, if you abandon any of the formal haiku considerations of 5-7-5, season word, two parts, a cut, then it could be argued that you might as well abandon them all… That perhaps is an extreme view, but there’s some logic to it. Not, by the way, a conclusion I espouse. We are not writing in Japanese, for a start.
Albeit they are in a completely different language with different poetic traditions, I think that if we are to call English language verses “haiku” or “senryu,” then while progressing — for the genre cannot retain vitality if it remains straitjacketed — they should be rooted in the traditions. Those traditions seem much broader than the ones that many contemporary editors lay down. And for me, the spirit of haiku is more important than the precise form of it. The pigeon is more important than the pigeonhole. The “pigeon” being a brief, spare, mindful arrangement of observation, image, space and suggestion; leading to reader reflection and the subtle communication of insight, beauty or emotion, preferably original. Techniques may, but not “must,” include restriction to two juxtaposed parts, season word, a separation or cut; you can find impeccable precedents for almost any variation or breach of these.
A few weeks ago, Lorin suggested that it might be better to revert to the word “haikai” to cover the lot. I can see reasons for this. We can spend more time writing, less time debating.
What do others think? My conflicted thoughts continue to evolve… I have just been playing with the notion that if you define and identify a haiku strictly by its form then you have the lifeless shell of a cicada. “Ah,” my mischievous inner hermit replies, “but can a cicada live without its shell?”
So I’ll stick with the pigeon/pigeonhole analogy for now. Perhaps it’s enough to say that if a poem has *some* haiku-like qualities then it belongs with haiku, just as a pigeon belongs as a bird along with a peacock or an owl or an ostrich. We know what “haiku-like qualities” are, but shall we call them qualities or guiding principles, not absolute “rules;” make them as minimal as possible, and not require that every verse meets all of them to qualify?
Meanwhile, I hope that we continue to encourage a wide range of contemporary verses for comment and discussion in re:Virals. I like to think that haiku is a broad category, not a narrow and exclusive one.