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 Chloe Chan, was:plein air painting-- I fill my brush with the sky — Carole MacRury Honourable mention, 2023 Betty Drevniok award, Haiku Canada
Introducing this poem, Chloe writes:
This haiku first caught my eye upon reading the lines “I fill my brush/with the sky”. Despite not knowing what plein air painting was, I knew that I liked it. And after discovering what it is — a painting practice where one creates art out in natural landscapes — I appreciate it even more.
Part of my personal criteria for what makes up a good haiku is that it should be short and not try to fit too much into three lines, but also evoke more thought and hint at meanings that aren’t explicitly portrayed within the poem. These lines fulfill that perfectly. “I fill my brush/with the sky” can describe the act of dipping one’s paintbrush into the paint that is to be the sky in the artwork – but to me, it is also talking about truly experiencing the outdoors and immersing oneself in the present environment. Filling your lungs and heart and mind with the sky around you and transporting that feeling into a painting.
This lean, elegant, artful verse (which reads well) exudes joy; open air, the sky, and a connection with the natural creative world, the colours permeating the poet’s brush, the fresh air in a breath. How appropriate to haiku! The words “I fill my brush with sky” are plain but nevertheless evoke a lyrical tone, with success. And there’s also a delightful wink to sales technique! The contest was for verses written only in English, yet in a bilingual nation; the French expression ‘plein air’ has long been adopted into English to describe painting in the open air, since the Impressionists used it as they sought to capture light. “Plein,” the primary meaning of which is “full,” goes beautifully with “I fill my brush.” Painting is another activity in the field that makes the artist pay mindful attention to, select, arrange and layer, the surroundings: clear parallels with our activities in haiku.
I thought about the use of the definite article: earlier this year we had Peter Newton’s haiku: “beam by beam / the old barn / taken down to sky.” But here, “the” sky is not “sky” the generic sky over a long period, but the sky that day. It becomes an integral cue to the present.
I just last week edited my haibun about watercolor painting, as I entered one of its haiku into the Renku session. I feel very akin to Carol’s beautiful haiku!
This haiku captures very well an active and joyful personal moment of creative activity (‘I fill’ .. ‘my’), and also perhaps creativity’s optimism and vulnerability – the painter has ‘the sky’ on her brush, a beautiful image, and indeed the brush is filled with the sky, but what will end up on the canvas? We have the beginning, the first decisions (which view, which brush, which paint), the paint is now on the brush, ready, perhaps poised over the canvas, but what will the painter be able to accomplish? Can one really do justice to the sky, and in particular to the sky of this very moment? The scene is neatly set – the artist is outside, but what will she paint? Just now, what prompts her, what inspires her, maybe compels her, is ‘the sky’. I like the mystery here – we are not told just what it is about the sky that captures her attention and wonder (the colors? clouds? its relation to the landscape?). What is significant is that ‘the sky’ is worth filling her brush. Every bristle will be needed and must do its part with the painter to realize this particular sky. The focus is on the creative moment, its participants, and processes (location, painter, filling, brushing), but in so doing, and with mostly one-syllable words, the haiku allows us also to appreciate the object of this creativity. What skies have inspired us and ‘filled’ our attention (like a brush) with awe? I find myself looking up from my keyboard and out the window.
We can talk a lot about the actual preparation of the poem, the thematic point and the theory part. But, the actual reality is :
the magnitude of the poem lies in the openness and brevity of the poet in dealing with such a universal theme as “plein air painting’.” And to allow that thought to seep deeper inside the reader is when the L 2 “I fill my brush” comes into perspective to re-think about “what, when, where.”
Carole has beautifully taken us for a ride in her thoughts, her dreams of a landscape, and used the tool of her brush to fill the colours of the sky. It could be spring rain, autumn leaves, monsoon clouds, winter nights. It could be dry or wet landscape. It could be one with the migratory or permanent birds. It could be with kites or balloons. It could be of the sunset or sunrise. It could be at the beach or desert. It could be with kids or the aged. She just beckoned her brush to do the needful, to pick the sky that the universe had. The poem also reflected oneness with the soul. It voiced the feelings of silence and yet is full of experiences and memories. The reality brought to life about personifying the brush as a medium to just explore, and yet a feeling of detachment in that ‘I’. Beautiful, Carole!!
Thank you Chloe for selecting this poem. The poem made me think of my artist sister who often reminds me to stop and observe the sky and clouds. My sister, Carole and other plein air artists must have a unique relationship with the sky. The sky serves as both a canvas and a muse for them and must be a frequent source of inspiration.
Unlike studio painters who can control lighting and temperature conditions, plein air artists have little time to capture a scene before it changes or vanishes. They are forced to work in short, intense bursts to capture the changing hues of the sky.
“I fill my brush with the sky” conveys how the poet’s brush captures the changing hues of the sky from dawn to dusk, from the cool blues of morning to the fiery reds and purples of evening. Plein air artists are not mere observers of nature but are active participants as they translate the sky’s beauty and energy onto their canvases.
Through the dedication to their craft, plein air artists remind us of the powerful connection between art and nature, and how the sky, as an eternal muse, has inspired artists for centuries.
I had to look up the meaning for L1 and the moment I read it, I was reminded of my experience with painting, not the sky outdoors, but the sea and the sun rising at the horizon, sitting on the sand just in front of the sea, next to the pier, with fishing boats behind us. It was an art workshop in the town where I live and my daughter had accompanied me to participate too. How the sea engulfed on our painting and our brushes were literally filled with the sea was the highlight that morning (for those who were the slowest, this happening much after the sunrise).
I had not yet written my commentary and a poet friend asked me if this poem used synesthesia as a technique. I’m not very well-versed with the technique having only been introduced to it fairly recently. However, as I thought deeply about plein air painting, I thought it does involve multiple senses, may be in fact all five senses, but without crowding the poem or being clunky. Is there a sense switch? May be, no.
The author’s poetic expression of filling her brush with the sky gives that touch of ‘specialness’ to the poem and an ‘aha’ moment in L3.
There is much elegance and charm in this poem. Truthfully I had to google what the term ‘plein air’ meant! Then the elegance, the harmony and the synesthesia waltzed in. In French, it denotes reference to the act of painting “in the open air” with the subject of your art in full, natural, panoramic view.
Imagine sitting amidst what you are painting and swivelling your chair or paint stool to capture the soul and the essence of the five elements that surround you – ether, wind, fire, water and earth. The corresponding five senses of sound, touch, sight, taste and smell are awake and alive. Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne and Van Gogh captured this in their landscapes. The play of light and shade, rustling leaves, drifting clouds, flitting butterflies, ships sailing, and the movement of flora and fauna paints itself onto the canvas.
The poet fills her brush, not with colour or paint but with the blueness of the sky. And the haijin dips her quill into the ink pot, and the poem writes itself!
Harriet Thistlethwaite — a bid for freedom:
Resonance between the air and the sky. All of the haiku is like a bid for freedom (undercurrent or shadow: the expression “a brush with death” ?), with the extraordinary poem exit of “the sky.” All at one with “I fill my brush” in the centre is an additional richness, like a gift. I hear the ‘rush’ in brush too. As if the painter is all-of-a sudden taking off…
Author Carole MacRury:
I would like to express my gratitude to Keith Evetts for his contributions to the Haiku Foundation’s Virals forum, and to Chloe Chan for selecting my haiku. Also, my thanks to all who commented on my poem.
It’s a special honor to have my poem chosen by Chloe, an upcoming poet whose poem that won an honorable mention in the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Haiku Invitational in 2022 was the subject of re:Virals 372. As one of its original founders, this contest is dear to my heart. Chloe is also from my birth city of Vancouver, BC.
The inspiration for this haiku comes from the vast skies of Colorado where I spend several months each year. As I leave behind my coastal view of the San Juan archipelago and dense forests of hemlock, fir, cedar, and pine, the sky begins to open when I reach the high plains of Wyoming and continues to our home in Colorado. The vastness of the landscape and the sky above is something to behold coming from sea level to heights of over 10,000 feet. The higher I go, the higher and wider the sky!
My haiku was inspired by a plein-air painter I came across while visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. He sat at his easel under an umbrella, facing an open meadow beneath a vast Colorado sky. As one who has painted in the past, I understand the brush, the mixing of paints on a palette, and the challenge of rendering what the eye sees onto a canvas. It is with poetic license that I put myself in his chair.
I tend to be subtle with my haiku and make a special effort to choose the best words possible to turn an ordinary moment into one that can transcend the literal and open itself to the reader’s inner landscape and experience. I try for a sense of ‘ma’; an empty space that readers may fill or not.
This haiku has a setting, that of painting outside, and is followed by a phrase that makes use of figurative language. “I fill my brush with the sky” allows the reader to imagine the colors of the sky, but also evokes a metaphoric reading as to how this setting and action might also fill one’s heart and soul. This is a simple haiku that I hope fits into any season, even if in my case, I was looking at a vast, clear autumn sky. I believe the tiniest of moments can become moments of significance through careful and studied word choice and through imparting some of the more evocative Japanese aesthetics.
In truth, Japanese aesthetics have long informed my own writing of haiku. Concepts such as wabi, sabi, karumi, yūgen and mono-no-aware, to name just a few, are traits I appreciate not only in haiku but in other areas of my life.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries, particularly those taking the plunge for the first time. As the contributor of a delightfully succinct, empathetic and uplifting commentary this week, Harriet 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:eternal life even the cuckoo wants it summer night ——Deborah A. Bennett Haiku Foundation Haiku Dialogue, February 22, 2023
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Thanks also to Maurice Nevile for his first commentary in re:Virals, we hope the first of many. Harriet comments that she is relatively new to the form of haiku and has focused on the Japanese masters in translation, and her choice is therefore from a list of intriguing (and potentially discussable) haiku that I keep handy for contingencies.
Carole MacRury resides in Point Roberts, Washington, a unique peninsula and border town that inspires her work. She is the author of In the Company of Crows: Haiku and Tanka Between the Tides (Black Cat Press, 2008, 2nd Printing, 2018) and The Tang of Nasturtiums, an award-winning e-chapbook (Snapshot Press 2012). Several times a guest editor of the Foundation’s Haiku Dialogue, and a past Board Member, Tanka Society of America, and the United Haiku and Tanka Society. There’s an early interview with her in Simply Haiku; and some of her haiku to 2009 can be read during the month Carole was Poet of the Month at the Mann Library.
Amoolya raises the subject of synaesthesia. I don’t think this poem is a prime example of the way the term is used to refer to haiku techniques (although it could be argued that breathing and scent are allied with vision; but one is not described in the terms of another to associate them). There’s an article available in the library on the subject: Haiku Toolbox: Synesthesia, by Paul Miller in Modern Haiku 44.3