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, chosen by Harriet Thistlethwaite, was:eternal life even the cuckoo wants it summer night ——Deborah A. Bennett Haiku Foundation Haiku Dialogue, February 22, 2023
Introducing this poem, Harriet writes:
I chose this one as it speaks to so much that is NOW — Our futile hopes of evading death. Our not actually listening to warning calls from nature. Beautiful in construction, it’s like an elegy to what we may lose soon. The cuckoo — the central pivot — takes the focus, as if the narcissist. And the cuckoo wants what others have built – uses others’ nests. We hear its call on summer nights. A summer night goes on and on. But finally ‘night’ brings the extinguishing of the haiku — and the light.
Straightway this haiku went into my little file of favourites. Deborah’s work often has that mystic tone and goes beyond everyday journeyman verses. Here, she’s bold enough to tackle two or three difficult and vital matters in short, plain words. Rising above the ephemeral, it makes for a memorable and enduring haiku.
Whereas Basho’s cicadas chirp not knowing they will shortly die, and Issa’s fish for dinner swim around their bucket in peaceful ignorance, or, on a branch floating downriver to an uncertain fate a cricket sings, in this haiku Deborah asks whether the bird is not as oblivious to destiny as we might think. The question is artfully put through the medium of a challenging statement.
I was minded of another such verse full of inscape, also in the form of a thought-provoking statement, that we took last year: Maxianne Berger’s “merely a lake/flowing into a lake/Niagara Falls“. Why? Because it made me reflect on the nature of wonder, why we humans feel it, and whether we are the only species to do so. Life and consciousness has evolved through competition and natural selection. The cuckoo’s will to live is as strong as ours, its methods unethical. It is equipped, as we are, with pain and reward mechanisms, and fight-or-flight. Why, then, should not a cuckoo, like us, yearn for eternal life? Or do we? Many works on that subject, from the four thousand year old Tale of Gilgamesh, through Tennyson’s Tithonus to Borges’ The Immortal, deal with the disadvantages of immortality. Eternal youth, a similar such wish, is another matter: I doubt that cuckoos or for that matter stags feel that desire?
A haiku is a crack in time through which we peer; a laugh, a tear, a share in common feeling; sometimes a sense there may be more, half-caught in our being. Yet moon nor spider nor the night have love or pity, nor does a cuckoo mock us with its call, as we pass by. It is within us only.
As for eternity, we and the cuckoo are but changing aggregates of atoms in a cooling universe, that ends in immobility and thus the end of time. Whether we want it so, or not. The music stops.
Meanwhile we sing…
This poem made me think of an old man sitting next to a Hönes cuckoo clock (regarded as one of the best in the world because of its high craftsmanship and value) and by an open window on a beautiful summer night. The beauty of the night and the realization that he will not live to see many more summer nights made him think of how life passes by too quickly.
As the years have passed, he now realizes that life’s ambitions are a fleeting dance. There were moments when he hesitated, chose the safe path, and allowed fear to hold him back. Now, he stands at the threshold of old age, yearning for the experiences he postponed, for the journeys he did not embark upon.
In his youth, he had dreams of adventures not yet undertaken, of languages unspoken, and cultures unexplored. He wanted to climb the towering peaks of the Himalayas, converse fluently in a dozen languages, and immerse himself in the wisdom of other cultures.
And then the cuckoo clock struck at midnight and it made him think of how the cuckoo bird sneaks its eggs into another bird’s nest which allows the cuckoo to return to a carefree life with no responsibilities or obligations. The old man thought of how different his life would have been if he could have sneaked his 3 children into another household.
He would not have had to make the tuition payments, pay the dental and other countless bills and would have been able to afford to travel the world, study the flamenco guitar in Spain and live a life of luxury rather than spending his golden years in a cramped condo that needs a new roof and kitchen. He then raised his bottle of whiskey, took a sip and proclaimed, “I salute you cuckoo bird, you are the wisest of all avians, may you live forever!”
Peter C. Forster:
Deborah A. Bennet has brought off a successful haiku dealing with a grand subject. It avoids sententiousness. Eternal life, the endless summer, is what we all think we want. The poem suggests that the cuckoo wants eternal life too. Look what it does in its drive to survive and procreate, laying its eggs in other birds’ nests. And after hatching it murders its little rivals. Humans too are ruthless in their drive to survive. The difference is, that they are conscious of it, but is the cuckoo? We assume that it isn’t. The haiku prompts us to think about that. It persists in my mind. A sign of a standout haiku.
The provided verse has the structure of a haiku. While the 5-7-5 syllable pattern is a common guideline for haiku in English, contemporary haiku poets often prioritize brevity, simplicity, and the capture of a moment or emotion over strict adherence to syllable counts. Many modern English-language haiku use fewer syllables, aiming to maintain the essence of the form. In practice, the syllable count can vary in English haiku as long as the poem retains the essential characteristics of brevity, focus on a single moment or image, and a sense of emotional resonance. So, while the syllable count in the haiku you provided doesn’t strictly adhere to the 5-7-5 pattern, it still captures the essence of a haiku by conveying a thought-provoking moment and emotion.
Theme and Imagery: The haiku explores the theme of eternal life and nature. It introduces the desire for immortality by mentioning the cuckoo, a bird known for its distinct and repetitive call, often associated with the arrival of summer. The mention of “summer night” sets a tranquil and serene scene.
Emotion and Suggestion: The haiku evokes a sense of longing or desire for immortality, a topic that has been explored in literature for centuries. The use of the cuckoo as a symbol of this desire is effective because it’s a bird with a unique, haunting call that seems to echo endlessly, which can be seen as a metaphor for the desire for eternal life.
Seasonal Reference: The reference to “summer night” is a classic haiku technique where the season is subtly introduced, grounding the poem in a specific moment in time.
Simplicity and Ambiguity: Like many haiku, this verse is simple in its structure and language. It leaves room for interpretation, inviting readers to contemplate the idea of eternal life and its implications. The simplicity also allows readers to connect with the emotions conveyed.
Overall, this haiku effectively captures a moment of contemplation and desire for eternal life within the context of a tranquil summer night. It adheres to the traditional haiku form and leaves the reader with a thought-provoking image and emotion.
Host comment: See the Footnote for Chat GPT’s comments on birds’ perceptions of time and their emotions. Chat GPT has come a long way since our conversation about haiku at the turn of the year. But in its response, there you have it: that indefinable difference between poetry and prose. Chat GPT apologised for not having a favourite haiku: it does not have favourites.
Lakshmi Iyer—caught in a world of desires:
I liked the first line though it’s abstract about ‘eternal,’ and the way the poet takes it over to partake with the cuckoo. When we as humans long to have what we desire, its natural that the cuckoo too has the right to experience its ‘summer night’. Now what’s so special about the third line that it reflects on the line 1. Yes, summers are for the cuckoo. It’s their breeding season when they sing out to the females to attract them. No wonder the poet has juxtaposed ‘eternal life’. Well, it could have been a kigo or a place in line 1 but I am surprised to read a perfect image. Even if all the three lines are read separately, they all stand out in their own special way:
eternal life – why?
even the cuckoo wants it – what?
summer night – when?
Somewhere a hidden urge to be wanting to be like the cuckoo is in all of us and yet we become slaves of time and tide, don’t we? We are caught in our own world of so called desires and dreams, and when the time comes to fly, we are binded by our own instincts.
Author Deborah A. Bennett:
I have read that in the Chinese culture, the ancient Tang Dynasty’s tradition stated that there has to be a certain moment in the poem where you “raise the head” – yang mei tu chi – meaning ” to raise the consciousness” to see the universe in the context of the poem. They saw the poem as an object through which you come to know the Tao or God. I began the poem with the words, “eternal life” referring to the Tao. My inspiration came as I was walking in the woods at twilight, the last golden glow soft though the trees, the first stars beginning to show; a cuckoo calling from a thicket sounded like the inner cuckoo, calling for God.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Lakshmi 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 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:pumpkin soup the family's oneness in slurps —Aparna Pathak, Gurugram, India 1st Prize, Senryu Contest on the Theme of Gourds, 2018 IRIS International No. 4, 2018, Journal of Haiku Association “Three Rivers”, Ivanić-Grad, Croatia
The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy.
According to a very brief bio on the web, Deborah A. Bennett began writing haiku as a mindfulness exercise at the beginning of the pandemic; now she writes them as a form of self expression. There is a hint of the spiritual and mystic in several of her verses, and they often hint at fundamental things. Another of Deborah’s poems was featured in re:Virals 392
Chat GPT on Birds, emotions, and perceptions of time:
Birds, like many other animals, have some level of awareness of the passage of time, but their perception of time is likely different from that of humans. While birds may not experience time in the same way humans do, they do exhibit behaviors that suggest they have some sense of time and can respond to it with certain emotions or behaviors.
It’s challenging to definitively assess the emotional experiences of birds since their subjective experiences are not directly observable. However, research has shown that birds can exhibit behaviors that suggest emotional responses to various stimuli. For example, birds may display fear or stress responses to threats, aggression toward rivals, and bonding behaviors with mates and offspring. These behaviors are often associated with specific situations rather than a general sense of the passage of time.
Circadian Rhythms: Birds, like most animals, have internal biological clocks known as circadian rhythms. These rhythms help birds regulate their daily activities, such as feeding, sleeping, and mating, in response to changes in light and dark. They are particularly sensitive to changes in daylight and use these cues to time their activities.
Seasonal Changes: Many bird species migrate seasonally, and their migration patterns are closely tied to changes in temperature, food availability, and day length. This suggests that birds are aware of seasonal changes and can respond to them with specific behaviors like migration.
Nesting and Reproductive Behavior: Birds often time their breeding and nesting activities to coincide with periods when food is abundant and environmental conditions are suitable for raising offspring. This suggests that they have some awareness of the passage of time and its relationship to their reproductive cycle.
Time Perception in Problem Solving: Some studies have suggested that certain bird species, such as the New Caledonian crow, exhibit an understanding of the passage of time when solving problems related to tool use and foraging. These birds can plan and use tools in ways that require them to anticipate future events, which implies some level of temporal awareness.
In summary, while birds may not perceive time in the same way humans do, they have evolved mechanisms to adapt their behaviors and activities to temporal cues in their environment. They may respond to these cues with various emotions and behaviors related to survival, reproduction, and other aspects of their lives. But birds do not possess the abstract concept of eternal life as humans do. They do not have the capacity for complex philosophical or existential thoughts about immortality. Instead, they are driven by basic instincts and behaviors related to survival, reproduction, and responding to their environment.
When we anthropomorphize animals by attributing human-like desires or emotions to them, we are often projecting our own perspectives onto them. While some animals, including certain bird species, exhibit behaviors related to territory, mating, and raising their young, these actions are typically driven by instincts and biological needs rather than a conscious desire for eternal life.
So, it’s unlikely that a bird would have a concept of or desire for eternal life as humans do. Their behaviors and actions are more focused on the immediate needs of survival and reproduction within their natural environment.
Top of page