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 Jonathan Epstein, was:singing bowl the room swept clean of sorrow — Sally Biggar The Heron’s Nest, Volume XXV, Number 3: September 2023
Introducing this poem, Jonathan writes:
Each time I read this, I hear the hum of the metal bowl and follow the sound as it disappears. My mind becomes still.
The use of singing bowls, familiar in meditation groups, rituals and sound therapy, shows how a key portal of perception becomes a channel for profound healing — not just of psychic dross but of the environment. A senryu that uplifts with alliteration, soothing rhythm and the reminder that sound, properly harnessed, is foundational to our well- being.
A mellifluous verse that reads well, consonant with the subject. A measure of lyricism is achieved with plain words. There is detachment; no ego is thrust upon the reader. The two parts work together in harmony. It shows that a form of ‘toriawase’ — the harmonious arrangement of different but related things — may be achieved without any great surprise insight or “aha!” moment. I see this as a shared “aah” moment.
And so to reader co-creation… If you have not heard singing bowls, try https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pA_V6E2dG0g. Naturally, as a hard-bitten scientist I was predisposed to scoff at the likes of flickering candle flames, chanting Om, and pinging bowls, when I was inveigled into yoga classes for stretching, isometric strength and balance. “Breathing?!” — I thought, “heck anyone can do that, been breathing since birth.” How much there was to learn by experiment and experience, by being still! Sounds and “good vibrations” (as well as flickering flames) provide a minimal focus for the restless brain to draw attention, draw out tension, and aid relaxation of body and mind — an intermediate step in meditation. Tibetan singing bowls can be, to my ear, particularly soothing and musical: other-worldly, ethereal. An escape, for a while, from the sorrows of the world; a room — the mind — swept clear. The visceral effects of music are among the hardest things for a scientist to explain.
This one really hit home to me.
Many nights I place my large singing bowl on my lap and tap it with the large felt mallet.
The vibrations go deep into my bones.
I don’t get up until the sound stops.
It does ease my sorrows.
These words soothed my soul as a singing bowl does.
Rituals of grief are powerful tools at a time of unfathomable sorrow. They pull us together as a community suffering loss, give us something to focus on and are a balm to our weary, aching souls. These rituals vary based on culture, geography, generation, religion, etc.
A singing bowl is one such ritual. I love the imagery of the circular motion cleaning the room’s sorrow. If only it were that simple…
There is an elegance to this poem with the three elements of a singing bowl, a room of grievers and the grief itself. Often this triad is established in a haiku to create a kind of juxtaposition or kireji. But in this poem, the three items work together in a synergistic harmony.
The language of the poem is so lovely and calm. The softness of the s’s in singing, swept and sorrow give a hush to the poem. The long o’s in bowl and sorrow elongate the poem and give it a long feeling that matches the unending feeling of grief. The w’s in bowl, swept and sorrow also give air and room to the grief in the room. Often we need that softness and room to heal when we are faced with grief and loss, that seems to go on forever.
Sally Biggar has crafted a phenomenal poem that not only describes grief beautifully and accurately, but also provides balm to weary hearts. Having lost my mother and grandmother a year apart, during covid, within the past two years – I read her words of wisdom and comfort gratefully.
Line one resonates with the clean setting resulting in the phrase of Lines 2 and 3. One can almost hear the vibrating sound as the bowl is tapped gently and the mind lends itself to its calming heal.
There is an invisible animation of letting go in this profound haiku. I thoroughly enjoyed savouring its message.
According to me, the four pillars of haiku are its aesthetics, brevity, cut, and kigo. When any or all parameters fall in perfect sync, the haiku stands out as a picture perfect. Appreciate the poet’s stand to involve an image that speaks its own story. The brevity and cut in perfect sync.
Line one ‘singing bowl’ is a defined, definite image. It is often used in spiritual or religious settings to invoke meditation or relaxation through the resounding vibrations and pleasant sounds it emanates when played. As you continue to rub the rim of the bowl, the friction keeps the sound going. This resonance is the note we hear even after the player ceases contact between the singing bowl and the mallet. This is used as a sound therapy to cure mental illness, sorrow, emotional feelings. And what perfect resonance to ‘”sweep the room clean of sorrow.” What a beautiful impact of the sound personified as a broom to sweep the room.
The strength of a singing bowl is its frequency, and the room’s temperature helps the sound to travel in high and low octaves.
Another point to mull over is the type of “sorrow .” What is the reason for the poet to play the singing bowl? Was it the loss of very close kith or kin or one’s own family member, or any untoward incident leading to stress and depression, or of the house locked for a long time? Sorrow is painful. Time alone can heal. But, we need to have a solution to wipe the illness. And lo and behold!…
The whole poem centers around a positive vibe, an emphatic tone that ‘Yes, of course, the sorrow is wiped out now. Let’s rejoice and live peacefully.” Thank you so much Sally!
Nairithi Konduru (aged 8):
The singing bowl is also known as a Tibetan bowl which is used for music therapy. People get music therapy done because, in general, research shows that music therapy may help to relax, to explore emotions, reduce anxiety or depression. I have also been to a music therapy place a few months back but to me it was just a big playground where we could try out the different instruments producing different types of music/sound. I had gone there with my friends (I made friends with them when I was in playschool), so it was lots of fun. Our mothers were there too, they had only taken us there. The place is called Svaram sound garden.
So what the poet is saying here is that when she went for a music therapy session and got back, not only did she feel better but also her own room did so too.
A musical verse which can be put to rhythm. The i, ow and s sounds are the ingredients for the lyrical quality.
A singing bowl, may be via virtual audio/video guided meditations or via sound bath, and therefore sound healing seems to remove all the sorrows of the poet, including any that is left in the room, of the poet’s and of the others; either who came before the poet or who attended along with the poet (group session?). The vibrations produced must have played their part very well in removing the unnecessary burden that the poet was carrying all this while. Her mind is free now.
The poem seems to say it all. What we are left to contemplate here is what mighty sorrow it must have been that she had to find an alternative healing modality as sound therapy.
Could the verse be written without ‘of sorrow’ as a duostich:
the room swept clean
Or as a monoku:
singing bowl the room swept clean
Would it then make the verse a little more open-ended?
Sheila Barksdale — if it works…:
“Well if it works for YOU,” as they say in the soothing utterances of Therapy Speak. I went to a cousin’s wedding in Malibu, the beautiful beach setting offered up a gentle rhythm of ocean waves and leaping dolphins as splendid counterpoint to the bride’s Oxford Professor father reading long romantic lines from a poem about seagrass. The wedding ceremony had Buddhist overtones with the officiant clanging a Tibetan singing bowl in between describing the bride as a “high-heeled socialite” and the groom as a “late-marrying introvert whose bachelor existence had at least made him a competent cook.” The metallic ting of the bowl being struck at strange intervals was Not Nice for me who has misophonia so it was a mighty relief when all the assembled wedding guests were handed pinwheels which made a tiny whirring sound in the breeze. This poem adds to my sorrow because it reminds me that there is no universal pablum for removing suffering. We all know the feeling of treading on eggshells – fearful of saying the wrong thing trying to ease another person’s sorrow – so these few lines are a reminder that sometimes people can seek out for themselves something non verbal which suits their particular neural pathways.
Author Sally Biggar:
I wrote my ‘singing bowl’ senryu after a yoga class in early March of this year, shortly after the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The realization that the conflict was going to continue indefinitely was weighing heavily upon me that day. My yoga teacher always plays soothing music for five or ten minutes at the end of each class while we are relaxing in shavasana (corpse pose). It is usually soft chanting, or nature sounds, or even what might be described as New Age music. But on this particular day she played a recording of a crystal singing bowl. Just the pure sound of the singing bowl, without any background noise of chanting or other instruments.
I do not know the science of how a singing bowl works, but I do know how it made me feel that morning. The heaviness and sorrow I had been feeling gradually lifted, and its grip on me loosened. For the rest of the class I felt a profound sense of peace. There are many techniques to still the mind, but most require your active participation (focusing on your breath, chanting, and visualization, to name a few). But listening passively to the sound of the singing bowl, and being immersed in the vibration created by that sound, was transformational for me. The experience totally over-rode the chatter of my mind. For those few moments not only the energy field of the yoga room itself, but also my inner “room” was swept clean of anxiety and sorrow.
Normally I do quite a bit of revision when I am writing, but in this case the senryu burst forth fully formed (like Athena from Zeus’s brow). In fact, I do not remember doing any revision. The way I wrote it down initially simply felt right to me, because it captured the moment perfectly.
Thank you Jonathan for selecting my poem for this week’s discussion. I look forward to reading the comments and thoughts of the re:Virals community.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, which manages to be original, thoughtful and entertaining, longstanding haikuist Sheila 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:e
— Roland Packer
Kokako 39, September 2023
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Sally Biggar’s short bio and links to some of her works may be read at tinywords.
As with many approaches to health of this sort, there is likely to be a placebo effect: if you believe it works, then it may have a positive outcome. In my case, as an unbeliever, I found it does work to some extent, if you lie back and let it. Singing bowls may not be for everyone (there are advisories for the pregnant and those with pacemakers against bowls used on the body…); and there remains a certain scepticism, even cynicism, when these trappings of yoga/meditation are self-consciously exhibited. An aspect which Sheila’s delightfully forthright description of the incongruous wedding in her misophonic commentary above brings out expertly in the showing. Along with the crunching sound of eggshells!
I took a good deal from thinking about Sally’s poem, which grew on me as I was made to think about it, as so many do; and from the comments of others.