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re:Virals 422

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 Sheila Barksdale, was:

— Roland Packer
Kokako 39, September 2023

Introducing this poem, Sheila writes:

I have chosen a poem by Roland Packer from the New Zealand journal, Kokako. This has lately been co-edited by Patricia Prime and Margaret Beverland who’ve decided to make Issue Number 40 the final issue as a printed journal (though possibly to be resurrected next year online).

I have never trained in karate but have, over the years, partnered many karate practitioners in regular aikido class and at martial arts seminars who have told me I am naturally doing ‘reverse breathing’ which is sometimes desirable in karate . Something I will research one day – maybe the yoga practitioners know more about it? Still on a personal note, having just had hernia surgery after a year with an undiagnosed mango-size lump in my stomach and being irritated by blithe suggestions to ‘just breathe deeply’ to ‘ground yourself,’ I soon learned this was the worst thing to do physically, as sepsis can follow from a twisted gut that bursts. Now recovering from, and grateful for, successful surgery, I am venturing out on walks and can stop being self–absorbed. World of me? or ‘no world’ ? I turn my attention to expanding this perhaps light-hearted poem to those in troubled countries who literally can’t breathe due to being trapped in building rubble, whether from war or earthquakes

Opening comment:

A few years back the idea of “concrete haiku,” which may be an infelicitous term for it, was to arrange words in a way that produced a related visual image: e.g., with several examples; I think you’ll enjoy the read., and

This was a cross-fertilisation of haiku with experiments in visual presentation in mainstream English  poetry, of which the earliest example I know is  George Herbert’s Easter Wings: the reoriented text can be read at the Poetry Foundation.  Latterly the haiku arrangements, in the main, are less fancifully artistic and more restrained. The novelty has worn off somewhat. We are left with a technique that may add a complementary illustration, or a juxtaposition, or extend the layered meanings of a verse. With these tiny  poems, supplementary means of conveying information without being explicit are sometimes of value to the poet. Breaks within the lines can mark cuts or pauses. The whole presentation can also require the reader’s attention and engagement to parse the poem. We’ve seen repeatedly in re:Virals that getting the reader to pay attention to a verse rather than simply skim-reading it can be of value: not easy with these little ku of plain words.

Within the past year we have had a vertical haiku by Robin Smith in re:Virals 375, and a concretized one by Scott Metz in re:Virals 398 which experimented with fractures in the words. The present senryu of Roland Packer’s is another instance, this time reversed from top down to bottom up. Classic haiku were also written in a single vertical line…

The risk is that fiddling about with the natural order of words on a page or within a poem may be seen as a little affected or unnecessarily ‘clever,’ and alienate rather than engage some readers.  As for this reader, I generally apply the test of whether the arrangement adds significantly to the haikai poem, and whether the poem would be the poorer if the customised structure was taken away.  In this case, as in the other two we took, the reader, if willing, has to linger on the verse and engage with it to read the text — as “roof of the world / no room to breathe.”  An ascent is necessary; and towards the top, “to breathe” becomes fractured and difficult, as depicted in the broken lettering.  I think these aspects do supplement the verse with visual meaning and impact.  As to the content, I immediately recalled the stunning photos of the crowded summit of Everest a while ago, and as I spend part of my nights worrying that tipping points in global warming will strip the atmosphere, there was plenty in this little poem on which to reflect. A third layer might be the isolation of a person who has reached the rarefied air at the summit of their profession or art.

I have some further comments on this senryu in the footnote, following questions below and from readers in background correspondence. Open season for continuing discussion, as always.

Mark Gilbert:

Of note as a backwards haiku. Fully backwards. I’m not sure if I’ve seen this done before, but it is something I’ve wanted to do. I’d be surprised if this is the first, but it is effective. Formatted vertically, and as the altitude increases the words break up, like the air getting thinner. With its image of the world turned upside down and the inhabitants struggling to breathe it may have an environmental relevance.

Pamela Garry:

Starting top down, the first 3 lines break up the spelling of “breathe “ and turn it upside down. Each truncated part of the one word interrupts natural breathing. Then my eyes bounce around: “room to breathe“ (from down to up). “No world”(from up to down). “Roof of the world” (from the bottom to up). “Roof of the world on room” suggests suffocation, which circles back to no room to breathe. It is a chaotic experience to read. “No room” can become “on room”. The thin vertical presentation further suggests an anxious fragility and a pressing weight, and from one to the other.

I think of George Floyd of blessed memory. And the stressful state of the world.

Jennifer Gurney:

I always find shape poems challenging. This one when read up makes the most sense to me, but to be honest, I never really know. I read it as:

roof of the world–
no room
to breathe


roof of the world–
no room to breathe


roof of the world, no room to breathe

I pictured someone living in a city, going out onto the rooftop of their highrise building to try to find space to breathe – literally and figuratively. I immediately thought of the movie August Rush and the scene early on where two of the lead characters meet on a city rooftop when they go outside for air. I also think there’s an ecological message in there about the roof of the world – perhaps the ozone layer – and its connection to pollution and sustainable life for the planet.

From a linguistic standpoint, the poem is rife with poetic elements. The double oo’s in roof and room give the poem a smooth feel and tie the poem together. There are so many o words in addition to roof and room, including of, world, no, and to. Although the o’s sound different from each other, there’s still a connection of sorts, with an open, loose feel to the lines.

There’s a lovely rhythm to the poem that kind of slows it down a bit. I read it as long-short-short-long …. short-long, short-long. The cadence isn’t continuous and gives the reader pause. I like it when this happens. It gives a bit of space for think time.

Roland Packer gives us a lot to ponder in this short poem. Nice job.

Patricia McGuire:

This poem raises lots of questions for me:
Is this haiku or a short poem?
If a poem has merit, why present it in an unexpected way?
What does this presentation bring to the poem?

Nairithi Konduru (aged 8):

This haiku is like a riddle for one and all. It took me some time to realise that I had to read it from bottom to top.

The roof of the world may be the clouds and the poet may be saying that people can’t breathe in the clouds.

Tibet is known as the roof of the world because its average height is more than 4000 m above the sea level. Also, the highest peak in the world, that is Mount Everest, is also present in Tibet, on the border with Nepal. Mount Everest is sort of like the roof of the world. The higher we climb, on a mountain peak, there is less and less air to breathe at altitude, the less oxygen. I’ve learnt in my English textbook from a lesson about the first woman from the north east of India to climb Mount Everest (Tine Mina) that there is less oxygen to breathe at the top of a high mountain than there is at sea level.

Phu Dorjee (also spelled Phu Dorji) was a Sherpa and the first Indian to summit Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. He did so on May 5, 1984 on a solo ascent from the South East Ridge. Dorjee died in 1987 on the Kanchenjunga Expedition of the Assam Rifles.

Another Phu Dorjee had summited Everest in the 1965 Indian Everest Expedition; he died in a fall on Everest on 18 October 1969.

Lakshmi Iyer:

Loved the use of an ‘inverted thought process’ which relates very much closer to the banyan tree and its roots that are considered as a perfect image of a family tree.

What a picturesque way of defining the earth overcrowded under the roof — the sky — and no space to breathe. Another metaphoric phrase is describing the ‘roof of the world’ – the elevated mountains as being occupied with a populous crowd and the hampering of the natural environment literally leaving no place to stay, no air to breathe and no water to drink.

The highlight of this poem is the way the words have been placed from the bottom to the top as a slightly ironical way of showing the slow movement of souls passing. And I also loved the breaking up of the word ‘breathe’ as ‘brea’ ‘th’ ‘e’, in a way diminishing the origin of life letter by letter, breath by breath.

A quiet and beautiful way of explaining the intensity of the issue in a very softer mode of vertical placement rather than in a horizontal line, to attract the attention of the readers; a concrete and crisp poem. And also the technique of ‘zooming out’ to ‘zooming in’. A very genuine and original thought in just eight syllables.

Biswajit Mishra:

With my limited experience, this appears like concrete poetry, and the visual impacts the perception of the poem upon reading, getting a sense of the altitude, a steep climb going from bottom to top, and feeling breathless. It took me a few attempts to get to it. It brings two images to mind: one, someone is at a location at a very high altitude but it’s so crowded that they are not getting a place to rest and second, it’s so high a place that the oxygen is less, and therefore, every breath is labored.

I think this poem has served what it set out to serve.

Jonathan Epstein:

Decoded from the bottom up, this shape poem symbolically shows where we are in regard to the climate crisis — at a dead end. Following convention, the eye moves from top to bottom, to no avail. Having reached bottom, metaphorically speaking, there’s nowhere to go but up. Reversing course, as the eye ascends, the message is revealed: “roof of the world /no room/ to breathe.”

“Roof of the world,” as Tibet is known, is three miles above sea level. The Tibetan Plateau, earth’s highest and largest plateau, is the third largest source of glaciers after the Arctic and Antarctic. With plateau temperatures increasing at twice the global average and hastening the melting of snow and ice, increased warming will likely intensify climate events effecting high-population neighbors such as India, Pakistan and China.

Besides being in a pivotal climate change zone, Tibet itself, once a country unique for religious piety and peaceable Buddhist values, has been under the thumb of China since its annexation in 1951. Tibet, one of the keys to our earthly home’s well-being, is beset by a double whammy — its people under religious and political tyranny (“no room to breathe”) as well as a fulcrum for meteorological well-being.

We ‘see’ and ‘hear’ the anguish of Tibet’s plight in repetitions of the letter o, both in content words (roof, world, room) and function words (of, no, to). Edvard Munch’s iconic figure in “The Scream” comes to mind.

The poem’s lean, 10-line vertical structure, in the shape of a vintage candlestick, is a wake-up call and a prayer for light and new direction in this global crisis.

Ashoka Weerakkody — an inspiring headline:

“roof of the world no room to breathe”… An inspiring headline, if not found in a haiku domain!  This towering versification works upwards from the ‘base camp’ imitating a climber on final assault scaling the Himalayan summit.

Everest, at 29,000 feet rests in peaceful existence overlooking the world and for ages has been the “roof of the world.”  Roland Packer has chosen the same unique phrase, to awaken the readers’ imagination soaring up till the mind and body gets engulfed in the freezing cold and sub-solid cloud cover, till one finds “no room to breathe.”   Good work! The author has taken only a few seconds to take us there, the few seconds that are needed to ‘demodulate’ the intelligence he has enveloped within the carrier which is the symmetrical and upright haiku pulse appearing here, which resembles a high-rising tower.

Makes me wonder whether writing haiku is an author’s craft or a technocratic skill? Haikuist or haiku poet may be a more fitting name hybridising an author and technician.  Maybe beyond my limited comprehension…

Coming back to the “roof of the world,” I recollect sharply the memories of that jolly good age of early childhood when my “roof of the world” was where the whistling-booming jetliners of early 1970s traversed along, and we were watching them as an after-school past-time, lying supine on the grass, abandoning cricket for a while every time we heard another high altitude over-flight which we knew was the BOAC Comet. The jet age was well in progress. and our location was right on the footprint of the swift intercontinental ‘speedbird.’ The roof of our world was the zenith of the skydome we set our sights on from the green green grass of home. I feel content that I related my nostalgic memories of those formative years and still drew a link back into the present poem which deserves applause for that little favour as well.

crowded Everest: Photo credit AFP/BBC

Author Roland Packer:

The stimulus for this haiku was the congestion of adventurers in line to reach the summit of Everest a few years ago that resulted in a terrible loss of life. The meaning of “no room to breathe” bridges between the context of “overcrowding” to the “lack of oxygen” at high altitudes. Echoes beyond this reach to the whole issue of overpopulation and its effects on planet Earth in order to sustain existence. The content is suggested in the form of a reverse vertical reaching up, and the diminishing fragmentation of the word “breathe”.

fireworks image

Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Ashoka 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:

    rain drops
    playing Chopin
    the AI
    - Helga Stania.
    Haiku Dialogue 
    (attribution to be confirmed) April 2023.

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.


There’s a short bio of Roland Packer at tinywords together with links to his verses there; and an interview of him by Vandana Parashar for Whiptail. Another poem by Roland featured in re:Virals 406.

Patricia’s fair questions: I made some general points on the genre, its constraints and freedoms, in the footnote to re:Virals 417 a few weeks ago.  Discussion ensued.  This verse in English has several characteristics that stem from the traditions of haiku/senryu. It’s brief, one breath. It is anchored in the observation of an image, albeit a photo. It’s in plain words. It’s detached from the author’s ego. There are two parts juxtaposed. They complement each other. There is resonance between them.   The verse prompts reflection and meditation. There is ‘ma’ and scope for reader co-creation. There are layers of meaning open to inference. There is a little depth, the ‘third axis,’ in the anchor phrase ‘roof of the world’ (moreover, Tibet, with its Buddhist associations). True, the parts are symmetrical, there are not two physical images, there is no kigo from an accepted saijiki, no formal cutting word or punctuation in lieu, and it is not in 5-7-5 sound units; but it is written in one vertical line as of old.   I think the masterly Japanese originators of the genre (who themselves varied their approach) would recognise that despite the variation in language, structural form and style it is rooted in haikai traditions, if more senryu than haiku, more hiraku than hokku. The question of presentation is touched on in the opening comment above. In short, I suggest that it is within the church, even if it satisfies neither puritans nor high catholics in full. But there are always dissenters!  I look forward to their good-humoured rebuttals in comment below.
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This Post Has 23 Comments

  1. First off, if any discussion of concrete/visual/formally experimental haiku is to be had, please read “The Old Tin Roof” by Marlene Mountain. It’s free here:
    Probably not the first concrete haiku ever written (Higginson argues that’s Issa, but in English, Larry Gates also has “test patterns”) but certainly the most notable and groundbreaking collection of them. Also, check out the stuff that Randy & Shirley did at High/Coo in the 70s. Higginson covers a lot of this in his Handbook, so check that out.

    Also, when discussing concrete poetry, we need to understand this predates the English language, and goes back to the Ancient Greeks. George Herbert’s The Temple is clearly influenced by Simmias of Rhodes, for example.

    I think Olson’s Projective Verse is relevant here, too, especially when considering ideas like “open field” and Creeley’s “form is an extension of content,” which was so important in the Mimeo Revolution. Check it out here:

    So, the argument that a poem reads as a gimmick or similar when using these sorts of visual elements reads as problematic, unless the poet is simply writing for the sake of using the technique, as opposed to letting their content inform it. This poem is about climbing to a mountain, the pressures of existence, rising tensions, etc. A vertical, bottom to top, reading makes absolute sense for this content. It might not else where, again, based on the poem and its own needs.

  2. Biswajit: I intercepted your commentary on Helga’s poem which was submitted via these comments instead of the dedicated form: it will appear in the post on 3 November. Thank you.

  3. Dear all ,
    I am missing you all for i went surgery , slowly entering into sites, I hope to come back again
    with regards
    Radhamani sarma

  4. There’s nothing new about ‘concrete’ haiku. My favourite ‘concrete haiku’ (still, after all these years) is Marlene Mountain’s ‘kittens’:

    …no doubt because, as a child in a country hotel/pub , I watched our cat , Marmalade, give birth to kittens. In my view, no-one who hadn’t actually seen a cat give birth to her kittens could’ve written Marlene Mountain’s haiku.

    ‘Concrete poetry’ was a thing (beginning, the books tell me, in the ’50s but not ending there) so why would ‘concrete haiku’ not become a thing, too? (Even I have written some partially ‘concrete’ ku and they were published) This is one:

    spine (Modern Haiku 45.2, Summer 2014- p24)

    I smile widely at this one of Keith’s:

    of flying pigs
    a fleeting vision
    election broadcast…

    —Failed Haiku #87 (Yes, he’s turned the classic layout upside down. It works from bottom up or top down. And he’s given his opinion of which political party has the chance of getting in or the like. To understand this, though, one has to be familiar with the idiom “Pigs might fly” which basically means ” a snowflakes chance in hell” or, more straight forwardly, “No way!” I enjoy the humour of that “fleeting vision” of cartoon pigs flying. Pretty sure I’ve seen a cartoon sketch of that in a newspaper (when there were still newspapers) , sometime in my life.

    re “There is ‘ma’ … ” yes, there is space, a gap . . . “…and scope for reader co-creation.” I have to admit that I’ve had the “reader co-creation” idea up to my neck. I wince every time it comes up. I know, I know: important intellectuals coined the words and the idea, but when it comes to haiku and “reader co-creation” is added to Dennis Garrison’s “dreaming room” (he didn’t mean an opium den nor did he mean readers could approach a haiku as we might approach and interpret a Rorschach test image) what we get is readers waffling on.

    (and this ku, by the way, is not a riddle “for one and all” for the simple reason that it isn’t a riddle for me, nor for others who’ve commented, either.)

    Biswajit Mishra’s comment makes sense to me: “It brings two images to mind: one, someone is at a location at a very high altitude but it’s so crowded that they are not getting a place to rest and second, it’s so high a place that the oxygen is less, and therefore, every breath is labored.”
    What further waffling on is needed?

      1. Well, that didn’t work, did it. It appeared as it was intended to appear in IRIS , March 2015 (DV Rozic editor). I can’t find that online.

      2. Thanks, Lorin (I tried two ways to fix the layout of your dandelion clocks in the comment, without success).

        With Marlene in mind, I also have:

        pike 3 2 1 ducklings

        but nobody took it …

        I promise to find new clichés for ‘ma’ (your bleating sheep…), ‘co-creation,’ and ‘dreaming room.’

        Concrete poetry: Easter Wings appeared in 1633 so the idea goes back way more than 50 years, but flourished anew.

        1. Ah, yes, but ‘Easter Wings’ is a ‘long’ poem (yes, I know of it) not haiku, and though maybe a first in English, had precedents in ancient Greece (or so it’s noted). Ultimately, I think we whose first language is English are bound up in Latin, in ancient Rome and its sources in even more ancient Greece. (I’m a fan of Ovid, who was turfed out of Rome & made to spend the rest of his life in “a cold place” , somewhere in Europe, because he was accused of writing a poem about the Caesar’s sister that implied (it was argued) she was a prostitute, or behaved like one. )

          Ducklings: back in the day, in St. Kilda (Melbourne, Aust. – through the ’60s in my observations, every year on the road not far from the beach there’d be a policeman giving the stop sign to motorists so that a particular mother duck could cross the road with her ducklings in tow. That mother duck was famous. 🙂 One of the nicer things about St Kilda back then.

  5. Another one, not unrelated, for the haiku patrol:

    kokoro shizuka ni yama no okifushi

    peace for the heart life in the mountains
    tr. John Stevens

    (no cutting word of the kireji listed by Shirane, no kigo, philosopical, abstract, 14 syllables in the romaji)

    Who among you is going to tell the late Taneda Santoka it’s not a haiku?…

    kokoro: mind, heart, spirit
    shizuka: calm, quiet peaceful
    ni: (particle) for
    yama: mountain range
    no: (particle) (possessive)
    okifushi: daily life, living

    You could even read this from the bottom: daily life of the mountains for a peaceful spirit. 🦜

    1. I think the issue here is whether or not ELH follows similar rules/guidelines to shinkeikō, or whether or not our collective knowledge/skills/understanding simply aren’t ready for that. It’s difficult for ELH authors to understand a kigo, vertical axis, etc., so urging experimentation without a solid understanding of the fundamentals seems questionable, to me.

      1. Yes.

        Santoka wrote to the effect that haiku that look like haiku are ok but he wanted haiku that don’t look like haiku. (Still ‘haiku,’ though).

        Which brings us back to the essence or spirit of haiku that is so hard to define in words, along with the taxonomic approach to identifiable characteristics (ostriches and swallows are birds).

        1. Okay, but again, when discussing haiku in English (again, the ELH understanding of haiku has a very limited and narrow lineage, and I’m not sure Santoka is truly a part of that lineage, though one might argue he SHOULD be, though that would take work), that taxonomy is a bit more narrow. Do we accept haiku without a kigo or cut? Do we accept seasonless haiku? Are these things possible? I know a lot of people WANT to, and a lot of journals will publish things that may or may not fall under that umbrella, but are they really haiku? The jury will probably be out on that for a while.

          So, while ostriches and swallows both may be birds, is a platypus? Certain they have the “essence” of birds (laying eggs like ducks, semi-aquatic like ducks, have a bill like a duck, etc.) and yet, they’re not birds because they miss a few key defining characteristics.

          Looking at non-kigo haiku in English, there are a few scholars that have said this isn’t possible. Or, alternately, is possible only if you really really know what you’re doing and have studied, and even then… (This seems to be the Higginson position, by the way). I have yet to see a scholar defend seasonless haiku, though I’m sure such things exist. I would love to read that scholarly article, if anyone has a link or copy.

          To me, this poem has a limited seasonal window, and while it isn’t clear which of the two climbing seasons are meant, the fact that there are only two major seasons tells us that this is seasonally located. That being said, do we need a wider understanding of what a kigo is, how kigo work regionally and internationally, etc? Again, Higginson has started this conversation, and others continue it, but it needs to continue further and not stagnate.

  6. The e on top illustrates the peak with no more space. The long o sounds and the long e sounds denote the loneliness and evocativeness in the verse.

    To me, this verse also implies that the higher the position one attains in their job, the more busy they become with no time on their hands and also no or minimal friends at the top of the ladder.

  7. Wonderful to see so many responses!

    I’m with you, Keith, on finding this poem very much within the haikai family. In fact, I’d even say there are 2 images for the reader to see in their minds:
    the roof of the world
    no room to breathe

    The last is very visual to me (and was long before I saw the photo).

    1. Eavonka, I agree with you on two images being present which the reader visualises in their minds. I too saw the image in my mind’s eye, though not exactly the same as the picture posted here.

      I agree with Keith and Eavonka regarding the verse belonging to the haikai family. I think its presentation in the reverse vertical format with the fractured words definitely adds to the depth of the poem.

    2. While the second image is very visual, I want to point out that it’s an organic image, as well. There’s an internal pressure explored by not being able to breathe that technically falls under “organic” imagery. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, and one that absolutely works and is in the haikai family, though possibly not a haiku.

    1. I think it likely that there have been some English haikai with reverse word order. There have certainly been some where words are read from bottom up in a rising verse, but left to right rather than vertical.

      1. e.g. For want of anything better as time is short:

                                             the spring clouds
                 —haikuKATHA #19.  reversible.
                                                           of flying pigs
                                            a fleeting vision
                 election broadcast...
                 —Failed Haiku #87
        1. These are excellent Keith, but more rearranging lines than actually backwards, in my opinion.

      2. Many years ago I had a vertical haiku placed in a contest but can’t offhand remember where to credit them – they kindly sent me my haiku made into a bookmark which is no doubt lurking in a book somewhere but I daren’t start probing my books. – a big time waster! Easy haiku to recall though:


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