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:e
— 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
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.
https://anitavirgil.com/haiku-related-genres/concrete-haiku/, with several examples; I think you’ll enjoy the read.
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.
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.
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.
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–
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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Poem for commentary:rain drops playing Chopin the AI - Helga Stania. Haiku Dialogue (attribution to be confirmed) April 2023.
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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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