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 Chloe Chan, was:carousel pony straining against the spinning world — John S. O'Connor Golden Triangle Haiku Contest 2023, selected.
Introducing this poem, Chloe writes:
The simple elegance of this haiku does not match the darker element it simultaneously presents. Within three short lines, John S. O’Connor has been able to conjure up not just an image, but a character. A carousel pony, something typically associated with joy and colour, is personified to be struggling against the machinery in which it is kept. The spinning of the carousel is not exciting – it seems to be dizzying, a system in which this pony is entirely helpless. However, it has not given up; it is straining against its lack of freedom and control. A poem that sparks both hope and desolation.
Usually I write my comment immediately on seeing the poem, but this time I have the benefit of others’ commentaries. They cover the ground well so I won’t repeat what they have said.
Like several, I saw the verse as suggesting a downbeat view of a bewildering world from which we are unable to break free. One or two, the poet importantly among them, made a different interpretation: one of excitement, exhilaration. I think it’s the two present participles (which go well together in my view): straining suggests, well, strain; and spinning, dizzyness. However, on second thoughts, a dog “straining” at the leash would suggest enthusiasm, and spinning as in, say, dancing, or a top, is exhilarating. Ambivalence of this sort adds to a poem’s reading(s).
Then, several raised the vexing question of personification. In this poem, if you ‘cut’ at the end of line 1, then the ‘straining’ could be the poet and by extension, us. Using the present participle is a common device to ‘get round’ the matter, and equally, to link the two parts. Moreover, a fixed object can be under strain: a cable or a bolt, for example. So I don’t think we are necessarily looking at personification here. Trying to sort out these various -isms is a thing I have ducked (a zoomorphism…) until now, but I’ve put some thoughts in an extended Footnote and would be delighted if others contribute their views to enlarge a discussion.
O’Connor has written a charming haiku at first glance. The poet observes a merry-go-round spinning. He may even have experienced a moment of vertigo after riding the carousel. And he spins a delightful haiku from his direct observation.
O’Connor sees carved, wooden ponies turning round and round. He focuses on one pony in L1. The straining in L2 may be the mechanical works groaning at the start. L3 gives us the spinning world. This brings a smile to our face. As a metaphor though, there are times we all want to say, “Stop this world, I want to get off”.
A carousel pony is a mechanical plaything made for enjoyment. But, if the spinning toy feels like a person’s life, there is a darker side. Sometimes we’re all just carousel horses with no choice but to follow life’s predetermined path.
Notice the horses following a set path around, unable to alter their trajectory. Or a person’s helpless feeling of time and events outside their control. Taken a step further, there’s a connection to mental illness. An individual’s mental state can be spinning out of their control.
I was reminded of the chorus to Joni Mitchell’s song, The Circle Game: “…the seasons they go round and round / And the painted ponies go up and down / We’re captive on the carousel of time.”
I still remember the day when I learned from my then-husband the difference between a carousel and a merry-go-round. According to him, the first goes counter-clockwise and the latter goes clockwise. We were on the carousel in Burlington, Colorado with our three-year-old son. The picture of me standing beside our young son wearing his red, white and blue “Future President” tee shirt is seared in my memory. I feel us spinning around, while going up and down, and I remember the direction we were headed – clockwise. Since then I’ve learned that to most people, they are used interchangeably. But my memory of that day is how I remember which is a carousel and which is a merry-go-round.
My favorite line in O’Connor’s poem is: “straining against the spinning world.” I can feel myself leaning into the wind of life through this poem. And I’m back on the carousel with my young son, comfortably knowing where we are headed. Traveled 25 years in only three lines of poetry. Well done.
This image is full of contrast; a show meant to amuse the world full of strife and stress, a hectic place, always revolving and evolving. The opening line, with the mention of the carousel pony, implies an image of run and ride. A merry go round; an amusement platform, not for journeys or long rides or for business; exclusively for merry making. The second line “straining against” implies an array of connotations. Man ruminates, how long he will be struggling, from morn till evening, throughout his life, hence a relief from this bondage, this toil etc., but the horse which is meant to lessen man from his toil (by engaging him on a jolly good ride, by constant rounds) highlights a unique perspective. In the third line, “spinning” world chimes with “straining” against it, which adds to the significant content. An ever-rotating, evolving world, full of competition, with this pony which is selfless and self-sacrificing.
This is interesting in that it was selected for a haiku contest, and yet there’s no kigo or seasonal reference. In fact, there’s no real juxtaposition, and this very much reads like a senryu. It could be argued, perhaps, that “carousel” implies an outdoor carousel, summer vacation spots, etc. but I’m not sure I see that implied here. So I think we have to see this as a senryu, thought I’m curious if others see it as haiku.
As a senryu, O’Connor uses animism, a technique we saw last week in Agyei-Baah’s haiku, to give the carousel pony consciousness and intention. The poem would be much different if the pony itself wasn’t straining:
the spinning world
In O’Connor’s piece, the pony is doing the straining, and thus the wooden horse is given intention and consciousness, and readers are meant, at least, to empathize with it.
At that point, I think, is when the senryu comes into play. If senryu are to explore human feelings, emotions, situations with lightness and humor, then certainly this works. If readers empathize, even sympathize, with the pony, then the socio-political critique of the poem comes through. If we see ourselves alongside the pony, or even AS the pony, then we, too, are trapped and straining while the world just spins beyond our control. There is a fatalism here, almost a nihilistic crisis within the poem.
However, in an existentialist way, there might also be hope. If we are the pony, then is our strain against the spinning world a struggle for existence or something deeper, some inner strength or meaning that gives the strenuous and continued effort worthwhile? To bring it back to the haiku world, what if “the spinning world” in this poem was the gross plethora of misinformation and misreading within the poetry community about haiku–all the 5-7-5ers, all the Kerouac imitators who have only read the Weinreich, the haiku authors who have read Hass or Kern and nothing else, the academics who choose to ignore/shun us, etc.
And yet, here we are, dedicated haiku students, writing our tiny verses and building our communities, straining against the spinning world of ignorance in an effort to make our own gems of poetic beauty and emotion.
So, let us be ponies. Let us write, with O’Connor, against the spinning world. Let our verses strain against the worlds that trap us and spin against us. I look forward to seeing what our herd can create in the future.
A no-season poem in a single phrase with the slightest of pauses, no clear cut, and no overt reference to the natural world. When a poet and essayist of the wider poetry sphere turns to haiku the results can be interesting and maybe less predictable. John S. O’Connor has written: “In contemporary poetry I believe there has been a turn toward abstraction and a turning away (however slight) from poetry of everyday reality and the poetry of social conscience.” I think there’s a measure of abstraction in this week’s senryu also. The idea, communicated clearly enough, is that readers should picture themselves as powerless “carousel ponies” struggling in vain against the shackles of a bewildering world. To that extent we have “personification” of the horse, not because the tension between its secure mounting and centrifugal force produces “strain” in the bolts, or in the flying pole on which it is suspended (see the carousel glossary of terms), but by the reader’s transference of our own feelings in our spinning world to those of an artificial horse on a repetitive carousel. In this way we do not have personification of an inanimate object by the poet—the attribution of human properties to a chunk of shaped material—but as an invitation to the reader to put themself in the position of the aforesaid object.
O’Connor is not the first to liken the human condition to a fairground carousel (Joni Mitchell, for example). Does this senryu offer new insight? Does the insight stand up to scrutiny? Or does it fall short? There is some choice and independence in a human being that is not present in an inanimate model pony. There is much variation in the changing conditions of this spinning world as compared with the limited and repetitive carousel.
On its success or otherwise in getting a reader to think about these things, the poem as senryu stands or falls. In that way, for me it worked. Probably for the citizens of the Golden Triangle going about their daily grind, it also worked!
The poem provides live imagery and movement while also being static. Feeling the breeze along with the sunlight as well as the seating and the grasp on the rod bring out the tactile aspect while the auditory component is completed by the wind blowing into the ears and people screaming, laughing, enjoying the game. The increasing length of each line of the poem stresses the tension or the strain in the life of the poet and of the readers.
Most of us have been on a carousel pony. The wooden horses are even made to go up and down to cause the effect of galloping. The speed is gradually increased when the rider’s grasp becomes more tight and after a while the speed is gradually reduced to bring the merry-go-round to a halt. In the process, a strain occurs, on the rods supporting the horses and on the rider’s clasp.
Metaphorically, each person is likened to a carousel pony where the individual struggles breaking their back or makes a supreme effort to hold on and not give up in a life scenario that is ever-changing.
Can this ku be written avoiding two ‘ing’ words?:
the spinning world
I think the present continuous tense for both the verbs gives the ku more tension and feeling in the poem as well as anchors it more in the present than if it were ‘strains’ as above. Also L3 would become too long.
Jonathan Epstein—quickening to the music of the calliope:
The image of a merry-go-round horse (pony size) enchants me —the glossy paint, swirling mane and wild eye, flared nostrils, lips drawn back to bared teeth, mouth agape. I marvel at its intense expression, forelegs arched, rear legs straight back as they propel the body forward. My heart quickens to calliope music as the “carousel pony” moves past, its head tilted toward me.
Merry-go-round horses slide up and down a fixed pole; their expressive faces and legs in mid-air give the illusion of “straining” to get somewhere. But like stars, planets and their moons, carousel mounts obey forces (mechanical in this case) that move them in fixed orbits. They appear to run free, yet are held fast by “the spinning world” platform that rotates them.
This poetic verse invites readers to go deeper than an image of an amusement park carousel. First, consider the “carousel pony” as a metaphor for the human condition. People too are at odds with (“straining against”) natural laws such as gravity and celestial motion (“the spinning world”). A significant number of people live to follow societal strictures and a prescribed path, like the carousel pony, while others seek to be free of certain constraints.
What about the carousel itself as a “cycle of life” metaphor? Don’t we sometimes say, “Life is a carousel”? One gets on the carousel (birth), chooses a mount (takes on a persona), goes up and down (life’s vicissitudes), and circles ‘round and ‘round (each a year of life). At one point we get off the ride (die). Others get off (die) before us, while still other riders continue on after we leave, or hop on (are born) during our ride.
Consider also the “carousel pony” as a symbol of the life force, the animating spirit (or prana or chi) that mysteriously fuels all life forms, each with its role to play in the biological kingdoms.
Metaphors, as we know, go only so far. We are not carousel horses tethered by mechanical forces, though we are bound to various degrees by social and natural forces and our attachments. Yet we have imagination, free will (to an extent), and untapped potential — and ancient wisdom to point us North. Though “straining against” laws of nature and society, and flawed by egos and dreadful shortcomings, our species has used ingenuity and grit to create technologies capable of taking us beyond habitual orbits into new and unimagined realms. (Think of all the magic that can occur on a mobile phone by the tap of a finger on the screen.)
Hats off, John S. O’Connor, for a richly complex and layered poem; a splendid epigraph for a work of literary art.
Author John S. O’Connor:
The specific carousel pony I have in mind is at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. We took our kids there about 500 times when they were young. We were there for the live animals of course, but we used to love to ride the carousel as well. The faces on the ponies are so expressive – so full of effort and exertion as they bob on the metal poles. And at the core of the ride are mirrored panels reflecting those ponies’ expressions and those of the families on board. There you can even glimpse yourself.
Our planet is spinning as well, on an imaginary axis, the dotted line pole that intersects the globe on the childhood maps of my memory. The carousel for me captures the ups and downs of everyday life and what Nietzsche called “the eternal return of the same,” the routines that form much of our lives. The break in this haiku makes the “straining” ambiguous: the pony, yes, but also perhaps the speaker.
Of course, we are not inanimate horses! We don’t merely move, we move on. As our kids grew, the zoo fell out of the orbit of our days. What was once routine would now be a special adventure. The memory of seeing my kids’ delighted faces on this ride is both perfectly complete and irretrievably lost. All this for me is captured in that carousel illusion of traveling through time and space and somehow finding ourselves once again back where we started. Yet now we can share that memory with our kids, enjoying the cycle of life as participants and spectators both. If we are lucky, we can still hear that music, happily knowing that the ride never stops.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Jonathan 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:rainy day - only one umbrella stops by the forsythia — Tomislav Maretic haikuNetra issue 1.4, December 9, 2023
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John S. O’Connor’s bio is at the Poetry Foundation, as is an essay of his entitled A New View on Haiku (2009). A longer bio and 31 of John’s haiku and senryu can be read at the Mann Library Poet of the Month for January 2021.
I go along with Harrison’s intriguing view of the personification (or possibly animism) here. Strictly speaking, I don’t think there is any, as written. It is left to the reader to invest with human emotions the physical strain in the carousel pony’s mounting.
A few thoughts:
Animism: the attribution of a spirit to animals, plants, natural objects and natural phenomena.
To clouds in the shape of a dragon, yes; to plastic horses, I think not. Computers??
Zoomorphism: to attribute animal forms or animal characteristics to other animals, or things other than an animal; similar to but broader than anthropomorphism.
A snarling motorbike… A viral post … Also sometimes the attribution of animal characteristics to humans (although that seems perfectly natural to a biologist). A chastened poet pulling in his horns. A hen party…
Personification: the attribution of a personal nature or specifically human characteristics to something non-human, or the representation of an abstract quality in human form (e.g. ‘ferocity personified’).
An owl, say, may itself have quite a range of shared characteristics with humans, including communication and memory, but wisdom?? A laughing hyena, a sense of humour?? Mated albatrosses may experience what we call love. The moon may have a dark side and a pull but it certainly doesn’t ‘remember’ or write love letters to us.
Anthropomorphism: the attribution of specifically human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. Wikipedia: “It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology. Personification is the related attribution of human form and characteristics to abstract concepts such as nations, emotions, and natural forces, such as seasons and weather. Both have ancient roots as storytelling and artistic devices, and most cultures have traditional fables with anthropomorphized animals as characters. People have also routinely attributed human emotions and behavioral traits to wild as well as domesticated animals.”
Well, see above. A biologist would contend that there are several human emotions and behavioural traits that animals also exhibit. Particularly mammals, with their similar central nervous systems, visceral and hormonal mechanisms.
These definitions seem to me to be based on old concepts recycled unchanged through decades, without taking into account the very substantial change in our understanding of living organisms, their capacities, and their behaviour. As to haiku and senryu straying into this area: animism at least is part of the Shinto roots of haiku (along with other belief-sets); Bashō’s early work exhibits it, and also personification:
the face of a flower
is it feeling shy
the hazy moon
hoping the flowers burst
out in laughter
dew on roses
the rapeseed flowers’ faces
all Bashō tr. Reichhold. For whatever reason, these make me wince a little. It’s personal taste. And perhaps a background shaped by biology.
We are urged by some heavyweights of English Language Haiku to be wary of lyrical devices such as these, and to anchor our verses in plain realities. There’s much to be said for that. As a lightweight, personally I think that as in all things haiku, any approach, word, layout, cut or punctuation is not to be excluded tout court, but has to be essential to meaning, rather than ornamentation or conspicuous poetic striving. So it is with these devices. Within that, some expressions come with less resistance than others. A dragon can watch. A cloud cannot; neither can it love. A whale has memory, a river does not. A mattress just might retain a ‘memory’ of shape, an idea made more familiar by ‘memory foam.’ Common usage may play a helpful part (oops, there we go again with the personification of ‘usage.’) Let’s rephrase that: we may find help in common expressions that have become familiar in use: an angry sea, a restless wind, a hand of bananas, old Father Thames… A horse, even a plastic one, can strain a cable; a real one might bid for freedom but a plastic one does not. A flower might compete with a different species but it cannot be envious, whereas a chimp lower in the social order of its troop might be jealous or resentful: it has similar visceral processes to a human, and a well-developed brain and memory. A river or a breeze can ‘find its way’ but a rivulet does not ‘yearn’ to grow into a river. &c.
The THF forum thread on personification and anthropomorphism, started by Alan Summers, is here: https://thehaikufoundation.org/forum_sm/index.php?topic=4655.0. There are articles replayed in it from Peggy Willis Lyles, Gabi Greve, and Robert Wilson, as well as Alan. It is a valuable compilation and I recommend it heartily.
Discuss… (if you want to discuss in the Forum, I suggest you start a new thread for us rather than continuing that one).
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