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, proposed by Joshua Gage, was:I order lunch from my car into a speaker. Some days I have no idea what I want. Most days the window-kid doesn’t make a mistake. —Bruce Cohen, TEN SLOPPY HAIKU OF ORDINARY LIFE, Rattle 82, Winter 2023
Introducing this poem, Joshua writes:
In December of 2023, in response to re:Virals 430, Harrison Lightwater made the statement: “there’s no such thing as a absolute true haiku and your haiku’s a haiku for you and my haiku’s a haiku for me,” which Keith Evetts attempted to defend, arguing “I don’t think anyone would try to argue that a sonnet is a haiku, certainly not me, but isn’t that very possibility part of the miserable, inexorable, postmodernist logic? It means what you want it to mean? And the reductio ad absurdum a refutation of that logic?”
Well, here we have Bruce Cohen arguing that something which bears almost no resemblance to what I would understand as a haiku is, in fact, a haiku. Now, these are presented as “sloppy haiku,” so perhaps part of the cleverness of this poem is that they’re not, in reality, haiku, and that’s what makes them sloppy. But I struggle to find anything that resembles haiku in this piece, yet it is being published and promoted as a haiku by one of the major editors and publishers of haiku. Indeed, Timothy Green just gave the Higginson Lecture on digital possibilities of haiku at Haiku North America, so certainly he would be the expert on the form. I do not see this as a haiku, and I see labelling and marketing this poem as a haiku as dangerous to the form and to poetry in general. That being said, this must be a haiku because the author has said it is a haiku, so I’m very curious to know what the re:Virals community and The Haiku Foundation community has to offer about it.
This verse comes out of left field bringing a smile.
One has to say that there are few features of the stanza that characterise the genre in English Language Haiku except for: sketch-from-life, no complicated words, no lyrical or other poetic devices, and the present tense. Which is not inconsiderable. The only concession to the conventions of form is three lines, but they total more syllables even than a five line waka. Three breaths. And rather too much content for a purified, distilled, haiku/senryu. So, it has to go in the not-haiku pigeonhole. However…
The first line, even by itself, might make an acceptable single-sentence monoku:
I order lunch from my car into a speaker
or even a haiku:
I order lunch from my car
into a speaker
…for which I could envisage a commentary: “the verse conveys in a flash an awareness of nature’s grandeur, somewhat ominous, contrasted with the essential banality of everyday Americana on the strip mall, illustrating how we are encased and deadened by the inert contrivances of modern life….like cheeseburger and fries in styrofoam.”
I thoroughly enjoyed the ten verses of Bruce Cohen’s Sloppy Haiku — a disarming title. There’s real life there, closely observed with affectionate ironic humour, unadorned, deadpan. That much is in the tradition. Indeed thanks are due to Joshua for bringing Bruce to attention. He’s an accomplished poet. I have been roaming through his work that’s available free online. It’s readable, enjoyable, and some of it contains flashes of insight in matters of fact. That too is in the tradition. I like it.
But now I/we have to consider Joshua’s question, with an open mind. I don’t think haiku is in peril. The guardians of the shrine may rest easy. It should be plain from my earlier remark, which he quotes, that I find the postmodern approach ‘miserable.’ I can’t support with any enthusiasm the view that a verse is whatever the poet says it is. Where would literary criticism be? Kneecapped.
Despite decades of contention, there’s no universally accepted and comprehensive definition of haiku written in the English language, but there are majority views on several separate criteria, templates or guidelines (see e.g. Max Verhart’s straw poll in Modern Haiku, Volume 38.2 – Summer 2007). These lines don’t meet most of them. The criteria help to pigeonhole verses, if pigeonhole we must, but not without equivocation. Then, unless we are to keep haiku entirely separate from other poetry, even, dear poets, to the extent of saying that it isn’t ‘poetry’—see some of the remarks by haiku eminences in Field Notes 2 in the Haiku Foundation’s Forum archives — there is a continuum between haiku, through short form, to other poetry. The questions are whether and where to draw the line, where a poem shares a haiku-like approach and contains some, but not all, of the criteria. And unless we are limiting the field to traditional, formal haiku written in Japanese, it seems few currently adhere to all of them.
More discussion in the Footnote.
For those who teach haiku, I suggest you flag this poem. It was not intended to pass as haiku — notably it was not published in a haiku journal — but it will serve well here as an example of what haiku is not and as a corpus for generating senryu.
Bruce Cohen’s poem is fine and effective as it is — but as the poem appears with a title, unprecedented for haiku— TEN SLOPPY HAIKU OF ORDINARY LIFE — let us begin there. The phrase “sloppy haiku” (as in fat, juicy burgers?) leads us to expect a platter of hastily-written haiku of 5-10 words, minimally including kigo and kireji, but we are instead served up three surprisingly mundane 2-line statements of someone’s fast food drive-through experiences.
Scenario recap: a narrator confesses to frequenting a MacDonald’s-style fast food restaurant. He drives up to a window by the side or back of the restaurant and orders his lunch through a speaker box. “I order lunch from my car/ into a speaker.” Though he eats there often, and should be familiar with the menu, he doesn’t always know what to order. He seems adrift in more ways than one— “Some days I have no idea / what I want.” What’s more, though it’s a simple matter for servers to tap a photo icon of ordered items on their computer screen, “the window-kid” now and then gets the order wrong. “Most days the window-kid/ doesn’t make a mistake.”
The narrator is less likely the poet and more convincingly a voice representing the multitude of Americans drawn to grabbing a quick lunch or snack at a fast food shop. According to the Mayo Clinic, one in three Americans eats fast food at least once a day. Studies show that frequent eating of fast food contributes to type 2 diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure.
I feel a certain dullness and naïveté in the narrator’s voice. Most telling is the image of “the window kid,“ which suggests the young take-out server — a minimum-wage position often filled by high school students — is an easily replaceable cog in the fast food world, a soul dulled if not stunted by a joyless routine that allows little if any face-to-face interaction with customers.
The poem’s content —three declarative sentences —comes across as the confession of someone with an unhealthy relationship to fast food. Each of the 2-line statements, though straightforward, gives evidence of the narrator’s fast food attraction. Such “slice of life” information, though “sloppy” to a haikuist in its lack of concision, could — with a few deft edits — be turned into potent senryu, yet here they are perfect — as is — for their purpose. They reflect an Everyman point of view, and reveal or at least hint at the addictive nature of the fast food industry.
I am glad this poem was proposed for re:Virals commentary and discussion. Thank you, Bruce Cohen, for this subtly powerful and useful teaching poem.
‘I order a haiku from an internet group
Some days I have no idea what I want.
Most days the senryu is mistaken for a haiku’
Normally, I am a stickler for keeping haiku and senryu categories separate but the poet’s brazen adjective ‘sloppy’ signals he’s thrown traditional ‘rules’ out the window and it’s ok to have a laugh. The way-too-bulky lines add to a memory I have: a scene from my first experience of an American drive-through. I was driving my husband’s bulky/tank-like Oldsmobile (15 miles to the gallon!) on my own for the first time and he had trusted me to order his usual fare (baked potato with broccoli and cheese) from a diner called Rax. I had been so absorbed in admiring the slogan (‘Nothing Stax up to Rax!’) when he initially showed me the drill that I hadn’t much bothered noticing the window, or indeed the window kid. It was quite a tight corner to arrive at the large microphone near the window where you ordered, and I was pleased with myself with navigating the corner of the building in such a big heavy car. But the stupid Rax employee wasn’t responding by repeating my order the way he was supposed to. I kept shouting into the mike: “Baked potato with broccoli and cheese. Please!” and wondered why I, the valued customer in a Capitalist country was being shunned. A few more exasperated shouts from me and then it dawned… I was speaking into a litter bin! Which I soon learned to call a trash can.
I read the original Ten Sloppy Haiku in Rattle last year that this poem comes from. I never actually thought they were haiku but, since Rattle is a poetry publication, didn’t get too excited due to its parody potential. It seemed appropriate as a poem. But I never considered it a legitimate haiku or senryū.
It has an element of human foibles which commonly characterize senryū. But it doesn’t “turn” on any word nor offer much in the way of juxtaposition. It absolutely blows away any syllable count. It can be rewritten in the form of three, separate senryu: I order lunch / from my car / into a speaker/ /some days / I have no idea / what I want/ /most days / the window-kid / doesn’t make a mistake. But why bother? (Note, I’m not suggesting exemplary haiku.)
I hope some inspired commentary suggests some reason why this poem should be considered legitimate for THF re:Virals because I’m flummoxed
Wonderful write implying multiple meanings, expressed in direct prose style. Not bound by syllabic restrictions, each line ends with a full stop. Devoid of images or metaphor, written in directly plain style, leaving everything to readers’ perception, all three lines distinctly bring out occurrences of ordinary life. Composed in the first person as if inviting the reader into conversational mode, the poet tells of his daily routine; “I order lunch from my car into a speaker” — his tedious routine or habituated custom.
In the second line, he comes out with another statement: “Some days I have no idea what I want.” A bland, direct admission of an indecisive spirit in his nature. Some days…he is in a different world, what could be the reason we do not know.
“Most days the window-kid doesn’t make a mistake.” Apart from interpretations, beyond our reach and perceptions. Whether the window-kid has been brought up amidst crime and adverse surroundings or in a totally peaceful atmosphere, is beyond our grasp, all we know is he does not make mistakes most of the days…
Bruce Cohen: “My favorite quote is from a Wislawa Zymborska poem that reads, ‘I prefer the absurdity of writing poems to the absurdity of not writing poems.’”
It’s refreshing to see an example from the 5-7-5 haiku community (if indeed that’s what this is). I’m not very familiar with that group, although I know there is a tremendous number of purchasable collections out there, on almost any topic you can imagine. I wonder if this is an experimental member of that genre. Counting on my fingers and thumbs I initially wondered if this is two 5-7-5 haiku pushed together into three long lines. Perhaps not, given L2, but it does contain 2×17 syllables. It may be a long ‘5-7-5’ haiku with different syllabic symmetry. This kind of first-person narrative is uncommon in re:Virals’ usual type of haiku, as is the punctuation, capitalisation and three discrete lines. I enjoy it as a quirky slice of life, much closer to reality than is usual, although it reads more like prose than poetry (I also find this in much of contemporary poetry). It works as a piece of nanofiction.
Peter C. Forster:
For sure the Haiku Police will sound the sirens. A buttondown view of haiku I don’t share.
Abandoning 5-7-5, and cut markers, both in Japanese and in English haiku and senryu, writers have explored different forms of them just as in other areas of poetry. Others have stuck to rigid established forms, yuki teikei, the New Formalists &c. All parts of the same tree?
Even with new freedoms, after a period of flourishing haiku gradually have become more boring with more rules, and repetitive poems, rhythms, and themes, so we have gotten into the same kind of impasse that Shiki found. Especially because avoiding so many types of words limits the scope of haiku even more. It feeds on itself. Symptoms of inbreeding. It’s no wonder that poetry journals rarely take haiku. Along come poets from the rest of poetry and try to liven up the scene by adapting the ideas behind haiku to new forms. Maybe as in this case making them a little longer and capable to house more ideas? Good! Does the haiku scene react by curling up into a little ball, or decide to hold hands with other poets, or what? It’ll be interesting to read about.
I thought the other Sloppy Haiku in Cohen’s ten were better than this one. Not great as Basho, but they were good to read. I savored the straightfaced humor confronted with dreary reality. The universality. The space to reconstruct. Interesting material for classroom discussion.
Nairithi Konduru (aged 9):
This could be a free verse poem because it has three full sentences with the first alphabet of each sentence/line being capital letters and each one ending with a full stop.
This poem could mean that the speaker orders food from a drive-through regularly and some days the speaker knows what he wants and the other days he doesn’t know what he wants. Most days, the person at the drive-through window doesn’t make a mistake on the order.
Or it could be a metaphor for saying that one wants something when one wants something else actually, or one doesn’t know what one wants and in the end one ends up with something one didn’t expect or want, but one ends up liking it.
Three full sentences in three lines with capitals at the start of each sentence and ending with a period, a full stop.
First, can this be termed a haiku/senryu? This seems to me more a story or even part of a story in three full statements/sentences. Now a haiku can also narrate a part of a story, but in two segments – a fragment and a phrase (in any order) with a juxtaposition.
Is there a juxtaposition here? There’s no fragment/phrase/juxtaposition.
Is there that element which we most look for, ma/white space? Yes, there is, to some extent. There is some amount of ambiguity. What is it that the poet finally manages to order on ‘some’ days and in what way does the ‘window-kid’ know how the poet wants his lunch on ‘most’ days. Has he previously educated this ‘window-kid’? Why is he being called a window-kid? How old is this ‘kid’?
There is pathos here. Why is the speaker having to eat his lunch outside everyday? Also, the term window-kid makes for a sorrowful picture – how old this kid is and why he/she is working here.
What defines a sloppy haiku? Why can’t this just be termed a micropoem? In what way is sloppy haiku different from micropoem? Why should we even write sloppy haiku?
These three sentences can even be written in prose format as part of a haibun or even a short story. Poetic prose?
This three-liner, for me, bridges the gaps between the different forms of writing.
Marion Clarke —the heartbeat:
My first reaction to Bruce Cohen’s verse was, “What the heck? This isn’t a haiku!” Then I went over to the Rattle Poetry site to see what the other nine were like. They surprised me, as each was a little sketch from life, described so well that I found them highly relatable. Could they be simply a variation of haiku/senryu? I don’t believe so, as they don’t look like that short form poetry in terms of layout on the page, although I have to admit they do have a heartbeat much like a haiku or senryu. Irish poet Paul Muldoon’s haiku, with Roman numerals as a form of title, punctuation and end rhyme, are not what we expect a haiku to look like either, but as William Higginson pointed out in an essay in Modern Haiku back in 2004, they share a lightness of touch and humour of the Japanese masters. He came to the conclusion that they were simply Muldoons. Perhaps the haiku under discussion should simply be known then as a Cohen—or a sloppy-ku!
Author Bruce Cohen:
Like many fans of Haiku or any spare, Asian poetry, I’ve long been enamored & in love with the poems of Kobayashi Issa & Tu Fu. I especially admired the way in which their poems blended a serious philosophical sense of the world with mild comedic observations.
I’d never written Haiku before and found the restriction or challenge of seventeen syllables to be unworkable for me. I didn’t want to be handcuffed to the form. However, I loved the way in which the poems left much unsaid & the beauty of the poems seemed to exist, of course, in what was implied after the poem was “over”, in the contemplation.
I know that many/most Haiku revolve around nature; however, I am not in any way a nature poet which is why my favorite poets, previously mentioned, lean toward trying to make sense of their daily, mundane lives, what they were observing. They seemed to recognize that poems are everywhere, in everything, and that everything could be a poem if one were to be patient enough and pay attention. I took that to heart & attempted to write poems out of my ordinary, the seemingly unpoetic moments of my typical life. The “Ten Sloppy Haiku” of course are not, technically, Haiku, but I believe they are in spirit.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, with its warm-hearted lightness of touch in a nutshell, Marion 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:dad's tool shed— the taste of iron in my blood — P H Fischer The Heron's Nest Vol. XXIV, No.1, March 2022
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.
Many thanks to Bruce for his delightful, open comment with its grasp of the mindful essences of haiku.
Bruce Cohen’s brief bio:
Born in the Bronx, New York, Bruce Cohen’s poems and non-fiction essays have appeared in over a hundred literary periodicals such as AGNI, The Georgia Review, The Harvard Review, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Poetry, Prairie Schooner & The Southern Review as well as being featured on Poetry Daily & Verse Daily. He has published several volumes of poetry, some of which won prizes. A recipient of an individual artist grant from the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism, prior to joining the Creative Writing faculty at the University of Connecticut in 2012, he directed, developed, and implemented nationally recognized academic enhancement programs at the University of Arizona, The University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Connecticut.
Along the spectrum, consider to what extent these following poemlets have haiku-like qualities (omitting the widely quoted : Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro,’ W.C.W’s ‘Red Wheelbarrow’, and Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird‘). Do they match up to any or all of the criteria (“rules”) you believe should apply to haiku? Take your time… Have they, or not, that elusive “haiku spirit?” Would the ones below by masters Bashō, Issa, Buson, Ozaki Hōsai and Shiki be accepted, without a prestigious name attached to them, by editors of English haiku journals today with their guidelines? If not, what’s going wrong?
Well, farewell !
Let’s go out snow-viewing,
Until we tumble over
In the summer rains
I’ll go and see the floating nests
of the grebe
(or: May rain / let’s go and see / the grebe’s floating nest)
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long. —You come too.
— Robert Frost
I wonder what
the river’s up to
willow leaves have fallen
the clear stream has dried, and stones
are scattered here and there
The snow is old and pitted,
here grey with ashes and there yellow with sand.
The walks lie in the cold shadow
—Reznikoff (part of Autobiography: New York)
If you climb the mountain
you can see
all the lonely people in the village
…I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows…
—Eliot (part of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)
I am alone
in this world
gazing at blossoms
each is alone above the core of the earth
pierced by a shaft of sunlight:
and suddenly it’s evening
daylight as the exception it is
no one goes along.
Through the spring rain
I looked out once or twice
wondering if someone would come by
— Ko Un
those two young men
are already husbands and fathers
* Korean vodka.
the mother has fallen asleep
so her baby is listening all alone
to the sounds of the departing night train
Summer vacation – the primary school classrooms are quiet
In one classroom
there’s a harmonium where
the Fa in the scale is dead
In that classroom is the framed
national flag they hung there forty-two years ago
and in that classroom
the daring grafitti of times gone by
“Kim Ok-ja has the biggest boobs”
(All from his poems in Flowers of a Moment)
the child’s imitation
than the real cormorant
what comes out
of a firefly’s ass
one certain night
I released all the bugs
from the cage
Spreads the Pond Her Base of Lilies
Bold above the Boy
Whose unclaimed Hat and Jacket
Sum the History –
To what extent does having haiku-like qualities make a short poem haiku or not, though?The editor of Rattle, Timothy Green:
“…haiku have nothing to do with counting syllables. ….A haiku is two worlds in one breath. It’s the use of juxtaposition to capture the complexity of a moment…And the other central feature, and how Basho elevated it….is the use of disjunction, which is what makes haiku a stretched metaphor. A haiku is two images laid next to each other that show different ways of looking at the same thing. ” And: “Most things labeled haiku are not haiku at all.” (quotes on X @ Twitter, 2023).
All of which is discussable. Nothing there to limit length apart from one breath; syllable count of no importance; single-image haiku not included… Green also mentions another interesting haiku-like form: the American Sentence. He writes“The form was created by Allen Ginsberg as an American take on the haiku. Each poem is a single sentence, 17 syllables long. Unlike haiku, there is no cut in frame or need for a seasonal reference. The goal, instead, is to condense and capture the “shadow of a moment” in a single utterance.” (https://www.pressenterprise.com/2020/09/12/new-form-of-poetry-offers-american-take-on-the-haiku/)
It seems to me that this sort of haiku-like sentence is not far from Bruce Cohen’s sentences in Rattle that we have considered this week.
And then: whose haiku?:Peter Yovu:
“…the reality that “haiku” is not a single thing, but means different things to different people.” (Haiku Foundation forum Field Notes 5).
So, what shall we say is more important, the structure and form of a verse or the “spirit of haiku?” A verse that looks like a haiku, or one that feels like a haiku? Or are both equally necessary and vital?
“...what many value most about the “best” haiku, a quality of being mysteriously and unmistakably alive, is being pressured to fit into pre-determined and familiar forms, into the idea of what a haiku is. What results is something less like “sketches from life” and more like “sketches from haiku.” (Review in Modern Haiku of Big Sky: The Red Moon Anthology 2006).
And: “My sense is that the ‘prize’ in haiku (and poetry) is something which in fact cannot be grasped— only intuited. “…”that wonderful quality of feeling right without one’s being able to say why.”
“Haiku is surely the most elusive form of poetry. Every time one tries to define it, the “rule” is broken in the same week by one of our best haiku poets. But art in all its forms is mysteriously elusive to some degree. Artists are always trying to convey the how of their success, and their explanations are generally of little help to the beginner. What is most vital is that we expose ourselves to the spirit of the art form.
“The spirit of haiku lies most of all in its simplicity and in its selflessness. Both are a way of life requiring real commitment and depth of understanding. The simple, and the plain and ordinary, are quite different. One learns from the Japanese haiku that simplicity is characterized by a feel for the flow of life and the harmony of nature, which translation often fails to find. …… It is the suchness of things that is vital.” (The Way of Haiku, Red Moon Anthology 2001 “The Loose Thread”).
Where are you going to draw that line? As a layman, I’m still out with the jury. Between the streams and the red clouds, hearing curlews (—Ted Hughes, from ‘The Horses’)
Top of page