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re:Virals 438

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 Alan Harvey, was:

     whales breaching the inside of a wish
     — Aidan Castle
     whiptail issue 6, February 2023 

Introducing this poem, Alan writes:

Many of Aidan Castle’s haiku appeal to me without me really understanding them initially. There’s an algorithm for eagles and gazing at toothpick flags that I only sense a meaning.

compass rose / the algorithm / for eagles     : gossamer (KDP) Aug 23

thunderclap – / the soldier’s gaze / on a toothpick flag     : Prune Juice, Aug 2023

There is some mysterious quality to them that attracts me though. My own haiku are more traditional and safer than Castle’s. I would love to break through my comfortable confines and explore edgier work in my own writing.

Whales breaching is a wondrous thing when viewed from a nearby kayak but if it’s inside a wish bubble, does it pop the bubble? re:Virals seems like a great forum for our haiku community to help me unlock the mysteries of Castle’s little word puzzles.

Opening comment:

The single line format has developed significantly since Jim Kacian’s essay on its history and practice, The Shape of Things to Come (Modern Haiku 43.3, 2012).  Monoku range from the more classic two-part haiku with one ‘cut’ between the parts, signalled or implied, to a line containing several elements in which scope is left for multiple readings according to where the reader themself chooses to cut it, and each word along the line modifies the word or words before it. These days they extend from the recognisable haiku or senryu to the surreal, or even sometimes downright unintelligible short poem where words, images or ideas with no link to each other, other than perhaps in the mind of the author, are placed adjacent: seemingly with the aim of shaking up the reader’s brain to see what falls out. You know the sort of thing:
ladder mode problem the student nation message
Great fun!  Although not everyone welcomes this trend: see Susumu Takiguchi’s interesting Editorial in World Haiku Review, Spring 2023: “Though still relatively small, the trend is too serious to be ignored or dismissed…it is the question of haiku poems which do not make sense at all, i.e. no one is expected to know what these haiku are talking about.”

Along the spectrum there are those, like this week’s haiku, which (to me) hit the sweet spot between explicit and tantalising, are poetry rather than garble, and reward the reader’s engagement with insight in contemplating the conceivable relations and reverberations between the parts.

The image of whales breaching is imposing:

humpback whale
    for a split second
the sky steps back
—Kala Ramesh, Presence #76, 2023

was voted best of issue. In Aidan’s poem we are presented with a whole pod of them. I have seen this off Cape Cod. “Breaching” is not only the correct naturalist’s word for whales surfacing with a crash, but it also carries the meaning of breaking through some barrier.

The “inside of a wish” is a beguiling phrase, suggesting an internalised, hidden wish. Wish itself is a fine-sounding, almost onomatopoeic word with sound associations… swish…wash…whoosh. And whales frequently breach to exhale with a whoosh.  Or sometimes to shake off parasites, to proclaim their territorial presence, to signal to other whales, or simply to get a better look around.  If breaching from any depth, I wonder if sometimes they just get their decompression a bit wrong and overshoot (empathy for one’s fellow mammal!).

Putting these elements together with a mind eager to make its own sense of the line, I get the magnificent sight of a pod of whales breaking into the poet’s thoughts, and the release of a pent-up longing with a whoosh.  Or of a (parasitic) thought that has been preying on the mind and is now swept away.  Or one that was not clearly observed in the mind’s depth, but all of a sudden now surfaces.  And this is a big thing — a whale of a wish. A complex thing — a number of whales at the same time. All these possibilities are expressed in a delightfully poetic way. Although it fits into the ‘image plus thought’ pattern, it is commendably without the poet’s self being thrust into the scene, where others might have written “the inside of my wish.”  A space is left for the reader to bring their own secret wish.   If you can wish upon a shooting star, a coin in a fountain, or the better half of a turkey wishbone, you can surely wish upon the marvel of a breaching whale. I think to wish upon a whale should enter the lexicon.

Jennifer Gurney:

The imagery in this monoku is hypnotizing. I’ve only been there in person on a boat once, but it stays with you the rest of your life. Standing at the rail as the small ship rocks with the waves, seeing your first whale break the surface and arc into the air, then another and another. My heart leapt into the air alongside these majestic creatures, the water sprayed on my face, we were that close. And I was one with them in the ocean, in the air, dancing and swimming in tandem. At that moment, I was 1000% inside a wish. What an incredible phrase to describe that feeling. Seven words. Nine syllables. An eternity in a line.

Radhamani Sarma:

A very interesting monoku on whales and their habits pertaining to them. A wonderful watery image opening up many vistas.

“whales breaching the inside of a wish” — the vital question arises, what is the inside of a wish ? A desire, a wish, a call for mating — two contrasting expressions to arrive at a powerful meaning.
Another possible inference is that whales leap to satisfy themselves. We find that “whale and dolphin brains contain specialized brain cells called spindle neurons. These are associated with advanced abilities such as recognizing, remembering, reasoning, communicating, perceiving, adapting to change, problem-solving and understanding.”

So it seems they are deep thinkers!

Nairithi Konduru (aged 9):

A breach is when a whale propels its body out of the water. If more than half the body appears, it is a full breach. So this poem could mean that one day a person saw a whale breaching and wished that their life was easy like a whale 🐋. It could also mean that when a fisherman catches a whale, as the whale comes up, it looks at the sun praying its death wish.
It may also be that somewhere in the world a whale comes out to breach and in another different place in the world, someone makes a wish.

Harrison Lightwater:

This is a marvellous contrast to the worthy but repetitive everyday haiku that clog the arteries. How dreadful it would have been if written as “breaching whales I learn to let go.” (I like to think that would be anathema to our host!).

Back to the discussion of the ‘continuum’ from classic haiku to ‘short poems’ a fortnight ago, I note that whiptail is the ‘journal of the single line poem,’ Noon is the ‘journal of the short poem,’ and heliosparrow is Heliosparrow Poetry Journal; although all of them have parentage in haiku.

Aidan Castle’s poem is a haiku: it has whales (winter kigo at least in Japan), two parts, a cut, plain words, detachment, mystery and resonance. It’s also poetry without relying on lyrical and other devices traditional in English poetry. It gave me a pleasant shiver.

Five stars.

Amoolya Kamalnath:

A breakthrough! A victory lap after achieving one’s goal.

The long sounds of the vowels in the first two words complement the short i sounds and end with a closed syllable as if to say that that wish has finally culminated.

I wondered if it would have been okay to write this monoku in a slant in the shape of the action:


in the way the whales propel themselves out of the ocean’s surface, as if breaking free from monotony, from captivity, from an aggrieved mind.

(or the other way up, even).

A wish — in the centre of the heart, hidden in anticipation, inside – inside a tightly locked chamber. This wish which was until now only the speaker’s, has now broken open its hard shell and has been revealed to the world. The determination and will power of the speaker have done wonders in accomplishing an achievement just like a whale propelling its huge body to breach the ocean’s surface.

These are three ways in which line breaks could be applied for different readings/interpretations:

whales/breaching the inside/of a wish

whales breaching/the inside/of a wish

and finally as a duostich:

whales breaching/the inside of a wish

I find the ku to be inspirational and motivating. It shows how believing in oneself can fetch great results.

Author Aidan Castle—the immediacy of one-line haiku:

I really appreciate having this poem selected for discussion. It was inspired by seeing whales for the first time, breaching off a beach in Hawaii. I was awestruck by the hugeness of these beautiful creatures, and I witnessed this epic release as I was going through a profound personal shift. An 11-year romantic relationship was ending, and my partner and I were making the transition to being friends and chosen family. My immediate “wish” was that we always remain close. In that moment when I saw the whales breaching, I felt like my wish was magnified, to the point that it was larger than me and I was almost standing “inside” it.

I opted to make this poem a one-liner because I like the increased potential for meaning created by the two possible line breaks:

whales breaching / the inside of a wish

whales / breaching the inside of a wish

I think part of the beauty of haiku is its ability to afford multiple meanings, so if there is ever an opportunity to add more meaning through lineation or another device, I tend to jump at it. It took me a while to arrive at the final wording, and I initially wrote it as a three-liner. I use a “blank canvas” process when I write, focusing on the current draft and not saving any prior ones. There is a dynamic quality to this method that appeals to me, but each to their own.

I recall that when I shifted the poem to one line, something just clicked. I then tested the draft with one of my favorite revision strategies, a visualization exercise that I call “the rain trick.” I picture the poem written in ink on a piece of paper, and then envision the paper suspended outside. I imagine it starts to rain, and find that I can gauge whether the poem is at a stopping point by what the rain does to the ink. If the ink forming the words of the poem runs, then that means the poem needs another pass. But if the words remain unchanged by the rain, then the poem is at a good place. As I have become more practiced with this exercise, I find that the rain targets the specific words that need changing, leaving the others intact. This may sound like a strange way to go about revision, but I’ve found it really helps. I tend to work very much by feel.

I join others in thinking that the one-line haiku is especially dynamic and full of possibility. Its stream-of-consciousness quality is ripe for the immediacy so integral to haiku. I have much enjoyed seeing more and more one-liners in publications, and look forward to seeing the sub-form continue to shine as more poets broaden their practice to include it.

fireworks image

Thanks to all who sent commentaries. For the thoughtful comments on his poem and the wider aspects of one-line haiku, exceptionally Aidan 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:

     from the hollow of a redwood gospel wind
     —Victor Ortiz
     The Heron’s Nest #23.2, June 2021

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.


Aidan Castle’s poems have appeared in whiptail, Presence, bottle rockets, The Heron’s Nest, Kingfisher, Acorn, first frost, Wales Haiku Journal, Heliosparrow and Frogpond. When not writing, he enjoys drawing, painting, playing board games, and taking long walks in the fog of the Pacific Northwest. He’s the author of “the gossamer: poems” – August 2, 2023 paperback and kindle: available for minimal outlay on Amazon. Reviewed in Frogpond 47.1. From the gossamer, these attractive verses:

mark as unread
owl tracks
in snow

home loan
the ease of our laughter
on these stolen lands

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This Post Has 17 Comments

    1. or groping for the Dao, I was thinking:

      a humpback whale
      splits the sky

      Although when a literal-minded scientist thinks about it, ‘splitting the sky’ is a bit daft.

      1. how about:
        volcanic eruption
        a petrified poet

        When you come to think about it, a poet turning to rock on the spot is no more weird than a volcano having poetry in it….

        1. You seem to have fathomed my tacit point that the literal and idiomatic can coexist.

          ‘splitting [the reflection of] the sky’ – is fine by the way.

          1. Yes.

            But ‘breach’ and ‘back seat’ maybe doesn’t work so well (if perchance you were thinking subconsciously of breeches).

          2. Reply to Keith Evetts below.

            More literally, and anthropomorphically, the sky taking a seat on the back.

        2. how about:

          volcanic eruption
          a petrified poet (Keith)

          That’s fine with me. To be ‘petrified’ has been a common term for “very frightened” for a long time. “I was petrified” is an understandable exaggeration. So, in my view, this can be read as the poet being extremely frightened (figurative) or literally petrified. (The latter, someone being literally petrified, is far less likely, even in Indonesia)

          1. Lorin, I think what simonj, I and you are getting at is the influence of common usage and idiom on what is ‘acceptable’ in haiku. To rule out, definitively, any form of animism, anthropomorphism and the likes of old-hattery &c is asking for trouble, as is the imposition of any absolute ‘rule’ for haiku. Our language is shot through with such expressions, and with their converse (zoomorphism and so forth). I mean, good Lord, a bank has branches (helloooo: phytomorphism…); a poet can be turned to stone (petromorphism); a husband may be henpecked by a wife (ornithomorphism); a foam mattress may have memory. Bashō may be old hat, I may be cosseted by a duvet…

            It’s a question of usage as well as reason and taste. I wince at Bashō’s envious flowers or at such things as the moon ‘remembering.’ The biologist in me wags a finger. But for some reason I can accept Kala’s ‘the sky steps back.’ So I ask myself why? Well, it is original, grand and unexpected (like the whale surfacing), so clearly intended as a dramatic device, and somehow it works. ‘Steps back’ is, in a way, an understated action here made grand by being a whole sky. Whereas some potty personification like ‘the sky applauds’ or ‘the sky weeps for joy’ would have me cringing.

          2. “Well, it is original, grand and unexpected (like the whale surfacing), so clearly intended as a dramatic device, and somehow it works. ” – Keith

            re “dramatic device” : that rings true for me. “All the world’s a stage…” springs to mind.

        1. Claire: what a nice compliment. Good luck in your search. The Haiku Foundation is a great place to start.

  1. 1.
    ” humpback whale
    for a split second
    the sky steps back
    —Kala Ramesh, Presence #76, 2023

    was voted best of issue. ” – Keith

    Well, I missed subscribing even to Presence for a while. I have the November 2022 issue (74) then there was a gap until I subscribed again and subsequently have received Issue 77, November 2023.

    ” the sky steps back”
    “Steps back” is a common idiom. I would certainly step back, literally, if I saw a snake on the path ahead. (So would a goat, and a horse would shy, too.) Literally, only something with feet can step back. The sky has no feet. To “step back”, then, has to be figurative here. What we have is personification of the sky combined with the (figurative) common idiom, ‘step back’. The whale is lost to me and (for a lot longer than a split second) all my attention is on trying to understand “the sky steps back”. Obviously, the fact that this haiku was voted “best of Presence” for an issue shows that my reading of this haiku is very wrong, terribly flawed. I’d be happy if anyone had an explanation.

    I’m familiar enough with Humpback whales. They migrate each year up from Antarctic waters to along the East coast of Australia. These enormous animals are friendly and one or two will sometimes breach near boats and play around, sort of saying hello , showing off, getting our attention (or so it seems). Yes, one feels awe and excitement as well as happiness when this happens, as it did for me (and others) on a scuba diving cruise, out of Cairns.
    I also supported the ‘Save the Whale’ projects, back in the day, when illegal whalers from countries I won’t name were still hunting them in Australian Antarctic waters.

    whales breaching the inside of a wish
    — Aidan Castle

    whiptail issue 6, February 2023

    I can’t imagine what the inside of a wish might mean. Do wishes have insides and outsides, as raincoats, garages and ballrooms do? We might have “feelings deep inside” or “hidden feelings” or “hidden wishes”. But can the feelings or wishes also have an inside and outside?

    For me, it comes down to: How close are we to the Humpty Dumpty theory of language, here?

    That’s how I feel about it. I wouldn’t be offended if anyone might want to set me straight.

    (Keith, I’ve read your ‘opening comments’ but am none the wiser.)

    1. Lorin, thank you for the energising comments. I was given a subscription to Presence for Christmas, being a pensioner whose means are limited. You’ll find Kala’s best of issue on p.18 of the November issue #77, which you have. The editor comments: “It captures beautifully a moment of surprise and wonder when the poet’s attention is totally absorbed by a whale and the world of time and space is transcended.”

      I tried to start a discussion of the vexing questions of animism / zoomorphism / personification / anthropomorphism in the opening comment and footnote of
      and more in the footnote at

      My working conclusion is that there’s a gradation in acceptability between the literal and the figurative, the animate and the inanimate. It’s complicated by common sense and common usage. How can one flower be envious of another as in Bashō? Gah! But a monkey may be jealous, an orca may be wiser than an owl. The line between the animate and the inanimate at first seems easiest to draw, but then common usage complicates matters: a chair has arms, a mountain has a foot (and a rock may be stepped back; but can it step), a stream has a head (and can find its way, but can it think)…. The storm may be wild, it may catch or embrace a cypress (Bashō again), the sea angry, the sun may beat, in common usage… Perhaps as with many another technique, if used subtly it’s more acceptable than when used obtrusively. If Kala’s line three with its common idiom dominates for you, I’d suggest (for the sake of enjoyable discussion) that it is intended thus for dramatic effect: shall we say the goshness of things? 😉

      On voting for best in issue, a kukai, a beauty competition or for that matter a politician, the people’s choice may be suspect… But it can be both an indication of the way things are going, and a subject for subsequent research into ‘why.’
      democratic elections
      the crowd chooses
      —Prune Juice #41

      Back to Aidan’s poem, I have no conceptual problem with the difference between an internal wish and one that, in being expressed, becomes external. I wish you well!

      1. Ooops. I hadn’t read the ‘Best of Issue’ page for that latest issue of Presence. Indeed, Ian Storr has made that comment.

        Keith and simonj, this one-liner, below, is mine:

        pitting the figurative against the literal old hat

        (- Lorin Ford. First published ‘Bones’, issue 3, 2022. Also published ‘Skipping Stones – The Red Moon Anthology of E.L. Haiku, 2022 )

      2. “On voting for best in issue, a kukai, a beauty competition or for that matter a politician, the people’s choice may be suspect… But it can be both an indication of the way things are going, and a subject for subsequent research into ‘why.’

        democratic elections
        the crowd chooses
        —Prune Juice #41 ”

        So true! Kudos for both insight and ku.

  2. One of my favorite poems. I wrote commentary on it when in came out when whiptail asked for readers to vote and comment. I seem to have misplaced/lost what I wrote so I am thrilled to read all the comments here. Wonderful, also, to read Aidan’s own words.

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