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re:Virals 444

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 young Nairithi Konduru, was:

     police siren 
     a squirrel freezes 
     halfway up a pole
     — Bob Lucky 
     Failed Haiku Issue 94, October 2023

Introducing this poem, Nairithi writes:

As the police sound their siren, a squirrel 🐿️ freezes where it is. Did the squirrel get scared? Did the squirrel think the police were going to catch it? Were the police trying to catch a thief when suddenly the thief decided to do the right thing and stop midway in his path? I can’t wait to see what everyone has written for this verse

Opening comment:

Excellent.  Humour is in the haikai roots of present-day haiku and senryu, but  sometimes regarded as in a way inferior to our strivings for poetic emotion, philosophical insight,  or personal catharsis. My taste is for the warm human kind rather than slapstick; though irony also gets a look-in.  To make people smile or laugh is a gift.

Schopenhauer saw the essence of humour in the disharmony between what we know in theory and what we see in actuality. Here the spark across the gap is the unspoken link between human and squirrel that we make, based on the premise that the squirrel is as apprehensive as we are when we hear a police siren, coupled with the fanciful transference to the squirrel of the guilt that (unless we are pure as snow) we feel.  The idea of police after a guilty squirrel is a mismatch that makes us laugh.

I’ve spent hours watching squirrels, particularly during the Wars of the Bird Feeder (Man versus Squirrel) that kept my children laughing at me as teenagers a while back. Our current garden squirrel stares at us and beats his chest after raiding the feeders. They are constantly pausing to check what’s around them. An unusual sound would certainly make a squirrel stop and jerk its head up, wary.

And then there are police sirens…which of us hasn’t felt guilty of transgressing some law, however trivially, and wondered for a chilling moment whether the cops have caught up with us, or who they’re after? This verse reminded me of the seminal radio series, Dragnet, that I used to listen to as a kid in my Sunday bath, until the water went cold. Remember the theme tune, the five-note Danger Ahead? And laconic officer Joe Friday saying brusquely “All we want are the facts, ma’am.

The facts are that Bob Lucky is a deft practitioner of lightness, and the words chosen in this verse are exactly right. “Police siren” gets our attention, just as it would on the highway if we were doing a few miles an hour over the limit. We don’t know what or whom they’re after. “A squirrel freezes” is hilarious in this context: quite unexpected and disjunctive (the fulcrum of laughter). Freeze is the perfect word, hallowed in the crime movies, that ‘makes’ this poem. I hear James Cagney in a porkpie hat, getting out his gat, say “Freeze! You dirty rat!” “Halfway up a pole” the squirrel’s caught in the act, bang to rights. “Drop the nut, buster!”

We identify with the squirrel, sharing with it our own suspect feelings of guilt and trepidation before the Law, that cold feeling of apprehension… which is what elevates this from a cartoon to a haiku. Or do I hear you say: senryu? Footnote.

Pamela Garry:

Is the squirrel freezing in an instinctive attempt to become invisible to the police? Is the squirrel freezing because all his being has been seized by the sudden urgency of the police siren, and s/he doesn’t know which way to respond? Amazing how intensely this little haiku affects me to identify with a squirrel!

Melissa Dennison:

This poem makes me smile since it is humorous. Moreover it reminds me of the cartoons I would watch on a Saturday morning as a kid. I like it, as it has a lightness of touch.

Alan Harvey:

I imagine the poet, Bob Lucky, sitting on his porch for this observational haiku. The nearby siren sounds and startles the poet and a nearby squirrel. It’s easy to hear the siren and see the freeze in this haiku. Two sensory details in these nine words. I was first curious about the squirrel freezing. Don’t they have a “fight or flight” response? Multiple sites say yes, squirrels will freeze to assess the situation before fleeing or fighting. Not really important to the understanding of this haiku, though. So, back to the observation of siren and squirrel. You can almost imagine 17th century Bashō (or 19th century Issa) writing about a sudden sound and a squirrel freezing: taiko pounding a squirrel freezes halfway up a pine. Lucky we have our own master.

Lakshmi Iyer:

Congratulations Nairithi!!

The beauty of an excellent haiku is the presence of a strong image in the very first line that spells, sounds and navigates through our senses. Here, ‘ police sirens ‘ excels in such a way that we can easily connect ourselves to the incidents and experience. Action and Reaction!! Usually, its always the people who are amidst a traffic jam or at the signal. Mind-blowing is the intervention of a squirrel in L 2 a squirrel freezes halfway up a pole that sums up the whole story. Who doesn’t get scared of a police siren whose intensity increases as it approaches closer and closer and yes, ‘freezes’ is the right word. Well, I too get stuck and remain silent. Our eyes travel with the sound. I’m wondering about the reactions of the squirrel; either it must have really frozen or found a place to hide until the vehicle moved speedily away. Beautiful and very clever way of highlighting the episode with a squirrel who is always fidgeting and restless and a mere police siren takes its actions away. Thank you!!

Dan Campbell—the cosmic joke we call existence:

I enjoy reading your commentaries each week Nairithi, thank you. It was a pleasure to read this poem because most of my experiences with squirrels are unpleasant. These rats with bushy tails have caused me to almost crash a zillion times on the bike trail, so I was happy to read about a stressed out squirrel. This poem describes the freaked out nanosecond of an urban creature caught in the chaotic drama of modern life. At first glance, one might ponder the existential crisis of a squirrel caught between the terrestrial and arboreal realms, frozen like a statue in the face of impending law enforcement. Instead of “To be or not to be,” I can hear the squirrel whispering “To flee or not to flee.” Even rodents have their Shakespearean moments. The dramatic timing of the squirrel’s freeze, perfectly “halfway up a pole,” adds a Macbethian element to the proceedings. One can almost hear Lady Macbeth singing as the squirrel contemplates its next move and how to avoid getting arrested for illegal nut hoarding. In conclusion, this poem is an example of the madness of urban life and a reminder that other city creatures also experience moments of sheer terror. So the next time you hear a siren wail, say a prayer for the squirrel frozen halfway up a pole, and perhaps chuckle over the cosmic joke we call existence.

Author Bob Lucky:

I’m not sure where I ‘saw’ this scene, but probably not here in Portugal, where there are very few squirrels. When I read this haiku now, I do have a memory of sitting in some city plaza and noticing that whenever a siren wailed by, police or ambulance or fire engine, time seemed to freeze for a split second. To write that would have been too abstract, so I settled on the squirrel, hoping to convey the sense of ‘even the squirrel’ froze. I did toy with using the verb ‘pauses’, but ‘freezes’ is a bit stronger. And, perhaps there is some humor there for readers who think squirrels are always up to something and are just waiting for the police to drive away.

fireworks image

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

     empty bird’s nest the span of a pianist’s hand
     — Richard Tindall
       The Heron's Nest Volume XXIV, Number 4, December 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.


Bob Lucky is the author most recently of My Thology: Not Always True But Always Truth (Cyberwit, 2019) and the chapbook Conversation Starters in a Language No One Speaks (SurVision Books, 2018), which was a winner of the James Tate Poetry Prize that year. His chapbook of haibun, tanka prose, and prose poems, Ethiopian Time (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014), won an honorable mention in the Touchstone Book Awards. Bob currently splits his time between Saudi Arabia, where he teaches and plays in a ukulele band, and Portugal, where he is working his way through all the regional cheeses and wines. There’s an earlier (2015) interview with Bob here following Ethiopian Time’s publication.

Host comment: ripe queijo de Serra (da Estrela) and queijo de Azeitão are world-class cheeses if you can get hold of them outside Portugal. See also ’10 Portuguese cheeses you have to try before you die’

Humour in haiku: thanks to Lakshmi Iyer (a very close contender this week) for flagging up in the Triveni online group this piece by Susumu Takiguchi, of which there are several versions, the most developed I think being on the New Zealand Poetry Society website: The Importance of a Sense of Humour in Haiku. It first appeared as the editorial in World Haiku Review 2010, no 1.

In the nature of haiku….
It’s a while since the question arose in this column as to what is a senryu and what is a haiku, and how to distinguish between them, as if that is important. As our urban lives extend further into our environment, and as haiku absorb all aspects of our lives, there is an increasing overlap. Personally, I don’t think there is much to be gained by academic triage. There are verses that are wholly comprised of ‘nature’ images without any human presence, even the poet’s implied presence, which are clearly ‘haiku’ (if they embrace other desiderata). There are verses that are wholly to do with humans — as if humans are not part of nature — and the environment humans have constructed from artifice with concrete, steel, bricks and tarmac.  As if that is different from mud and moss plastered over a nest.  They seem to be  ‘senryu’, especially if comically humorous or ironic, although haiku can also have humour —of the warm empathetic kind (e.g. Issa’s radish picker). But then there is this substantial hybrid  area of humans in nature, and even, as in this week’s poem, nature among humans. I listened recently to a most distinguished, thoughtful and eloquent haikuist being cornered in interview on whether and how we might distinguish between haiku and senryu of this type,  politely reluctant to be pinned down. The  transcript at one point read:
“…nature so to speak
either as nature and and and us or um…
absolutely um…”

And I couldn’t agree more.
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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Susumi T. again from Sandra Simpson’s haiku pages of the NZPS:

    ” . . . Even after senryu came into being, hokku and haiku retained humour. It is therefore a gross over-simplification and harmful to say senryu is all about humour and haiku is serious. When people talk about senryu they are really talking about a specific sub-division of senryu called jiji-senryu, or current-topic-senryu, which is full of humour, satire, irony, cynicism, banter, witticism etc. The current artificial dichotomy between haiku and senryu is a product of wide-spread pigeonholing by the analysis-crazy, definition-mad and classification-orientated zealots. They have done more harm than good. Senryu was in fact despised and largely dismissed in the West to the same and corresponding extent to which haiku was worshipped and put on a pedestal. It was common to hear someone criticising a haiku by saying, ‘That’s not haiku. It’s senryu’. Some even made a serious proposition that senryu should be abolished or banned. . . . ”

    That’s just an extract. The whole piece is well worth reading:
    ‘Some Thoughts on Senryu’

    1. Thanks for the link, Lorin: stirring stuff from Sandra Simpson; Susumu Takiguchi as pentrating as always. Good company on the road, I think.

      I hope senryu doesn’t lose humour altogether in striving to address popular social topics that are highly emotive.

  2. Thank you all for writing commentaries for the haiku I chose. All the commentaries were very interesting and I enjoyed reading them.
    Thank you for your wishes, Lakshmi.
    Thank you for your compliments, Dan.
    Thank you, Keith.

  3. Author Bob Lucky: “. . . perhaps there is some humor there for readers who think squirrels are always up to something and are just waiting for the police to drive away.”
    I’ve only seen squirrels in films or on TV, but I easily can substitute “possum” in the squirrel’s place. (There’s no doubt that possums are always up to something, and they’re nocturnal.) Of course this haiku is funny because of the word ‘freezes’. ‘Freeze’ has been used by the police or detectives in so many American TV police dramas and films, and before that, Sheriffs and cowboys called out ‘Freeze! . Apparently (I just now found this) they still call out “Freeze’ in America:
    “The History of ‘Freeze’ in Police Training and Culture: A Look Back” –
    I’ve always liked Bob Lucky’s gentle humour. This is a favourite (but there are many others)

    waiting for death I miss the bus (A Hundred Gourds 5.2, March 2016)

    I agree that Susumi T’s ‘The Importance of a Sense of Humour in Haiku’ is essential reading.

    1. Thank you Lorin.

      Yes, ‘freezes’ is the key word that lends this verse depth as well as fingering the perpetrator!

      Settling in at uni in Perth WA one of my sons found his air-conditioning didn’t function. The corpse of a possum was found in the works: cue the Dragnet theme. (Closest I ever got to Oz was listening in the bath to The Flying Doctor)

      My dear wife was bitten on the thumb by an ungrateful squirrel in the riverside garden,Richmond when she failed to offer a peanut.

      But, like pirates and highwaymen they have their appeal, cute bushy tails and all.

  4. Thanks, Keith, for finding something in my comment, which I started to just post here. Then, not being sure it wouldn’t cause controversy by being out of bounds for the column, I sent it directly. Thanks again.

    1. Nothing is out of bounds if expressed so civilly, whether comment or question. Thanks for your contribution, Nancy.

  5. Nancy Brady comments via the comment submission form:
    “On the above comment “in the nature of haiku…” I have often seen comments here arguing whether a particular poem is a haiku or a senryu. As if it really matters, as if as poets we are having our own moment of “to be a haiku or not to be a haiku” (or in the reverse “to be a senryu or not to be a senryu”), and I suppose it only matters if one is an editor of a journal that ONLY accepts one or the other.

    I must admit that after all this time, I don’t always know which is which especially when there is some nature mixed in human nature (and aren’t humans as much a part of nature as frogs and snails?) even with my own writing of haiku.

    In fact, after reading one post-virals (heated) discussion of haiku vs. senryu, I wrote the following:
    coin toss…
    wondering if it’s
    a haiku or senryu
    ~Nancy Brady, 2023,
    Failed Haiku March 2023 #87
    I guess Mike Rehling, who posts on his site that he admits he’s never quite sure exactly what a senryu is, and the other editors there decided it fit within their parameters.

    The reality is that a poem that sparks thoughtful contemplation and conversation may not need to be dissected like a frog quite so thoroughly to discover if at its heart is a haiku or senryu.

    I learn so much by reading re:Virals each week, but after all this time, I still wonder why the kind of poem it is matters.”

    I’m with you there, Nancy, as you see in that Footnote! The pigeon is more interesting than the pigeonhole… As a biologist by formation I see humankind as just another species, and a job in international affairs was an opportunity to study the world’s most dangerous species in its natural environment.

    I think it matters to people who feel more comfortable with things if they are defined, which is fair enough. Perhaps they will comment.

    The Zhuangzhi: “If there were not the views of another, I should not have mine….Are there not the two views, that and this? They have not found their point of correspondency which is called the pivot of the Dao…Disputation is a proof of not seeing clearly…. Great indeed is the disorder produced in the world by the love of knowledge.”


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