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re:Virals 451

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 Lorin Ford, was:

a crow reduced
to its caw
- Ben Oliver
 'Presence', issue 77 - November 2023

Introducing this poem, Lorin writes:

First, I was struck by something I’ve never seen, a “white out” . I was drawn in by the pathos of this crow, one small, black bird, alone, separated from its flock and rendered invisible, somehow bodiless: “reduced to its caw”. What a contrast to last week’s powerful Wedge-tailed eagle. I was impressed by the poem’s excellent spareness and simplicity of presentation.

Opening comment :

I’m sure there have been several haiku on this theme, where fog or night have obscured the ominous corvid save for its caw. And there are several snow-and-crow verses. Here, the ‘whiteout’ setting seems novel and brings some interesting nuances, along with the choice of ‘reduced’. The blackness of the crow is obliterated by (the purity of) whiteness, rather than blending with night. The spoken word ‘caw’ subconsciously associates with ‘core’. For us, what is the ‘core,’ the essence of this bird: its physical presence, or the voice by which we know it? For last week’s wedge-tailed eagle, its physical presence. For this week’s crow, its caw… Indeed, this verse recalled Paul O Williams’ once famous:

gone from the woods
the bird I knew
by song alone

I also thought of the writer’s ‘caw’ in black ink on a sheet of white paper. By their song shall ye know them. So for me, there are several layers in this haiku.

Jenny Macaulay:

When I first read this I puzzled at the first line and wondered why the author didn’t use ‘blackout’, the crow then being totally lost in the dark. But whiteout, usually referring to a snow blizzard, is then totally strengthened, a snow storm so strong that it totally obliterates the crow leaving behind only the sound it makes. By doing this and keeping the reader completely in the ‘white’ the haiku creates a sense of cold, shuddering eeriness. The ‘caw’ becomes prominent making this haiku predominantly about sound, and all this in a wonderfully compact nine syllables.

Adam Graham:

Whiteout; whitewash: to make something terrible acceptable by hiding the truth. The whiteout of our contemporary world, netflix, instagram, amazon, buzz, sparkle, pop, the dazzle of artifice, the spectacle of sport, the pornography of politics, the world burns, but, but, but we can obscure this fact, we can hide the fire with snow, with our digital shadows on the wall, the slight of hand that disfigures, warps, blocks out truth; turn ourselves to puppets, the new smooth, metallic, gadget fingers build and embed our subjectivities into the circuitry of consumption. The great machine paints our eyes over, throws sand, throws snow into the eyes; “snow job”: to deceive, to conceal…yet, out there, always, always, that which we would hide, forget, cancel, reduce, repress, O Death! Our Doom, still looms out there, held off for the present, reduced for now, yet still it screams beyond the blinking screens, the white flakes of fakery that blind us, Death calling out, cawing out. To us. The crows always, always.

Nairithi Konduru aged 9:

This is a very sad haiku because it is about death.
The picture which I saw when l read this haiku was that it was a cold night and there was a snow ❄️❄️❄️❄️ storm going on. A poor crow was on his/her way back home but got caught in the snow ❄️❄️ storm.
And that cold night it died.

Alan Harvey:

As a minimalistic canvas with one sharp sound bite, Ben Oliver’s whiteout / a crow reduced / to its caw achieves its objective. Upon reading it initially, Wallace Stevens’ classic poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird immediately came to mind. Although he wasn’t a haiku poet, Stevens understood haiku as an art form. Many of Stevens’ stanzas are haiku-like.

Oliver’s caw haiku can serve as a substitute for Stevens’ Stanza I: Among twenty snowy mountains, / The only moving thing / Was the eye of the blackbird. In this first stanza, the blackbird is reduced to a view of its eye whereas Oliver’s crow is reduced to the sound of its caw. We “see” the blackbird through its distinctive call.

And Oliver’s crow in a whiteout certainly shares a kinship to Wallace’s stanza XIII: It was evening all afternoon, / It was snowing / And it was going to snow. / The blackbird sat / In the cedar-limbs.

For this reader, Ben Oliver was able to fuse twentieth-century poetry with modern, twenty-first century haiku. Well done, maestro.

Melissa Dennison–erasure to a bleak beauty:

Reading these words I shiver, as this poem reminds me of winter. A whiteout, when the colour drains from the land and all you can see is white snow. It’s the sort of weather that makes me want to curl up by a fire and keep warm.

It feels so cold that even a crow won’t fly, but is hunkered down somewhere trying to keep warm.

This poem has great imagery then, and is multisensory in that there is sight and sound with the crow’s call – its caw. This too has a wintry or cold feel since historically crows have not been welcome visitors to our homes. They have been persecuted, often shot, poisoned and their nests destroyed. It is fair to say that crows have had an icy relationship with humans. They also have the misfortune of being associated with death, due to their scavenging behaviour and presence in cemeteries.

Overall this poem has a bleakness to it. Everything is being erased. Not that this is negative, as it describes a bleak beauty, which perhaps speaks to a deeper truth about the nature of existence.

whiteout the day of the poem

Author Ben Oliver:

I have attached a picture from the day that inspired my poem.

Firstly, my thanks to Lorin, for nominating ’whiteout’ for re:Virals. I workshopped this poem with the Inkstone Poetry Forum, of which Lorin is a member – her comments, and those of other poets in the group, helped strengthen it immeasurably. In particular they advised paring back the language in the phrase (an early iteration had L2-3 as “a crow boiled down / to its caw”) to leave more space for the reader.

Like many of my poems, this poem was inspired by a run. This particular run was on the 10th December 2022 – sadly we don’t get many snow days, so every time we do is an occasion! My regular run takes me up steeply onto the Cotswolds escarpment above Stroud, following the Cotswold Way. On that particular morning I woke to fresh snow and fog, which thickened as I climbed through the dark beech woods past Randwick.

As is my routine I started trying to compose lines for possible poems based on what I could see, feel, hear etc. as I ran along. I’ve done this for years – partially as an exercise to stay in the moment and partially to try and get myself into the rhythm of the run (I am a notoriously slow starter!) Sometimes I’ll get a fully formed poem from it, but mostly they just end up in my journal.

Emerging from Randwick Woods the landscape opens out onto downland, which blanketed in snow and fog was almost entirely devoid of features. My plan had been to go to the Shortwood topograph at the edge of the escarpment, but I suddenly felt quite exposed and alone. Out of place despite having done the run literally hundreds of times previously. I almost turned back, but thankfully there is a small copse of perhaps half a dozen trees that stands alone in the middle of the field; evidently some crows were hunkering down there, as I could hear their calls. Using these I was able to continue to my destination – keeping them to my left on the way out; right on my way back. It was just me and those long disembodied ‘caws’ adrift in the cold white world. I hope that the poem captures something of the experience.

I’d like to thank the re:Virals editor, Keith Evetts, and all who contributed their thoughts.

fireworks image

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

open door
the fly makes
for a window
—Quendryth Young
 The Heron's Nest, Volume XXVI No 1, March 2024

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.


Ben Oliver lives with his family in the Cotswolds, Gloucestershire. As a child he grew up by (and in) the River Thames, where he developed a deep affinity with nature. Having studied Biology, he works at Westonbirt National Arboretum, helping people engage with the majesty of trees. He has been fortunate to have had poems published in many haiku journals, including Frogpond, Heron’s Nest, Modern Haiku, Presence, Kingfisher and Failed Haiku.

Paul O Williams’ classic mentioned above, aside from oozing the spirit of haiku, is notable for being basically in the past tense. One might argue that ‘gone from the woods’ is in the continuous present, but really it is a static state that has been achieved, all the action is in the continuous past. Not the prescribed ‘haiku moment.’

I hope I didn’t miss anyone this week, and apologise for any mistakes — an unexpected five days on iv drips in hospital, during which I was surprised to find out from my wife that Tuesday was not, as I had thought, Wednesday. Home again with a fortunate outcome and some haiku material…
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This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. ‘whiteout’ is itself a nice aha moment here. It somehow denotes a mix surprise and suspense for me. Initially, I interpreted whiteout to be due to fog having just recently witnessed a ‘whiteout’ spring fog at my place. It also reminded me of a dense sea fog I had experienced in the not very distant past. However, I did conclude that in this ku it must have been a snowfall. (We don’t have any snow here in India).

    The way the crow, a black coloured bird, is contrasted with the white bed of snow and then its caw almost merging with the soft sound or silence of the snow made me Marvel at the whole scene painted in the poem. The word ‘reduced’ gives a good impact along with the slant rhyme of crow and caw and the consonance of the t in L1 and the d in reduced.

    I see the picture provided by Ben and I’m right there witnessing it all unfold before me.

  2. A related poem coincidentally appears on page 48 of “wind flow,” a 2008 anthology featured in this week’s THF Digital Library:

    somewhere close
    in the fog
    noisy geese

    The haiku is by Kenneth Elba Carrier of the Boston Haiku Society.

  3. I hope you feel better, Keith. I enjoyed all the wonderful commentary on a great haiku. Happy birthday, all! (Mine was this month, too.)

  4. Many thanks for all your comments. I am humbled by them. It is fascinating to read them and find links that I never dreamt of.

    Thanks Lorin again for nominating my poem and for your generous comments.

    Keith – I do hope you feel better very soon. Thank you for your work on this forum.

  5. “Oliver’s crow in a whiteout certainly shares a kinship to Wallace’s stanza XIII: It was evening all afternoon, / It was snowing / And it was going to snow. / The blackbird sat / In the cedar-limbs.” – Alan Harvey

    Wallace Stevens’ verses in ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ poem has much in common with a set of haiku, though they are not haiku but perhaps inspired by haiku. I’m pretty sure, at least, that he (like Ezra Pound?) was aware of and interested in Japanese poetry. But there is also his poem ‘The Snow Man’, from which:
    “. . .
    the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

    (Probably, that’s my favourite of Wallace Stevens’ poems. It has never failed to draw me in. Especially that final line.)

    But let’s not forget (those of us old enough) the lyrics to a song I was fascinated with before I’d even heard of these poets. The record album (I bought it, wish now I’d kept it) was “Tea for the Tiller Man”. The verses were written and sung by Cat Stevens. A gentle song, but each verse ends with:
    “… everything emptying into white ”

    “It was just me and those long disembodied ‘caws’ adrift in the cold white world. ” – Ben Oliver
    That photo you’ve included is amazing, Ben. Looking at it, I see that “white out” has more in common with “wipe out” than I’d realised.

    Those last two lines, have always swept me away.

    1. whoops: should’ve included the song title:
      “Into White”, a gentle song, a song that could be a lullaby, gently sung, and yet each verse ends with:
      “… everything emptying into white ”

    2. Keith, you do an amazing job. How you did all this with 5 days in hospital on the drip…I can’t imagine. All the best to you anyway.

      1. Thank you Lorin, and Peggy: re:Virals was a welcome distraction, as was taking haiku notes to offset the deadening effects of the ward and painkillers on drip.
        I hadn’t focused on Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man” in recent years since my interest was aroused in haiku, so thank you for that, Lorin. Returning to it now, I could picture Bashō nodding with approval: to understand winter, go to the winter, become winter, efface the poet’s ego, the poetic consciousness; become snow,
        “not to think
        Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
        In the sound of a few leaves” …
        and behold “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

        I could go on about the periodic convulsions over whether haiku is poetry; how the English Language haiku community love to address each other as ‘poets’; the plaints about being ignored by ‘the mainstream poetry establishment’; confliction about whether to exclude English poetics from haiku or go all in; keeping our own publications ‘pure’ rather than mixing haiku in with our longer form poems; and so forth. But I won’t. It’s all part of a continuum. The spirit is the same, the techniques are many and varied.

        And a happy birthday, Lorin. My own any day now.

        1. PS. Of course, when artful Stevens writes:
          ….“not to think
          Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
          In the sound of a few leaves”
          the reader immediately does think of misery and desolation in that stark soundscape.

          1. “. . . the reader immediately does think of misery and desolation. . . ” – Keith

            Not this reader.
            The idea, in my view, is sort of Zenny. I’ve always interpreted it as something like: Thinking of misery and desolation and whatever other associations come to mind is a distraction.

            The Snow Man (a person) has (has achieved?) “a mind of winter”. He regards, listens, beholds, hears, experiences, is aware. He ‘beholds’ what is there but he doesn’t add anything, such as opinions, interpretations, classifications or associations.
            Having a mind of winter, he beholds what is there, doesn’t add anything, doesn’t have an opinion or a sentiment and so can perceive/ experience “the nothing that is”.
            (Best I can do, Keith. I don’t claim to have achieved anything like :a mind of winter’ myself, but this poem takes me to the edge of understanding what that might be like. )

          2. I guess I am just perverse by nature, Lorin. Perversity is a rare technique in poetry… I once began a poem: “They say the castle millpond / is not an evil place” and my calculation was that readers would immediately think “Oh, do they?…then it must be.”

            And you are only just old enough to be the big sister I never had, by the way!

  6. Thank you for your additional commentary Keith, and also sending healing thoughts your way. Ben Oliver’s poem brings many memories to the surface for me. When I was growing up in Colorado I saw many snow whiteouts, but where I live now in the southeast US, a whiteout is most commonly associated with a heavy fog. Due to these sudden and unexpected fog whiteouts there have been many multi-car pileups and not a few deaths. For me crows are a harbinger – they give us warning of dangers ahead. Though we might not see them, they still speak to us even in the midst of their visual absence. Nice poem Ben!

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