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re:Virals 455

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 Amoolya Kamalnath, was:

     
deep night window light lonelier than moonlight
John Zheng
Failed Haiku #99, April 2024

Introducing this poem, Amoolya writes:

There’s rhyme and repetition — the first things one will notice in this sweet sounding, poignant, lyrical and endearing one-liner. Purists might call it a ‘rule-breaker’ – night/light/moonlight – with almost three end-rhymes – within 7 words in a single line.

To me, the fact that this is any window light and not only a specific window light like in a hospice (which is quite common in our haiku poems) was intriguing, at first. Is moonlight lonely? Aren’t there so many stars out there in the same sky? The moon is closer to us than all the million stars out there. However, subtle personification has been employed in implying that moonlight is lonely and the window light is even more so.

Here it is deep in the night, late night, when it should be dark everywhere with only that one moonlight shining through. Everyone should be asleep, we expect. But what is this one light shining by the window? Why is this one turned on? We don’t know where this window is, comfortable independent home, apartment, a cottage in the woods, a room in the topmost floor in a high-rise, a hospital, an ICU, a hospice…. Is everything alright? Is someone sick? Has someone been abandoned? Is this why the person is lonely and hence sad? What are they doing? Catharsis by writing, shedding tears, praying, thinking?

I was curious as to how readers experience it, not only the form and meaning but also the structure and the quite prominent rhyme and repetition, and lastly the subtle personification of light being lonely.

Opening comment:

In this delightful, mellifluous haiku, the thing that is not stated in what appears superficially to be a statement is the human presence. That presence is suggested for the reader to divine, in the words “window light.” It is the human presence that determines the loneliness: the light of the moon is not of itself lonely, but the artificial or candle-lighted window indicates a room with a person in it that is lonely, and/or a solitary unseen person outside, the poet as watcher in the night, viewing the lighted window from outside.

The moon and moonlight are often taken by default as a seasonal reference to autumn, but here modified by “deep night” and “lonelier” I see a winter scene. Perhaps I’m influenced by an image processed from a local artist, whose name I cannot now recall, that I post below.

Critics of English Language haiku might see the text as essentially an aphoristic statement. I’d counter that they may be missing the space delicately left in it for intuition and insight. And also, that in this light it is worth looking again at many examples of the great masters, and a great mistress, of the genre. This particular verse reminded me of Chiyo-ni’s equally ‘authorial’:

何となき物のいさみやほととぎす
nan to naki mono no isami ya hototogisu

loneliness
lies within the listener—
a cuckoo’s call
—Chiyo-ni
Tr. Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi

Use of rhyme might also prompt criticism from ELH rulemakers. More on that in the footnote. Meanwhile, I am glad that Amoolya, unprompted, put John Zheng’s verse forward for discussion. When I first saw it published, it went straight into my file of favourites.

Jennifer Gurney:

Gorgeous poem! I love the imagery of “deep night” with all the mystery and inky blackness implied. Deep night is for the nocturnals of the world: insomniacs, the lonely hearted, swing-shift workers, poets and owls.

The framed image of window light is lovely and slightly haunting. My mind goes immediately to moonlight and starlight, since it’s night. But it could also be a streetlight framed by the window.

The final phrase, “lonelier than moonlight,” is so evocative. Makes me think that the person inside, awake at the deep of night, is feeling loneliness full-on. And that their loneliness is deeper than the hollow pull of moonlight. I can relate to those sentiments. But so, too, could someone working a night shift at, say 7-11, and looking up at the night sky while on break. Or an owl. Night truly does make the sentiments feel more intensified.

But that doesn’t need to be a bad thing. Poets, who notice everything, can be moved to write by feeling this pull. Philosophers to ponder. Artists to create. And owls to owl.

Simply love this poem.

Jerome Berglund:

Such a lyrical, poignant poem, which all but begs to be recited, spoken softly aloud and given voice to. The rich verbiage, alliteration and deft assonance elevate thoughtful contents and make a compelling argument for the potency of senryu to communicate pathos, and while not requiring a kigo the idea of depth of evening firmly situates the poem (as does the moon alluded to) figuratively or literally in the dead of winter, when life and illumination is at its scarcest, becomes most precious. A work which invokes the alienation and emptiness of our dystopian times, both in terms of actual isolating (highly corona era relevant surely) and strikingly descriptive of western culture’s distinctive moral bankruptcy. Besides the heaping measures of sabi, there is an impressive quantity of yûgen and ma to be discerned in this sleek, eloquent example of the monostich tradition. Is the subject, narrator within regarding the intrusion of alien rays of artificial city ambience (what color temperature, the sickly yellow of incandescents, the grotesque flickering green of fluorescents, the lifeless blankness of newfangled LED?) or glancing upwards from without upon the street, perhaps with mixed emotions at places exuding energy and warmth beyond our reach, unable to enter. I am reminded of Kafka’s seminal surreal existential treatise the Castle. Truly a memorable piece which stays with the reader like a Rubik’s cube in our pocket, brings no end to the intrigue puzzling it out edifyingly delivers a captivated scholar!

Lakshman Bulusu:

This haiku brings to the forefront a moonlit night that is silent. Metaphorically, to me it means the sfumato of dreams that everyone is enjoying immersed in deep sleep. So much so that no one is noticing the near by light from a window that is coming from a street lamp near it or a light near a window of a bedroom. The moonlight though lonely is not really lonely due to the lovely dreams and engages everyone as ’light’ of their dreams.

The same enjoyment is carried in another manner when people are enjoying the moonlight outside of a home with smiling faces as part of a night festival or night pageantry. Again no one is noticing the light from a lamp near a window sill.

The words ‘deep night’ and repetition of ‘light’ add a distinct dimension to it that diffuses the loneliness in a way.

Dan Campbell:

I read Zheng’s poem several times because it verbalizes something i have felt or sensed but never have taken the time to think about and his poem made me want to put some thought into this.

My definition of window light is light from streetlights or lights from nearby empty buildings. This is a common scene as i look out from my window at night. Why would window light evoke feelings of loneliness? Some reasons could be:

Loss of Natural Rhythms: Moonlight is part of natural circadian rhythms, while window light can disrupt these rhythms, potentially leading to feelings of unease or loneliness.

Cultural Associations: Moonlight is often associated with romance and tranquility, while window light is linked to urban environments and isolation.

Lack of Connection: The moonlight is a shared natural experience, while window light can feel isolating and individual.

Loss of Mystery: Moonlight has a mysterious, almost magical quality, whereas window light is predictable and mundane, diminishing a sense of wonder.

Lack of Celestial Connection: The moon connects us to the cosmos and a larger universe, while window light is a reminder of human limitations and confinement.

John’s poem made me think of the artist Edward Hopper who masterfully used light to convey loneliness, isolation, and alienation in his works. His paintings, like “Nighthawks,” often depict solitary figures bathed in harsh, artificial light, emphasizing their separation from the outside world. Hopper’s use of light and shadow creates a poignant sense of isolation and emotional distance. Other authors, poets and artists have also used artificial light in their works to express similar themes.

Curt Linderman:

The imagery & feelings presented in this poem are so starkly captured that it doesn’t matter if we are the one in the window or one looking at the window from the outside. They hit either way. The separation of words in “window light” as opposed to “moonlight” also lend an additional layer of meaning and a nice sense of “ma”. We find ourselves caught in this hollow moment and I, in particular, am drawn to take pause and involuntarily hug myself.

This monoku is a delight to both read silently as well out loud. Thank you, John, for taking what some may consider to be a risk in utilizing poetic elements such as alliteration and interior rhyme. They are absolutely at home here. (For anyone seeking more information & encouragement in this area, please see Alex Fyffe’s wonderful series on Literary Devices from the late August, 2022 editions of Haiku Dialogue.)

Lakshmi Iyer:

John has very succinctly used the words cutting it off from all the basic parameters of haiku. Though the whole picture evolves around the night time, I strongly feel the narrator has had a discomfort in the past and is left with just loneliness to face. Sometimes we feel we have everyone and everything around us, but no one so near and dear to hold our fear, loss, loneliness.

The weight of ‘deep night’ makes us aware of the tough time the narrator had, maybe a deep autumn night! And still to highlight, he has a window from where he had hopes of light from the moon and ultimately he realised “what an irony to ask help from a person lonelier than him.” Growing old is the toughest time and more so even when we have to face the challenges all alone.

This haiku is so hard and striking that it reminds me of my mother who stayed alone for ten years and had a fall recently with no emergency help and later, when it dawned, she was helpless! Though the rescue was done immediately and I rushed there, I still feel guilty that we could have given her some hope of geriatric care when she was good and in the best of health. Let’s care for each other and take care of ourselves because Health is Wealth!

Ashoka Weerakkody:

An unbroken beam of attenuated light hits the reflective window pane in the “deep night” as the moon, in diurnal motion, aligns with it casting a brief spell of “loneliness” that would pass pretty soon. Yet not before the haiku iris opens and closes in a fragment of its own time frame.
This long array of words looks like some sort of a failed haiku that seems abandoned by its creator without putting it into some basic format. Nevertheless it leaves its mark with a deep-felt sense of mesmerising emptiness that prevails within the body and soul of this John Zheng poem. He may not be seeing the fragment and image in which conventionalists would like to put it, within a three line setting such as:
“deep night
window light lonelier
than moonlight”
…but even then one wouldn’t catch up with a 17 syllable standard. It could have suggested that the author wrote an orthodox haiku and then dismantled and queued up its words for the finder to put the puzzle together. The literary licence being an author’s freedom.

The piece stands upright providing the reader with the unwelcome companionship of “loneliness” that Zheng is trying to discover from within the darkness of a “deep night.” But can the faded, lazy and cold touch of moonlight reflecting momentarily from a glazed window-pane be seen and felt as a measure of loneliness? Indeed it could, if and only if, one would not try to draw a parallel with moonlight. It too could have been fine but as the author begins by saying “deep night”, the “loneliness” becomes only a mood within the mind of the being, a ghostly feeling perhaps. For we all know, having seen the phenomenon ourselves, that the deeper the night the brighter the moon and the stars, and in here the moonlight and its reflection might be, too. Loneliness is factually a companion of man and a deep night becomes that loneliness within a soul who would feel the sense of sadness. But somehow, something has to be blamed, for man needs himself to be blameless. The great injustice of being borne into an unfair, unjust world where all the laments hidden deep in our minds, perhaps from birth, need the nights, fading moonlight and sometimes a dew-dripping tearful window glass, to be put together in a long string like the present poem by this extraordinary poet, to allay all those hidden human sorrows

Melissa Dennison — moonlight does not exist behind barriers:

This poem is interesting to me. I particularly like the use of repetition and rhyme: night, window light and moon light. There is so much to unpack in just a few syllables too. The poem is quite intriguing and I find myself asking questions. For instance why is window light lonelier than moonlight?

When I think about this I immediately think of winter, as that is when I experience deepest or blackest night and from early in the afternoon, living in the northern hemisphere. Living in a city I am familiar with the sense of loneliness or separateness that we can feel shut away safe behind four walls. These could also be metaphorical walls, those we put up between ourselves and others.

On a dark night, sitting in artificial or window light we can look out and see lots of other window lights through the darkness. All these strangers that we might never know. Being curious we might wonder who are the people living behind those walls? What are their lives like? We wish to connect but for many reasons we don’t.

This poem might also refer to someone on the outside, in the dark, looking in. On a cold winter night window light looks warm and welcoming, but of course these are not our homes, we are not welcome. We cannot enter.

Finally, moonlight is everywhere, it is not an outsider or excluded, it shines on all of us. Moonlight does not exist behind barriers or walls. Perhaps that is why window light is lonelier than moonlight?

This poem speaks to me of dark nights in winter, and of isolation, maybe even alienation.

Author John Zheng:

The haiku has a conspicuous rhyme of “i.” If this one-liner switches into three lines–“deep night / window light lonelier / than moonlight”–the end rhyme of “i” in lines 1 and 3 may sound a bit monotonous, but arranged in one line, the poem becomes enlivened with assonance (“o” and “i”) and alliteration (“l”). Also, the long vowels intended in almost every word make the linear rhythm flow smoothly with a gentle variance pleasing to the ear. There’s a contrast between window light and moonlight, or human nature and nature. But, “lonelier” doesn’t want to convey a sentimental mood but suggests alone time in reading or writing while the moon always has the light from the sun and is by the Earth’s side.

However, poetry is open to interpretation. Any approach is possible.


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:

     
forever
             searching
                              for
                                     beginnings
                                                         Scotch
                                                                     tape
 
—Ingrid Baluchi
 Prune Juice Issue 41, December 2023
Note: If viewing this on a mobile you may need to hold it in landscape orientation to get the poem to display correctly.

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.


Footnote:

John Zheng is professor of English at Mississippi Valley State University and editor of African American Haiku: Cultural Visions; The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku; and a series of Conversations with literary figures, all published by University Press of Mississippi. Also the author of A Way of Looking, a collection of haibun and tanka prose winning the Gerald Cable Book Award. His forthcoming book in 2024 is Conversations with Lenard D. Moore from the University Press of Mississippi.

There is a fairly extensive interview of him in The Greenwood Commonwealth, August 2022.

——

A few observations on rhyme in haiku:

Japanese Haiku – Its Essential Nature and History: Yasuda 1957
“As to the propriety of using rhyme in translation when in the original Japanese, without exception, rhyme, as understood in English, does not exist, it would seem to me that the translated haiku must stand or fall on their merits as poems in English. As poems in English, they utilize all the poetic resources of the language, of which rhyme is one of the greatest.”

Yasuda made a fine case for rhythm and rhyme in English haiku, but (for me) failed to convince with his translations of Japanese masters into rhyming verses. His influence was considerable. Over the next decades, anglophone poets began to experiment with applying assorted English poetics as they grappled with haiku. And as late as 1974, Dorothy Britton (Lady Bouchier), in translating Bashō’s “The Narrow Road to the Far North” and selected hokku into English, many of which verses she set with end-rhyme, commented: “Rhyme is a device unsuited to the Japanese language, but in English it helps to suggest the formal elegance achieved in the original by those elements impossible to translate, which the poet James Kirkup so aptly calls the subtle play of sound and meaning.”

Perhaps the over-zealous use of rhyme in haiku translations, even if intended to make them more approachable to readers of anglophone poetry, caused such a reaction against it. At the same time, rhyme was falling out of fashion in mainstream poetry, except for the likes of the New Formalists. Poetry was becoming more free-verse, more prosaic, less musical (and I think ceding ground in popularity to the better songwriters). Not for the first time. For John Milton — who rhymed all the time as a young poet but got crotchety about it when older — rhyme was for “vulgar Readers”: “Rhime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, …. but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac’t indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to their own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them.” He was, of course, preparing readers for 10,565 lines in iambic pentameter of Paradise Lost which thanks be to God are unrhymed.

I am a ‘vulgar reader’ in a barbarous age. Much of my all-time favourite poetry rhymes and I suspect your best loved poems do too.

Now for some questions and more positive comments:

On the assertion that the limited number of sounds in Japanese make the Japanese ‘oblivious’ to rhyme, I note that among the several forms of ancient Chinese poetry that were avidly taken up by Japanese kanshi poets were lüshi and jueju, which had strict rhyming rules. Lüshi forms are rhymed on the even lines, with one rhyme being used throughout the poem. Makoto Ueda notes that (even) Shiki attempted to use rhyme in some of his 38 shi. Then there is Bashō, with his close attention to the sound of haiku “a thousand times on the lips.” So I think it legitimate for a cheeky anglophone to question that rhyme is irrelevant in Japanese haiku and is therefore to be avoided in English haiku too, especially when one reads out loud the romaji of verses such as:

samukaro
kayukaro
hito ni aitakaro
You must be cold, you must be itching and you must be wanting to see other human beings
—Shiki

misoka tsuki nashi
chitose no sugi o
daku arashi
Last night of the month, no moon… a thousand-year-old cedar caught in the storm
—Bashō

yuku ware ni
todomaru nare ni
aki futatsu
I go, you stay: two autumns
—Shiki

These seem to me to reflect a conscious choice of end-rhyme by the poets, and, in the Bashō, internal rhyme in the center line as well; not a mere coincidence of endings. They are a delight to roll round the tongue; “a thousand times on the lips.”

Susumu Takiguchi: “Rhyming in haiku is neither as prominent nor as important as in English poems. Its abuse could even make a haiku gimmicky and artificial but used well it can help create a sophisticated and dramatic haiku.” He subsequently tries to distinguish between “rhyme” and “refrain.” See the dictionary definitions at the end of this note.

Harold Stewart, A Net of Firelies (1960): “The use of rhyme in haiku is not that far wrong when one understands that in Japanese, due to the constructive use of the vowels in the language, one has a one-in-six chance that any two lines will rhyme. Thus, the Japanese haiku often have not only a line-end rhyme but often one or more internal rhymes. And the writers used this ability to strengthen their poems.

George Swede’s dissertation: “Rhyme is a device which, if not used carefully, will draw too much attention to itself and, consequently, undermine the experience of a haiku’s meaningful moment. However, when employed economically and skilfully, rhyme can sometimes enhance the experience.”

Jim Wilson: “It is often said that haiku is a form of poetry that is ‘unrhymed’. But I don’t think that is quite accurate. Rhyme is used, as we see, by Basho in his haiku. What is fair to say is that rhyme is not a formal requirement of Japanese haiku.”

I think that if not over-used, and especially if not forced, rhyme has its place in English haiku and lends euphony, rhythm, assonance; it can add elegance and also be used subtly to tie elements of a verse together across lines. It is part of the toolkit: more so than in Japanese, but: “The English language poet is not responsible for reproducing the style or manner of a Japanese haiku. The poet is responsible for writing a haiku that stands on its own as a poem in English.” (Clark Strand in ‘A Year of Haiku’).

As with any other technique or poetic, I think that a rhyme, if deployed, should be worth its weight, should add something to a haiku, which would be diminished if it were taken out. And it should be as plain and simple, as economical, as can be. As is the case with John Zheng’s one-line poem this week, with its sweetness, elegance and rhythmic musicality complementing the beauty and poignance of human loneliness.

While not as far-fetched as arguing, as Yasuda did, that haiku in English often should make use of rhyme, I think it is also misguided to insist that they must not be rhymed. Here are some contemporary examples, for your own conclusions:

into our bones
the heat of the day . . .
cicadas drone
—Peggy Willis Lyles

lost kite
rising in the cloudless sky
a child’s cry
—Peggy Willis Lyles

morning dew
my old shoes
shine like new
—Zoran Doderović, European Kukai 2022, second place

spring sunrise
a little bit of dew
gets in the eyes
—yours truly, Asahi Haikuist, Asahi Shimbun, 17 June 2022

blossoms that held bees
now leave with the gentle breeze
from butterfly wings.
—James W. Hackett

dragonfly —
the friend who went
without a goodbye
— Neena Singh, tsuri-doro issue 9, May-June 2022 & Red Moon Anthology ‘skipping stones’ February 2023

the old priest dines
his wine
just wine
—David Lanoue, Modern Haiku 30.1 (Winter-Spring 1999)

truth decay
nobody really cared
about it anyway
—Jay Friedenberg, Failed Haiku #87 March 2023

the lengthening shade
of the yew colonnade
autumn wind
—yours truly, Poetry Pea Journal 2:23, 2023

pear petals on the wind the song sparrows also sing
—Marcie Wessels, Wales Haiku Journal Spring 2024

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Scott Metz
ea’s e, Red Moon Press, Winchester, VA: 2022

Very much open to discussion.

What’s in a name? A few definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary:

rhyme:
Correspondence of sound between the endings of two or more words or metrical lines such that the syllables involved carry identical vowel sounds and have (if present) identical final consonants.
Rhyme, strictly speaking, is regarded as extending to the last stressed vowel and any sounds following it, whether within one word or more than one, in patterns such as female, feminine, male, masculine, rich, tailed rhyme, etc.; however, use of the word frequently includes various kinds of partial correspondence, as eye-, near-, off-, slant-rhyme, etc.: for these terms see the first element.
The term is sometimes extended to include assonance and even alliteration (initial or head rhyme).

refrain:
An utterance, phrase, or theme that is often repeated.
A repeated line or number of lines in a poem or song, typically at the end of each verse.

assonance:
Resemblance or correspondence of sound between two words or syllables. Prosody The correspondence or rhyming of one word with another in the accented vowel and those which follow, but not in the consonants.
In extended use: a half-rhyme; the correspondence or rhyming of one word with another in the final (sometimes also the initial) consonant, but not in the vowel. Also applied by philologists, in studying rhyming pairs of words (i.e. with identical vowel), to final consonants of such similarity of articulation as to be acceptable, with poetic licence, in a rhyming position.

consonance:
Correspondence of sounds in words or syllables; recurrence of the same or like sounds, e.g. in a verse.
Agreement of sounds; pleasing combination of sounds.

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Dear Keith, thank you so much for coordinating this interesting discussion of my humble piece and for your comment.
    Dear Amoolya, thank you so much for choosing my piece for discussion and for your comment as well.
    Dear every haiku poet, your comments were delightful to read, like cool wind.
    I am grateful to each of you!
    John

  2. deep night window light lonelier than moonlight
    John Zheng
    Failed Haiku #99, April 2024

    This one comes across to me as a chant. Actually (it has just now come to me) a particular type of chant: a canticle. Many years ago, sometime in the ’60s when I was into SF, I read the novel: ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’., which I’ve now googled to be sure: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Canticle_for_Leibowitz

    (But I don’t mean to imply that this haiku has anything to do with SF. That’s just where ‘chant’ then ‘canticle’ lead me)

    The rhythm of John Zheng’s verse is of the kind that leads to repetition, to a chant, to a canticle. (I can almost smell the incense. Fiat Lux = “Let there be light…”. (see Genesis 1.3, King James Bible)

    Moonlight shines on all. But to the watcher, awake on a dark night, the light from one isolated and distant window evokes a sense of loneliness.

  3. Karen Harvey comments via the submission form:

    “I immediately found myself standing outdoors, unable to sleep on a still night, observing a lit up window which brings to mind other lives, a family perhaps, within the home. This accentuates the feeling of aloneness that insomniacs often feel in the middle of the night.

    I like Dan Campbell’s reference to Hopper’s paintings ‘Nighthawks,’ which creates the feeling of being on the outside looking in, and stirs the feeling of loneliness.

    I don’t mind the use of rhyme in this monoku, as it doesn’t feel contrived. I thought each rhyming word created a natural pause, something like a line break for me but I wouldn’t have enjoyed reading it as a three liner.

    Thank you for highlighting Ingrid Baluchi’s haiku.”

  4. Mea culpa for a typo in my comment …”saying-shift” should read “swing shift.” So sorry! –Jen

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