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re:Virals 62

Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was

     just please how to forgive spring rain
          — Michelle Tennison, Modern Haiku 44.1 (2013)

Scott Mason gets right to the point:

a stream of conscience feeds the pool of absolution

As does Mojde Marvast:

Beautifully drags mind from words to ideas:
spring rain is a wonderful personality in nature.
So abundantly
and so powerful it is in
giving life

To compare forgiving with this rain and the company of just and please is a full moral lesson!!!

Patrick Sweeney finds a personal connection:

I like rain haiku. And I like how one must fight the urge to answer this one and go all Dottie Parker . . . Mushrooms! Pink azaleas! Quince in ancient gardens! Gene Kelly singing and dancing in the (milk added, possibly ‘apocryphal’) rain! . . . And as a Zazen Catholic, I’m a sucker for absolution. Yet the sacrament of penance for a life-giving force, a natural cycle . . . strikes me as strange and interesting . . . the rainy season here in Aomori can get a fella thinking just this very thing. It is easy to forgive John Dillinger’s wooden gun, but not Dillinger. Floods and tsunami are certainly in need of some anthropomorphic forgiveness. It is hard not take a rainy day personally. The great thing about the rain is that we can weep about it and no one will know. That’s close to ‘how’ . . .

And Jacob Salzer finds some possible redemption:

I love how this haiku is speaking directly from an author’s point of view, asking how to forgive someone, or perhaps many people, or even how to forgive her own self, and yet, it also can apply directly to the reader in his/her own way(s).

“just please’ brings a sense of urgency, and that urgency is wonderfully juxtaposed with the sight and sound of spring rain. As I read this, I hear the sound of rain and it’s constant immediacy as a symbol of on-going forgiveness, implying that forgiveness is not a one-time decision, but rather a process that takes time to fully resolve.

The first 5 words also express just how hard it is to forgive yourself or someone (or many people) for something (or many things) he/she/they have done. There is a clear sense of struggle here that seems to be a real experience many of us can relate to.

Also, as a question, this one-line haiku sparks the reader to contemplate the sheer scope of forgiveness: how far can we go? How deep can we dig into our hearts and minds to truly and fully forgive someone? This question really hits the reader hard and reminds us of the most challenging things we face in life.

We also don’t know if the question is directed towards the reader, to a particular person, or perhaps towards a higher power. This leaves room for the reader to contemplate and lets them participate in a very direct way.

From the author’s point of view, we don’t know what she, someone else (or perhaps several people) have done, and this only adds to the intense emotion in the haiku, and simultaneously urges the reader to participate.

The implication of repeated mistakes is also subtly implied here with the sound of repeated raindrops falling, which adds yet another dimension to this monoku. It also provides another question: how many mistakes can a person make, and how many times can we be forgiven?

I think this monoku is really about compassion, and the courage to treat others (and our own self) with compassion no matter what we/they have done. How deep is our compassion? How deep is forgiveness? If someone causes significant damage to you or your family, can you still forgive them and treat them with kindness? Can we serve others and simultaneously respect our own self? Can you forgive yourself for mistakes you have made so you can move on and live a more fulfilling life? The author urges us to find out. And we are no longer alone: the spring rain falls in its own time, no matter what has happened, washing away our pain, cleaning our wounds. A wonderful one-line haiku.

While Garry Eaton brings the weight of the tradition into his considerations:

The poem can be read at least two ways, with or without a pause after “forgive.’

1) Without a pause, this is somewhat of a paradox. A voice out of nowhere makes a strange request, of whom we do not know, to be shown, or told, or inspired with an understanding of how to forgive spring rain. Since spring rain, in the concrete, practical sense, is such a benefit, why would someone blame it or want to forgive it? A little thought about this enigmatic monostich suggested to me that it might be read as playing off of a famous passage from Eliot’s “The Waste Land”:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm,
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Here nature is to blame, figuratively speaking, for enveloping us in change and reminding us periodically of the need for inner renewal by ‘stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.’ Eliot chose to open his epically-titled poem on modern life with lines that clearly allude to the opening lines of Chaucer’s Prologue to “The Canterbury Tales”, the greatest English poem of its period, and in so doing set up a far reaching literary, cultural and historical contrast. The passage in question from Chaucer, in Middle English, is as follows:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye,
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages:
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, etc.

My argument is that Tennison’s haiku is a typically brief version of Eliot’s version of Chaucer, and the question I would pose is, does Tennison’s version, coming a hundred years after Eliot’s, advance the ball in any way?

First, there is the matter of length. Chaucer’s twelve line invocation to spring, written in a robust, lyrical, medieval/religious mode that signals a vast and welcome change in the spiritual weather is reduced in Eliot’s hands to a seven-line parody written in a shocking, blunt, resentful and regretful tone, requesting instead of spiritual renewal, a bleak, moldy, but predictable stasis. In Tennison’s hands in turn, Eliot’s seven lines get shortened even more remarkably to a single line delivered in a tentative, doubtful, polite voice, pleading quietly for the insight that will release her from the habit of blaming spring rain for reawakening the kind of malaise more explicitly modeled by Eliot.

Her brevity is the second way in which, I would say, Tennison makes an advance in her treatment of this theme. By writing

just please how to forgive spring rain

without a question mark at the end, with ‘just please’ at the beginning to give the words their full, reductive weight, Tennison finds a way to return to a purer state of mind than Eliot’s, one which is as detached as possible from Western literary, cultural and historical perspectives and traditions. She cannot achieve complete detachment, short of complete silence, anymore than spring rain can stop requiring our attention when it comes, or when it doesn’t. But in just saying less, and concentrating so much allusion, awareness and paradox into so few words, the poet renews spring rain in a way our compromised, modern literary consciousness can accept, so that for a moment, at least, she has done it.

2) Read with a pause after ‘forgive,’ I see a meditation or a prayer for the personal strength to forgive. After the pause, Tennison shifts to ‘spring rain,’ an appropriate natural event to juxtapose against a plea for forgiveness, both because it offers hope for general renewal and because in Christian tradition spring rain symbolizes divine forgiveness and the ever present possibility of a redeeming, fructifying grace.


As this week’s winner, Garry gets to choose 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. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.

Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!

re:Virals 62:

     old steeple
     a turban of pigeons
     unwinds the hour
          — Beverley A. Tift, First Prize, San Francisco International Haiku and Senryu Contest (2004)
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