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re:Virals 76

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

     scratches where driftwood dragged the coldest month
          — Jim Kacian, A Hundred Gourds 1.1 (2011)

Lorin Ford has this to say about her own selection:

Time after time, this haiku most immediately impresses itself on me with its sheer physicality: bodily sensations of the sharpness of those scratches, followed by weight and icy cold. On the technical, wordsmithing level these bodily sensations are partly evoked and certainly enhanced by sound, notably the play of assonance between the paired vowels of ‘scratches/ dragged’ and ‘coldest/month’ and alliteration of the first two sounds in ‘driftwood dragged’. Sound enacts meaning here. For instance, how short and sharp is the a sound in ‘scratches’ compared with its partner in ‘dragged’, which is dragged out by the following hard g sound.

Then the visual sense kicks in: nothing is moving (the verb is in past tense,) all is still, frozen in place and time. The driftwood, for me, is still there in the vicinity of a frozen lake, and its shadow is as black as its drag marks, as in a photograph, a black and white photograph, sharply focused. A photograph, it springs to mind, that might’ve been taken by Ansel Adams.

Hang on, some readers might be thinking, isn’t a sharply focused photograph realistic, an example of realism? And this haiku by the author of the essay, ‘Realism is Dead’? Consider Adams’ photographs again.

According to Robert Turnage in an essay first published in The Living Wilderness, Ansell Adams

“. . . dislikes the term ‘nature photographer’, but he seems even more dismayed by a popular misconception that photography like his, which invokes readily identifiable subjects, is ‘realistic’. He is not concerned, he says, with the mere recording of reality — what he calls ‘the external event’ — but is intent on conveying the emotional content of a scene, the ‘internal event.’ . . .”

Art, whether great photography or poetry, is not “the mere recording of reality”, and I suggest that physical, bodily response such as I experience when reading this haiku might even precede, as “internal event”, emotional content These sensations set the mood of Jim’s haiku.

This haiku has to be in one-line form. The form supports the horizontal nature of the visual scene, helping to foreground the evidence of slow effort, even struggle, of that driftwood being dragged (or dragging itself?) across ice or frozen snow.

At “dragged” we’re only halfway through reading this haiku. That the driftwood may have dragged itself suggests an uncannily animate world in which the coldest month, too, has been dragged onto the beach by the driftwood. Do we read a cut after “dragged”, where common sense would advise, or do we not?

It’s impossible to choose. Both readings must be held in mind. There’s no escaping the sense that the workings of a mysterious, animate world lie inherent in this haiku. How easily we say “things as they are”, when all we can know is things as we perceive them.


As this week’s winner, Lorin selects the next 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 76:

     southern humpback—
                  miles of ocean
           pushing back
          — Scott Terrill, A Hundred Gourds 1.2 (2012)
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