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re:Virals 77

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

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

Both our correspondents this week help us to discover some things about humpbacks. Sheila Sondik finds the rhythm between animal and habitat:

Humpback whales displace water equal to their considerable body volume as they move through the ocean. The water seamlessly refills the space they occupied as they move on. This haiku allows the reader to feel the interaction of a whale and the surrounding sea. By extension, we become aware of the air we move through, and the interaction between our bodies and the atmosphere. Through close observation of the beautiful streamlined whale and the ocean pushing back in response, the poet encourages us to see the interconnectedness of every aspect of the natural world.

The very specific pattern of indentation of the lines vividly mimics the feeling of the ocean sloshing in its gigantic basin and the rising and lowering again of the whales as they swim along, a sight I’ve been lucky to see in the Pacific off of Hawaii and California. It is also suggestive of the push-and-pull of whale and ocean.

Bill Kenney adds to this his musings on energy:

Scott’s haiku opens directly, line 1 introducing without embellishment the protagonist of the action about to unfold. In the absence of directive commentary, readers must bring to bear all they know, or can hastily learn, about this beast. The southern humpback migrates some 16,000 miles in an average year. This statistic, combined with the animal’s massive size and elegant, streamlined form, encourages us to see the whale as a force not to be denied in its urgent forward movement.

Our impression is reinforced by line 2. Not only does the line speak of the “miles of ocean” through and over which the whale swims to its destination, but the line itself leaps away from the lefthand margin, as though refusing to be held back by typographical conventions — and, perhaps, by extension, by any rule civilization presumes to impose on natural forces. And, as the reader, am I tempted to see something of myself in this embodiment of brute force (or something of the force in myself), moving relentlessly forward, contemptuous of any obstacles in my determined path?

Obstacles, like the counterforce introduced in line 3. The miles of ocean, which I had imagined yielding before the undeniable power of the whale, embody in themselves a power that challenges the whale’s. The ocean will not yield; it must be conquered. The power of ocean’s resistance is felt in the poem’s turning back on itself that we see in line 3. The line is pushed back toward the lefthand margin from which line 2 departed. Toward, not to, the margin. The poem ends in the midst of the struggle of force and counterforce. That the poem here employs, not merely rhyme but identical rhyme (back / back), further suggests that we are at stalemate.

Not that the heroic stature of the southern humpback is in any way diminished by this stalemate. Rather the force gathered against the whale, the force with which the whale must contend in its annual migrations, only lends a further majesty to the mission. These opponents are worthy of each other.

Three lines, seven words, eleven syllables. Yet the force of this poet’s imagination is strong enough to embrace this cosmic conflict. I feel that the poem Scott has given us can, with only a hint of hyperbole, be described as a haiku epic.


As this week’s winner, Bill 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 77:

     home from the funeral
     I remove clothes from the dryer
     before they wrinkle
          — Carolyn Hall, Modern Haiku 40.3 (2009)
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