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re:Virals 87

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

     final rays . . .
     still reason
     to hum
          — Marion Clarke, Haiku Master (NHK, 2016)

Modje Marvast tells a tale:

The last rays of sun keep stretching forward to reach the earth, finally the earth turns its face back, not to leave but to live.

This beautiful haiku reminded me of my friend’s sorrowful experience of her 5-year-old daughter’s death. She was nursing her through a long period of sickness. She said on the night of her “leaving”, she tries not to look at her mother’s face, and she keeps stealing her eyes from her mother while turning her face away. Her mother keeps the little girl’s hand in hers and caresses the tiny fingers but she doesn’t look back!
This haiku gives me a sign of hope that she has come back but surely very different from what she was when she left. That’s why her mother keeps feeling her everywhere!!

Carol Jones accepts the circumstance:

For me, Marion’s poem has portrayed a sense of a person coming to the end of life.

On times, life can be taken prematurely by an illness of some kind. Having to accept you cannot control every thing that happens in life, and to resign to the fact it is being cut short, taking stock, and making the most of the time that is left, the good things in life.

While Peter Newton discovers an optimism:

A good haiku casts the reader both backward and forward in time — if only by seconds. There’s a narrative that comes before and after. One the reader supplies.

Here, I am struck by the phrase “final rays” which I take to mean sun rays and also radiation therapy for an illness. The word “final” suggests the more definitive ending. But whether it’s the end of a day or the end of an arduous treatment regimen lasting weeks or months there is “still reason / to hum”. There’s a simple optimism.

I can hear the soft tune that drifts beyond the reaches of these few words. A hum or a sigh that turns into a hum. The relief of kicking your feet up on the coffee table after a day’s work. The fewest words in the right order can reveal a person’s story. A state of mind. One’s character.

Reminds me of the line by Tolstoy in Anna Karenina:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Despite the subject of this poem, is the speaker of this haiku happy? What is happy? A good haiku can send the reader on the trail for bigger questions — often through the smallest details. For me, anyway, these words expand. Through them I realized that gratitude is a kind of learned happiness, one that is often hard-earned.


As this week’s winner, Peter gets to select 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 87:

     whale song
     I become
     an empty boat
          — Michelle Tennison, Michelle Tennison 32 (2015)

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. whale song
    I become
    an empty boat

    — Michelle Tennison, Michelle Tennison 32 (2015)

    The power of haiku, like much poetry, often lies in its power to strike us with the sensation that there is meaning that lies beyond the words, and that the poem warrants work on the readers behalf—the reader, then, becoming an “accomplice” (to use Cortázar’s term). When the reader is active and becomes an accomplice to the poem, that is to say “activates” the poem, we are entering the terrain of the spiritual, philosophical, or existential—we are “entering” the poem, so to speak, and entering the position of the poet-creator. At their best, the haiku that occupy this Zen-like teritory allow us to become the poet who has lost herself, or himself, and thus we become this absence, or interpenetration of subject and object—of poem and life. I happily confess that I don’t know exactly what this poem is saying. I hear the whale song and I am on the boat, and upon hearing the whale song I become the whale, and on becoming the whale I leave the boat, and I leave the boat empty.
    But what if the whale is the empty boat? And, if so, why is it “empty”?
    Upon considering these alternatives, the pavlovian response kicks in: But what about those unwritten (yet endlessly discussed) “rules” about avoiding metaphor in haiku? And while I generally agree that clichéd metaphors are a waste of time and, more often than not, metaphors of any kind have a tendency to jar in haiku, that is because we are, understandingly, on the guard for something inauthentic. But when experience is metaphorical there is nothing more inauthentic than not giving into metaphorical thought and expression. And so, while I will continue to become the poem, and become the whale, and become the empty boat (or, better yet, to become “an-empty-boat-of-whale-song-me”), the meaning of the poem—if we can truly speak of “meaning”—will nevertheless continue to be the following:

    whale song
    I become
    an empty boat

  2. Thank you to Modje, Carol and Peter for sharing their thoughts on my haiku.

    It was interesting to read the different interpretations without the image that originally accompanied it as a shahai/photo haiku. It was broadcast last December in the online Japanese TV feature, ‘Haiku Masters’ and the photograph featured a bee gathering pollen in lavender. The comments of the three judges were more upbeat in comparison, although Rakugo performer, Kaishi Katsura touched upon the aspect of the finite nature of our existence on earth.

    I was very moved by Peter Newton’s reading about radiation therapy, as this shahai was created not long before my youngest sister’s death last September.

    Here is a link to the judges’ comments and the shahai, for anyone who is interested.

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