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re:Virals 88

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

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

Nathan Sidney too becomes an empty boat:

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this poem and I remember being struck by it originally though I couldn’t articulate why. Thinking about it now, it’s the element of surprise, dealing as it does with an encounter with nature that enacts a magical transformation. So the poem, like the whale song, is a kind of enchantment, bringing magic and mystery back into the world. What does it mean to become an empty boat? Usually we think of inanimate objects as being deaf and mute, but ships fall into that special category of object that are imbued with life. We think of the slap of waves against the hull, the mast wires singing, the surge as the ship catches the wind and comes alive. In particular, an empty boat has no captain and hence no direction, it has no cargo and hence no burden. Maybe the poet has become an ark, standing empty, ready to save the endangered creatures of the world? Perhaps we can think of a ship as an ear or sounding chamber pressed up against the sea and listening to and amplifying the sounds of the deep? More prosaically, the whale song catches the listener unaware and for a moment the mind becomes empty of worry, of rumination, of separation and fear. At the same time we imagine the vastness of the ocean in which the human faces obliteration and epiphany and we are left as helpless as a rudderless boat, carried away on vast currents of energy. The structure of the poem is interesting as well, the syllable count running 2-3-4, as if some crescendo is rising, which is of course resolved in that delightful surprise of becoming boat and echoes the tune of whale song.

Danny Blackwell adds to this:

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 territory 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

And Garry Eaton feels the resonance of that emptiness:

Listening is the only way to honour music and there are many ways to listen. In this haiku, Tennison is also harkening carefully to the known facts about whale song: 1) that whales rely on underwater vocalizations to communicate with each other in ways that are important to their survival; and 2) that motor-driven ship and boat traffic on the ocean, getting heavier every day, makes a lot of noise that interferes with those vocalizations.
Tennison might have expressed her concern over this conflict didactically, but preaching loses its edge. She chooses instead to respond to the threat in an original way that is itself a mysterious sort of song:

I become
an empty boat

— that is, a boat that makes no interfering noise because it is empty and therefore doesn’t move. I particularly like the way the poet used the resemblance between a whales’s body and a boat to construct a simile in which she, as whale-like, empty boat, through a complex state of sympathetic identification becomes a chamber that listens for, and resonates with, the whale’s song rising from the deep.


As this week’s winner, Garry 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 88:

     fish story
     the cormorant spreads its wings
          — Lorin Ford (Stylus Poetry Journal, April 2006. 

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. This exercise has proven great worth in these explications.
    Wonderful insight, bringing great resonance.

    Jan Benson

  2. It is a pleasure to read both of these intelligent, creative responses to Michelle Tennison’s wonderful poem.

  3. Insightful commentaries that are most rewarding to read, Garry and Nathan. Before I’d read these, I hadn’t quite made the leap re “empty boat”, though i was there with the cavernous, resonating inside space.

    Now my associations have taken me back to a ‘sf’ novel of the 70s, one of the good ones; ‘The Jonah Kit’ by Ian Watson. On the page before the dediction is an extract from a poem, with English tranlation:

    i do not speak of what’s yours
    i speak of the end of owls.
    i speak of turbot and whale . . .
    i don’t speak of you any more,
    planners of vanishing actions . . .
    i speak of that without speech,
    of the unspeaking witnesses . . .

    – Hans Magnus Enzenberger (translated by Michael Hamburger)

    I appreciate Michelle Tennison’s haiku all the more.

    – Lorin

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