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re:Virals 96

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

     *poem about disappointment but it’s only the word sea.
          — Mike Andrelczyk, Is/let, March 6, 2017.

Danny Blackwell had a lot to say about his own choice:

This is a poem that immediately captured my attention and spoke to me in a language I felt familiar with. We all live in a relatively meta-narrative age these days. In other words, we have long since dismissed with a complete suspension of disbelief, and frequently need to maintain an ironic distance from our fictional universes. By that I mean that we like to see the cogs of the machinery; we like to have the narrator tell us it’s all a trick, that it’s all a farce, and in doing so liberate us from feeling like fools — but only so we can go back to immersing ourselves in these fictional, or poetic, worlds that are so necessary for us.

In full knowledge that I am talking at length about a poem that is a self-contained universe and that is basically self-explanatory, this piece by Mike Andrelczyk could be described as a poem about a one-word poem — a one-word poem, we should add, that doesn’t exist. Except that it does. It exists in our minds the moment we complete reading the poem, as we dispense with the narrative machinery and envisage the word sea — alone and unadorned. And yet in this poem, unlike the infamous one-word haiku “tundra,” we are told what to think. (Bad form according to the haiku commandments).

Essentially what we have here is the following conjunction: Sea/Disappointment.

Now, I don’t think that this is at all hard to relate to. Also, it is done with maximum precision, while invoking nature. So, whatever one feels about what is and isn’t haiku, it is undeniably operating, to some degree, within the flexible parameters of the haiku genre in Japanese. (Brief, one-line, nature-oriented, poem.)

True, the poet has ‘sinned’ by ignoring the writer’s mantra of “show-don’t tell” because here we are being told what to feel, and not shown. But the end result for me is almost the same. I see/sense/feel/hear the sea, and the sea that is present in me after reading this work is filtered through a particular emotion (that of disappointment). This poem could come across to some as a cold post-modern exercise in empty artifice — but not for me. Would it be better if instead of telling us it’s about disappointment he created an image that provokes that emotion in us? I guess this is not the time or place for such value judgments. They are simply different approaches. After so much meta-narrative exposure, there is something to be said for cutting out the middleman, and dispensing with such contrived manipulations.

In essence, what is written, and what we are reading, is a performance instruction. Pianists, for example, don’t shout out the letters fff when they read them on a musical score. They simply play louder. In other words this poem is the word sea with performance instructions — the word performance here being one and the same thing as “reading.”

Regarding the formal elements, Mike Andrelczyk has used a unique format: an asterisk, followed by a poem that is essentially a description of a poem — or a description of itself, if you will — with the asterisk functioning like a sort of footnote. The author has used this format for a number of works, which were featured in the experimental journal Is/Let, but of all the ones I read, this to me was the most powerful. I like to see poets developing a unique language, and developing and pushing forms, thereby pushing readers to consider and reconsider what is and isn’t poetry, and what is and isn’t haiku.

On a more Zen note, I am personally intrigued with the idea of toying with the asterisk as a kireji (in this case, a kireji that precedes the poem — the cut coming before we know what is being cut) and that this new kireji implies disappointment, in the same way that the Japanese word kana (哉), so ubiquitous in haiku, has a wide range of interpretations — commonly being rendered in English with the exclamation “Ah!”.

And is there any reason why an asterisk couldn’t come to stand for disappointment in the conventions of an, as yet unexplored, literature?
It is possible that the English language and English-language haiku are still left wanting in terms of a satisfactory equivalent to the Japanese kireji employed in haiku.

Having seen how the poet has used the asterisk in other works, it is not the intention of the poet for the asterisk to represent disappointment. I am simply playing with potential possibilities for innovation in English-language haiku, and I think that imagining that this asterisk is a kireji (albeit a pre-poem kireji, that cuts before that which is cut, and that is written and yet is meant not to exist, and that implies a certain predetermined state, such as disappointment) is an interesting diving board from which to reevaluate some of our prejudices about the Japanese genre of haiku, which we continue to “translate” into modern English interpretations, with all the weight of History, Culture, and Narrative on our shoulders

I, for one, am quite moved by this disappointing sea, although I’m sure there are many readers out there who are disappointed that this is what passes for a haiku these days.


As this week’s winner, Danny 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 96:

     first frost
     keeping pace
     with a stranger’s cane 
          — Alexy Andreev, Bones

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. *poem about disappointment but it’s only the word sea.

    Interesting poem and insightful commentary.

    Clearly gendai in approach- the poem in the form of a footnote. To me the asterisk, which Danny correctly notes is a kireji, is what makes this poem work as a haiku in two parts- The first part being the unsaid part that comes before the asterisk- the actual poem itself, whatever that may be, to which this poem is a footnote. So the jux is between the unsaid and the said, the reader being entirely at liberty to fill the unsaid with their own interpretation.

    The footnote is followed by an rational-emotional commentary of the reader “but it’s only the word sea”. Maybe every poem is just “the word sea” until and unless one can make sense of it- until then, it is nothing but a disappointment. Likewise, experiences are just a jumble in the sea of life and are frustrating and disappointing, until one finds meaning in and from it. So unsaid poem before the asterisk is also probably a disappointment as it just seems a jumble of words (“the sea”). The footnote too is just that- unless one can make sense of it.

    And given it is presented as a poem, a reader is perhaps forced to try and make sense of it 🙂 I recall a recent modern art exhibition where some visitors deliberately left their glasses on the floor and all other visitors made “sense” of it as an exhibit. Maybe this poem is a spook of haiku and its workings. I have made some sense of it, to save myself disappointment!

  2. A wonderful commentary, Danny Blackwell!!!
    You’ve shown me a way in to a ku that left me cold, a footnote as poem, an intellectual enterprise that disappointed me. Now I can connect, in my own way.
    The (unseen) poem referred to is “about” disappointment. It’s a failed poem, according to the disappointed author of the footnote (or ‘meta- poem’).

    What would a poem on disappointment need to convey to the listener/ reader for it not to be disappointing? (for me, ‘sea’ is random & could be replaced by many words… ‘tree’, ‘autumn’ and etc. & etc….. , I think of the old French song ‘La Mer’ which is not at all disappointing in what it conveys and always makes me feel happy again.)

    Wallace Stevens has approached the issue superbly in his poem, ‘Large Red Man Reading’. (Unsurpassed, as far as I’m concerned)

    Could it be that Mike Andrelczyk is paraphrasing Stevens? (another aspect of the disillusioned po-mo approach?)

    – Lorin

    1. ps, with his two differently coloured “tabulae”, Stevens, the lawyer, reminds us that, with poetry, there is an agreed-upon transaction between poet and reader.

      – Lorin

  3. I’m struck by the depth of analysis of Mike’s one-line poem. Well-done Danny Blackwell. I truly enjoyed your thoughts on a poem that I read and re-read with many responses that I just did not make time to shape into a coherent reply. But I did have a lot of ideas. Right, wrong or otherwise.

    Now, with something to bounce of off I have to say that I was fascinated by the use of the asterisk. Poem as footnote. Haiku as an annotation of itself. Very meta. And a little confusing for the reader. The asterisk also indicates that some further thought is required.

    Sometimes you want a poem to wash over you. This poem is more of a splash in the face. That’s okay but unexpected. Mike’s poem defies easy explanation. It is a poem about a poem about disappointment. A one-word poem can be a disappointment. I too thought of Cor van den Heuvel’s “tundra” poem with all its necessary white space. Here, I tried to think of the one word poem “sea” in the middle of the page. But that was not the way the poet intended.

    Mike’s poem is a comment on the “sea” poem that could only take the form of critical commentary. It’s a modern take on the one-word poem which now takes nine words:

    *poem about disappointment but it’s only the word sea

    What has the world come to? The simple one-word poem a la “tundra” is no longer enough to satisfy our tech-savvy, 5G world that has grown increasingly self-referential. Hits, clicks, likes, followers, selfies, etc…The asterisk indicates the expected explanation. Our googled moment. Added info. It seems there is nothing we can’t know or find out. And quickly. This one-line poem calls that into question.

    So, what exactly is the source of the disappointment? The sea? I dunno. I find the sea quite satisfying in most cases. The sea should really be enough. Maybe it’s the fact that we can’t have a “tundra” poem anymore. Or that kind of “sea” poem. Audiences don’t go for the absence of meaning, or all that seemingly wasted white space . . . alas, the poem is relegated to the bottom of the page* (see footnote) and no longer center stage.

  4. Thanks a lot to Jim for making the stylistic edits I’d overlooked when I submitted. The other day I was walking home and realized it would have been better to write the forte symbol with a lower-case f, which I’d originally written as “FFF.” (This is the kind of thing that can keep a writer awake at night.) So it was a joy to see it published and altered, as I hadn’t wanted to bother anyone with such a minor adjustment.
    Look forward to seeing some other readers comments for next week’s poem.

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