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
first frost keeping pace with a stranger’s cane — Alexy Andreev, Bones
And Danny Blackwell once again had a lot to say about his own choice:
It is generally considered good practice in haiku to avoid, where possible, any explicit reference to the poet (the first-person “I”) who is narrating and, to a certain degree, to avoid personal pronouns in general. This stems from a linguistic trait in Japanese, in which people are loathe to name themselves or others directly, as a matter of courtesy and good manners. Of course there are exceptions, both in ordinary conversation and in haiku poetry — Kobayashi Issa, for instance, frequently refers to himself, in both 1st and 3rd person. In English, however, the omission of the personal pronoun is generally more problematic — primarily for linguistic reasons — and, as a result, we are not trained in the kind of ambiguity so common in Japanese. A good example of this tolerance for ambiguity is the fact that Japanese tend not to distinguish between singular and plural, although they have the linguistic tools to do so, should they want to be explicit. The famous poem by Basho about an old pond and a frog, for example, makes no specific reference that allows us to know with any certainty whether there is a single frog jumping or numerous frogs jumping.
(If I’m not mistaken some haiku poets didn’t even decide themselves whether they were writing in plural or singular! Sadly, I cannot recall the details of the poem but I distinctly recall reading about the haiga of a particular poet — I have a sneaking suspicion it was Buson’s poem about crows perching on withered branches at dusk — where the poet illustrated the poem in two different versions: one with a single crow and another with various.)
In regards to the use or omission of personal pronouns in English haiku, I believe the practice of striving to achieve some kind of equivalency with Japanese haiku has been fruitful and has allowed us room for manoeuvre as readers. I mention all of this because this particular poem allows us plenty of ambiguous space. The haiku follows a traditional format. It begins with a seasonal reference (“first frost”) followed by a line-break, which functions, to all intents and purposes, as a kireji. (It should also be noted that the “first” this or that — 初in Japanese — is very much a trope of traditional haiku).
The second half of the poem juxtaposes this seasonal phenomenon of first frost with an image of two people, one who is using a cane and the other who has slowed their pace, possibly as a result of the icy ground. What is masterful about this poem is the way that neither of the subjects is explicitly referenced — they are merely implied (by the cane, and the person “keeping pace” with the cane). The absence of personal pronouns not only adds to the haiku concision we have come to value, in lieu of any hard-and-fast syllable count, but also creates doubt around the very idea of Subjects themselves, and of individual identity. This blurring of the line between subject and object is undoubtedly linked with the eastern philosophies that so influenced Japan, and it is here where the art of the poem lies because it is precisely a poem about empathy, and about the blurring of lines between “You” and “I”. We can, furthermore, consider the first line as personifying the frost, as if it was The First Frost itself that accompanied the person with the cane. (A person we instinctively perceive as a vulnerable figure, possibly an old man or woman.) Add to this our metaphorical instinct to personify Winter as an old man and we are left in no doubt that this “first frost” is a harbinger of the winter to come for the narrator, and the “winter” age of a person being represented by the slow pace of the cane (a great example of the power of objects to signify something way beyond the object itself.)
I should add that the element of personification of the first frost is much more a possible reading than a direct result of the text, and the poem functions perfectly without this extra layer. Nevertheless, it is clear that in haiku there is generally something more what we are presented with and that, as a rule, we tend to go beyond the poem in order to discover a profound sense of connectedness, be it with nature or with the products of nature, such as people and plants, and so on.
But it is not only in recognition of hardships and suffering that we are united, the same also occurs in moments of shared beauty. A counterpoint to the poem under discussion would be the following haiku by Issa:
Which Blyth translates thus:
Under the cherry blossoms
In summary, this poem — for me at least — is that of a poet-narrator, who is keeping pace with an old man or woman on a frosty day, and enters into an empathetic relationship with the “other”, and is consequently awake to the realization that we all grow old. Further to this, the poet enters into an empathetic relation with the season itself, and by extension with the universe as a whole.
And if that isn’t what a good haiku is all about then I don’t know what is.
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!
atop the town flagpole a gob of bubblegum holds my dead brother’s dime — Nick Virgilio, Selected Haiku of Nicholas Virgilio