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Viral 7.1

Sorry for the short absence of posts. My life has been a whirlwind lately. I just got a new (great) job and had to move as soon as possible. I hope this might have given some readers a nice break and others a chance to catch up on some of the recent posts. Now that I am back and “re-connected,” I’d like to present a new Viral I wrote for one of my very favorite haiku. Here’s to new beginnings!
Virals is a section in which one person choses a haiku by another person and comments on that haiku. Then the author of that haiku is invited to select a haiku by someone else and comment on that poem, and so on. For an introduction to this section, see Virals.

O en n s    by Scott Metz

                              a love letter to
                              the butterfly gods with
                              strategic misspellings

                                              — Chris Gordon

Another love letter.

This ku creates its openings for the reader not through juxtaposition, or strong, irruptive/disjunctive cuts or breaks, but with something called “ma”: a kind of “betweeness,” creating realities beyond language and empty places for the reader to enter and imagine (Hasegawa Kai, “Haiku Cosmos 2”). This poem has quite a few: specific details (and the absences they create), the creation of an alternative, mythopoeic world, as well as allusions to Asian philosophy and literature and Western mythology/religion.

This poem is entirely objective. And yet, we feel the strong, knowing presence of both the poet/witness (fascinated and concentrating) and the author of the letter; through their absence, we feel their presence more strongly than if they were both directly in the poem (in the form of “I” or “he/she”). The poem feels both fictionalized as well as directly observed. Who knows though. That’s part of the fun. To quote Haruo Shirane: “Fiction can be very realistic and even more real than life itself” (“Beyond the Haiku Moment”).

The love letter itself it seems must have been written by someone of a certain age with some amount of knowing, intelligence and understanding of the world and language. And yet, the poem has a sincere childlike quality, fascination, imagination and excitement.

Whatever the situation is, there is an intimacy between the poet/observer and the author of the love letter. The intimacy could be personal, someone close to the poet. It could be the actual poet. Or it could be someone they have never met, however they know their life and their oeuvre quite intimately (for example, the novelist and entomologist Vladimir Nabokov whom I can imagine hunched over his writing table, writing out his love letter to the butterfly gods on his famous index cards in pencil).

In a sincere way though, the poet is close to the love letter’s author: the poet knows that the misspellings are purposeful and strategic. The exciting opening for us as readers is to ponder “why”? Why the strategic misspellings? What is their purpose? What does the love letter’s author know about the “butterfly gods” that we do not? What does the absence or addition of letters (the openings) in their spelling tell us about the nature of butterflies, their lives, and their gods? What has been misspelled? Which words? Why? It seems the misspellings have a deep link and relationship to nature itself; that the misspellings are supposed to be a mimicry of nature’s additions and new items (a flower, a leaf, a stone, a spot of sunshine, or the spot of warmth after its has left). If the butterflies are attracted to those additions and subtractions and seasonal fluctuations, then perhaps their gods will be attracted to something similar in a letter to them. In this sense, the absence of an O becomes not only a flower but a magnetic, vortex-like looking-glass to suck them in, if not trick them.

The poem is season-less, and yet “butterfly” is there in the mentioning of their gods (therefore conjuring up a world of spring, traditionally, or summer), who construct not only the “reality” of the human world the letter is being composed in, but also an alternative reality/world/place/dimension.

What do the butterfly gods (plural, not singular) look like? Where do they reside? Wherever it might be, they, at the very least, exist inside the mind and imagination of the love letter’s author—the only place they need to exist. We can only guess, but perhaps the strategic misspellings will attract the but
terfly gods’ attention and make them reappear, become more visible, more active, present, and visit more often, come sooner than later, in order to help the author’s heart/mind/soul which must be experiencing some kind of sadness or pain. With this reading, the season then is not spring or summer, when butterflies are most present but, perhaps, autumn or, better yet, winter. The letter’s author misses them terribly. “I l ve y u. Pl se r t rn s n.”

The word “butterfly gods” reaches into the past in two ways: one toward the East, the other towards the West, working as a kind of super-allusion. This technique is what Haruo Shirane has called the “vertical axis”: “leading back into the past, to history, to other poems” (Shirane).

The poem’s Eastern allusion, of course, links to the rich history of Japanese haiku written on butterflies down through the centuries, adding a strand to the web:

A fallen flower returning to the branch? It was a butterfly.

— Moritake (15th-16 c.) [trans. R. H. Blyth]
You are the butterfly and I the dreaming heart of Chuang-tzu

— Bashō (17th c.) [trans. Robert Aitken]
butterfly what are you dreaming fanning your wings

— Chiyojo (18th c.)

Settled on a temple bell and asleep—a butterfly

— Buson (18h c.) [trans. by Hiroaki Sato]
The butterfly having disappeared, my spirit came back to me

— Wafū (19th c.) [trans. R. H. Blyth]
a butterfly went past after seeing me as an apparition

— Yasumasa Sōda (20th c.)
[trans. Gendai Haiku Kyokai]

These are only a few examples, but a clear thread that ties them together, and many many other examples if shown, is “sleeping” and “dreaming.” As the Bashō example explicitly references, the use of the butterfly more often than not was a literary allusion that goes back even further to Chunag-tzu’s butterfly dream and Daoism in general, a philosophy that was central to Bashō’s poetry and way of life (see Basho And The Dao: The Zhuangzi And The Transformation Of Haikai by Peipei Qiu), in addition to Chinese literature and poetry (see Li Po’s poem, “Ancient Song”; be sure to scroll down). Another dimension is Japan’s indigenous religion/spiritual belief system, Shintōism, and its worshipping of nature, ancestors, polytheism, and animism, celebrating the existence of kami (gods/spirits). In this sense, by connecting to this work through the “vertical axis,” Gordon’s poem not only becomes a part of and an extension of haiku tradition but also, through the examples shown, takes on a dream-like quality.

Reaching into the West, “the butterfly gods” engage with European paganism as well as Roman and Greek polytheism. By not saying “a butterfly” is “a god” or “spirit” but that there are gods, somewhere else—a place we can’t see them, looking over things, making decisions, playing with people/mortals, controlling some strings (heartstrings?)—the poem draws us away and out of Eastern spirituality/religion/literature and into a more Western frame of reference and understanding.

One could go so far as to say that haiku poets in general (East or West) do indeed believe in butterfly gods; when we write of butterflies, in essence, we are keeping the butterfly gods alive by worshipping them with our thoughts and sacrificing words to them. However, in writing about a subject that has been done and done again ad infinitum by haiku poets the world over, Gordon creates something entirely new and fresh again—precisely what modern English haiku should be doing and be about. He not only makes it new, but makes it artistic, deep and rich, as Kaneko Tōta suggests: “create the new in the grandeur of the old.”

“a love letter to” was first published in ant ant ant ant ant #10

As featured poet, Chris Gordon will select the next poem and comment on it for Viral 7.2.

Works Cited

Blyth, R. H. Haiku (4 Volumes) [The Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, 1949], 24. 

Aitken, Robert. A Zen Wave (Counterpoint, 2003), 97.

Sato, Hiroaki and Burton Watson. From the Country of Eight Islands (Columbia University Press, New York, 1986), 340.4 Blyth, R. H. Haiku, 541.

Gendai Haiku Kyokai (Modern Haiku Association). The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century (Modern Haiku Association, Tokyo,, 2008), 91.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. I am glad for Allan’s flesh butterflies because as I compare them to the brilliance of “butterfly gods” I realize there is no pathos in imaginations.

  2. I came to Chinese poetry before it brought me to haiku…so I appreciate the uselesstree link. Thanks.

  3. Als, I was happy to find Robert Creely’s poem on Poet Talk link read by him several times at different times and replayed – that was most informative how these things deepen and grow over time too.

  4. How I love Chris Gordon’s work…
    When I first read this poem here (and thank you for it) I had a knowing feeling inside – my fingers often type jokes to me and usually when it’s important or I’m in a hurry or when I’ve had a “senior moment” telling me to “lighten up, kid!”
    When I see the wonderful list Allan has there I’ll be doing more reading on this post than I will be in responding…and the links Richard Gilbert provides open more doors for me.
    I love this poem as it seems to me to expand our awareness of the many dimensions we exist in…but all the more for the humor in which he presents it.

  5. Speaking of butterflies, in relation to Japan (and Chinese influence in Japan), Lafcadio Hearn has written a rich and often astounding study of the significance of butterflies in Japan. If you have never read Hearn, this short might provides evidence of his continued relevance:


    “It is possible also that some weird Japanese beliefs about butterflies are of Chinese derivation; but these beliefs might be older than China herself. The most interesting one, I think, is that the soul of a living person may wander about in the form of a butterfly…. That a butterfly may be the spirit of somebody is not a reason for being afraid of it. . . . However, in Japanese belief, a butterfly may be the soul of a dead person as well as of a living person. Indeed it is a custom of souls to take butterfly-shape in order to announce the fact of their final departure from the body; and for this reason any butterfly which enters a house ought to be kindly treated.”

    There follow in the essay quite a number of Hearn-translated hokku concerning butterflies.

    from Hearn’s “Kwaidan” (c. 1904)

  6. I am fairly new to the haiku that Scott Metz presents here, and I believe, champions. I find it intriguing, but maybe need a little help. I like butterfly haiku well enough, but the examples given don’t open up Chris Gordon’s poem for me. I would like to see more examples from anyone who feels a connection to this. The thing is, I feel a connection, I just can’t say why right now. Scott Metz’ appreciation helps, yes, but for me to put this poem in a field of similar-minded poems would help.

    One thing I see which I enjoy is a picture of a butterfly’s erratic flight like unbroken calligraphy all over the place, maybe to enchant a flower with its eccentric versifying. I would guess that so flighty a creature would misspell continuously and creatively and its gods would be charmed to read a letter from a non-butterly that showed an understanding of alternative spellings and chalky markings.

    So maybe I just found out why I feel connected.


  7. Two elements of Chris Gordon’s haiku I find most notable are its whimsical, mythical content and its structural enjambment. The first is not unrelated to some of Fay Aoyagi’s haiku:

    frozen moon —
    “RSVP required”
    from the fox god
    (In Borrowed Shoes)

    wind from the east
    I ride the green horse
    of a warrior deity
    (Roadrunner 7.2, 2007)

    The enjambment brings to haiku a technique Robert Creeley often used in his free verse, to achieve an off-beat quality:


    As I sd to my
    friend, because I am
    always talking, — John, I

    sd, which was not his
    name, the darkness sur-
    rounds us, what

    can we do against
    it, or else, shall we &
    why not, buy a goddamn big car,

    drive, he sd, for
    christ’s sake, look
    out where yr going.

    It’s not a technique you see too often in haiku, and it could certainly be explored further to open up fresh avenues of expression.

    Scott’s eloquent commentary doesn’t cite any other English-language exs. of butterfly haiku, but there are many, of course, and some that have pursued very different directions. For instance, consider John Wills’

    a mourning cloak
    comes sailing down
    the deerpath
    (Reed Shadows)

    What we find here is a deeper engagement with the reality of butterflies simply through the naming of a specific species, for in nature (as opposed to the human imagination) no generic “butterfly” exists. Wills’ poem asks us to visualize something very specific in terms of size, color, field marks. (Click on my name.) Instead of turning inward to human consciousness and imagination, it turns outward to physical reality and natural history. At the same time it possesses a deep poetic suggestiveness that engages the reader. I imagine it might be the first mourning cloak of the year (an early sign of spring) and find my mind playing with the delicate butterfly’s migratory odyssey across continents and how it relates to the deer path and also the poet’s path both through the landscape and through haiku. Just scratching the surface.

    Some other English-language butterfly haiku I admire, all of which manifest a certain degree of what you might call “naturalistic competence” or at least a feeling for the reality of butterflies:

    field of Queen Anne’s lace —
    a black butterfly settles
    on a stone
    (Charles B. Dickson, A Moon in Each Eye)

    little yellow butterfly
    lost against
    the yellow coreopsis
    (Anita Virgil, One Potato Two Potato Etc)

    first flight —
    a butterfly dries its wings
    under wild blue sky
    (Christopher Herold, A Path in the Garden)

    knotweed sprouting
    one butterfly all along
    the dappled path
    (Martin Lucas, Earthjazz)

    ripe fall breeze
    a gold butterfly flickers
    through aspen
    (Marian Olson, Desert Hours)

    one white butterfly
    out of the green woods
    over and over
    (Jim Kacian, long after)

    7th floor, cubicle 9 —
    a butterfly drifts
    past the window
    (Timothy Hawkes, The Heron’s Nest 4.12, 2002)

    a butterfly december rises to meet it
    (Marlene Mountain, Roadrunner 8.1, 2008)

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