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young leaf #1

haiku presented with commentary by the Yuki Teikei Society for discussion

young leaf #1

By Patricia Machmiller & Jerry Ball

                                                                         untouched by words
                                                                         the spring moon pauses
                                                                         between pines

                                                                                            Carolyn Thomas

jb: In this haiku we have a moment in time: the moment when the spring moon “pauses” between pines. One can infer the context: a night walk in a pine forest. In the mystery of the scene the spring moon pauses (a metaphor … that works, for me) between the trees. I remember one night in Japan, this was during the winter, that my friend and I stood and watched the moon move. We lined it up with a telephone wire, and waited. If you’re patient enough you can actually see the movement. There’s something eerie about this. You can actually see the universe at work. It’s a story, in this case, told by the moon and the pines.

pjm: What a good choice, Jerry. This haiku brings together two concepts—one from the East and one from the West—expanding (exploding?) our understanding of both. In Buddhist thought the moon is a symbol of enlightenment. Here the poet says the moon (enlightenment) is “untouched by words.” The idea is that to achieve enlightenment the mind must become empty. To convey this thought the poet has used the phrase “untouched by words.” But in so doing the poet has brought to the poem an allusion to the Western Biblical phrase from John, 1:1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. For Westerners this haiku cannot be read free of this reference. From this perhaps we can infer satori, the process of becoming enlightened, is a fusion, not a touching, of the Word and the one enlightened. This is a haiku with much to be discovered—what do the pines contribute to the thought? And the fact that it is spring? I am not finished thinking about this haiku.

graphic by Patricia Machmiller

This Post Has 28 Comments

  1. Beyond words but not beyond motion. We take snaps with our mind and this is what is written in this ku, whilst the moon, endlessly (almost) free falls across the night skies of our small world, without pause. From a Zen realism perspective, it is possible to experience the stopping of time – but, not the stopping of process. This is the (apparent) paradox of the Zen experience. That’s just how it is. If time stops we can be sure that we’re looking at a postcard from the seaside, whilst we we continue to metabolise; perhaps wishing we were there.

    — jp

  2. Once written, a poem truly no longer belongs to the poet, but to the reader. I love that. The meaning, my intention, is the pure moment the poet experiences in body, mind and soul what she observes before she begins her desperate mental struggle for words to confine that which cannot be confined. It’s spring moon being spring moon before it’s talked about.

  3. I am grateful to all of you who have commented so thoughtfully on Carolyn Thomas’ haiku. As I’ve indicated, I have learned much from all of you.

    I would like, at this juncture, to offer some information about Carolyn herself. Carolyn, though active in the EL haiku world, does not really have a web presence so I thought I would mention some of the creative haiku/haikai of hers works that I am aware of. Let me say, as a disclaimer, I know Carolyn Thomas only through her haiku. This haiku that was chosen as a poem for discussion by Jerry and me was chosen anonymously as are all the haiku we choose to write about in GEPPO.

    I own two books of Carolyn’s, both hand-made and beautifully crafted:

    no wind: a collection of death poems in haiga form by season, a loose-leaf portfolio, 28 signed prints, 5″x 7″ printed on 24 lb. Southworth 25% cotton fiber ivory linen, bound with a string, 2000.


    notes from a poet’s journal: haiku and tanka, large format (11″ x 8 1/2″), hand-bound, printed on beautiful paper, 2008, 141 pp, $20 US

    A third book published in 2004 is:
    puddle on the ink stone: haiku and other short poems, perfect-bound, 141 pp, 5 x 6.5 inches. ISBN 0-9724396-0-9. A first full-length collection by Carolyn Thomas, contains haiku arranged by season, senryu and all year haiku, tanka, and short poems. Each copy is signed and numbered and includes an original brush painting on the flyleaf.

    If you are interested in contacting Carolyn, either about her haiku or her books, you can write to her at: 7866 Hogan Circle, Hemet, CA 92545.

  4. In response to your comments, Patricia, I agree that the poet’s intent is not necessarily relevant to how *readers* choose to interpret poems, and that our poems are smarter than we are. In fact, it’s wonderful when we trust our subconscious minds and they generate overtones in our poems that we may not have been conscious of when writing them.

    Various factors will always shape each poem in ways that the poet hasn’t consciously intended, but of course intent *is* still relevant to the poem itself, because intent will shape the word choice and all the other details of craft. But yes, once the poem is out of the poet’s hands, readers are free to get what they will out of a poem. So let me make this observation about how you phrased things: In your original comments, you say “the poet has brought to the poem an allusion.” That wording suggests that it *is* the poet’s intent to make this allusion, and I don’t believe that to be the case. It feels like a stretch to say that Carolyn’s poem contains “an allusion to the Western Biblical phrase . . . In the beginning was the Word” (as if there is no choice but for this to be the case). Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that you “find” an allusion to the Biblical notion in question? That would seem to be more in agreement with your assertion that “intent is not relevant to the poem.”

    The larger issue is that the poet’s intent *does* affect the poem, but, as you rightly say, there are more things than just conscious intent affecting each poem as it is being written. And then, on the reader’s side, yes, what they get out of the poem is, at that point, independent from the poet’s intent.


    1. Hmmm, Michael–I was about to say you are right that my phrase “the poet has brought to the poem an allusion” indicates a conscious intent, but after rereading it in context, I think I was clearly indicating the poet’s “choice” had accidental or unconscious consequences. I put the word, choice, in quotes here to indicate that in writing poetry, if the poet is open and receptive, then instead of a word being consciously selected, it might be delivered in some mysterious, organic, even mystical, way, and the poet is only the conveyer of that word to the page.

  5. Looking at ELH as indirect expressions of deep emotion (just one way of looking at them), I wonder if the poet is reflecting on how she herself has been “touched by words” in the past (perhaps the recent past, just before going for a walk) and is now touched beyond words.

  6. :-) well, there are a few footprints, urine bags and other stuff on the moon. (not in this ku, though)

  7. Oh golly, I hate to be literal amid such exalted thoughts :) but perhaps it’s simply a matter of distance.

    The Moon is 384,405km (more or less, it varies) from Earth. Our words might float, oh, I don’t know, 100m up. Certainly they don’t float much further than 3m out if you’re calling a child in from play. Ha!

    Space is silent. The Moon (and aything else celestial) is therefore “untouched by words” and, by implication, is thus also free from the base affairs of mankind.

  8. Though as a typical Westerner, my cultural background is Christianity and I did read the bible cover to cover as a 12-13 year old (not that I was encouraged to… which might be why ;-) ) I do not associate ‘words’ with ‘Word’.

    Whatever the official symbolism, I see ‘Spring’; as ‘young’, and here, ‘untouched’ carries an echo of virginal. Considering how the Autumn moon is mooned over so much in haiku (and Chinese poetry?) (& it is big and stunning, and much awaited and viewed) maybe the Spring moon is relatively untouched by words in that sense, too. Maybe there is a sense in which a Spring moon might seem to pause between pines (a lovely sight, the pale light of the moon, the dark shapes of pines at night) like a young woman might practise striking poses which show her in an attractive light.

    This is obviously not the ‘enlightened’ type of reading, and of course not the only one,but I find it delightful anyway.

  9. Since I suggested giving examples of symbolism (which I hope isn’t inappropriate for this forum) I’ll post this one that occurs to me by Yoshiki Yoshino (translation by Lee Gurga and Emiko Miyashita):

    The cock crane erect
    as the mother and young peck
    New Year’s Day

    From her book “Tsuru” which means crane, and which contains numerous other crane haiku. Lee points out in the intro that “The crane is a traditional symbol of longevity and family devotion in Japan.” And that “Yoshiko’s cranes form a reflection Japanese society at its best.”

    But even without reading that it’s pretty clear there is a symbolic transformation of the image going on here, albeit one that doesn’t supplant the natural scene of the family of cranes.

    Back when I first read this haiku I had been working on a similar scene of a family of geese. Upon reading this poem I immediately put that effort to rest :)

  10. A lot of comments about symbolism here, which can obviously be useful in haiku in some cases. The moon can symbolize enlightenment, time, tranquility, or a myriad other things for Easterners or Westerners, depending on the context in the poem. (It might even make an interesting blog to discuss good and clear examples of symbolism used in haiku). But more often than not the moon is ‘just’ a part of the scene and experience. I personally don’t find any reason for the moon or the pines to stand for anything other than themselves in this context. In fact, making them into symbols diminishes the experience for me since it’s the emotive power of the images, rather the overlaying of symbolic meaning, which is most appealing to me about the poem.

  11. I’m still thinking about the meaning of the pines in springtime–what this adds to the poem. The thoughts of Carmen (“Pine branches symbolize endurance and longevity in Japan”) and Merrill (“I’ve just returned from . . . a tree farm with exceptionally tall and ancient trees that had me looking up all day. I’m still coming back to the pine so to speak. To be in such a place, to experience the light, no words could possibly possess”) have pointed the way. The pine in the East symbolizes longevity or immortality and is an emblem of the Shinto New Year. In the West pine branches in Roman times were part of the New Year celebration of Saturnalia–a festival celebrating the return of, the rebirth of the sun, of light. This symbolism was carried forward in the Christmas tree. Decorations of orbs, stars, and crescents on the pre-Christian tree were once cosmic symbols. For Christians the candles and lights came to symbolize the soul which is believed to be immortal. And so I find these ancient symbolic ideas of the pine, both east and west, to be resonating in this poem about light and the return of light in the lunar New Year (spring) and of our own spiritual enlightenment. Thank you, Carmen and Merrill, for leading me here.

  12. This is a lovely poem, but I wonder if too much is being read into it by thinking that there’s “an allusion to the Western Biblical phrase . . . In the beginning was the Word.” At best that seems like a secondary meaning, if at all. As with Carmen and Merrill, I don’t see that allusion in the poem. But of course, we all get different overtones from different poems, depending on our personal interpretation.

    I think the main beauty of the poem is that neither the moon or the pines are “touched” by words of any kind, whether there’s a reference to the Bible or not (and I suspect that the poet did not intend such a reference). The moon and the pines simply ARE, and we feel the suchness of their existence together.

    I suspect, too, that the Buddhist notion of enlightenment might not be what many readers get from the poem either, whether intended or not. I don’t know that it’s always necessary to interpret Western haiku by Japanese contexts. This poem works perfectly well from a Western perspective. :-)


    1. Michael–I am in total agreement with you regarding your statement “I think the main beauty of the poem is that neither the moon or the pines are ‘touched’ by words of any kind, whether there’s a reference to the Bible or not . . . The moon and the pines simply ARE, and we feel the suchness of their existence together.” I agree that this initial surface reading of the poem with the image it creates is very powerful and is what attracts a reader in the first place.
      I do strongly believe, however, that the intention of the poet is not relevent to the poem. A poet’s intent comes from the conscious mind. The text is independent of intention and, most likely, if the poet has been true to the writing, comes from a deeper place. To quote Jorie Graham when a poet in a workshop I was in protested that an interpretation of his poem was not what he intended, she replied, “Our poems are smarter than we are.”

      1. Patricia, Thanks for your post. I was trying to put something like that to words earlier today with another poet trying to explain the kind of haiku I’m drawn to… The haiku that draws me is one that seems to have an effect on my state of being…has nothing to do with thought or anything like it. This haiku fits perfectly… What state does the haiku leave you in???

  13. Funny, I never associated “untouched by words” with Jesus either… I think it was metaphor there and I think what is transpiring here is a different experience. I’ve just returned from The Haiku Circle which was located on a tree farm with exceptionally tall and ancient trees that had me looking up all day. I’m still coming back to the pine so to speak. To be in such a place, to experience the light, no words could possibly possess. Then again, now that I explore it, perhaps it is more closely linked than I would have imagined. I believe Jesus was talking about absolute truth…what we find there…we might all be surprised.

    1. With all respect Merrill– one of the attractive features of haiku is that it does not presume another’s experience. I believe that could be the case in these discussions, too. When you say, here and elsewhere, what we “all” experience, I feel cornered.
      Please don’t take offense. It just seems so dissonant in the context of the blog. Thanks,


      1. Adam, Forgive me, the last thing I want to do is to corner anyone…. I mean no offense to anyone and my thought was how amazing it might be to ever be able to see the many ways people understand these things….

  14. “. . . what do the pines contribute to the thought? And the fact that it is spring?” Patricia

    Pine branches symbolize endurance and longevity in Japan. Since the ever-moving moon is in spring, the pine tree has fresh growth. On one level, Carolyn may have added a pine to lend depth and freshness to the verse.

    Actually, I did not associate “untouched by words”
    with the biblical “Word” which symbolizes Jesus; however, I can see why Patricia interprets the juxtaposition as a fusion of oneness with the moon (enlightenment) or oneness between a believer and God.

  15. I love this haiku. It reminded me of those special moments when I have observed something in nature where time seemed to just stop. When I get a chance to share that moment with someone, it creates a bonding experience that last a lifetime. Words aren’t needed.

  16. Thank you so much for leading us into Carolyn’s haiku, Patricia and Jerry. There is such quietude in it.

  17. The haiku and the comments are generous statements about our time here and the mystery and limits of our perceptions. Thank you.

  18. What a beautiful haiku! Thank you both so much for your discussion. You have given me much to think about. I will look forward to future Yuki Teikei blog entries!

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