Viral 5.5

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.

Viral 5.5

The Light in the Darkness

by Ruth Yarrow

                                             toll booth lit for Christmas—
                                             from my hand to hers
                                             warm change

                                                                               — Michael Dylan Welch

I find this poem full of contrasts and of hope.  The contrasts include the lighted booth in the early dark of a December evening, the coins warmed by his hand reaching out into cold Christmas weather, and the warmth of the connection in what is a very impersonal fleeting monetary exchange.  The hope I feel in this poem comes from the light in the darkness, the hope of the season, the reach across what may be class and race as well as gender lines, including the smile and thanks I assume are there.  And that last line has so many reverberations. We are all humans, giving us the potential to connect with warmth.  We have the potential to change the global messes we are in if we make those connections.  I admit this is laying a lot on a short poem—maybe far too much.  But the feelings of connection, warmth and hope are all in that moment, and after all, emotions are what makes any poem poetry. Thanks, Michael.

“toll booth” was first published in Frogpond XVIII: 4

As featured poet, Michael Dylan Welch will select a poem
and provide commentary on it for Viral 5.6.

Viral 5.1 (Metz ➾ Lyles)
Viral 5.2 (Lyles ➾ Chang)
Viral 5.3 (Chang ➾ Stevenson)
Viral 5.4 (Stevenson ➾ Yarrow)


  1. Merrill Ann Gonzales says

    I agree with Michael…Men may die for lack of what is written there…but to turn poetry into the servant of any agenda to me speaks of the enslavement of the mind and heart of the human being. It wouldn’t take long before men would die from what is written there…

  2. Lorin Ford says

    William Carlos Williams —

    (from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”)

    It is difficult
    to get the news from poems
    yet men die miserably every day
    for lack
    of what is found there.

  3. Michael Dylan Welch says

    Are haiku important? Not by a long shot. Not when there is hunger in the world, and poverty. Not when there is suffering, or hatred. Not when illness and disease and homelessness and a hundred other issues still persist around the world. But I am also reminded of the song “Bread and Roses” (I like the version by Judy Collins best). In it, she sings that “Hearts starve as well as bodies — give us bread but give us roses.” The story behind this lyric is compelling to me, and reminds me why art is important in life (you can read about it at

    If haiku are not important in the face of human suffering, the obvious question might be to ask if haiku should try to alleviate suffering in some way — by promoting world peace or by employing some other agenda. Hell no. Please! Haiku with an agenda such as this makes the aesthetic ideal subservient to the political or activist agenda — and thus, in my opinion, nearly always destroys the art. Yes, art can be political, and some good art does have an agenda, but my feeling is that, most of the time, haiku is better off without it.

    Haiku has a sort of importance — as with other arts, it’s something we live FOR. We seek to overcome the suffering in life so that we can enjoy the magnificent pleasures of being human. But haiku should not, in my opinion, ever have an agenda — other than an aesthetic one. Haiku will be what it is, and I don’t see how it matters whether it has “importance” or not.


  4. Merrill Ann Gonzales says

    John, I feel that continuum comes from the “importance” (for want of a better word) from individual to individual. It’s like the theory of light that is particle/wave. What sparks one and one and one … ultimately because of that essential “suchness” experienced. Everyone has the opportunity to be any kind of artist they want to be. Even in the most repressive regimes in the world, there are great artists. I feel that it is the human connection…that passes on from one person to another an encompassing understanding of our humanity and the universality in which the human being exists.

  5. Peter Yovu says

    Bill, I think you I and all concerned can contribute to making this blog a welcome place, for celebration and challenge, for exploration, information, questions, introductions, roots, wings and dillos (both arma and pecca). Yes, and

    thanks for your post.


  6. says


    In response to your thoughts:

    I believe haiku in Western languages has at least the potential to become something analogous to what it is in Japanese literature–a kind of democratic, communal “folk” poetry practiced by many many hands and also, at least a small percentage of it, a permanent part of our literature.

    Whether this scenario comes to pass or not, I think the most important thing we can do is simply to take care of haiku, i.e., to write it and nurture as best we can. Whether the larger culture, the academic establishment, and so on take note or not of our endeavors is beyond our control–and as I recently said to Jim, cultural memory is at best haphazard anyway.

    I, personally, believe emphatically in the value and potential of our haiku. I think it it the most interesting and probably the most unprecedented development in our literature over the last forty-plus years, and that’s a big part of why I’m here, as an observer, a conservator, and a contributor.

    I would definitely say it “is potentially high art” and “deserves to be taken seriously.” I’ve felt that way ever since I read Nick Virgilio’s “lily” and “bass” haiku, which hit me like revelations, and much of my life since then has been about learning everything possible about haiku and making my own small contribution to it. Its “importance”, as you put it, to many of us is simply immeasurable.

    To begin to do justice to the ins and outs of this topic would take far, far more time than I have now. For now, I simply wanted to state something like a declaration of faith, a credo.

    “Yes.”–Molly Bloom

  7. says


    Thank you very much for your generous and big-hearted words. I’m very happy to put this episode behind us.

    I’ve had very little contact with you, Bill, but on the basis of what you write, I’m sure we have much in common. I always look forward to seeing your haiku in the journals, and I hope we’ll have plenty of positive interactions in the future.

    All the best,

  8. Bill Cullen says

    I care more about people than I do about the cause of haiku.

    If my words gave offence to Alan and Peter, then I should want to withdraw them and ask Peter and Alan for their forgiveness.

    I have only the highest regard for their work, and my sense has always been that they are both fair and honorable men, and even more importantly, that they both have good hearts.

    Bill C

  9. John Stevenson says

    On-line forums have generally been far down the list of things that I have time for. I have, all the same, been following this discussion and others on Troutswirl. It’s been painful at times because I consider everyone involved a friend (plus a few strangers to me). While the process is difficult, I do feel that I’m deriving some benefits and hope others are, too.

    I’d like to see some more discussion about the idea of “importance” as applied to haiku. As I may have made clear in earlier posts, I often see things in terms of continuums. A continuum about importance and haiku, for instance, might run from, at one end an attitude that says something like “English-language haiku is potentially high art, deserves to be taken seriously, and has a right to demand respect” and, at the other end, an attitude that says perhaps “English-language haiku represents an opportunity for everyone to be an artist, without concern for the hierarchical claptrap that inhibits most people from practicing or appreciating a personal relationship with art.” These are certainly not perfect statements of the outer edges of this continuum and I would benefit from others attempting to express it as they see it.

    A continuum is more or less permanent. If one takes a fixed position along it and imagines that, through reasoning or any other means, he can eliminate the spectrum, I believe he is wasting his energy. But why not waste some energy? I also believe that art fails because art attempts impossible things. In the process, however, it produces valuable byproducts that are desirable enough in their own right to keep us going.

    P.S. Interesting that Peter mentioned improv. I’m giving an improv performance tonight. In improv, one has to be aware of “offers” from the other performers. The proper answer to an improv offer is “yes, and . . .” and learning to give this answer in action is the hardest part, I think, of learning improv. “No” is the answer that feels safer; the answer that keeps us feeling that we are in control of the situation. Now if I can just act accordingly tonight . . .

  10. Peter Yovu says

    Though the Car Talk guys slam on their brakes and flee Cambridge on foot every time they see my name on this blog, I would like to offer an appreciation for two poems by Michael Dylan Welch.

    Someone wrote to me recently saying he thought I’d over-analyzed a poem he’d written. Could be, but what I realized, and wrote back, was that writing about his poem was my way of enjoying it. (Ever enjoy a dream by talking about it, making associations and so on, and enjoying what someone else sees)? That’s the spirit of these comments.

    landing swallow—
    the ship’s chain
    dips slightly

    Because, prior to any thoughts about it, the poem feels and sounds right, I want to engage with it. I enjoy, of course, the contrasts it presents. I won’t name them all, but as they make a world, I see that this world has flying things and floating things in it, heavy and light things, and a little further in, things that are apparently fixed and things that apparently are free. It reminds me of my world, they go nicely together though not exactly comfortably; maybe they’re the same, and so I notice about my world that I am in it with a body which gravity has something to do with, keeping me on this earth, and I’m also in it with my thoughts and dreams, which gravity has less to do with.

    One thing about sound. The poem is short enough that when the O of swallow sounds, it continues for the duration of the poem and after, it is a drone behind the play of consonants and other vowels, as the ocean is an open sound behind my clunkiest thoughts.


    I believe it was Michael, correct me if I’m wrong, who some time ago wrote about how a haiku may be experienced differently when read on its own and when it is read among other poems by the same author, that sometimes the latter experience is the more complete, or gives nuance. I wonder how I would have viewed “toll booth” had a seen it in proximity to this poem:

    home for Christmas:
    my childhood desk drawer

    Probably a little differently. I’m not making amends here exactly for my for earlier post which was a bit more reaction than response. I still think the word “warm” is too directive; in the context of Christmas, I have to fight off a number of associations. But all this changes somewhat given a larger context.

    Maybe talking about this in this way gives the poem and haiku too much or misplaced importance, and by implication, gives me too much importance. But what I realize is that Michael writes poems I never could. This is true of other writers, of course. And I want him to “succeed” in ways that surprise both him and me. I’m selfish that way.

  11. Peter Yovu says

    Dialectic. There are variations of meaning inherent in this word. Here’s some of what my dictionary says: discussion and reasoning by dialog; the Socratic techniques of exposing false beliefs and eliciting truth; the Hegelian process of change in which a concept passes over into and is preserved and fulfilled by its opposite.

    If in this process, this dialog and mutual exploration, one takes into account the presence of feeling, the experience of the body and other elements difficult to name, we come to what many would agree is a sine qua non of haiku: that it invites the presence and contribution of the reader; in the act of reading, of allowing the poem to be written on the heart/mind/being, there is an exchange, sometimes warm, sometimes cool, or sour or disturbing…. It goes both ways—reading rewrites the poem; the rewritten poem is read anew and again. Change and exchange.

    In dialectic, seen through an understanding of haiku, there may be the key to what Bill Cullen and perhaps others find lacking in this blog. I see it is as a clear potential, that a multi-dimensional dialectic take place here, that, to use the analogy of painting, it is a canvas on which, once a form or color has been introduced, others are invited and drawn to respond and balance, or imbalance and challenge, dark here requiring light there, red here requiring teal there… Intellect balance by heart.

    Such a “painting” will go through many phases of tension and resolution and back again, but for me, there is one guideline: does what I have to say add to and further the exploration, or does it subtract from and block?

    John Stevenson wrote about actors and acting. I believe the art of improv lies in the participants’ ability to keep things moving, not send one’s partners down a blind alley, though I suppose an actor very skilled at this will find a way out anyway.

    Well, blogs may be governed more by the dynamics of chaos than by dialog, but I see the potential for something very good indeed here, and I will follow my own guideline as best I can.

  12. Peter Yovu says

    It would be wise of me to back off at this point, and hope that someone else, someone who might elicit a response and not a reaction, would join the… discussion. Maybe that will happen and I should be patient. But I don’t feel patient or wise at the moment.

    I believe it is very, very easy from behind a computer screen to objectify human beings whose only presence is words on that screen, and to reduce them to that representation, which is missing the tone of voice, the hesitation, the pauses, the sympathy and querying glances to see if one is being understood or not, and which, in friendship, allow the interruption of questions. I am very happy that Michael responded to my post and did not react. I think he understands that I was criticizing one poem, not dismissing a person, not objecting to a body of work I know he has nurtured over many years.

    It would seem that I and others here are being objectified. I can’t stop that from happening, but I can refuse it. I am not aware of anyone on this thread who is telling anyone else what haiku should be. For my part, I made it clear that preference and other factors might distort my judgement. I am open to being shown the error, or the limitations, of my ways. My openness, however, tends to shut down when I am attacked.

    Draw a line in the sand if you wish, Bill. I’ve said what I needed to say and now I’ll wait for high tide and the heart-line between sea and sky to gather me home.

  13. Bill Cullen says

    “Apparently, I am supposed to be the “you” of this charming comment, Bill?”

    No, Allan, I didn’t intend “you” with reference to you or any particular person. I was trying to point out the potential for a small group to dominate the rank and file in a forum like an internet blog. I did not indentify any people individually in my last post with the exception of taking exception to your unqualified comment about “anti-intellectualism.”

    Regarding “new orthodoxy” (or “new haiku orthodoxy”), I wasn’t the first to use the term.

    I see a lot of backslappers, Allan, from my past reading of these blogs. I would call them uncritical worshippers acting like sycophants at the feet of better known poets or editors.

    “its [i.e., haiku’s] very strength resides in the fact that its varieties and potentiality are infinite.” Yes, that is a true and vital statement.

    Bill C

  14. says

    “You take the ‘New Haiku Orthodoxy’ (to quote David again) and put it in a brown shirt”

    Apparently, I am supposed to be the “you” of this charming comment, Bill? Even though I am rather vigorously disagreeing with Peter Yovu’s position on the haiku in question? Or perhaps you hadn’t noticed that not-so-subtle point?

    This “new orthodoxy” is entirely your own invention, Bill–an abstraction that has no basis in reality. The people you are indiscriminately attacking here are *volunteers* who have provided content on this website. We do not agree with each other about many things–as any non-superficial reading of posts on this blog would reveal.

    How am I a “backslapper” when I’m disagreeing with Peter? What does “political correctness” have to do with any of this or the price of tea in China? Your words seem randomly selected.

    E.g.–I am a “fascist” for stating my own point of view, even though I have no ability or desire to censor yours? Please explain, in rational terms, how that works, Bill.

    “it’s the same few folks telling others what haiku should be and shouldn’t be.”

    What did I say haiku “should be,” Bill?

    I wrote: “its [i.e., haiku’s] very strength resides in the fact that its varieties and potentiality are infinite.”

    Is there something unclear about that statement?

    Further, I made no accusations against you personally. I simply characterized a *position* that rejects critical analysis. The term “anti-intellectual,” as in the rejection of applying the intellect to haiku, is quite precise, descriptively, in that context. You’ve given it an emotional and accusatory coloring unintended by me.

    It goes without saying that analyzing haiku involves a different order of mental operations than writing them.

    “Everything is never said.”–Michel Foucault

  15. Bill Cullen says

    Basho was reported to have said:

    “Is there any good in saying everything?”

    If some of the blog posters would keep that in mind when they add their comments, we’d all be that much better off.

    That isn’t being ant-intellectual: where I’m from they call that having the grace to say what you want to say without all the fawning and being politically correct for the sake of appeasing all the mutual backslappers who hang out together on the same blogs.

    You take the “New Haiku Orthodoxy” (to quote David again) and put it in a brown shirt
    and it’s the same few folks telling others what haiku should be and shouldn’t be.

    Some of us intend that that isn’t going to happen.

    Bill C

  16. says

    toll booth lit for Christmas—
    from my hand to hers
    warm change
    (Michael Dylan Welch)

    I find this a haiku worth entering and exploring. Much of what seems most important here is unstated yet implied, in the manner of haiku. The lit toll booth stands as an oasis in surrounding darkness. The contact between the driver/poet and the woman working through the holiday season is both fleeting and a matter of state-mandated taxation. After the moment rendered, the car disappears back into darkness. A line of other cars follows in its wake; a mechanical routine continues. The holiday season, as isolated in time as the booth is in space, soon gives way to the dead of winter. Probably only one driver among the unnumbered, namely MDW, thought to make a poem of this quotidian experience–and I admire that act, the excavation or translation of something many of us would not have thought to use as the basis for poetry.

    The theme here, it seems to me, is one central to the work of E. M. Forster–“Only connect.” It is not a sentimental theme, but a profound need in the midst of our darkness and alienation. In that light, some of the divisive nature of the comments following the initial post may appear ironic. I do, however, appreciate the idea that friendship is not sycophancy.

    Much of what I’ve said here merely augments the fine original comments of Ruth Yarrow (and some others that have followed).

    I reject two extremes–1) the anti-intellectualism that denigrates thoughtful, engaged critical analysis (for what else can show us why we value what we do?) and 2) intellectual or ideological commitment to the notion that haiku must be something and not something else, when its very strength resides in the fact that its varieties and potentiality are infinite. Worthwhile haiku must be entered with a liberal spirit, not portrayed reductively. And the best criticism, I believe, combines sympathy for the particular effort with lucid insight. That is not to say all efforts are somehow beyond criticism, not at all.

    In this case, I think Michael Dylan Welch has written, quite successfully, one kind of haiku–maybe not the kind some of us tend to value the most–but entirely successful and skillful when taken on its own terms and premises. I prize it for having wrested, in the manner of haiku, something worthwhile away from routine, oblivion, the surrounding darkness.

  17. Bill Cullen says

    Let there be some symmetry between haiku and the attempts to describe, clarify or understand them. Respecting the haiku way can be underscored by applying a lot of the same principles involved in haiku composition to the writing/editing of one’s own prose that takes haiku as its central focus.

    I take as axiomatic the following:

    1) No essay on haiku will ever supplant one good haiku that shows the way instead of telling about the way through long and windy corridors of verbiage. To use other words I have said before, the best commentary on a haiku is another haiku.

    2) Far more often than not, a 1000-word essay about one particular haiku will bring to mind Gertrude Stein’s description of Ezra Pound as the “village explainer” or the functional equivalent thereof.

    Bill C

  18. Peter Yovu says

    Michael– I talk about play, and I take Basho’s idea (a very warm idea because it would seem his heart was in it) to be about that: the play of light and lightness, even when light casts shadows. I will take thoughts about over-analysis to heart, and I’m sure they will evolve, but what I want to say now is that I wonder if it is possible—I’m asking myself—to bring this light treatment to comments, and even to criticism, on this blog and elsewhere. What you say, Michael, may illustrate and further this possibility.

    Generosity at times risks offering too much, more of oneself than may be wanted by another. How to negotiate this kind of thing on something as disembodied as a blog? Karumi, as I understand it so far, strikes me as a very mature, very embodied notion insofar as it would seem to be saying: if there is a hidden motive in your poem it will drag everyone down. And that may include wanting someone to like it.

    So I wish to be generous. Withdrawal (my native habitat) helps no one. I mark the presence and generosity of your post, Michael. We need to help each other to be helpful. But what is truly helpful?
    When Blake talks about friendship as opposition, I take that to mean risking contact.

    It is possible that some of what I say here—some criticism—is bogged down by hidden motive. I think that happens all the time, and when it is directed at me, I try to separate it out from what is likely to be useful in the criticism, and there often is something useful. Michael, let me say one more thing about “toll booth”, and maybe only 5% of it will be true: my feeling is that you want us to like it, to take comfort from it– and that prevents it from growing up.

    I say it as a friend, which means, as someone willing to be wrong.

  19. Michael Dylan Welch says

    Many haiku poets are familiar with the Japanese concept of karumi, or “lightness,” an aesthetic stance that Basho aspired to in his later years. I’ve contemplated what lightness means in haiku, and my favourite way to interpret it (not the only way) is that one TREATS THE SUBJECT LIGHTLY, and doesn’t manhandle it. This approach has been important to me for many years.

    Peter, I interpret your comments about my poem as sensing the possibility that I haven’t treated my subject, at least in this case, with enough karumi for your tastes. And you’re probably right. The positioning of “warm change” at the end, in a place of emphasis, with a deliberate double meaning, could easily make you feel manipulated. I’ve loaded up the poem with a Christmas context, or so it would seem. I had no intention to manipulate, especially because the poem came so directly out of personal experience, but I agree that I have not treated the subject as lightly as I or others have done in other poems.

    On the other hand, there are many ways to write haiku, and one need not be limited to any single way, so I’m glad that this poem does still seem to touch many readers. Moreover, because one CAN write haiku in many ways, THIS one is written this way, and others will be written in a different way — and both can be fine.

    I am also concerned about attempts to overanalyze when the point of poetry is to let it wash over you. W. S. Merwin was just interviewed on our local NPR radio station recently, and he said that the point of poetry is to be heard and felt, not understood — and that we try too hard to “understand” poetry, as if there’s always some secret meaning we have to pry out of each poem. But Merwin argues for the heart. Or, as E. E. Cummings said, “feeling is first.” Sure, we don’t want our scaffolding to be visible on the poem, and maybe you see scaffolding on my poem, Peter, where others do not — but I would bet that others see scaffolding on poems where you happen not to. Ultimately, I am pleased if this poem resonates with some readers. I do not expect it to resonate perfectly with everyone, such as if you live south of the equator and Christmas comes in the middle of summer! Or, more importantly, if the subject just happens to not be part of your life experience.

    I am reminded of something Jocelyn Conway once said to me — that a good haiku should make you care. Does my haiku make some readers care? I sure hope so — and I do believe it does. And maybe that’s all that matters. I hope they care about the person taking the tolls, and feel what they probably felt in receiving warm change. And maybe they care about the persona in the poem, which happens to be me, for being aware of that brief moment of interaction during the holiday season. I want to care about what people write about in their haiku. It’s their responsibility to select subjects and to craft the poem in such a way that I do care. One of the joys of haiku is how often, indeed, they do make me care.

    A further thought on karumi. Years ago, Brian Tasker reviewed the second issue of my journal Tundra. You can read his review at In his opening paragraph he says that the “ubiquitous haiku-liteTM make an appearance.” He then quotes some of my most favourite poems from the issue. Brian says, by way of quotation, that these poems “take the pith out of life.” What Tasker seems clearly not sensitive to is the utter brilliance of karumi in the poems he quotes, which I’ll repeat here. How delicate these poems are — even the one about the sack of clams! Again, this is not the only way to write haiku, but rather than take the pith out of life, I think they ARE the pith of life, and karumi such as this takes a sensitive reader:

    working late / in the office / someone opens a drawer
    Nikhil Nath

    a spool of thread / left on its side / summer rain
    Burnell Lippy

    midday heat / under the shade tree / an empty chair
    Penelope Greenwell

    morning twilight / a truck driver gently unloads / sacks of clams
    Alan Pizzarelli

    To me these poems all have the notion of karumi, of treating the subject lightly, as if trying to hold a soap bubble without popping it — which, in fact, might be a good definition for haiku. My point here is that I agree with you, Peter, that my poem, at least that one in particular, is not exactly an example of karumi, certainly not compared to the other poems I quote above, or hopefully others I have written — and that you have written. This does not bother me, though, because there are many ways in which one can write successful haiku.

    I would hasten to add, too, that Japanese poetry is rife with wordplay and double meanings, and careful placement of words for emphasis. These are the aspects of haiku that give translators the biggest headaches. We may get watered-down haiku translated into English as a result, at least sometimes — and this cannot be helped, just as our best haiku are probably watered down when translated into Japanese. In any event, I would say that not all haiku have to seek after karumi, nor do they have to always avoid what you see as issues in my poem, Peter.

    Sometimes, indeed, writing a good haiku is like holding a soap bubble without popping it. But I hope there’s room in this literature for haiku that might be flakes of snow on one’s tongue, or drops of dew in one’s palm.


  20. Adelaide B. Shaw says

    toll booth lit for Christmas—
    from my hand to hers
    warm change
    — Michael Dylan Welch

    I’ll be brief. I am made aware of the contrast of the poet going home or to a party at Christmas while this woman in the toll booth has to work, as do many other people. I feel sympathy for the woman and rejoice that I am not the one working. There is a contrast between the warm coins (because the car is warm)and the coldness of the toll booth. Beyond that, I see nothing sentimental or mushy. It is a moment in which the poet perhaps feels grateful that he doesn’t have to do her job, and as a haiku, it works for me.


  21. Peter Yovu says

    The question of importance has been on my mind today. I wonder how people would respond to the question: what to you is the importance of haiku? For me, a haiku is a poem, and poetry is important. It is important in the way that eating good food is important, and I want to be able to distinguish what is good for my body from what is not; the same for poetry: what is good and what is not– for my senses, for my clarity, for my love of language and truth …

    Haiku may be a tiny form, but poetry is boundless, and for me haiku is one expression of that boundlessness—it helps keep me connected and focused on a number of questions which I find important indeed, concerning language, imagination, perception , consciousness, and what it means to be human. What it means to be.

    But I’ve said a number of times before, in different ways, it is all play. Even at its most serious, it is play. I regard what I say on this blog equally as play—that is, I am willing to try things out, to find out what I have to say by saying it, even if at times it is my neck which is most exposed. Play, but not playing it safe.

    Bill, as you proposed it, I think it is *your* job to come up with a set of rules for writing commentary and to try them out here on the blog. I ‘m seriously kidding. I mean, I mean it.

    But to get back to importance. Here are two quotes,
    the first is from Cid Corman, from his preface to *Little Enough*:

    “Making haiku—properly embraced—is no more a business than making love or making life should be. It is a form of poetry– which means—if the word means anything—precisely where each word is a matter of life *and* death”.

    And this by William Carlos Williams, which I present as part of an interview I came across:

    John Felstiner: On the BART train this morning, someone said to me, “Ask Gary for one haiku I can take home with me.”
    Gary Snyder: I don’t remember who wrote this one, but . . .

    Walking on the roof of hell gazing at the flowers.

    That haiku makes me think of William Carlos Williams’ challenge to poets toward the end of “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:

    It is difficult
    to get the news from poems
    yet men die miserably every day
    for lack
    of what is found there.

  22. Bill Cullen says

    “The kind of over-analysis found in Peter’s comment, and the apparent need to imbue haiku with such weight and importance, keep me from spending any time at this site. It surely turns off more readers to the haiku genre than it attracts or inspires”

    Well said, David.

    There is a disquieting disproportionality between a tiny form such as haiku and the excessive commentary about the same on these blogs. It would be great to see some of these prose responses to haiku begin to emulate some of haiku’s touted virtues including concision and focus.

    Better yet, instead of giving extended commentary on a haiku, give us a better haiku or one that expands on the orginal haiku in new directions.

    We almost need a set of rules for how to write commentary on haiku.

    Bill C

  23. sandra simpson says

    To have a haiku create a reaction in its reader is a wonderful thing – whether that reaction be a smile or a shudder.

    I would suggest that readers do not want a steady diet of only one or the other – Pollyanna or Hitchcock – and that’s there room for, as previously discussed on another thread, both the edge and the centre of the table.

    The point of the Virals is that one poet chooses one poem.

    It’s a subjective exercise and one cannot (should not) hope to be in full agreement with every choice. One might say that the act of choosing is enough commentary, so we readers are benefitting from an act of generosity in that the chooser also provides his/her thoughts on the poem.

    My only gripe is that the virus seems to have hit only the Northern Hemisphere and mostly the United States at that. Don’t you people read anything else? :)

  24. John Stevenson says


    Your contrast of exoteric and esoteric reminds me of my college creative writing instructor, who was not pleased with my first effort (as I had not been pleased with the constraints of his assignment). He said to me, “Perhaps if I let you write about what you care about you won’t feel compelled to produce this esoteric bullshit.

    I’m stuck by how closely this eso/exo dichotomy parallels the contrasting styles of acting that I learned about as a theatre student. One approach is to totally submerge oneself in the character – the aim being to make each role utterly unique. DeNiro did some extreme things in this regard – gaining 60 pounds during the shooting of Raging Bull in order to play the same character over a thirty year span. The contrasting approach is to fit the role to the actor – the aim being to capitalize upon the innately artistic quality of the performer. Chaplin created a character that was the basis for nearly all of his movies. Think of Mae West, W.C. Fields, or the Marx Brothers. Thank goodness there are those who take one or the other approach and those who fill in the gap with various permutations. We are all the richer for having their examples.

    It seems to me that there’s a continuum in art that runs from, at one extreme, expressing oneself no matter whether anyone else likes the results and at the other, pleasing one’s audience, even to the extent that one is doing work that one does not oneself enjoy or value other than as a means to some other end. Each of us are somewhere along that continuum every time we begin a piece and most of us are probably nearer the middle of the road than we would like to think.

    I strongly relate to your idea that being surprised is an important experience in art. I love surprises and I’m very grateful that I can still, sometimes, surprise myself.

    PS “Man Carrying Thing” is one of my favorite Stevens poems!

  25. Peter Yovu says

    Beyond any stance or stab I or anyone else might take at a position, I feel there is a valuable discussion in all this, and I was hoping someone would ask a question of any or all concerned, so thanks for that Alan.

    For what it’s worth, let me say that I tend to write from the inside out—my response to Michael’s poem came from working my way out of it, having found myself ill at ease within it. And so, my language carries traces of the language used in the poem. By handled, I mean I felt manipulated. Yes, art in some way is manipulation, but here I specifically mean I was not trusted to my own feelings, but was helped, step by step, down a ladder of little surprise, from Christmas lights to hands to warmth.

    I’m not saying, by any means, that it was Michael’s intention to manipulate in this way. And I believe that had I had this experience, and had the language arisen seductively to gather it in, I might have had trouble seeing what had happened. I am seduced by my own cleverness and facility with words all the time and try to be on the look-out for what is often a false muse. I’m not convinced Wallace Stevens’ lines: “The poem must resist the intelligence/ Almost successfully” is all that useful here, but it seems to apply. I would say what in Michael’s poem needs to be resisted is the intelligence of the word “change” and its stressed place of honor completing the piece. Or maybe what needed to be resisted was the word preceding it – the coins were handled and made warm; I was handled and made gushy.

    Some of what I say may well reflect a preference on my part. It may be helpful to locate two approaches, not mutually exclusive, to writing haiku (or as I prefer, poems inspired and informed by haiku). One is what you might call exoteric: it begins from the outside, from experience which is captivating in some way and which the writer wishes to bring to language. The other, very broadly speaking, is esoteric: it begins, perhaps, with a snip of language which engages the poet, probably for unknown reasons, but which she wishes to explore, perhaps discovering that it relates to some experience, inner or outer, that was never fully understood, or which bypassed awareness and went directly into some warehouse waiting to find its proper place.

    Both can be approaches leading to discovery, the writer’s surprise which well managed will also be the reader’s surprise. And this brings up for me what may be a worthwhile discussion. Here’s what I see, perhaps distorted by my preference: a tendency by many writers to confuse presence of feeling with poetry; and here, by poetry, what I mean is the element of discovery, which may be the discovery of one’s actual feeling(s), or the discovery of a way to speak which carries the shine of the joy, or of the pain, or of the sadness, or the clearing away of habitual seeing into fresh perception. Sentiment is what we carry and hold on to; feeling carries us, and may lead us to us to strange places.

    But not everyone wants what I want from poetry, or haiku. Nor should they.

  26. Paul Miller says

    While I understand Peter’s reaction to sentimental poems (and how many doll, puppy, cats—especially cats!—haiku have we seen that are often little more than cute verses), I disagree that there aren’t discoveries to be made in this poem. While “warmth” tells a lot and leads to a warm Christmas-by-the fire feeling and notions of “reach across” and “connections” that Ruth notices in her writeup, an additional question this poem raises is: why is this noticed only at Christmas? Surely the poet has crossed this bridge at other times of the year—and probably thought nothing of the person taking the toll. Why do we only navigate these good-will-to-men/women feelings at Christmas? Or express love for our loved ones on Valentine’s day? I think there are more access points to this poem than meet the eye.

  27. says

    Interesting points both Peter and David make.

    Along with feeling duty bound never to say a good word about a haiku again, I was particularly intrigued by Peter’s “I feel I am handled at every point”.

    Could you expand on this, and does this include all writing, and not just poetry/haiku?


  28. Kathy Earsman says

    Dear Michael, it is so good to see you here and to see winter in your palm, but here in Australia all coins are warm, espcially at Christmas when it is O*$#^&^%* hot.

  29. Merrill Ann Gonzales says

    I may not be changed by this haiku, but I certainly was touched.
    The tactile sensation was unmistakable…and place me firmly inside the haiku. I rather enjoy haiku that transports me to the scene of the movie…

  30. Yu Chang says

    David Giacalone has a good point.

    This poem resonated with me the first time I read it, and it still does. Peter Yovu’s Turn to Earth together with books by Michael Dylan Welch, Ruth Yarrow, and other favorite poets occupy a special corner on my book shelf. Here is my poor translation of a popular Chinese saying: good words are often not sweet enough to the ear.

    How about “friendship is a multi-faceted splendor?”

  31. says

    A haijin friend pointed me this evening to Peter’s Comment. I’ve always liked Michael’s poem and have never thought of it as particularly sentimental. On the surface, it seems that Peter is taking himself (and haiku) way too seriously, but I’d prefer to think that he is trying to spur controversy and discussion, with tongue firmly in cheek, as a send-up of some of the over-the-top analysis that can be found within the New Haiku Orthodoxy, and its too-cool poseurs and pedants.

    The confusion/confounding of feeling or empathy with sentimentality is puzzling, as is the notion that sentiment has no place within high-quality haiku. Such a ban imposes artificial restrictions on the haiku genre that seem strange coming from people who seem to want to force the rest of us to accept virtually any handful of nonsense words as publishable haiku.

    I’ve said it before: The kind of over-analysis found in Peter’s comment, and the apparent need to imbue haiku with such weight and importance, keep me from spending any time at this site. It surely turns off more readers to the haiku genre than it attracts or inspires.

  32. Peter Yovu says

    With the respect which is due to Ruth Yarrow and Michael Dylan Welch, about both of whose work I have good things to say, and with respect also to what I consider the celebratory nature of these Virals, I must voice a different view of this poem. As sentiment, it works quite well. As a poem, and as a haiku, it fails. The sentiment overcomes any edge of artistry; the presence of warmth, and the energetic turn of the last line are not sufficient to elevate it. There is no sense of discovery here, of revelation. I feel I am handled at every point; feel more pushed than moved. I am not changed. That is asking a lot of a poem, but I feel we need to ask a lot of ourselves and of each other. “True friendship is opposition” said Blake. I hope what I say here will be seen in that spirit. That is the hand I wish to extend, the hand I hope others will extend to me.

  33. Michael Dylan Welch says

    Thanks for the kind words, Tom and Alan (and of course Ruth). This poem was inspired by stopping at the toll booth to cross the San Mateo Bridge. It’s one of seven major bridges in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s not nearly as famous as the Golden Gate or Oakland Bay bridges, but it’s by far the longest. I was on the Hayward side, heading west to where I lived in Foster City. At the time, I think the toll was 75 cents, and while waiting for several cars ahead of me to pay the toll, I held three quarters in my hand. By the time I paid the toll, they were warm, and I became conscious of that warmth at the moment I gave the coins to the toll collector. My hand brushed her hand, and I felt that her hand was cold. We both smiled. As I drove away, I wondered if she had noticed the warmth in the change.

    Actually, I originally wrestled with this poem, wondering if it would be better as “from her hand to mine.” I don’t feel one has to stick with the exact details of original experience (one is, after all, creating a poem, not a diary entry), but in this case I decided to stick with “from my hand to hers” although I’m not sure why (the rhythm is essentially the same either way). Other than that consideration, this was an easy poem to write. Thanks again for the kind words.


  34. says

    This is one of my favourite haiku.

    toll booth lit for Christmas—
    from my hand to hers
    warm change

    It shows the necessary discipline of word choice. If the poem had been written…

    toll booth lit for Christmas—
    warm change
    from my hand to hers

    … it still would have been good, very good, but that flip of lines has brought in so many more dimensions.

    The key line is ‘warm change’ and it always had to be the last line.

    Each line is superbly judged for maximum (but subtle) effect.

    A screenplay could be written out of this.

    toll booth lit for Christmas—
    from my hand to hers
    warm change

    It just makes me feel good reading this, not just for the craft involved, but that it carries so much for me to enjoy and expand upon, and it’s so full of humanity without the need to lecture or go down the saccharine route.

    Definitely a classic, but for all the right reasons.


  35. says

    a lovely poem! Notice how the gap lights up (no pun intended) the base; the gap is indeed itself dark AND light. For me, this is the genius of haiku. The equivocal nature of the exchange represented in the base is “doubled” by the plurivocal meaning of the single line; only for this “moment” at Christmas does this exchange include the supercharge, across the gap (well treated by Ruth) of this special moment. It’s not fantasy but the gift of the poem to think of THIS moment hyperbolically as a moment both in and out of time.

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