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
it's all I ever wanted . . . fireflies — H. Gene Murtha, The Heron's Nest XIV:4
Beth McFarland found the elegiac qualities of the poem compelling, and offered this dithyramb:
Some of us (the younger ones?) want it all. We want the fire! The more we want it, the more elusive it gets. What we try to grasp and capture isn’t always destined for us after all. If we do catch hold of something, the magic may be gone instantaneously.
At some point we realize that what’s out there for us is something bigger, way beyond our analyzing comprehension. The wonder of events we cannot control in their beauty. While it lasts, enjoy the elusive spectacle!
And Maureen Virchau personally echoes this quasi-mystical feeling:
It’s one of those perfect summer nights. The kind I’d like to bottle. Lightning bugs dart across the backyard, sprinkling the darkness with glitter. It’s nature in all its magical glory, and I don’t know how I manage not to burst with feelings of amazement. Stripped of the day’s burdens, I am reminded of myself as a child, chasing fireflies with a mason jar. Someday soon these particular insects will perish. Someday I will return to the soil as well. Life is temporary. Happiness is fleeting. Gratitude is forever.
But not everyone felt this was an unqualified success. Bertrand Agostini comments:
Although I am rather fond of the firefly image, this haiku has a somewhat ecstatic approach which I find too distant from the wabi-sabi philosophy of austerity and modesty (the use of the first person singular in the poem). True, the poem is economic and simple enough. Yet again, the poet’s personal desire is strong here. Perhaps I am too traditional, but I think a haiku should be devoid of egocentrism.
And Paul MacNeil found an echo of the poet’s life evident in the poem:
Gene died so recently. I knew him only via e-mail correspondence over the years, yet I “knew” him. This haiku represents a yearning for the peace that eluded Gene personally. He was not too unlike the 8th Century Chinese poet Li Po (Li Bai) whose death is apocryphally attributed to his trying to embrace the moon in its watery reflection.
The relaxed, slow beauty of firefly randomness is neither here nor there. Murtha was a naturalist and a wonderful observer and poet with such a troubled life. He reached out to fireflies perhaps to touch, to hold on to — and yet?
Peter Newton’s close analysis takes this week’s award. He writes:
One of the biggest challenges for any haiku poet these days is to tackle a familiar subject and make it new. Fireflies, for example, are an often written-about insect. To write about fireflies is to step through a veritable minefield of “spring breezes” and “autumn leaves.” That’s the level of difficulty I’m talking about when attempting to create a truly fresh and universal haiku with “fireflies.”
But Murtha, in his six-word poem gets right to work with the first word: “it’s.” Is it “it is” or “it was?” A nuance that invites a moment’s pause. And a contraction. Much like the bug itself. Though we do not know this yet. We begin the poem “in the dark” so to speak. “it’s all” What’s all? we are invited to ask. Sounds like something important. “I ever wanted” the poet answers as if we were strolling along side-by-side, reader and writer. But it could just as easily be an interior monologue. The self answers the self. In the middle of the poem we are in the midst of a familiar sentiment. The act of reminiscing. A throwback to childhood or some other youthful period in one’s life. A simple spontaneous realization, which could also function as an alternate definition of “firefly.”
And out of nowhere — in line three: “fireflies” appear ending the drama of the opening lines. Ah, mother nature, she snaps us out of it doesn’t she. Gets us out of our heads. With lightning speed line three rescues us from the ennui that often accompanies mulling over one’s past. What a welcome relief these little guys are. Fireflies. I didn’t know myself how much they can ease a life’s worries. How they can erase the past with the very instantaneuosness of their own existence.
The first part of the poem comes across as a question the reader must ask himself: what have I always ever wanted? The obvious answers are love, happiness. Or, to be loved, to be happy. But Murtha’s answer might be construed as a combination of both. Fireflies exist to mate. To perpetuate life. Seeing them ignites in us an age-old desire to be alive. Isn’t that all any of us has ever wanted?
As this week’s winner, Peter gets to choose next week’s 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!
nothing I didn’t know before maple after maple — Melissa Allen, Notes from the Gean 3:2 (2011)