One of the ways we determine that a writer is masterful is in the way he or she controls the possible interpretations of his or her assemblage of words. Over the course of long works — novels, say, or epic poems — a certain amount of license is permitted, to help the author carry the momentum forward (though in the very best of these works, we might feel that there is not even a single unwarranted word). In the reduced compass of haiku, however, there can be no looseness. Every word will be scrutinized, every combination of words tested, every possible nuance or accident duly noted. If a poet cannot assemble half-a-dozen or so words without misstepping, we might feel, then he or she is not worthy of our attention.
But of course it is not so simple as that. Language is slippery, and it is exactly this slipperiness that makes poetry possible. In a world of exact one-to-one correspondence, we would indeed have command of the facts, but we would surrender the stuff that makes the facts matter. The good news is that we don’t seem to be in any danger of this happening any time soon.
In light of these comments, then, I offer the following:
Fritz My unwelcome lover Get off [Patti VanderKooy]
These six words open themselves to several immediate interpretations without our even really trying. Is this a good thing or a bad? If we note that the poem is lively, is it not our own imaginations that is the source of that liveliness? Does the poet intend all these interpretations? We have no way of knowing, but since the various readings that come to mind do not necessarily reinforce each other, I would be inclined to think not. So what has been accomplished here?
Further, the poet has an advantage not generally available to haiku poets: the poem was written within the context of a themed challenge, so a reader would know that at least one of the intended readings must have to do with a broken air conditioner, or the consequences of one. Certainly knowing this poem exists in such a context alters at least one of my possible readings. In a way this is a violation of the spirit of haiku — sort of like adding a fourth line. This is one of the reasons why haiku very rarely include titles.
This is not intended to disparage the poem, which entertained me for some time. It is simply to suggest the ways in which your words will be considered when you offer them publicly. It is one thing to divert one’s self — in such instances, anything goes, and the only criterion is that one is pleased with it. But as soon as we endeavor to make communications of these poems, additional elements come into play, and managing those elements is a challenge we all shall face.
Several poets used this opportunity to address larger issues, in particular global warming. Making a haiku topical and still having it work poetically can be tricky, as doing so asks the poem to serve two masters, which usually elevates one at the expense of the other. Two in this vein slightly more successful than most:
global warming turns us from office denizens — to world citizens [David Dayson] a heat wave sows the seeds of doubt about — global warming [David Dayson]
In both instances there is no doubt about the political content being master, and the poetry suffers (indeed, they are merely statements) but the enlargement of mind in the one instance, and the humor and ambiguity in the other, make them worth noting. One other worth mentioning falls into the ekphrastic tradition:
overheated my brain warps like a painting [Ernesto Santiago]
The poet conjures an image that relies upon the cultural knowledge of the reader, and so might easily be missed. But if I’m correct that he intends Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory” then this is a fun, and telling, offering.
My three winners this week, as usual, offer something more. My third choice may surprise:
air con gone our temperaments become — mediterranean [David Dayson]
Is this a disparagement of certain cultures? Undoubtedly it may be taken so, and perhaps will be in some quarters. However, it is also certainly a kind of insight for the poet, in the terms the poet can process and communicate. Taken in that light, one might find here a solidarity of spirit rather than a parody or criticism, and it is in this light I offer it for your consideration.
My second prize uses the event as a trigger for memory:
turn on the fans — daydreams of childhood ice cream vans [David Dayson]
This is handled with much dexterity and charm. With the air conditioner working we are insulated from our environment. When it breaks, however, we are reduced to moving the air about with fans, and that warmer, moister sensation calls up recollections for the poet of the days when cooling refreshment came not in an electric box but in the form of a frozen treat from a traveling vendor. The movement from the more abstract image of the daydreams (“childhood”) to the specific (“ice cream vans”) is deft, and the simple rhyme, unusual in haiku, is suggestive of a child’s perspective and phrasing, suitable to the content of this poem. This might easily have been the top winner.
However, this week my first prize goes to a homelier reality:
briefing on the broken air condition(er) dead fly [Ernesto Santiago]
The poem I received offered “broken air condition” so I have taken the liberty of presuming the poet (or subsequent typist) intended “broken air conditioner,” and it was on the basis of this adjustment that I evaluated the poem. It is difficult to state exactly the relationship between the fly and the state of the machine, but its effect strikes me as forceful and inevitable. The poet does not say the broken air conditioner (or rather the resulting atmosphere in the conference room) has killed the fly, he merely records the two circumstances and allows them to speak to one another. This is the best practice of haiku, where the reader bridges the gap for himself. There is a dark humor to be found in this comparison, too, between the (presumably live) attendees of the briefing and the dead fly. Is it a suggestion of what is to come if the situation prevails? This is kept in play in a neat technical way, as well, by making the middle phrase a hinge line, which may relate to either the first or the third line. A very strong effort in several ways, and a worthy top winner.
Here’s hoping you are all staying cool.
blistering heat . . . how much he misses his old ACU — Willie Bongcaron * heated seminar dripping on the participants the CEO’s words — Celestine Nudanu * a broken promise — sweat on an upper lip — Mark Gilbert * broken air con endless moaning from the battery fan — Rachel Sutcliffe * clouds lobotomy cut with pure incisions play misty for me — Katherine Stella * broken; the air . . . also on the fritz this tape deck — Ernesto P. Santiago * no air conditioning — I dot the i with a drop of make-up — Maria Laura Valente * starlight room — a multitude of stars on the ceiling — Doris Pascolo * broken air the sweat shop closes early — Michael Henry Lee * heat in the office! in the air conditioning the lizard’s brood — Marta Chocilowska * AC failure our reserved boss warming up — Angelo Ancheta * blown fuse — neither the boss nor the AC working — Angelee Deodhar * on the ceiling a gray caterpillar . . . ducting needs repair — Enrique Garrovillo * heatstroke at work the college nurse plies tiny ice bags — Carmen Sterba * air conditioner problem trying hard to keep my cool — Olivier Schopfer * July heat wave the office AC starts an early retirement — Tiffany Shaw-Diaz * air conditioner out they shed their disguises — Pat Davis * volunteering to run all errands no A/C — Debbie Feller * not a breath sails droop on the Sargasso sea — Paul Geiger * Broken air conditioner The summer enters slowly from the window — Stefano Riondato * broken air con her short skirt raises the temperature — Andy McLellan * still no A/C a sheet of paper shivers under an oscillating fan — Gail Oare * without air conditioning . . . wishing for the cold of the North Pole — Eufemia Griffo * the broken AC — sound of a fly buzzing along the hallway — Tomislav Maretic * busted ac — the deadbeat file spawns 10 paper fans — Roberta Beary * broken air conditioner — everything slow-motion . . . except the flies condizionatore rotto — ogni cosa rallenta . . . tranne le mosche — Lucia Cardillo * we call it a day . . . home early before the kids — Madhuri Pillai * hot blows mocking at this junk now — S. Radhamani * coffee popsicle: even thoughts melt on the keyboard — Elisa Allo * broken a/c — what the math boils down to — Chad Lee Robinson * AC broken the class writes snow poems in tree shade — Marilyn Walker * office airconditioner management’s other broken promise — Marietta McGregor * commuting — defective air-conditioner on a new bus — Valentina Ranaldi-Adams * Air conditioner off — From my grandmother’s fan fresh memories — Nazarena Rampini * office room — not even a thread of air that moves my hair stanza d’ufficio — nemmeno un filo d'aria che muove i miei capelli — Angela Giordano * the muggy atmosphere . . . she blames it on her menopause — Adrian Bouter * freon stains down the tenement walls . . . a night of long sirens — Mark E. Brager * broken air conditioner not tonight — Lee Nash * broken AC I steal the neighbor’s fan while they’re out — Susan Burch * just a fan a drop tumbles along my back . . . solo un ventaglio una goccia mi rotola lungo la schiena . . . — Lucia Fontana * so much depends upon a working air conditioner three-toed sloth — Jennifer Hambrick * the Board chooses to ignore climate change limit switches tripping — Devin Harrison * summer air an iced coffee from a secret admirer — Anthony Rabang * heated discussion with the maintenance man broken air con — Karen Harvey * broken office air conditioner the comfort of dressing casual to work — Adjei Agyei-Baah * searing heat folding a fan from the test paper — Cezar Ciobika *
Next Week’s Theme: Getting Fired
Send your poem using “workplace haiku” as the subject by Sunday midnight to our Contact Form. Good luck!
From October 2014 through April 2016 Haiku Foundation president Jim Kacian offered a column on haiku for the London Financial Times centered on the theme of work. Each week we share these columns with the haiku community at large, along with an invitation to join in the fun. Submit a poem by Sunday midnight on the theme of the week, from the classical Japanese tradition, or contemporary practice, or perhaps one of your own, which you might even write for the occasion. The best of these will be appended to the column. First published 23 June 2015.