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
*poem about disappointment but it’s only the word sea. — Mike Andrelczyk, Is/let, March 6, 2017.
Danny Blackwell had a lot to say about his own choice:
This is a poem that immediately captured my attention and spoke to me in a language I felt familiar with. We all live in a relatively meta-narrative age these days. In other words, we have long since dismissed with a complete suspension of disbelief, and frequently need to maintain an ironic distance from our fictional universes. By that I mean that we like to see the cogs of the machinery; we like to have the narrator tell us it’s all a trick, that it’s all a farce, and in doing so liberate us from feeling like fools — but only so we can go back to immersing ourselves in these fictional, or poetic, worlds that are so necessary for us.
In full knowledge that I am talking at length about a poem that is a self-contained universe and that is basically self-explanatory, this piece by Mike Andrelczyk could be described as a poem about a one-word poem — a one-word poem, we should add, that doesn’t exist. Except that it does. It exists in our minds the moment we complete reading the poem, as we dispense with the narrative machinery and envisage the word sea — alone and unadorned. And yet in this poem, unlike the infamous one-word haiku “tundra,” we are told what to think. (Bad form according to the haiku commandments).
Essentially what we have here is the following conjunction: Sea/Disappointment.
Now, I don’t think that this is at all hard to relate to. Also, it is done with maximum precision, while invoking nature. So, whatever one feels about what is and isn’t haiku, it is undeniably operating, to some degree, within the flexible parameters of the haiku genre in Japanese. (Brief, one-line, nature-oriented, poem.)
True, the poet has ‘sinned’ by ignoring the writer’s mantra of “show-don’t tell” because here we are being told what to feel, and not shown. But the end result for me is almost the same. I see/sense/feel/hear the sea, and the sea that is present in me after reading this work is filtered through a particular emotion (that of disappointment). This poem could come across to some as a cold post-modern exercise in empty artifice — but not for me. Would it be better if instead of telling us it’s about disappointment he created an image that provokes that emotion in us? I guess this is not the time or place for such value judgments. They are simply different approaches. After so much meta-narrative exposure, there is something to be said for cutting out the middleman, and dispensing with such contrived manipulations.
In essence, what is written, and what we are reading, is a performance instruction. Pianists, for example, don’t shout out the letters fff when they read them on a musical score. They simply play louder. In other words this poem is the word sea with performance instructions — the word performance here being one and the same thing as “reading.”
Regarding the formal elements, Mike Andrelczyk has used a unique format: an asterisk, followed by a poem that is essentially a description of a poem — or a description of itself, if you will — with the asterisk functioning like a sort of footnote. The author has used this format for a number of works, which were featured in the experimental journal Is/Let, but of all the ones I read, this to me was the most powerful. I like to see poets developing a unique language, and developing and pushing forms, thereby pushing readers to consider and reconsider what is and isn’t poetry, and what is and isn’t haiku.
On a more Zen note, I am personally intrigued with the idea of toying with the asterisk as a kireji (in this case, a kireji that precedes the poem — the cut coming before we know what is being cut) and that this new kireji implies disappointment, in the same way that the Japanese word kana (哉), so ubiquitous in haiku, has a wide range of interpretations — commonly being rendered in English with the exclamation “Ah!”.
And is there any reason why an asterisk couldn’t come to stand for disappointment in the conventions of an, as yet unexplored, literature?
It is possible that the English language and English-language haiku are still left wanting in terms of a satisfactory equivalent to the Japanese kireji employed in haiku.
Having seen how the poet has used the asterisk in other works, it is not the intention of the poet for the asterisk to represent disappointment. I am simply playing with potential possibilities for innovation in English-language haiku, and I think that imagining that this asterisk is a kireji (albeit a pre-poem kireji, that cuts before that which is cut, and that is written and yet is meant not to exist, and that implies a certain predetermined state, such as disappointment) is an interesting diving board from which to reevaluate some of our prejudices about the Japanese genre of haiku, which we continue to “translate” into modern English interpretations, with all the weight of History, Culture, and Narrative on our shoulders
I, for one, am quite moved by this disappointing sea, although I’m sure there are many readers out there who are disappointed that this is what passes for a haiku these days.
As this week’s winner, Danny gets to select the next 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!
first frost keeping pace with a stranger’s cane — Alexy Andreev, Bones