The philosopher Bertrand Russell completed his magnum opus, Principia Mathematica, at the age of 31. He lived to be 98, but remarked late in his life that he was never again able to concentrate for any length of time as he had been forced to do during its composition. Russell and his peers may have considered this simply a kind of character flaw, but today we recognize it for what it was: burnout. Russell was wise never to have forced the issue, since it’s not simply a matter of will. Or rather, if one makes it such a matter, it is never done without serious and adverse consequences, such as emotional exhaustion, absenteeism, personal deterioration, family deterioration, and depersonalization. Instead, Russell was able to function perfectly well for his long and estimable career without ever revisiting the severe constriction that burnout imposes upon us. He went on to play significant roles in public life as a logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic and political activist, and even won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950. Not bad for a burnout.
This topic, which may figure more in the securing of our livelihood than literary prizes for most of us, seemed for some reason to elicit a flurry of metaphors from our respondents. Metaphors are unusual in haiku for the simple reason that the haiku is itself a metaphor, and nesting one within another challenges the mind to know how to parse its sense. Consider a poem such as this:
a hedgehog rolls into a prickly fist — hiding its softness [David Dayson]
We have “fist” as a metaphor for a hedgehog, whose action in turn is to be taken as a metaphor for burnout, with a further metaphorical explanation added in the third line. It seems like too much. This is also an example of a poet not trusting his readers sufficiently — we can all surmise why a hedgehog rolls into a ball, so the third line simply pads the given image instead of offering a second, contrasting image, which might provide the opportunity for the poem to deliver more. Just off the top of my head, things like “exam week” or “tax day” or “pregnancy test result” or “crossword error” seem suggestive, and of course there is the overwhelming temptation to say something about one’s boss.
But this was far from the only one. Here’s one that offers (to use a clichéed metaphor) a silver lining :
heather glows from the ashes — of a gorse fire [David Dayson]
and this one resides in the silver lining itself:
equanimity — in that calm zone between rust out and burn out [David Dayson]
However, I don’t wish to dismiss metaphor-driven poems out of hand. Take, for example, this one:
hairline cracks of compassion fatigue — time to be grounded [David Dayson]
This is quite clever in the making, I think, and the manner in which it extends its conceit through to the third line, culminating in a “remedy,” is deft. The parallel metaphor of metal fatigue is followed through exactly and nothing is wasted. While not expressly in haiku mode, it nonetheless does everything its author hoped it would do, and is a success for that.
My top prizes, however, all reach beyond cleverness, to consider the consequences of burnout, rather than describing the state itself. If we trust the reader to supply what burnout is and looks like, then this strategy of looking into what follows offers greater depth and interest. For instance, my third choice:
asking why paper flutters in an e-mail world [David Pilling]
conjures for me a truly despondent state, in which the sufferer has been reduced nearly to inanity, or worse, metaphysics. The poem also reminds me of the dark spaces occupied by such books as Philip K. Dick’s Do Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?, a place where the mind is adrift and left to its own devices to find its bearings. This also has a wonderfully slick rhythm, each line expanding by a syllable, and building in momentum and also finality with each of its single syllable words in the ultimate line. It has the feel and catchiness of a jingle, not so simple a thing as it may seem.
My second selection
paperwork left on the train to the coast [Marion Clarke]
is a hinge poem, where the middle line relates to both first and last lines, but differently in each case. The lack of punctuation creates the ambiguity, which is then played out in telling fashion. Is it that the paperwork has been left behind because the poet has taken the train to the coast, and, presumably, a holiday away from such paperwork? Or is it that the paperwork has been unintentionally forgotten on the way to a business meeting on the coast? Or perhaps it was not unintentional at all, but instead some passive-aggressive ploy to force a reaction — by the boss, by the client, within herself? And is the playing out of these options rather a consideration of options for someone in the throes of burnout? What’s the worst than can happen? And should that happen on the coast, am I the better for it or no?
Holding the reader in suspense is a sure way for one’s poem to get more attention. It seems we like a bit of mystery. Here the poet has the advantage of what we might term a “fourth line.” The poem was written, and consequently read, in the context of a theme. So the reader has already in her mind the idea of burnout that grants the poem its extra bite. Without it, the poem works the same, and is still pleasing, but a bit less incisive, and for this reason it has topped out here as second-best.
My top choice this week is a bit of masterful craft:
lagging behind the snooze button over and over [Ernesto Santiago]
succinctly catches the immediate tension of the situation — fatigued, the poet need the extra rest, but taking the extra rest, he falls farther behind. And his remedy, a couple extra minutes of sleep, can never be enough to rebalance his system, so is as futile as seemingly necessary. And the fact that this is “over and over” points out that this is a feedback loop, that there really is no way out of it without breaking the system. What a nightmare! At least the poet has recognized it, which is difficult enough to do.
Repetition can be very effective in haiku — with so few words at one’s disposal, the special emphasis that a repeated word brings to a poem nearly always stops the reader — and so this third line is an effective literary device, and of course a tellingly human one. Solving this problem will take objectivity and resolve — or else acceptance, so the poet can go on to be a logician, or mathematician, or historian, or writer, or social critic, or political activist, or even some combination of these or other things. The bar has been set high. Sweet dreams!
feeling burnt out on behalf of others a companion dog — Ernesto P. Santiago * too tired to sleep . . . the half moon's descent through thinning leaves — Polona Oblak * bonfire night Guy Fawkes and I both burnt out — Rachel Sutcliffe * never saw it coming the stroke that ended his career — Celestine Nudanu * after work tryst here too he just goes through the motions — Roberta Beary * home from work he searches my face for a smile — Pat Davis * sideways skid pumping the brakes between night clouds — Gail Oare * pink slip our debate switching to the household budget — anna yin * the old GI doc . . . he can't stomach one more leaky gasket — Michael H. Lester * raking the embers of my former self burnout — Madhuri Pillai * driving to the office I wonder if this road could lead me to Rome — Maria Tomczak * supernova — the office star gets a boost — Martha Magenta * out of order sitting on the toilet crying again — Elizabeth Moura * lunch bell a leaning tower of coffee cups — Enrique Garrovillo * burn out the formality of happy hour after work — Michael Henry Lee * after the burn out time to turn the music up and . . . just dance — Katherine Stella * I no longer accept this imposed work Consult my analyst — Angela Giordano * burning this candle at both ends meltdown — Karen Harvey * Hamlet’s burnout and mine to be or not to be — Angelee Deodhar * touch switch the desk lamp won’t turn off — Olivier Schopfer * four-day work week i see myself staring at the wall — Willie Bongcaron * my rumpled shirt don’t give a shit no more — Mark Gilbert * burnout syndrome — not pausing for air the barking dog — Ana Drobot * a broken butterfly over the nettles development talk — Kerstin Park * this dark image In the restroom mirror one last cigarette — Marietta McGregor * after all she with her unfinished novel flat on the bed — S. Radhamani * burnout — a cup of green tea quenches the stress — Elisa Allo * daily task wishing it were EOD Friday — Angelo Ancheta * interview moving down a rung in questioning tears — Erin Castaldi * work stress running out of the best days — Eufemia Griffo * About to unfold: the moonflower the switchblade — Stephan Massi * work work work . . . in a japanese daily suicides again — Marta Chocilowska * burnout treatment — coming back at work with the sunburned face — Tomislav Maretic * spinning head — too many bits to deal with — Anna Maria Domburg-Sancristoforo * exhaustion first out of the starting stalls the racehorse put to grass — Lee Nash * Thoughtstorm looking for a reset button — Stefano Riondato * the burnt coffee he drinks anyway — dark days — Jessica Malone Latham * overwhelmed blaming my muse for writer’s block — Cezar Ciobika * grounded worker bee the parched sizzle of the coffee pot — Jennifer Hambrick * major tournament kings and jacks look alike at the forty fifth board — Paul Geiger * storm-cracked branches in old heaps of wreckage; my office, again — Timothy J. Dickey * burnout smiley emoji a face I once owned — Alegria Imperial * unfinished day agreed to defer fixing targets — Srinivasa Rao Sambangi *
Next Week’s Theme: Man v. Machine
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 5 October 2015.