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
quietly we become audience — Hilary Tann Frogpond 27.1
Linda Weir applauds the poem:
This poem shows the power of haiku, as it expresses so much in so few words. Haiku are often about small moments keenly perceived, and Hilary Tann’s ‘quietly’ haiku is such a moment, one that we’ve all experienced but I’ve not seen captured in other haiku. Beginning with the word quietly, as a reader I expected this poem to have an emphasis on sound, which it does, but it also layers in so much more for me. Reading the words, I hear that moment when the crowd’s conversations die down and the group of individuals is transformed into an audience. Without a word about sight, it calls to my mind the darkness as the house lights go down in the movie theater or playhouse. It invites me to step back into my memories of such experiences: horror films where the audience participates shouting warnings to the soon-to-be-next victim or applause as the Star Wars theme begins again on a big screen. It plays with me in other ways, as it makes me think about ‘we become audience’ as that sense of community a group of mostly strangers can have almost instantly and yet is often lacking in public life these days as we divide ourselves into various affiliations and avoid experiencing that sense of togetherness. Returning from the mental travels the haiku inspired, I realize that I’ve just been audience to an excellent haiku performance, and give the poet a standing ovation.
Ajaya Mahala thinks in terms of phrase and fragment:
The whole haiku may be containing only the phrase. If any break is there, it is after the adverb ‘quietly’ but that too coincides with the remaining part without leaving any scope for juxtaposition. But the nicest part of the haiku is that juxtaposition takes place with an unknown background or seasonal event that is not explicitly stated. The haiku turns out to be a juxtaposition of the known with the unknown, of the visible with the invisible.
The haiku may specifically make reference to a particular source of sound, say, a cuckoo’s call casting its spell on every listening soul in the neighborhood. It may also be the growing sound of a waterfall that we are approaching and here our quietude becomes the contrasting backdrop to the growing sweet noise of the waterfall. The sources may be multiple as it happens when there is spring everywhere. There are distinct changes in the sky and earth, and virtually we become silent “audience” to these transformations taking place on a grand scale.
There can be innumerable haiku situations that this particular haiku of Hilary Tann suggests. The use of pronoun “we” indicates collective engagement of several persons in the scene. There lies the magic of group perception that often the experience of a single observer fails to portray. For this reason, we enjoy a song more in a concert by becoming a part of the grand audience rather than playing it solitarily for one’s self. The poet has tapped the power of a pronoun in her alchemy of this short poem.
Hansha Teki’s talks of communion:
Within the apparent simplicity of this four-word statement a transformation is in progress. Every word contributes to the sense of reverence the poem creates and evokes. There is an immediate sense of being in attendance at a performance by a music ensemble. As the performers come out, a hush descends and the many “ones” become one as attentive listeners to the music that is about to follow. A revelation is at hand just as there is in any time of total attentiveness to any encounter which is passed to us through any or all of our senses. The revelation of the “other” begins for each who has “ears to hear” and in which communion is experienced.
Clayton Beach further dissects the pronoun possibilities:
This ku on one hand is meditative and hermetic, tapping into a long tradition of haiku on the topic of the contemplative life and haiku as a poetry of selfless observation. It is interesting in that, while the opening adverb “quietly” imbues a sabi flavor, in the original sense of the Japanese language the root of sabi is loneliness and here this ku uses the plural “we.” In a sense, the “we” could be read as a generalization or “royal we,” but it is interesting to note the choice of pronoun and how it invites the reader into the ku to become both participant to the action of the poem and accomplice to the writer. “You,” would make the poem abrasively imperative, while “I” would seem egoistic, so the “we” inhabits a more open position, tapping into our shared humanity.
“We become,” can be taken on its own, as a statement of fact of our continual “becoming” in the process of what Jung would call individuation on one hand (a “cogito ergo sum”) and on the other hand it can pivot into “we become audience,” turning the focus outward to the act of observation and a voyeuristic, detached and passive observation of life and the external rather than the inward, lived experience of true engagement and unencumbered being.
In this sense, the ku is both about the inward qualia of life-experience and self, but also concerned with the outward process of observation; the world becomes the stage of a drama to which we are mere audience. The lack of a direct object of observation makes this somewhat ironic, for, in calling attention to the fact of our continuing observation and experience of consciousness, it causes a mental break away from the ku, with a disjunctive effect arising from the fact that in order to truly enter this ku, one must leave it and become attentive to the actual reality outside of the poetic world.
In that sense, this haiku is somewhat of an anti-ku, at least in the orthodox, haiku-moment centered sense of English-language haikai, in that there is not a single, timeless moment captured in words for the reader to enter and become one with, but the infinite continuity of the stream of the “now,” to which we as readers become attuned every time we enter or re-enter the poem; the subject is the “nowness” of being. As a poem, this functions somewhat as a “machine that turns itself off,” or in this case rather a “text that serves only to open a doorway that leads out of the text.”
Mary Stevens is influenced by the biographical:
Learning that Hilary Tann is a professional musician and professor of music changed this poem for me. I had imagined a group of friends at a dinner party, where one talkative friend dominates the conversation. With no opportunity to get a word in edgewise, the others succumb to the role of “audience.” Another possibility could be a small child with a flair for dramatics capturing the attention of the rest of the family through her singing, dancing, or tantrum.
Discovering Tann’s relationship to music made me look at this poem with the literal sense of “audience.” While this poem can be read simply as an audience settling down as the music begins, it also captures the way music draws each individual into a certain emotional state—and the magical and subtle way it works on The Collective. Individuals become connected through the same mysterious experience. By intermission we are changed and the topics and quality of our conversation is different.
And then there are those moments when we—as the world, a country, or a subgroup in a country—have watched major world events on television together, at first speechless and many of us covering our mouths: the assassination of Kennedy, the towers crumbling and collapsing on September 11, 2001, and various clips of mass shootings and acts of police brutality on yet another African-American man. These moments give us pause. When we speak again, what are the first words we tend to say? As a witnessing collective, what do we want them to be?
Danny Blackwell ponders sound and silence:
While preparing this week’s re:Virals I learnt, as did some others who have contributed comments, that the author of the haiku under discussion is a musician, and I just noticed that each line has 3 syllables, and the haiku has the effect of sounding, to my ear at least, as a run of triplets. Even taking into account the possible pauses between lines, the lines still tend to have a feel of triplets because of the natural rhythms and stresses of the English language. This is not, however, something I noticed during the many readings I made of this poem, and only occurred to me when I decided to take on the potentially odious and pedantic task of analyzing it, and it may be that the meter is of negligible import in comparison to the content, and that the rhythm arises accidentally, as it were, from the message the poet wanted to convey. (Passing from musical to poetic terminology, the meter of this poem would be mainly considered as consisting of dactyls, although one might consider line 2 as a molossus or an anapest—meaning, in layman’s terms, that the stress is placed equally on each syllable of “we become,” or with a stress falling on the final syllable.)
But syllable-counting aside, I wonder if the poem speaks to the phenomenon of the musicians, before or after performing a piece, as they listen to the applause of the audience, and therefore become the “audience” of the audience, paying witness to the sound of the public, turned performers with their sonic applause. (The resulting paradox being that the poem could explicitly revolve around the word “quietly,” while implicitly being about the noise of a grateful audience.) Or maybe the musicians become one with the audience in the reverent silence between songs, which unites the musicians and audience as one collective “audience,” all performing a truncated version of John Cage’s 4’33’’.
Peter Newton is spellbound:
I’ve always been drawn to this poem. It’s ability to contain so much. The poem transports the reader to one specific and familiar moment. The instant of sudden calm when a number of assembled individuals agree that they are part of a larger group. The many become one. The small talk ends abruptly. Voices trail off. They are all in this together, by choice. In four words Hillary Tann communicates this occasion. Something about this extreme brevity translates the magic of the performance about to be witnessed. A play? A concert? Who knows? There’s a collective respect for the stage. For those who are about to perform. An unwritten contract. The audience adds their attention, thus completing the essential ingredient to suspend one’s disbelief. A spell that is only broken with applause when the one audience becomes many again.
As this week’s winner, Mary 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!
never touching his own face tyrannosaurus — John Stevenson, Acorn Number 27, (2011)