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
fields flooded beneath the surface, somewhere the river bends — Christopher Herold, Woodnotes 17 (1993)
Alan Summers finds nuance:
A nature/natural history haiku with a hint of mysteriousness at first. Just like trees, the rivers are not only above the ground. I always puzzle why our blue planet is called Earth, when Blue or Water might be more accurate.
What of the river beneath the surface? The term is actually ‘groundwater’ and yet much of it happens underground. The water from rainfall and snowmelt moves underground, slowly, slowly: It passes through various formations called aquifers that are permeable rock which contain or ‘transmit’ the “ground” water.
It’s quite possible that, as an American, the author Christopher Herold may know that groundwater supplies drinking water for over half the population of his home country, and for almost all of its farming community. That’s a vast body of water, and an invisible one that shifts and coils around the U.S.A.
So what we see on the surface is only an inkling of what is happening. Perhaps if we shorten the word ‘inkling’ into ink, the dark liquid of an old machine called ‘pen’, that far more happens under the surface of a haiku, as well, where it wends its way around the world via the Internet, or to use an old term again, as it ‘surfs’ the internet.
The double poetics of the opening line, via both alliteration and inversion, instead of ‘flooded fields’ starts to suggest this will be a literary incursion into something that makes the world go round, metaphorically. We can perhaps tell this is an early haiku due to the use of the comma, and contained within the ‘middle’ of the middle line. The comma, for haiku, is little used in the 21st Century, which is a bit of a shame, as it creates its own bridge of nuance:
“The Bridge of Nuance is a term I created when I looked at how we often undermine our own haiku by leaving out important bits of grammar. A haiku builds up its meaning, or atmosphere or mood, just like any good piece of writing or film direction will do. From the opening line the poem starts to span a gulf or valley, it lifts words and transports us over that space, just like a bridge is designed to do. It’s as if we arc our words over a chasm, and they can fall if we do not pay attention.”
Quote from: “How a house passes along the train of haiku” by Alan Summers (March 2018)
The opening line kicks off, and both the trick of reverse ordering of the phrase and the alliteration, moves the poem into another alliteration. Again, it’s much more than just a poetic device for its own sake, it’s a vehicle of meaning, as the flooded fields are taken below the ‘surface’ somewhere. We have a great hook because I feel we want to know what lies beneath: and what lies below a river flooded river but the same river, in a different form. We never really lose the river, and the loss of the surface ground is, thankfully, at the moment, only going to be temporary. But as so many sailors know only too well, the river is always there, in its many forms.
There is the third alliteration spread over the last two lines, and ‘beneath’ and ‘bends’ equally notch up the tension and mysteriousness. Alliteration can easily be overdone, even with three words starting with the same letter, but a triple set of this poetic device in such a small piece of a poem is outstanding.
As this week’s winner, Alan 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!
it’s not me he punches the window in anger — Robin Anna Smith. Poem taken from the Haiku Foundation feature Haiku Windows: Broken Window, ed. KJ Munro (February 2018)