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
I chucked the urn too — R. P. Carter, Frogpond 33:3 (2010)
Paul Miller offers some food for thought about the poem:
I think this poem illustrates the importance of the haiku’s two-part structure, because this poem feels like half a haiku, and after reading it, I feel a bit unfulfilled.
The poem suggests that after spreading someone’s ashes (at least that’s how I read it) the poet then “chucks” the urn as well. Yet, I don’t know how the poet feels about it. Is the poet happy by the deceased’s demise, as perhaps suggested by the choice of “chuck?” Or is the mood somber, and the discarding of the urn meant to remind us of all that was lost by the deceased’s death, the “chucking” done in frustration?
This is where an additional element (say, a seasonal reference) could help guide the reader.
Garry Eaton finds the poet eschewing ceremonial tradition:
There’s urns, and then there’s urns, Carter seems to be saying. There was the Grecian urn memorialized by Keats. The ashes it may have contained were unimportant, and receive no mention in the poem. There was also the jar in Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar,” probably just a Mason canning jar, which the poet co-opted for a different type of ritual, placing it on a hill in Tennessee so it stands out, not for its beauty in representing a grand tradition of mourning, but for a utilitarian plainness that “made the slovenly wilderness surround that hill.”
Carter’s effort is more candid. It brings us to a moment just after the ashes have been ritually poured, when the bearer needs to decide how to dispose of the urn, perhaps a Mason jar, or a tomato tin. Clearly, this is not an expensive urn, or one with any particular sentimental associations, despite the recent death. And it reminds us that we are sometimes asked to do things that we would not otherwise do, and do not always perform them according to protocol, though they seem to call for a more respectful treatment, either in poetry or in disposal of the corpse. From this perspective, I am also reminded of W. C. Williams’ poem, “Tract,” in which the poet urges citizens to eschew the ceremonial tradition of mourning that emphasizes the wealth or importance of the deceased, and to let the bones of the human condition plainly show by taking the plain pine coffin to the cemetery on a rough, open, wooden wagon drawn by an ordinary carthorse.
By these comparisons, one can clearly relate this haiku, in all its honest plainness, to a long and complex tradition of memorial poetry, including elegy, which like a good haiku it plainly contradicts, to black, humorous effect. For contrast who remembers Lycidas?
Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his wat’ry bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.
Lycidas, by John Milton
Robert Kingston encounters a touch of suspense and amusement:
It could be a key line from a “some mother’s do ‘ave em” scene.
Ah yes! Here are images of the lovable character of Frank Spencer played by the exceptionally talented Michael Crawford. An accident prone husband who, though trying to be the master tradesman, inevitably ends in or with a pile of mess.
In this scenario, I could visualize him standing among the broken pieces, with an array of facial expressions of both confusion and befuddlement, attempting to piece the urn together in front of a disgruntled crowd.
Alas, I think R. P. Carter has intended a touch of suspense and amusement to what for many is a serious moment. The “aha” moment, I believe, is tucked away in the discarding of the urn along with the ashes. Carter captures well the fakeness of symbolism and materialism, choosing instead to harness the most precious things from a loving relationship in the safest of places: our heart and mind.
Cezar-Florin Ciobîcă discovers emptiness in the moment:
This is a disturbing scene that upsets the reader. The urn keeps the remains of a loved one, a relative or a close friend. Before scattering ashes, the people present at the funeral take their farewell for the last time from the one who has passed away, patting the urn. Somewhat upside-down, the poet seems to say that he chucked the urn too, but nothing happened, because he felt nothing, he heard nothing to give him any sign that things would be otherwise; hence, the great disappointment of one who hoped for a miracle in receiving a subliminal message.
What remains behind are the memories that such a moment triggers in each participant. The soul of the dead one is not there, it cannot be held captive in a container, because it flew to another realm.
The final adverb “too” accentuates, on a phonetic level, the impression of emptiness, and reminds us of an old biblical quote: “vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas” (Ecclesiastes 1.2)
Lynne Rees uncovers a sense of story:
I’m initially hard-pushed to call this a haiku, at least in the traditional sense. Where’s the kigo? Where’s the juxtaposition? Is the single declarative sentence too direct a statement for the subtle understatement we associate with haiku poetry?
But what I do respond to is the powerful sense of story in Carter’s five words. I’m reminded of the “alleged” Hemingway six word short story: “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” It has the same compressed power that can be unpicked to unravel a family story of a complicated parent/child, or spousal, relationship, a story of death, of saying goodbye, of anger or resentment or indifference. This compression would allow me to write a 1,000 word story to precede this handful of words. I can fill in the spaces with a whole gamut of behavior and gripping human emotion.
But Carter chose not to do that. He/she gives us the final bow. And it’s here that the haiku moment resides: with a brutal honesty.
Margherita Petriccione is impressed by the brevity of the line:
Even if, in contrast to the poetics of a haiku, this writing is expressed in a past time, it still presents itself with the immediate impact of a moment really lived. There is makoto (“authenticity”) in this experience, and there is karumi (“lightness”) in the thrift and simplicity of words. The extreme brevity of a monoku appears as the only possible form; one cannot imagine this haiku otherwise expressed. But what makes it a work that remains impressed, one of those haiku that you would like to have written, is the way, after a moment of skidding, it hits you violently in the heart. It is like a thin blade that penetrates deeply and lets the spirit of the reader and writer find a communion without words, the sharing of an uncontainable pain. A gesture so immense in its agony, so indescribable, is there in the detached simplicity of a few words. Because what makes this work even more valuable is the detachment in narrating the dispersion of loved ashes, and the impotent launch of the now empty urn.
As this week’s winner, Margherita 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!
no telegram today only more leaves fell — Jack Kerouac, Book of Haikus (2003)