Contemporary Poets Comment on Selected Haiku
an empty wheelchair rolls in from the waves
This haiku has a nice element of surprise. The first line attracts our attention — why is the wheelchair empty? The next line, a one-syllable verb, tells us that the wheelchair is in its typical action rather than at rest. The final line gives us more information, but instead of completing the thought, it opens up more questions — what has happened to the person who had been in the wheelchair? Is s/he out in the waves and in danger, of is this merely an object that the tide has taken out and is now bringing in again? What shall we think, what shall we do?
the shadow in the folded napkin
This is a perfect example of the ability of a haiku to suggest rather than define. On the surface, it seems like a passing observation, but the appearance of an unexpected shadow moves us into a world full of mystery. What is a shadow in our world of objects? Is it as real as the objects? Will the shadow vanish if one opens the napkin, of will this just create new shadows? Do we live in a changing world of shadows that we habitually ignore? Yet the simplicity of the phrase does not allow us to become too philosophical. A moment of perception: a shadow in a folded napkin — that’s all.
from behind me the shadow of the ticket-taker comes down the aisle
Cor’s senryu has a cinematic quality to it — an Orson Welles film noir, with its shadowy underworld of corruption. But this miscreant is a young boy who has sneaked into a baseball game. “Shadow” is the seasonal word, indicating that it’s a sunny day — summer. “Shadow” also harks back to the 1950s radio program, The Shadow, which Cor probably listened to as a boy. The Shadow was a crime-fighting vigilante with psychic powers. His refrain was: “The Shadow knows.” Whether this is an actual ticket-taker looming up behind him or only the boy’s imagination is part of the mystery. And, like both a good mystery and a successful senryu, we want to know what happens next.
dispute at second base the catcher lets some dirt run through his fingers after the grand slam the umpire busy with his whisk broom
These two brilliant baseball haiku share a focus on a detail that is a magical part of the game just beyond the major and most noticed happenings every game. Fans gather to watch the futility of batters at a dominating pitcher’s best stuff or to witness a star batter coming through over and over, finding a way to get a big hit or perhaps clubbing a triumphant homer. Besides the big acts in the game are nuances and subtleties that provide depth and layers to the joy of witnessing our National Pastime.
Catchers are traditionally the ‘field generals’ of most teams, and very often how a game goes can hinge on the catcher guiding a pitcher or the pitching staff through the game and season. In the “dispute at second base” we do not know exactly what the dispute is but can imagine a base runner has just attempted a steal and been called safe on a very close play, with the catcher having made a tremendous throw to try to nail him. While the dispute unfolds with maybe even the manager out arguing the call the catcher stays at home and with a poignant measured sense of hope and recognition of the fate of the call being beyond his control he takes and handful of dirt and lets it slip away “through his fingers.” This is not something you see every day but when you see it you know it as something indisputably from the realm of art and poetry.
The same can be said about the second haiku where an umpire is cleaning up after a big fly ball has cleared the bases in what is one of the most hoped-for moments for any batter . . . a grand slam. Four men crossing home plate on one hit and no doubt celebrating the huge event at home plate creates quite a scene, and then order is restored by the umpire redefining home plate and moving the game along to the next act.
Both these baseball haiku are gems at capturing the precise action that is not to be missed. It is that observant eye that characterizes Cor’s wonderful haiku. A deserved close look at any of his haiku brings the reader to a insightful place where poetry and art live in the eye and heart of the beholder.
a stick goes over the falls at sunset
A warm autumn day. The sunlight warm on my face and shoulders. Basking. The light comes and goes . . . the light not here, then here, and then gone. I am not here. Now I am here. And then not here again. The cycle of life. As we watch a stick going over the falls in fading sunlight. So what, so ordinary, But what a so, a so filled with wonder, it is extraordinary. As the Zen masters say, the “just so” of things as they are, the big it, is all there really is, where the ordinary and extraordinary are one. As in this ritual: the Hawaiian hula dancer throws a white flower lai into the volcano in prayer to the goddess Pele; the ritual seems extraordinary, but on another level it is ordinary: a plant thrown into a pit. Just as the ordinary stick becomes extraordinary in the sunlight in our lucid perception. All depends upon our perception: of being totally present, of having the doors of perception cleansed a la William Blake. This present moment is the seed of wonder that grows the more we attend to it. And even if all the world’s libraries (of paper and cyber books) were destroyed, like the Alexandria Library eons ago, something would remain because human beings possess this sense of wonder we can always tap into. So we watch the stick go. And then we, too, go. Yet the wonder remains for the next stick at sunset. The next open eye to perceived the grace of luminosity.1
hot night turning the pillow to the cool side
I would call this a haiku of recognition. When you read it, you think, “Oh, yes, I’ve done that myself.” That is, you recognize the experience, and that evokes a pleasant recall. It’s one of my favorite kinds of poetry. Pope wrote of the “often thought but ne’er so well expressed.” And that applies to Cor’s poem. What is well expressed here? Everything really. The first line sets the scene and season (summer), the second gets things going, and the third line resolves it. I think the last line is just right. In fact, it’s so right that it’s hard to imagine it otherwise. But in the hands of a lesser poet it might well have been. It might have been something like, ‘to get relief,’ which would have been DOA. Cor’s poem has a pleasant sound structure as well: lots of t’s, and the l’s of pillow/cool chime nicely.2
dispute at second base the catcher lets some dirt run through his fingers
A classic. Here’s the replay: there’s an argument raging at second about the runner (out or safe? tag before leg? leg before tag?). The catcher is viewing the scene from home plate. He’s not directly involved in the dispute. He’s biding time, so to speak, waiting to see what the outcome will be. As he watches, he lets some dirt run through his fingers. (Reminiscent of sand trickling through an hour glass.) Catchers do that. It’s one of their habits. They’re closer to the ground than anyone on the field and they often pick up a handful and then let it slip away. Cor observed it. Details. Details. That’s why he’s a hall-of-fame haiku writer.3
raining at every window
It has become fashionable recently to try one’s hand at the monostitch, but Cor van den Heuvel is one of the poets who was instrumental in introducing the form back in the early days of American haiku. Though best-known for his impressive outlay of three-line haiku, he has a number of iconic one-liners to his name as well (not to mention “tundra”, the classic one-worder). Why do I like “raining” so much? Good haiku call attention to. And that’s what Cor has done here and is so adept at generally. With just four words he is showing us the rain. The observation might at first seem to be about location, but in fact it’s about plenitude. The rain is a miracle. It’s all around us.4
an empty wheelchair rolls in from the waves
The scene is painful, troubling, alarming, and mysterious. Good haiku demand the reader’s participation and imagination, dropping the reader,5 leaving the participant to fill in the missing details. This art is easier said than done. Too many missing details often lead to vagueness which is to be avoided, but here we have mystery combined with high tension, which of course is quite different. This tension must be resolved by the reader. Where is the invalid? What happened and why? Male or female? Young, old, or middle-aged? Why is the person alone rather than being accompanied by a close friend, family member, or nurse? Why can’t the person walk, because of problems related to aging or due to a serious accident? Is the condition temporary or permanent? We do not and cannot know or determine the answers to these and other nagging questions with any certainty, but in any case, regardless, those precise details are not so important because the outcome is inherently the same, liberation.
This haiku is imbued with sabi and kagiyaki at their best. The use of sabi is a technique employed and not an uncommon characteristic in Cor van den Heuvel’s work. Sabi,6 beauty associated with aloneness and in the finest haiku like Cor’s, includes timelessness. The element of kagiyaki7 (that which causes glee or exultation) is also prominent though not readily apparent, very subtle and deeply embedded, thus raising this haiku to a superior and spiritual level.
Maybe the person confined to a wheelchair was bored and frustrated and therefore decided to go for a swim alone — good therapy in more ways than one, or perhaps the situation had become intolerable and the invalid came to the sea to consciously or subconsciously drown. Either way, there is resolution resulting in liberation. In both cases, courage and human dignity reign.
I live in Puerto Eten, a sleepy fishing village on the northern coast of Peru. I would like to die here, like the “grandfathers”. “Grandfather” is the name I give to any very old pelican that flies from the nearby pelican colony on the sea cliff to the shore, very near the water’s edge (like the invalid in the wheelchair) where waves gently lap calmly and endlessly — as “grandfather” stares intently with wise and contemplating eyes at the vast sea, waiting with great dignity for the moment of death to arrive.
Finally, I cannot help but recall the final scene in Herman Hesse’s long novel, his masterpiece, Magister Ludi (also published as Das Glasperlenspiel – The Glass Bead Game) when Joseph Knecht “disappears” in the lake when going for an early morning swim at an old age, different, but nonetheless similar to the “grandfathers” and the mysterious occupant of the wheelchair in Cor van den Heuvel’s haiku, courageous and liberated.
And isn’t that how life terminates when death is faced with courage and dignity, somewhat painfully and disturbingly; death definitely a mystery, and the infinite fluid human spirit, joyously and triumphantly liberated in eternity?
There was Cor van den Heuvel’s take on life in a modern civilization from his chapbook, The Window Washer’s Pail, printed in 1963:
in the hotel lobby the bare bulb of a floor lamp shines down on its distant base
1) Perhaps wordier than I would like for a haiku. Certainly things could be done to tighten it up. But this is from 1963 or earlier. If anything it should follow the 5-7-5 format. So have to commend Cor for making us think differently about the format.
2) Where’s the nature in this? Cor is introducing subject matter that is not typical. What kind of hotel are we in? A bare bulb gives it a seedy feel. They can’t afford to cover it up with a fancy shade. There is light but not natural light. And he doesn’t even name it. We know there is some since it shines up the lamp’s base. Could be a very plain round one or something worrisome with claw feet.
And another scene from modern life.
through the small holes in the mailbox sunlight on a blue stamp
But one that is fading away. But when printed — also from his 1963 chapbook, The Window Washer’s Pail, it was the way to receive written communication from others. So there we have it: Cor is home from work and as he checks for his mail the sun is in the right angle to light up one piece of mail and it is the stamp. I think the scene creates a positive feeling — sunlight and a piece of mail — with a real stamp.
H. F. Noyes
Cor is a masterful poet of nostalgia. Two favorites from his senryu are
old movie — the aisle lights on the red carpet
end of the line the conductor starts turning the seats around
This haiku, however, has a more universal effect in its uncanny capturing of the actual feel of a warm summer afternoon:
summer afternoon — the long fly ball to center field takes its time
It restores, for me, my boyhood days of vacant-lot baseball — the lazy play on those warm Sunday afternoons when the game went on too long, but nobody wanted to be first to call it a day.8
a stick goes over the falls at sunset melting snow the sun shines into the back of an empty truck
Like many of van den Heuvel’s haiku, these have an atmosphere of metaphysical loneliness, a desired aesthetic state of communion with the universe, what the Japanese term sabi.9
end of the line the conductor starts turning the seats around
I think about this haiku a lot. Every ending is a new beginning. I sense a certain melancholy that the ride is about to be over, yet renewed that I can stay on the train and start again, to look out the window and see into people’s back yards. “End of the line” is a metaphor, as are many of Cor’s haiku that depict daily life.
the shadow in the folded napkin
What I have always found uniquely striking about Cor van den Heuvel’s haiku is the clarity of his images. In fact, I have felt that this clarity is his true subject. Through images presented in such sharp and undisturbed focus, with nothing between the reader and that which is presented, we see how mysterious and almost miraculous the most ordinary experience truly is. What is most profound is also most ordinary but it takes extraordinarily intense vision to make this apparent.
- haiku mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness & Open Your Heart (Boston: Shambhala, 2008), 123-124. ↩
- From “Remarkable Haiku,” bottle rockets, Volume 13, No. 1 (No. 25) 2011. ↩
- From “The Pleasure of Their Company,” bottle rockets, Volume 12, No. 1 (No. 23) 2010. ↩
- From “A Primary Art,” bottle rockets, Volume 14, No. 1 (No. 27) 2012. ↩
- The Sea and the Honeycomb — A Book of Tiny Poems edited by Robert Bly; “Dropping the Reader” — a preface by Robert Bly; pp. ix-xi; Beacon Press, Boston, 1971. ↩
- A History of Haiku — Volume Two edited by R.H. Blyth; “Introduction” by R.H. Blyth; vii-viii; The Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, 1964. ↩
- “Talk by Kenkichi Yamamoto — interpreted by Takako Lento”; 8-12; Frogpond Vol. 1, No. 4, 1978, Haiku Society of America, New York. ↩
- Favorite Haiku Volume 3 (Winchester VA: Red Moon Press, 2000). ↩
- Modern Haiku 43.2, Summer 2012. ↩