Dojin’s Corner, Geppo, Spring 2018

In the spring of 2018 I was invited to be a guest commentator on poems offered anonymously in the November 2017–January 2018 issue (53:1) of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society’s quarterly journal, Geppo. These comments appeared in the subsequent issue, February–April 2018 (53:2). Also commenting were Emiko Miyashita and Patricia J. Machmiller. Here I offer the observations I wrote for the poems I selected, plus poems selected by Emiko and Patricia. Although the poets were anonymous at the time of making the selections, I’ve added the names that were revealed when the comments were published.

        mountain lake stillness
        not even a ripple from
        the descending snowflakes

                —Zinovy Vayman

[my comment on Patricia’s selection] What a gentle snowfall this must be if its flakes do not cause any ripples in the lake. I take this poem to be early in the winter because the lake has not yet frozen over. I can see that the poet may have kept “from” in the middle line to give each line approximately the same length, but if this were mine I would move it down to the third line. Not only does this prevent what I see as an awkward line break, but moving “from” puts more emphasis on “ripple”, and then “the” could be cut.

        getting old—
        I fill my pill box
        with sighs

                —Susan Burch

The bittersweet humor of this poem resonates with me today in ways that I suspect might not have happened ten or fifteen years ago. Once a week many people fill up their pill boxes to help them remember whether they’ve taken their medications on any given day. And here the poet is not just filling the box with pills but with sighs, a lament on growing older, perhaps even a gentle protest against its challenges. Internal rhymes (fill/pill and I/my/sigh) also give the poem cohesion and perhaps add to the humor. Although no season word is given for this poem (and might be out of place since this is an indoor poem), it feels like autumn, doesn’t it?

Emiko and Patricia suggested that the first line could have been stronger, more at right-angles to the poem’s main subject. Emiko suggested that the first line could be something like “dog-eared catalog” or “untuned piano,” to add more to the poem, since the last two lines already speak about getting older. Patricia suggested adding a seasonal reference of some kind. In response, I wrote, “You make good points about how the first line could be improved—I agree, though I still found it easy to identify with and appreciate this poem.”

        the end-of-row pause
        in the knitting clicks
        New Year’s eve

                —Barbara Snow

[
my comment on Emiko’s selection] A pleasing domestic scene, but not just any night of knitting quietly at home, but New Year’s eve. Here the person is content to stay at home rather than going out to celebrate the New Year in a more raucous fashion. The pause in the knitting needles seems to be just the same as the person’s pause at the end of the year.

        winter night
        driving home
        your way

                —Ed Grossmith

We don’t know if it’s snowing, or if the roads are icy or frosty, but we know it must be cold. The days are short, and driving is just a bit more difficult. What’s left unstated is whether two people are driving together in this vehicle, and one person is deferring to the other regarding which route to take, or if just one person is in the car and he or she is taking the route suggested by another person (which leads us to contemplate the nature of that relationship). Either way, the route being taken is surely the safer one. However, another way to interpret this poem is that the choice of route isn’t affected by any inclement weather but by choosing to drive by another person’s location, with the chance of perhaps visiting that person on the way home. Perhaps this interpretation is less likely, but it gives this deceptively simple poem added reverberation. Sometimes naming the season can be just right for a haiku, but another thought here is to consider whether it might benefit the poem to change “winter night” to something more specific, such as “snowy night” or “frosty night,” to give the poem a little more character.

        not yet ready
        to let go
        the autumn sea

                —Karina M. Young

My personal tendency in reading and writing haiku usually favors specific images and concrete actions, but here’s an effective poem that takes a more abstract view of an experience. We do not know why a person is not yet ready to let go of something, or what that something is. Surely it’s an emotional issue of some kind, and the poem’s withholding of this detail empowers readers to engage with the moment to supply their own reason for not being able to “let go.” The fact that this is an “autumn” sea suggests that, whatever the issue is, it may well have been building for some time—or related, perhaps, to the autumn of someone’s life. Or it could be a moment of scattering someone’s ashes at the seaside, and not being able to release those ashes just yet, to let them scatter with the wind into the ocean waves. I find it satisfying to dwell in this poem, letting it take me, like the unmentioned wind, wherever it will.

        thinning winter fog . . .
        the trees start to come
        out of the woods

                —Elinor Pihl Huggett

[
my comment on Patricia’s selection] Of course, the trees aren’t coming out of the woods at all. This is a poem of perception, and it does indeed look like the trees are “coming out” as the fog thins. Something unstated in the poem is how the trees must be bare of leaves, if deciduous, because it’s winter—the trees are thinner too.

        melting snow pile . . .
        the lengthening handle
        of the snow shovel

                —Elinor Pihl Huggett

[
my comment on Emiko’s selection] Meteorologists or home weather enthusiasts might have a snow gauge to measure how much snow has fallen or accumulated during a storm or throughout the winter season. But here we have the opposite—a way to measure the snow’s melting. The shovel hasn’t been used to clear the snow recently, but seems to have been left in the snow pile, which may cause us to wonder about the health or busyness of the person who usually shovels the snow. But now it’s spring. Soon the shovel will be free of snow and can be hung in the garage until the next season’s snowfall, and hopefully the person who hadn’t been shoveling the snow lately will be in better health or less busy. Even if there’s no story behind why the shovel has been left alone, we can still celebrate the coming of spring by the shovel’s measurement of the snow’s melting.

        rap music
        races past me on a bike
        winter sun

                —Johnnie Johnson Hafernik

[
my comment on Emiko’s selection] This haiku may be seen as an example of synecdoche, a type of metaphor where a part of something represents the whole. The music itself isn’t racing past, but the music player is. In this case the bike and its occupant are racing past, presumably carrying some kind of music player. The poet’s first awareness, though, is that the music is racing past, and then that perception moves from sound to sight in seeing the bike (which could be a bicycle or a motorbike). And all of this takes place in winter sunshine—perhaps it’s still cold out, but the sun hints of warmer times to come.

        weeds caught
        in lake ice—
        the trips we never took

                —Christine Horner

[
my comment on Emiko’s selection] We are left to wonder why this trip was never taken, whether due to money or health problems, perhaps a political reason. We can imagine any number of causes, which helps to engage the reader. For whatever reason, the trip wasn’t taken, and the poet might well have felt trapped, just like the weeds caught in lake ice. But of course the ice will thaw in the spring, and perhaps the trip might be possible in a later season. So although the moment here is tinged with sadness or regret, the unfolding of the seasons still provides a glimmer of hope.

        winter harbor
        a houseboat's square windows
        light up

                —Phillip Kennedy

[
my comment on Patricia’s selection] This poem easily engages us with its immediate images. Pleasure boats are used most often in the summer, of course, but this is a houseboat, perhaps even a place of permanent residence, and thus could be lived in all year round. Sunlight is fading on a winter afternoon, and the houseboat’s occupants have turned on their lights as a stay against the darkness. An unspoken part of the poem is the emotion of the observer who notices this, perhaps feeling a flash of empathy for the houseboat occupants as the observer walks past or sees the boat from a distance.

        swerving
        after I hit it
        pothole

                —Phillip Kennedy

This senryu reminds us of what we’ve all done—making a correction on the road after it’s too late. And perhaps the same is also true on the road of life, metaphorically speaking. Although a senryu doesn’t require a season word, one thought here is to consider whether adding a seasonal reference might be worth exploring. To do that, the poem could also avoid the repetition of saying “it” and then “pothole” (which is what the “it” is). For example: “swerving / after I hit the pothole . . . / mackerel clouds” (or choose your own seasonal reference in a new first or third line). However, such a choice erodes the poem’s humor, leaving the author to decide what tone he or she might prefer, whether leaving the poem as a senryu, as it is, or giving it a haiku feeling, with some sort of addition. I’m inclined to leave it just as it is.

        commanding the road
        coyote stops, stares—
        winter woods

                —Carol Steele

[
my comment on Patricia’s selection] We may immediately wonder who or what the coyote is staring at. Is it us? Is it something else? Either way, the coyote is in command, and we as observers should be wary. I hesitate a little on the fact that we are told rather than shown that the coyote is “commanding” the road. Can this be implied in some way? Sometimes the haiku’s most important thing needs to be taken out so that it can be suggested, even if the poem has to take a risk in whether the suggestion is understood by the reader. And is the setting on a road, or in the woods? A road in the woods? I think I might have chosen a different word than “road”—perhaps “trail”. Of if “road” is important, than I might change “woods” to something else. And to keep the poem from sounding like a telegram (or suffering from a touch of “Tontoism,” as Paul O. Williams once referred to it), I would consider adding an article before “coyote.” Perhaps the poem could be refined like this (or with similar revisions):

        erect on the trail
        the coyote stops, stares—
        winter woods