Set in Stone

Commentary not previously published. Originally written in January of 2014, with revisions in December of 2019. John Stevenson’s poem won first prize in the 2013 Haiku Poets of Northern California International Senryu Contest.


        V
        VII
        V

                —John Stevenson

The success of this poem lies in the poet’s choice to use Roman numerals. They are an archaic numbering system, and I see his poem as a commentary on 5-7-5 itself—an archaic, out-of-date, and essentially incorrect syllable count for haiku (and senryu) in English, a misunderstanding of haiku that has been widely explained. This interpretation, I think, is crucial to the poem’s success, and why I think it’s a successful short poem. This choice cleverly gets astute readers thinking about haiku in a fresh way. The poem itself is a critique of haiku, or least of that particular kind of haiku that is mired in old or misinformed notions of merely counting syllables.
        I admire Cor van den Heuvel’s “tundra” poem for its own sake and because of how it successfully stretches the notion of haiku. Yes, it’s on the fringe of haiku, rather than in its center, as is John’s poem, and I applaud the experimentation—something that all of us might explore in creative ways to keep haiku from becoming mundane and predictable (and yet not just for the sake of exploration). Bravo to John Stevenson for writing and sharing the poem, just as I applaud Aram Saroyan for “lighght” and Cor van den Heuvel for “tundra”. Haiku, as a genre, should never become so ossified as to seem set in stone.     +
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