through the teeth
of the jack-o-lantern
A jack-o-lantern almost always has teeth and they are almost never the sort of teeth that indicate good dental hygiene. In fact, they are the sort of teeth that, in a human being, would be especially sensitive to changes in temperature and might react to an autumn wind with a twinge of pain. Of course, we don’t so much feel the wind as see it in this haiku. It causes the candle within to flicker, falter, and perhaps expire.
The wind moving through the mouth of the jack-o-lantern brings to mind how living beings take in and exhale air as part of the breathing process. The word “spirit,” in its sense as the animating principle in humans and animals, comes from the same Latin root as “breath” (respiration). That which is alive, breathes. But could it also be true that breathing feeds the flame inside? If breath is an animating force, the implications of this poem are ghoulish . . .
A number of idioms come to mind when reading this poem: speaking “through the teeth” and “in the teeth of,” to name a couple. This poem stood out from the first reading because it is so well crafted. The line breaks, in particular, are cut in the most expressive way possible.
• • •
In any group, there are going to be different perceptions about the comfort level for things like the temperature, the lighting, the music. It is clear that the poet is not the one who decides what the proper lighting is in this family group. All the same, it is good to be clear about this within oneself. Someday, when creating a new family, it will be good to be articulate about it.
Traditional Western poetry often expresses the poet’s deepest feelings explicitly. In contrast, Japanese aesthetics values suggesting emotion instead of stating it outright. This can make writing haiku very challenging for Westerners, who want to express and who strive to be heard and understood. This poem does not reveal the storyline.
Instead it uses suggestion to allow readers the space for their own interpretations and emotions. The feeling of longing in the poem is conveyed subtly, and it is enough.
• • •
his callused hands
feed the line
the spool feeding
These poems, both of which we found to be well written, provide together an opportunity to illustrate how similar material can produce very different effects, even in so small a poem as a haiku. Both poems begin by invoking the chill of autumn. Both then present an image of some kind of line being fed out from its source. But the tones of each poem are very different.
The first poem focuses on the hands that are engaged in this task. As such, it suggests a teaching moment, in which the knowledge and skill of one generation is being offered to its successor.
The second poem shows us only the mechanism. Though human hands must surely have been involved in the process at some point, what we are looking at now is part of a machine.
In the first poem, the poet is witnessing not only an activity the older man has been doing for many years, but one that the residents of the place have been doing for hundreds—or even thousands—of years before him. In this way, it is both of the moment and eternal. And the implied outdoor landscape sets this basic human activity in a large physical spaciousness.
In contrast, the sound of the wind outside in the second poem draws the attention indoors to the whirring of a sewing machine. Autumn is a time of turning inward—to indoor activ- ity and introspection. What creative projects will come from those rich, inner processes that happen so readily during the winding-down time of year? In addition, the juxtaposition of the kigo “autumn wind” and the image of the spool feeding the thread bring to mind the passing of time, giving the poem a kind of lonely beauty.
With very similar images, we have poems of community and of solitary reflection, of spaciousness and of the inner world, of the eternal in the ordinary and of impermanence.
in the parking lot
I tightrope to the car
This walking-carefully-on-a-crack brings to mind the children’s rhyme “step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”
That this poet is deliberately walking on a crack suggests that he or she is probably not superstitious. A person on a tightrope sets one foot in front of the other, gingerly, with arms extended out to each side. In this “tightrope” walk, however, there is no height involved, so any damage resulting from a misstep would be minimal.
But so often we feel the need to step carefully and keep balance. Adults and some young people can be so concerned about how they might look to others that they never allow themselves the pure fun of such a moment. A true poet is neither a child nor an adult but rather a creature of and in the moment.
come slow like honey
While haiku writers avoid using simile, we felt the merits of this poem outweighed that convention.
This poem gives the strong sense of place so common in traditional Japanese poetry. In this poem, it comes from more than the poet's just naming the state. Through the repeated vowel sounds in “slow” and “Ohio” and in “come” and “honey,” the poet conveys the dreamlike effect of a slow, all-day rain.
As poet John Ciardi pointed out, asking what a poem means may not be as useful a question as asking “how” it means. This haiku is a good example. While one could construct a narrative to account for the images—something about rainy days spent with laconic but eloquent companions—this is not necessary in order to appreciate the poem. The musicality is intense and needs no more explanation than the opening notes of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”