In my essay “Watching Haiku: Cats,” I offered sixteen poems about watching cats watch something else, sometimes with a circular sort of awareness that makes watching a conscious act. Each poem offered empathy for something smaller than the observer, sometimes with hints of danger or foreboding. Many other haiku are similar to these poems, although not about cats. Sometimes they’re about other creatures, large and small. For example, the first few of the following poems are about a frog, a squirrel, a rabbit, robins, and a mouse. Humans also appear, but each verse features some sort of creature in addition to the watching human (read more about humans in “Watching Haiku: People”). These poems, despite their similarities, are uniquely told celebrations of a common phenomenon—noticing something that notices something else and writing haiku about it. We need not shy away from writing poems that share this surprisingly common observation, so long as we write what we experience and convey what we feel in fresh ways that we make our own. I’ve arranged the following poems chronologically by year.
green and hazel eyes
watching their first frog watching
green and hazel eyes
Elizabeth G. Hood published the preceding poem in Modern Haiku 3:1, 1972, page 23. There may well be earlier English-language poems that offer this experience, but I haven’t yet discovered them. The first and third lines undergo a sort of transformation, because we may wonder if they describe the frog’s eyes or the child’s eyes. Perhaps both. And surely this is a child, since it’s their first frog, giving the poem extra delight. Surely the frog and the child (I picture a girl) both have the same eye colour.
Cold, blustery day—
a squirrel at the pecans
spies me—spying him.
This poem is by Louise Somers Winder, and it appeared in Haiku Six, edited by Phil Garland, the sixth collection of winners from an annual haiku contest run by the Washington Poets Association (Tacoma, Washington: The Rhododendron Press, 1980. page 22). There’s a measure of delight in this poem too, in noticing something that is clearly paying attention to something else—or, in this case, you. We are left to wonder if the poet will shoo away those squirrels to protect the pecans.
the rabbit watching
This poem appeared in Ten Years’ Collected Haiku, Volume 1 (Fanwood, New Jersey: From Here Press, 1987, page 16). Out of context, the poem does not make it clear what is meant by “the falling.” However, it appears under the heading of “3 Poems at Niagara,” so “the falling” is obviously the great waterfall. We can wonder how conscious the rabbit is of the falling water, let alone its fame and magnificence, or if it’s just looking in its direction. That speculation may well be on the author’s mind as he is watching the rabbit. For humans, and perhaps rabbits too, the endlessly falling water is mesmerizing.
The preceding poem, by Richard Balus, was published in Haiku Zasshi Zō, Winter/Spring 1989, page 11. Here we feel the poet’s empathy for the robins, for surely that snowfall is cold, and a danger to their survival. And yet, by extension, cold temperatures are also a challenge for people. Or perhaps we feel a contrast, in that what is a nuisance to small birds is perhaps beautiful to human observers.
watching the mouse watching me
Joanne Morcom’s one-line poem saw first publication in Frogpond 17:4, Winter 1994, page 20. As with so many of these poems, the watched thing is vulnerable and wary. The watcher and watched are trapped in an instant of stalemate, and we may wonder who will twitch first.
at picnic tables
people watching gulls
This haiku, by Gordon Dickens, appeared in 2000 in the Mainichi Daily News. There’s a mutual wariness here, with both the people and the gulls deeply aware of each other. The people want to protect their food at the picnic tables, and the gulls are watching for an opportunity to snatch something to eat. The poet is another unspoken observer, watching the people who are watching the gulls watch the people.
watching my daughter
watch the sparrows
at the feeder
It amazes me how many variations this theme can take. This poem by Susan Scholl appeared in Crinkled Sunshine, the 2000 Haiku Society of America membership anthology, edited by D. Claire Gallagher. Just as the mother has compassion for her daughter who is intently watching the sparrows, so too the family demonstrates compassion for the sparrows by stocking a birdfeeder. In so many of these poems, something being watched is either something vulnerable, such as these sparrows, or a predator (in other poems), such as a cat.
Watching the gulls
watching the fishermen
watching the sea
This poem, by Ken Stein, was a “work of merit” in the 2003 R. H. Blyth Award sponsored by the World Haiku Club. In this case the stated watching begins with seagulls rather than with a person, but the unstated watching begins with the person who sees the seagulls. The fishermen are watching the sea to determine if the weather will permit them to go fishing, and if they do, surely they will bring back spoils that the gulls can enjoy too. A similar poem is the following, by Elizabeth Crocket, published online in Chrysanthemum #16 in October 2014 (and thus presented here out of chronological order):
watching the osprey
watching the fisherman
watching the fish
The details have changed but the here the fishermen have returned from a successful trip, and the bird, itself a fisher, is eager for a share.
watching the rat
we both run
Doris Thurston gives us some humour here. I published this poem in the 2005 Haiku North America conference anthology, Tracing the Fern, which I edited with Billie Wilson (Sammamish, Washington: Press Here, 2005, page 18). Again the poem speaks of empathy, with both the human and the rodent being afraid of each other, a shared feeling, even if the poet has no sympathy for the rat.
Those dragonfly eyes are multifaceted, so their watching is very different from the poet’s, both in vision and in understanding. Marie Summers published this poem in White Lotus #2, Spring/Summer 2006. This is a fleeting moment, too, for surely that dragonfly will soon dart away. And yet, the other “watching” poems here are just as fleeting too, even if the creature being watched isn’t as fleeting as a dragonfly.
a pair of ducks watching me
Yu Chang wrote the preceding poem, and it appeared on the Cornell University Mann Library’s Daily Haiku website on 4 December 2006. It also appeared in his book Small Things Make Me Laugh (Rochester, New York: Free Food Press, 2016, page 5). Haiku poetry has a tradition to write about established season words. Haiku poets and readers do not hesitate to repeat any of these common seasonal subjects, such as cherry blossoms or icicles. We should similarly not hesitate to celebrate other subjects repeatedly as well, of which this poem is another example. It takes its turn to express what the poet saw, without worrying about whether others have seen the same thing too—or perhaps doing so because others have seen it too. Here the ducks and the poet are mutually aware of each other, and perhaps the ducks are also wary of the poet—or perhaps the ducks are eager for a handout, and maybe the poet is feeling guilty for not having any bread to toss.
D. Boyer’s poem surfaced in Bottle Rockets #16, 8:2, 2007, page 16. In this case it’s clear that the people are whale watching, where they are seeing the whales (apparently) watching the people. The watchers are being watched too.
a coyote watches me
watch a coyote
In Proposing to the Woman in the Rear View Mirror (Baltimore, Maryland: Modern English Tanka Press, 2008, page 13), James Tipton offers the preceding take on this surprisingly common haiku trope, this time with a coyote. The poem’s last word introduces an ambiguity—is it yet another coyote that isn’t aware of being watched, or is it the same coyote that is watching “me”? Either way, the poem creates tension, a tension that may be deepened by that ambiguity, which suggests that there could be more than one coyote nearby, increasing the danger to the observer. On a desert path the poet has encountered at least one coyote, and they are both suspiciously eyeing each other—and we don’t know what will happen next.
watching a penguin
Nola Borrell published this poem in Taste of Nashi: New Zealand Haiku (Wellington, New Zealand: Windrift, 2008, page 67), a book she edited with Karen Peterson Butterworth. New Zealand has three species of penguins, which you can see on the South Island, thus the reference to the southern shore. Tourists, of course, are fascinated by these birds, but the birds may be just as fascinated with human visitors.
boy watches heron
watching for a glint
on the water
Alegria Imperial entered this poem in the Shiki Internet Kukai (anonymous haiku contest) in May of 2010 to fit the theme of fishing. That glint on the water will no doubt indicate a fish, which the heron will surely strike. The poet is an unstated observer here, watching the boy watching that heron, which is intently watching the water.
watching the deer
watch my morning train
Mark E. Brager’s poem was published in The Heron’s Nest 13:4 in December 2011. No doubt the person in the poem is on his way to work or some other obligatory destination and momentarily envies the deer’s idleness and its lack of obligation—or at least he empathizes with the deer.
Previous poems have identified specific creatures that are being watched. But here we have a mystery—just something “big.” That uncertainty creates additional tension—the creature being big and unknown increases the danger. This poem, by Stephanie Baker, was published in Mariposa #32, Spring/Summer 2015, page 10. It brings to mind the following poem, by Issa, here in David Lanoue’s translation (from his http://haikuguy.com/ website):
ware wo miru sugata mo miete usu-gasumi
that shape’s watching me
watching him . . .
So as you can see, haiku poets have been inspired by this watching theme for centuries, and surely there are many further examples in Japanese. In Issa’s poem, like Baker’s, we have the mystery of not knowing what “that shape” might really be, made a notch more ominous by the mist.
I watch an owl
watching the moon
Christina Sng’s owl poem appeared on the Asahi Haikuist Network online on 16 September 2016. To me it feels like it must be the winter solstice, because of what I perceive to be a cool moon, but it could also be summer. When not modified in Japanese haiku to indicate otherwise, the moon is normally an autumn season word, but here the solstice puts this poem on the cusp between autumn and winter. Again we feel tension in wondering what the owl might be seeing by moonlight, and thus about to devour.
watching the deer
This would seem to be a delicate and contemplative time of day, when one can see the morning moon. Perhaps the moon’s light is enough for the deer to see, if it’s not a day moon. The poet sees the deer, which is watching the person, and in that context the moon is also mentioned. The poet, John Hawk, does not need to specify whether either he or the deer are watching the moon, but that is still possibly implied. John’s poem placed in the Ninth Yamadera Bashō Memorial Museum English Haiku Contest in 2017.
I watch you watching
Christiane Ranieri’s poem can be found in Wild Plum 3:1, Spring/Summer 2017, page 15. We feel at least a little empathy for the ant on this rainy day, and perhaps that’s what the “you” in this poem feels, and by extension so too does the observer of that person watching the ant.
smelling the horse
This poem goes in a different direction, speaking of the sense of smell instead of sight, but its structure is reminiscent of the watching poems. Jerome Cushman wrote this haiku, and it appeared in his book Amidst (Windsor, Connecticut: Café Nietzsche Press, 2007, page 37). Somehow the horse smelling the human makes us more deeply aware of how the horse must smell—and our nostrils must be flaring too.
Whenever we write about our experiences, those experiences are very likely to have been shared by others. In fact, for haiku, we hope that they have, because that sharedness, that empathy, lies at the center of haiku appreciation. There’s a point when poems about similar topics might cross a line and be excessively similar, but I don’t find that to be the case with the preceding “watching” poems. Instead, we can celebrate their sharedness, celebrate their commonality, and revel in how each poet takes a turn to say, in his or her own way, what they hope others have experienced too.