Around 2009, the Brazilian composer Jarbas Agnelli saw a photograph by Paulo Pinto of numerous crows perched on five telephone wires, thinking to himself that they looked like a musical score. We’ve all had this experience of seeing birds on wires and noticing how they seem to be like musical notes, and some of us have written haiku about this perception. In Agnelli’s case, he wrote music based on the position of the birds, and you can hear his composition on YouTube, or see the original shorter version. Another composer, identified as Kaleidosound from South Africa, has produced music based on a different photo. See also Agnelli’s 2009 TEDx talk about his experience, with a longer version of the song, performed live. In his talk, Agnelli says, “the lesson learned was that it is possible to see poetry anywhere.”
Fortunately for Agnelli, there were enough birds on the wires to generate more than just a few notes of a composition, but often we might see only two or three birds yet still imagine them to look like musical notes. And so, as a result, over many decades, haiku poets have produced numerous poems on this subject, to the point (very quickly) of making it seem tired and clichéd—often devoid of fresh seeing. Fortunately, there are some exceptions that add fresh nuances to this common perception. The following are examples of what I’ll call “bird-music” haiku, starting with the earliest examples I’ve collected (with thanks to Charles Trumbull for his help in finding several of these, especially some of the earliest ones). In Pisa, even Ezra Pound saw birds on wires as being like musical notes on a stave. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are even earlier Japanese examples of haiku on this theme, but they wouldn’t be older than the invention of telephone or telegraph wires themselves, or of Japan’s awareness of the Western musical staff. Although such poems surely exist in Japanese (and other languages), for now, here are examples written in English, with my commentary.
Swallows on hot wire
telegraph dots and dashes
Ga-Go (Travis S. Frosig)
American Haiku 2:2, 1964, page 59
We might be generous to this haiku, given that it was published in 1964, thus very early in the history of English-language haiku, but it has many problems that would keep it from being published today (or even a decade after its original appearance). But for the sake of this article, I mostly want to look past any such weaknesses in this poem and several other poems to come. The basic idea is still present that the birds seem to be like a musical score, but with the additional perception of telegraph dots and dashes. The poet imagines Morse code being transmitted on those wires, which might have been more common in 1964 than it is today, although I suspect that even in 1964 telegrams and Morse code were rarely sent when the telephone was already very common. An aside is that the brevity of telegrams (because one had to pay by the word) may have been an influence on Western haiku, creating a sort of receptivity to such brevity and the recipient’s engagement in reading between the lines.
swallows on telegraph wires
Catherine Neil Paton
Borrowed Water, by the Los Altos Writers Roundtable
Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1966, page 73
It’s interesting to note the variety of birds mentioned in the haiku on this theme—here’s a second one on swallows. Other birds to come in the following poems are sparrows, mockingbirds, starlings, blackbirds, pigeons, crows, grackles, and both generic “birds” and implied birds.
Spring chants her folk song—
a branch strums the barbed wire fence,
fingered by sparrows.
Magdalene M. Douglas
American Haiku 5:1, 1967, page 30
We switch from swallows to sparrows in this poem, and from telephone wires to fence wires. In contrast, the next poem doesn’t identify the birds at all, referring to them only metaphorically as “blue-black quarter notes.”
Blue-black quarter notes
suddenly fly from their staves . . .
bare telegraph wires.
Haiku Magazine 3:1+3, Summer/Fall 1969, page 43
Here the image of musical notes “flying away” brings something new to this image, but should haiku even make such interpretations? Is this perception therefore not the thing itself, but reduced to a metaphor, where the poet’s interpretation is doing all the reader’s work?
Like crotchets on a stave, the swallows write
Their song along the wires where they alight.
Hō-ō (Harold Stewart)
A Chime of Windbells Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1969, page 39
Harold Stewart’s books usually featured two-line rhyming haiku translations with titles, and he extended this arrangement into his own poems, as we see here. Haiku do not have titles in Japanese (at most, occasional “headnotes,” but their function differs from titles). And end rhyme is typically problematic in haiku, drawing attention to words instead of images, and too often creating a ponderous and forced feeling in the poem’s cadence, as we see here—feeling more like Western poetry than Japanese haiku.
marking telephone wires
with notes of autumn.
Modern Haiku 2:4, Autumn 1971, page 31
A touch of freshness here is the idea that the birds are notes of autumn. The word “already” suggests, too, that the birds must be early in their migration.
Mockingbird on wire
while I was not attentive
left without a note
Frogpond 11:2, May 1988, page 40
The wordplay on “note” is pleasing—meaning notification as well as musical notes. That lack of notification feels like a mocking of sorts, fitting for a mockingbird.
songs of starlings
on telephone wires
A Dictionary of Haiku, Gualala, California: AHA Books, 1992
This is perhaps one of the least clichéd examples, because the wires are interpreted as being like a banjo rather than a musical staff. The “banjo,” however, is not literal but purely metaphorical.
scores of birds
on a staff of wires
Rengé / David Priebe
Brussels Sprout 10:3, September 1993, page 4
Charles Trumbull quoted this poem in his essay, “Meaning in Haiku,” in Frogpond 35:3, 2012. In his comments, Trumbull said, “This is clever use of language—the puns on ‘scores’ and ‘staff’—but in the end the poet spoon-feeds meaning to us, and thereby kills the haiku” (98). This a too-common problem with many of these haiku, a problem entirely in addition to the tired tendency of the image itself.
a thousand myriad birds
write a song
Brussels Sprout 11:2, May 1994, page 37
Summers has said that this was his first published haiku. What’s interesting here is a focus not just on birds currently seen but possibly all the birds imagined from the past, each of them having their turn writing “songs” on these wires. It seems unlikely that a thousand birds would be seen on telephone wires all at once, so that unlikelihood points to the meaning of past birds (and perhaps future ones) as well as present birds. We can also take “a thousand” and “myriad” to simply mean “many,” which helps to add a present meaning to this poem.
parallel jet trails
form enormous music staff
Patricia A. Laster
Brussels Sprout 12:3, September 1995, page 25
In this case the “wires” are contrails from passing jets, and the birds are flying below them. Thus the image is more dynamic than birds sitting passively on wires, which may make us wonder what sort of “music” these moving birds represent. This is the third poem of this kind quoted from Brussels Sprout, edited by Francine Porad, in a third successive year. She seemingly had no hesitation in selecting poems with this repeated subject (unless she didn’t remember the prior publications). This therefore seems to be an act of celebrating commonality in repeated subjects rather than resisting it.
on electric wires:
Point Judith Light, Fall–Winter 1996, page 9
This poem’s structure is image and interpretation. In other poems shared here, the interpretation isn’t quite so direct or blunt, but even in those poems, does the haiku suffer because it contains any kind of interpretation? So often a haiku succeeds when it omits interpretation, creating space for the reader to reach their own conclusion (we are not “spoon-fed” the meaning). In workshops, I frequently say not to write about your emotion (or idea) but instead to write about what caused that feeling (or thought). With most of these bird-music haiku, it seems that the idea is privileged over experience, but that begs the question of whether the interpretive idea can still be considered part of the experience. Indeed, should all “ideas” be omitted from haiku? Surely that would narrow haiku’s range excessively. This is to say that I’m not against bird-music haiku, but it remains difficult to do them freshly.
busy with little birds:
Kortheidshalve 8:2, February 1999, page 36
A structure similar to the previous poem occurs here too, with an interpretation in the last line. Usually interpretation is best avoided in haiku, and yet this subject itself is intentionally interpretive. At what point, though, does the interpretation feel too common, too clichéd?
sparrows forming notes
on the phone lines without words
for their melodies
Haiku Headlines #143, 12:11, Feb 2000, page 6
The best haiku of this persuasion give the barest hint of the musical note idea. In contrast, a poem such as this seems to hammer at the idea, leaving less for the reader to do, and thus have less opportunity to engage.
The emerald hour—
power lines suddenly staves,
big fat whole notes of hope
on these humming hot wires
A Charm of Finches, Victoria, British Columbia: Ekstasis Editions, 2004, page 16
Here we have a tanka example. Compare this poem’s reference to “hot wires” to the 1964 poem by Ga-Go (Travis S. Frosig), shared previously, which also refers to hot wires. These wires are alive with electricity, alive with communication.
cold telephone wires—
bare staves until the crow lands
one black note
A Flicker at the Fascia. Mississauga, Ontario: Serengeti Press, 2005, page 12
Stevenson repeats even himself, not just with the tanka before this poem but with his later “sick in bed” poem, published in 2014. In this poem, the wires have turned from hot to cold, which seems to be a projection or speculation (as with “hot” wires) rather than a knowable experience—unless the poet has actually touched them.
Nine little swallows,
Like notes on a music staff,
Wait to sing their songs.
Count Me a Rhyme: Animal Poems by the Numbers. Honesdale, Pennsylvania, 2006
Yolen is well known as a writer for children. Even famous writers aren’t original all the time, or immune to cliché. One might argue that the idea itself is not clichéd to the children who might be encountering it for the first time through this book, but in another context the notion would seem less effective. A nuance in this poem is that the “songs” are literal bird songs, rather than being imagined songs brought to mind by the visual image of birds on wires being like notes on a musical staff. This poem also uses simile rather than metaphor (as did the Harold Stewart poem previously), which is uncommon among poems of this type.
birds perch on the wires
resembling musical notes.
What tune do they play?
Teri Prentiss and Peter Kendall
Pebbles 19:1, August 2006, page 16
The capitalization and dual attribution appears here as originally published. To say that the birds “resemble” musical notes is another way of employing simile rather than metaphor. Metaphor occurs in the last line where the simile introduced by “resembling” becomes the tune that the birds “play.” Whether these poems employ metaphor or simile, however, they still emphasize the poet’s interpretation rather than experience, if “experience” is understood to be limited to one’s primary senses rather than responses to that sensory reception.
sick in bed—
birds’ silhouettes make whole notes
on the power lines
DailyHaiku, April 5, 2008
Here’s a third example of Stevenson employing the same bird-music motif. Compare with the “emerald hour” tanka from 2004 and the “cold telephone wires” haiku from 2005, presented previously. It may be one thing to avoid writing what others have already written (that is, to avoid tired or clichéd subjects), but it seems even more important to avoid too closely repeating the same trope within one’s own work.
birds perched on high wires
John Akasawa Wong
Shell Gathering: Southern California Haiku Study Group 2009 Anthology, Naia, ed., Pasadena: Southern California Haiku Study Group, 2009, page 39
In the book’s publication credits, no prior publication credit is listed, so this is presumably the poem’s first publication. However, I made a note of the poem in 2006 when it was submitted for that year’s Anita Saddler Weiss Haiku Contest that I judged (not selected as a winner). The contest coordinator, Cathy Drinkwater Better, confirmed for me later that the 2006 submission was written by the same author as this 2009 version, except that in 2006 the poem said “pigeons” instead of “birds.” Which version do you prefer? How does the choice of bird affect the idea of birds on wires seeming to be like notes on a musical staff?
on a staff of wires
blue notes inked from April skies
truly, spring’s first song
Michael J. Rosen
The Cuckoo’s Haiku and Other Birding Poems. Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2009, page 6
This poem comes from a lovely illustrated book aimed at children. The poem is more of a syllable-counting than a haiku, though, with shortcomings such as wordiness that would keep it from being published in any of the leading haiku journals, not even counting the clichéd image. Birds, of course, are not even mentioned, but are easily implied by the poem itself, and especially by the context of the book being a collection about birds. The same author has published similar haiku collections on cats and horses.
crows on wires changing
the musical range
Shiki Internet Kukai, March 2011 (free format section, on the theme of crows)
This poem stands out for its intriguing juxtaposition. What does the musical range have to do with tolls? Is the poet on a toll road? Or is he imagining tolls paid to make long-distance phone calls? The musical range itself is a different way of looking at crows on a wire, suggesting that the birds on wires represent a “different” kind of music.
a score of starlings
on the telegraph wires
the wind’s song
Notes from the Gean 2:4, March 2011
Everett uses the word “score” inventively in this poem, meaning both the number of birds (even if it’s not exactly twenty) and the music they may be “writing.” An additional innovation is the suggestion that the wind is writing the song, whether it blows the birds about on the telegraph wires or not. In a way, this poem is not even an example of “bird-music” haiku like the others because the only music is that produced by the wind, not the birds, and not any perception of the birds looking like musical notes. This is how to write freshly on this theme.
Strung like notes on fence wire,
five midwinter crows.
Watch! See song take flight.
The Raven Chronicles 15:2, 2011, page 58
The preceding poem is not intended as a haiku, but it shows that the same trope is not limited to haiku or related Japanese poetry. Further research would no doubt find other poems, longer than this, also devoted to the same idea.
On telephone poles
the notes are birds
playing in 12 tone
Letters, Aberdeen, Scotland: Gean Tree Press, 2013, page 23
How many times can this poem be rewritten? Yet, for most of the poets here, surely each poem is the first time they have written on this subject. Here I am reminded of Dobby Gibson who wrote the following in his book Polar (Alice James Books, 2005), lines I’ve quoted numerous other times in the context of déjà-ku:
It may be true that everything
has already been said,
but it’s just as true that not everyone
has had a chance to say it.
crows arrange and rearrange
on five hydro wires
R. W. Watkins
Comparing Tattoos: Haiku Canada Members’ Anthology 2015, Ottawa, Ontario: Haiku Canada, 2015, page 43
In Canada, if not elsewhere, electric wires are often called hydro wires, as a shortening of the term hydroelectric power, because electricity transmitted by the wires is often produced by water-powered dams.
the sixteenth notes
From “In the Key of Grey,” a rengay with Jennifer Hambrick, third place winner on the 2019 Haiku Poets of Northern California rengay contest, Mariposa #43, Autumn/Winter 2020, page 32
Another Canadian reference to hydroelectric power lines (the author lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba). It’s interesting to compare the delicacy and efficiency of this poem to the relative heavy-handedness and wordiness of the preceding poem by R. W. Watkins and especially the earlier poems by Ga-Go (Travis S. Frosig), Magdalene M. Douglas, and Hō-ō (Harold Stewart), among others. Debbie’s poem illustrates how to write about this topic with freshness and restraint.
chords of blackbirds
rest on a wire staff
music in the air
Posted to the NaHaiWriMo page on Facebook, 3 January 2022
Here’s a very recent example of the same idea. Each of the preceding poems is different in its own way, so there’s no question of plagiarism in any of these poems. The question that lingers is simply one of cliché. There will no doubt be more poems written in a similar musical vein. Perhaps a fresher way to interpret birds on wires is to see them as looking like an abacus. Here are three examples:
of birds in swift addition
On a power line.
Janus & SCTH 2:1 [SCTH 7:1], July 1970, page 29
no sparrows on the wire
Alexey V. Andreyev
Moyayama: Russian Haiku: A Diary, Kennewick, Washington: A Small Garlic Press, 1996, page 27
on the wires
an abacus of birds . . .
I eye the tax forms
Mainichi Daily News: Haiku in English 705, March 2008
Abacus interpretations probably do not risk cliché because they still seem relatively rare, but perhaps interpreting the wires as being anything other than telephone wires is already still a cliché. Nevertheless, even the many bird-music haiku I’ve quoted might be understood in a larger context where birds on telephone wires are mostly not interpreted as being like musical notes. That may not excuse musical interpretations as being clichéd, but their relative frequency is a factor to consider. Yet, even having just two poems on this shared subject might be too much for some readers.
What is common among both the musical staff and abacus interpretations of birds on wires is the idea of seeing those birds and wires as something other than what they are, thus revealing a mental and metaphorical imposition on the image perceived. The experience of imagining significance in a random or ambiguous visual pattern is known as pareidolia. For the sake of creating a musical composition, as Jarbas Agnelli did with his “Birds on the Wires” piece, such creative inspiration can be positive. And I would also welcome similar inspiration for haiku, to at least some degree, wherever it may arise, because it’s worthwhile to pay attention to the interpretations and realizations that occurs to you, because you might want to try implying those very thoughts. A problem with many of these bird-music haiku, however, is that few of them rise to seeing freshly, or to fresh expression, tiredly repeating nearly the exact same idea that other writers have expressed before. This is not a fault of any one individual poem, but more of a cumulative effect, with the trope being “used and reused,” as E. E. Cummings once wrote, “to the mystical moment of dullness.” The frequency of these poems also suggests that the poets may not have encountered such poems before, which seems to be a reasonable excuse for their proliferation, but perhaps journal editors should not be so forgiving, even while the poets might want to know the literature better. This subject is not the worst example of cliché. And I imagine that what is clichéd to one reader may not feel that way to others, and vice versa. Or maybe the sense of something being clichéd happens at different times for different people.
It’s fair to say that bird-music haiku face a double challenge. One is that it’s a tired subject that has already been written about too often by others, or not in sufficiently fresh ways. The other, and perhaps the more significant problem, is that these poems rely on the presentation of an interpretation of images rather than the images or experiences themselves. By withholding interpretation, the best haiku enable readers to have their own interpretations rather than, in Charlie Trumbull’s words, having the meaning spoon-fed to them. With tired subjects, I have always felt it’s fine to write your own version of the poem, to get it out of your system, but not to publish such poems. In this way you might challenge yourself to write about other subjects that haven’t already been written to death.
What do you think? Has this subject become clichéd and tiresome in haiku? Are birds on wires looking like musical notes too obvious a perception to even bother writing haiku about in the first place? In the history of déjà-ku, where a particular haiku brings to mind another poem, one common challenge is writing freshly, and how one defines freshness is of course a highly subjective question. For me, the freshest of these haiku are those by Herta Rosenblatt, Claire Everett, Debbie Strange, and perhaps Jane Reichhold, Kaiser Kahn, and one or two others. But what about all the rest? Are any of these haiku “fresh” for you?