Tag Archives: Dobby Gibson

Bird Music


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
          travel-music score.

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.

Autumn symphony:
     swallows on telegraph wires
          unrehearsed music.

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.

Jess Perlman
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?

Musical Score

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.

     Already swallows
marking telephone wires
   with notes of autumn.

Herta Rosenblatt
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

Tom Bilicke
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.

three-string banjo
songs of starlings
on telephone wires

Jane Reichhold
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
―autumn symphony

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
on wire

Alan Summers
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
blackbird notation

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:
   musical score

Timothy Russell
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.

Telephone wires
busy with little birds:
tinkling notes!

Klaus-Dieter Wirth
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

Elizabeth Symon
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,
silhouetted birds
big fat whole notes of hope
on these humming hot wires

Richard Stevenson
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

Richard Stevenson
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.

Jane Yolen
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

Richard Stevenson
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
musical notes

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

Kaiser Kahn
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

Claire Everett
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.

Brigit Truex
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

Jack Galmitz
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.

scoring concertos,
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.

hydro lines
the sixteenth notes
of grackles

Debbie Strange
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

Jillian Calahan
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:

Busy abacus
of birds in swift addition
On a power line.

Gloria Maxson
Janus & SCTH 2:1 [SCTH 7:1], July 1970, page 29

winter abacus—
no sparrows on the wire
this morning

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

George Swede
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?

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Watching Haiku: Cats

GoodFor years I’ve admired the following poem by Marco Fraticelli, which first appeared in Beyond Spring Rain: Haiku Canada 25th Anniversary Members’ Anthology, edited by LeRoy Gorman (Aylmer: Québec: Haiku Canada, 2002, page 13):

watching the cat
watching the bird
watching the butterfly

Later versions also appeared as follows:

watching the cat
watching  the  sparrow
watching   the   butterfly

I tend to prefer the more specific mention of a sparrow rather than a bird, but what’s your preference? Either way, the poem has made me more aware of other poems that capture a similar moment, of noticing someone or something that is noticing something else. It’s a sort of double or even triple awareness, sometimes circular, and the reader adds another level to it all by noticing the poem that notices the poet that notices something noticing something else. The following are additional examples of similar haiku, arranged by year, all celebrating the same shared insight in unique and independently created ways. In addition, each of these poems features cats. For other animals and people, also check out “Watching Haiku: Other Creatures” and “Watching Haiku: People.” The abundance of these poems demonstrates how common this experience is, making this commonality all the more celebratory.

Second coffee break:
I watch the cat watching
the twig-tapped window

This poem is part of a set of several haiku, “A Sequence of Hours,” published by Geraldine Clinton Little in Modern Haiku 4:2, 1973, page 14. The key detail of the poem is that this is a second coffee break, so the observer seemingly has more time to observe. Cats are inveterate watchers, too, especially when kept indoors, longing to go out.

a black cat’s eyes on us watching the silence in reeds and water

This poem, by Elizabeth Searle Lamb, appeared in Frogpond 4:2, 1981, page 4. The people indicated by “us” are watching the silence in the reeds and water, but surely the cat is too, even while it also has its eyes on its observers. We are caught in a moment of mutual observation, and we may contemplate what might happen next.

I watch the cat
the empty corner

Debra Bryson’s poem, from Tidepool #1, 1984, page 42, mirrors other cat haiku collected here, in that the cat is paying attention to something it might eat or at least catch. In this case, the empty corner is where some creature used to be, perhaps a mouse or an insect, or where it might soon be again. As readers we are caught in that suspended moment, just as the cat is caught in its own suspense.

August morning—
watching me watch it,
the feral cat

Neca Stoller’s poem was published in Gerald England’s book, The Art of Haiku 2000 (Hyde, United Kingdom: New Hope International, 2000, page 7). Another cat being watched, with the cat watching the human, and both are probably wondering what the other is up to.

bay window
a persian cat watches me
watching her

We can easily imagine the watcher in this poem being outside, seeing that cat in a bay window, watching the person passing by. This poem, by Kirsty Karkow, appeared online in Haiku Harvest 2:1, January–April 2001.

spying in the bushes
watching a black cat
watching us

We may wonder what the cat in this haiku might be seeing. This poem, by Connor Brearley, was printed in Around Haiku: Celebrating Haiku: Words, Music, Visual Art (Leeds, United Kingdom: ArtForms / Education Leeds / British Haiku Society, 2006, page 7). In this case we have not just one observer but many, a plural “us” that makes this a shared experience beyond just the animal being observed.

robins watching me—
watching the cat watching me
watching the robins

It’s amazing how many of these watching/cat poems there are. This one, by J. D. Nelson, appeared on the Tinywords website on 4 May 2006. Here we can wonder if the robins are in danger from the cat, which may well be why the person is watching the robins—and the cat.

I watch my neighbor
Watch her cat that is watching
A fallen fledgling

This poem is by Lorraine Ward. It was the third-place winner in the 2008 Tokutomi Haiku Contest sponsored by the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, and first appeared Geppo XXXIII:4, July–August 2008, page 10. Tension again here, and danger to the fallen fledgling instead of to the observer. The poem offers a chain of attention, a chain that binds everyone and everything together, at least for a moment.

wire fence
cat watches the dog
watching her

G. R. LeBlanc’s poem appeared in Mainichi Daily News daily haiku selection online on 15 July 2010. This poem offers mutual uncertainty and surely apprehension, hence the close watching.

his last days at home
my son and I watch the cat
watching a bird

The anticipation in this poem and perhaps the danger awaiting the cat both echo with the idea of the son about to leave home. This poem by Deb Baker was published in Bottle Rockets #26, 2012, page 23.

watching the cat watch the rabbit
watching me

The writing team of Jan Conn, Mary di Michele, Susan Gillis, and Jane Munro, known as Yoko’s Dogs, produced this poem in their collaborative book Whisk (St. John’s, Newfoundland: Pedlar’s Press, 2013, page 65). The renku-like context called for a two-line poem, or they might have presented this verse in a more expected three lines. Yet something about the combination of “watching the cat” and “watch the rabbit” in the same line makes those elements more instantaneous. And then we have the turn to “watching me,” creating a full circle. This circle makes this poem differ from other examples, where only two things are watching each other, or a short litany of observers ends with something other than a return to the first observer. Again, a moment of tension—what will the cat do, and what will happen to the rabbit? But also, what about the person observing all of this? What will he or she do?

watching the cat’s eyes
watching me
watching the night

Here’s a poem by Jane Reichhold, from A Dictionary of Haiku (Gualala, California: AHA Books, second edition, 2013, page 212). The night may be foreboding to many people, but to a cat it’s an opportunity to explore, perhaps to hunt. But here the cat is no doubt confined to the house and cannot go out, yet it longs for the night, just as the person in the poem seems to long for something out in the darkness.

my neighbour’s cat

The poet here, Ernest J. Berry, is engaged in bird-watching, and notices that the neighbor’s cat is watching him—perhaps not even aware of the birds that the poet sees. Or is the cat also watching the birds rather than the poet? The poem, which appeared in Berry’s book Getting On (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2016, page 43), engages us with that double possibility.

Watching the cat watch the pot smoke I just blew its way.

This poem, by Jonathan Hayes, appeared in the online haiku website called Haikuniverse (posted 30 December 2016). Cats seem to be disdainful about everything. Here, however, readers can’t help but imagine that the cat is particularly disdainful about the pot smoke. Whatever the case, the cat and the person in this poem are mutually observing each other, locked for a moment in the arms of attention.

lazy afternoon
watching a cat
watching the waves

Cats seem to appear in a great number of poems about watchers watching watchers—in contrast, I know of just one such poem about dogs (shared earlier). And here’s one more cat poem, by Bob Lucky, from Acorn #40, Spring 2018, page 52. We get a feeling for the day’s laziness if we have enough idleness to notice a cat that is staring, perhaps vacantly, at the waves. This might be by the ocean, or perhaps by a lake, but we easily get a sense of summer vacation from this poem, and may also wonder what the cat is thinking as it watches those waves—if it is thinking anything at all. In contrast to some of the other poems mentioned, this one does not present a tension or danger (I doubt the waves are any kind of threat). But still that watchfulness occurs, and the poet is watching too.

caged tiger
the way she looks at me
looking at her

This poem about a bigger cat, also by Bob Lucky, made its appearance in Rip-Roaring, an anthology of tiger and cat haiku edited by Corine Timmer (Estoi, Portugal: Bicadeideias Publishing, 2022, page 27). It isn’t hard to guess that the tiger in this poem wants its freedom, envying its human observer. Perhaps we too have had this experience at a zoo, with any kind of animal, and recognize the “me” in this poem as ourselves.

And so we take our turn saying what others have seen, and by doing so we join a dance of celebration. Watching cats watching something that catches their interest, just as the cat is catching our interest. We appreciate these poems because we’ve had similar experiences ourselves, or can empathize with them even if we haven’t. As writers, it is useful to be wary of keeping one’s poem from being too similar to what another person has already written, but if we remain true to our experience and let the poem speak of our own heart, our own voice and point of view, then we too can join the dance of every poetic subject imaginable. And thus we can easily agree with the poet Dobby Gibson, who wrote the following in his book Polar (Alice James Books, 2005):

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.

Note: Some poems do not appear with indented lines as originally published, due to a limitation in the WordPress blog software. See also “Watching Haiku: Other Creatures” and “Watching Haiku: People.”

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Do Not Resuscitate: A Case of Haiku Similarity

In Geppo XLI:4 (August–October 2016, page 2), the following poem immediately grabbed my attention, not the least because of its subject:

winter twilight
the weight of a pen
for the DNR

UncertainA “DNR,” of course, is a “do not resuscitate” order. Signing such a directive is a difficult—weighty—decision, and such a somber moment echoes poignantly with the setting of winter twilight. This poem was presented anonymously in that issue of Geppo, as its submissions mostly are (so that favourites can be voted on anonymously), but I’ve since learned who the author was. But here’s the twist. It wasn’t just the poem itself that grabbed my attention, but its similarity to another poem, by Yu Chang, first published in The Heron’s Nest XI:2 (June 2009), where it was an editor’s choice selection, and republished in numerous other places, including in Jim Kacian’s widely available anthology Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (Norton, 2013). This is a famous haiku:

bearing down
on a borrowed pen
do not resuscitate

I initially wondered if the first poem might have been influenced by Yu Chang’s, where the person in the poem feels so helpless than even the pen must be borrowed. Might the more recent poem have been a case of cryptomnesia, or remembering someone else’s work but forgetting the source (and thinking it to be one’s own)? I doubted that it might have been deliberate plagiarism, but the possibility did cross my mind (since at first I did not know who the author was or anything about the poem’s circumstances). Or was it independently created? But even if so, was the similarity excessive? I raised the issue with Geppo editor Betty Arnold, and she let me know that the poem’s author was Bruce H. Feingold. He has since explained how this poem arose out of his direct personal experience as a clinical psychologist. “I remember writing this haiku very vividly,” Bruce said in an email to me on 8 December 2016. “I wrote it several years ago on the spot when a patient told me about signing his wife’s DNR and relating how the pen, which is so light, felt so heavy in his hands.” Bruce also said that he was unaware of Yu’s poem when he wrote his, although he did say it was possible he might have seen it, though unlikely. Nevertheless, the poems do seem to have been written entirely independently. This is what I would expect with Bruce’s work, since I have the utmost respect for his integrity.

Yet still the similarity remains. Is it too much? Even though two poems may be written independently, at what point is similarity excessive? Can anyone be “first to the patent office” with haiku? This is a subjective question, and your feelings may differ if you wrote one or the other of the two poems in question (as a “victim” or “perpetrator”), or if you’re a third-party reader of both poems (an “innocent bystander”). Ultimately, what may seem excessive to one reader may not feel excessive to another, especially when these two poems aren’t alone. Indeed, other poems have been written along this vein. Betty asked Charles Trumbull to check his haiku database, and she sent me Charlie’s results, including two directly similar poems (with publication credits for the first one):

by the light of the pine do not resuscitate

John Stevenson,
Roadrunner VIII:3, August 2008; this poem also appeared in Haiku 21, Lee Gurga and Scott Metz, eds., Modern Haiku Press, 2011, 165

“do not resuscitate”
moonlight outlines
a left-over cloud

        Mark Hollingsworth (previously unpublished)

John Stevenson and Yu Chang are both members of the Upstate Dim Sum haiku group, and we may wonder if Yu had seen John’s poem (published about a year before Yu’s, which Yu told me was written about his stepmother), and speculate on whether it was any influence on the later poem, but apparently not. John told me in an email of 5 January 2017 that “when I first read [Yu’s poem] (at one of our monthly Dim Sum sessions), I thought of two poems immediately. One was mine, and the other was an earlier poem of Yu’s: ‘lichened pine / my poet friend asks / for a pencil.’” It’s invigorating how poems resonate and echo like this, in personal ways, but they do seem to have been written independently. John also said, “I remember writing mine—vividly. And yet I would find it hard, and perhaps perverse, to attempt to explain it. I was staying at Jim Kacian’s house, in one of the guest rooms downstairs. Had turned the lights out and was about to go to sleep when the words came to me. I got up and wrote them down and then went back to bed. There was a pine tree outside the window and the window was open. Perhaps ‘do not resuscitate’ related to ‘stop thinking about everything and get some sleep.’ It came in one of those twilight moments of consciousness, which is not quite wakeful and not quite dreaming.” For his part, Mark Hollingsworth said in an email of 6 January 2017 that he wrote his poem on 27 January 2005. “I can’t recall if the incident was personal or professional (I am a pastor),” he said, “but I do recall the feeling after making the decision in the hospital, walking outside and seeing a lone small cloud in front of the moon, the front had passed and all the other clouds were far to the east.” He also said he wrote the following poem on 12 October 2005, almost a year later (also previously unpublished):

do not resuscitate
blot at the end
of her signature

And now, of course, the subject extends to Bruce’s poem, and beyond, and all of them seem to have been written independently. We can dwell in the serendipitous mystery of how they each came to be, and celebrate their shared subject, even if sad and traumatic.

Charlie’s haiku database results also included the following poems about a pen’s weight:

another death—
the weight
of a pen in my hand

        Carolyn Hall, Frogpond 34:3, Fall 2011

His hand trembles
On the will’s last page
Heavy gold pen

        Herb Batt, Brussels Sprout 11:1, January 1994

And surely there are more, and they reverberate with us because the point of haiku is to commemorate shared experience. These are simply shared subjects, much like sharing the same season word. Such similarities are usually of no concern, except to note that they may well enrich a poem if they help to bring to mind other poems that share the same season word or subject. This cross-pollinating resonance, in fact, is one of the virtues of the season-word tradition in Japanese haiku. Similarity or a common sharedness (provided that it does not go too far) adds possible reverberations to each poem and shows each haiku to be a part of a larger poetic conversation. DNR topics are clearly fraught with emotion, so it’s no wonder that the subject, difficult though it may be, would draw the attention of a number of haiku poets, especially those who may have to deal with these issues in a professional capacity, such as Mark as a pastor or Bruce as a psychologist.

What else are we to make of this similarity? One observation is that similarities between haiku are certainly not isolated, which I’ve written about extensively. A further example involves another of Bruce’s poems—although in this case his poem came first. The Autumn 2016 issue of Frogpond (39:3) carried this note: “Bruce H. Feingold’s poem, ‘Egotesticle,’ was a 2012 Haiku Now finalist in the Innovative Haiku Category, which should have precluded Cynthia Cechota’s submission, ‘egotesticle,’ from being published in Frogpond 39:2” (127). This is a polite way of saying that the similarity was excessive, and leaves aside the issue of whether the later poem was possibly plagiarized or (as I would hope) written independently. In this case, though, even if written independently, the second poem is excessively similar to the previous poem (only the capitalization differs), and thus it was rightly “withdrawn.”

I could cite many other examples, but here’s just one more, also very recent, starting with the following poem by Irish poet Anatoly Kudryavitsky, from his book Horizon (Red Moon Press, 2016, page 39). Prior to this book appearance, the poem appeared in World Haiku Review in August of 2012, so this poem is the earliest of the poems I’m about to discuss here.

unscheduled stop
a scarecrow welcomes us
with open arms

Compare this with the results of the 18th annual Haiku International Association haiku contest, which included the following honorable mention by Kwaku Feni Adow of Ghana:

arriving on the farm—
the open arms
of the scarecrow

It’s remarkably similar to the following poem by Arvinder Kaur, from India, from the September 2014 issue of Cattails, later published in her book, Dandelion Seeds, in 2015 (page 108):

a scarecrow’s open arms
in the fields

And in October of 2015, Shrikaanth K. Murthy (new editor of the British Haiku Society journal Blithe Spirit) won second place in the kigo category of the Shiki online kukai with the following poem, later appearing in Sailing into the Moon, the 2016 Haiku Canada members’ anthology, published in May 2016 (page 26):

returning home—
only the scarecrow
with open arms

Before commenting on Shrikaanth’s poem, let me share yet another scarecrow poem, by Duro Jaiye, published in Persimmon, the 2017 anthology from the Hailstone Haiku Circle based in Kyoto, Japan (edited by Stephen Henry Gill, page 24):

In the winter fields
beneath Mount Atago
a scarecrow with open arms

The number of these poems, about scarecrows with “open arms,” demonstrates that this expression (not just experience) is a common enough trope in haiku, but at what point do similar poems become excessively similar? And might earlier poems have inspired any of the later poems? Shrikaanth told me he submitted his poem to the Shiki kukai a month before Arvinder sent him a copy of her book, and that he believes he created his poem independently (he said he hadn’t seen the poem in Cattails, even though he’s now a proofreader for Cattails). So perhaps Shrikaanth’s and Arvinder’s poems are independently created, despite obvious similarities, but what about the poem by Kwaku Feni Adow? It’s impossible to know from the poem itself, and I doubt that much would be gained by asking the poet. Kwaku seems to be rather new to haiku, and I’ve seen others who are new to haiku who have “borrowed” haiku and passed them off as their own when they’re first learning to write, but I have no idea if that’s the situation here—I would rather assume independent creation. I do not see Kwaku’s poem as any kind of allusion to the earlier poems, but is it excessively similar? Indeed, is the similarity of all of these poems excessive? Or should we just note the shared subject—and perhaps even celebrate it—and move on? Ultimately, it’s our emotional responses to these situations that may matter most, especially when we may never know the facts of whether similar poems were created independently or not, and may interpret those facts differently even if we did know them for certain.

This is an issue I’ve been tracking for two decades. The Essays page on my Graceguts website has several essays on what I call “deja-ku,” as does my “Deja-ku Diary” blog. For many years, too, I’ve been maintaining a Deja-ku Database, and have classified many hundreds of examples in two broad categories. The bad kind include plagiarism, cryptomnesia (a sort of “accidental” plagiarism), and excessive similarity (which is the most subjective and hardest to define). The good kind include shared subjects or season words, allusion (or honkadori, as it’s called in Japan, which can include judicious borrowing of widely known content), parody, homage, and a couple of other less common varieties. A note about honkadori is that it’s also called allusive variation. A key point with this technique in Japanese haiku is that the variation of an earlier haiku is deliberate, and readers are expected to know the earlier poem—and thus all be in on the game, the way we all know the Shakespeare reference whenever we make creative variations of “to be or not to be.”

A side note here is that I was more concerned about Bruce’s DNR poem before I learned who the author was. As soon as I found out it was Bruce’s, his reputation, integrity, and profession as a psychiatrist all came into play—ruling out, for me, any possibility of plagiarism. This change of feeling as a result of learning the author’s name goes to show how the name under most haiku acts as a “fourth line,” providing information outside the poem that can inform and enlarge the poem, such as gender, nationality, and other details that readers may know about the author, including biography, geographical location, the type of haiku he or she usually writes (his or her “brand,” as it were), and more. The anonymous judging process used in Geppo and most haiku contests is completely defensible, of course, but I also like finding out who the author is, because that usually expands most poems for me, as was certainly the case for Bruce’s DNR poem.

There’s one more wrinkle to the DNR story. After Bruce H. Feingold’s haiku appeared in Geppo XLI:4 (August–October 2016), it was voted on as one of the top ten poems and was reprinted in the following issue, Geppo XLII:1 (November 2016–January 2017), page 9. And then another DNR haiku appeared in the next issue, in Geppo XLII:2 (February–April 2017), page 2, by Ruth Holzer:

Father’s Day—
he signs
the DNR form

The timing may have been a pure coincidence, but the poem might also have been reactionary, written in response to Feingold’s poem. Reaction poems are perfectly defensible, because poetry is, after all, a conversation, and the addition of “Father’s Day” adds a sad twist to the experience, whether real or imagined. A useful ambiguity also arises in the word “he”—does it mean a father signing the form on behalf of a child who is gravely ill? Or is a child signing the form on behalf of an aging or sick father? Either way, the “he” is surely signing the form as a father or for his father, making the date of this event especially poignant. On the deja-ku continuum, I would consider this poem to be a shared subject rather than excessive similarity or plagiarism.

As mentioned, we might easily assume that this new poem was written in direct reaction to the previous poem. However, in an email of 23 June 2017, Ruth told me that she wrote the poem “about seven years ago, directly from the experience,” and added that “when I read Bruce’s haiku [in Geppo], I thought hmm . . . that sounds something like mine—how we are all subject to the same misfortunes. Of course, I voted for it.” As sad as this experience is, there’s something celebratory in sharing such an experience—we are not alone.

Twenty years ago, I never spoke up about another case of deja-ku in the pages of Geppo, and I wish I had. It happened in Geppo XIX:4 (July–August 1996), page 2. Yvonne Hardenbrook offered the following poem:

carolina wren
its morning song larger
than itself

It ended up getting the top number of votes from readers of that issue (by far), and was reprinted in Geppo XIX:5 (September–October 1996), page 6, as the best poem of the issue. It bothered me that most readers were apparently unaware of its antecedent, by John Wills, which is one of his most famous poems:

than the wren himself
the wren joy

The Wills poem appeared in the second edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (New York, Fireside, 1986, page 298). It also appeared in Wills’ book Reed Shadows (Burnt Lake Press/Black Moss Press, 1987, page 42), and was probably published prior to this in a journal. What’s more, I also featured the poem in my journal Woodnotes as the tribute poem to Wills when he died in 1993. Yvonne would have definitely seen at least two of these publications, if not all three (she was an avid Woodnotes subscriber and reader, and had also read Cor’s anthology). There is no way she couldn’t have read Wills’ poem before writing hers, and she told me that she obviously must have, even while defending her poem—she wrote me a two-page single-spaced letter explaining the circumstances of its composition, believing it to have been written independently. But I don’t believe it was, even if it was accidental. This, in my opinion, is a case of cryptomnesia, and it can be insidious because you think you’re writing something original when you’re not. The very real experience she had brought the Wills poem to mind, but as I see it she forgot that she was essentially remembering someone else’s work rather than writing something original—the way most of us, upon seeing a frog in a pond, might think of Bashō’s “old pond” poem (and typically also remember that it’s Bashō’s poem, not our own). I could imagine a case where Yvonne’s poem could have been written independently, but not when there is irrefutable evidence (that she herself acknowledged) that she had read the original Wills poem in at least two prominent places.

Yvonne’s poem may be an accidental sort of plagiarism, but cryptomnesia is still plagiarism, and we should be watchful for it—in the haiku we read and in the haiku we write. Similarity to previous poems is an occupational hazard for the haiku poet, and it will happen to all of us at one time or another, whether we’re “victims,” “perpetrators,” or “innocent bystanders.” The “accidental plagiarism” of cryptomnesia is especially likely to happen with poems as short as haiku, and thus we should be forgiving towards such situations (up to a point). Aside from the deliberate similarity of allusion or parody, it is even likely that we will unintentionally write in a similar way about shared subjects—there are only so many ways to crack an egg. As the poet Dobby Gibson says in his book Polar, “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.” The trick is to take your turn at saying something but to do it in as fresh a way as possible. We can’t always know what’s fresh, of course, but we can do our best.

The good news is that most cases of deja-ku are positive, such as sharing the same subject or season word, or in alluding to or parodying another poem. In the case of Bruce Feingold’s striking “DNR” poem, like Yu Chang’s and the other poignant examples, the moment resonates so deeply it’s no wonder that more than one person has written about it.

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