among jacaranda petals
— spring again
the postman speeds
past my house
st valentine’s day
Question: What’s the difference between a haiku and a joke? Answer: Their formal features.
In other words, jokes and haiku have a lot in common. Both are in search of that moment of surprised recognition that we sometimes call an aha moment. Like the two haiku featured, jokes are also often concerned with vulnerability. With even the crudest, cruellest of jokes, the audience, those who are not yet in on the joke, begin in a vulnerable position. But particularly when a joke is self-deprecating, a good one often teeters on tears while it calls forth laughter. This is true, I believe, of these two examples by Katherine Samuelowicz and Myron Lysenko, both taken from the Second Australian Haiku Anthology (SAHA).
And both could be turned into jokes.
Trying that with Samuelowicz’s haiku, I get:
Question: How do you know when it’s spring again?
Answer: By the number of condoms among the jacaranda petals.
Of course, Samuelowicz’s haiku is much, much better than my stab at turning it into a joke. But that is not to say something of a joke isn’t lurking here in the haiku. And vice-versa. Just as it’s arguably transgressive to have sex outside under the jacaranda tree, Samuelowicz breaks conventions about the proper subject matter for haiku. Flowering jacarandas should be enough to signal spring. Condoms are not restricted to any time of year. Most of us, faced with this scene in real life, would tend to zoom in on (or carefully avert ourselves from) the condoms. Yet the image of the condoms is incontrovertibly associated with the blooming jacaranda via Samuelowicz’s stunning juxtaposition. This, in large part, gives the haiku its poetry and humour.
When a haiku is taken in the direction of humour, the voice often sharpens and becomes more individual. The reader is given access not just to an image but a personality. However, in the context of the other haiku written by Samuelowicz’s presented with this one in SAHA, this poem suggests a considerable underlying sadness may also be present. All her other haiku appear to deal with a lost love and unsuccessful search for connection. There may be some envy then in the condom haiku – the choice of “two” as well as the location suggests passion. If so, it is transcended beautifully. In other words, the voice in this haiku speaks to me as a complex human being I would like to know.
With the mention of “my house”, Lysenko’s haiku is more overtly self-disclosing. It is written from the point of view of a person who is feeling left out. The fact that he is there watching the postman pass may suggest he was expecting a card that did not come.
The word in this haiku that stands out for me is “speeds”. It is not simply that seeing the postman ride past confirms he will get no valentine’s card, but this postman is in a hurry. Perhaps that is because he has lots of cards to deliver. Perhaps, just for that day, he is the joyous messenger of love spreading happiness and excitement through the community. This contrast gives the speaker’s deflation more impact.
The loser is often the butt of a joke, and many a joker presents him or herself as a loser. But if laughter here teeters on tears, they are not the tears of self-pity, but those of a widened view. It is so easy to be blank to the miseries (minor and major) felt on days of public celebration, be they Christmas Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or as in this case Valentine’s Day.
Not just Valentine’s Day, but the more elevated and here rhythmically pleasing “st valentine’s” acts as a formal seasonal reference that is intrinsic to the narrative contained in the haiku. This compliance with a traditional requirement is deftly handled. The voice presents the moment of disillusion in a matter of fact, close-to-third-person tone. In this way, the poet both confesses his disappointment and laughs at it at the same time.
To sum up, there is a tendency to relegate humour to senryu. By the usual definition, since they both use a seasonal reference as a central element, these poems are ‘haiku’. What the humour brings to them is not only surprise and vulnerability, but a strong flavour of personality.
Selection and commentary by Alice Wanderer.