star filled galaxy,
dark emptiness unending—
talk me off this ledge.

Becka Chester

In 1672, Matsuo Basho published an anthology of verse he called Kai oi (“The seashell game”). The title refers to a custom among Japanese children of comparing two shells to determine which was more beautiful. The winners would be collected in a separate pile, and the shells in that pile would also be paired for comparison. This process of elimination would be repeated until only one shell remained.

Following the old custom, Basho applied this same process to selecting the haiku for his anthology. The poems he chose were already good, some of them masterpieces, but Basho paired them anyway in order to refine his understanding of haiku.

There were two possible winners for our haiku challenge on the fall season word “galaxy,” both written by Becka Chester. Choosing between them was difficult but instructive. It is tempting to evaluate a haiku written in English on the basis of how well it imitates a Japanese haiku in style or technique. Following that criterion, the winner would have been obvious.

immense galaxy,
cleaved cleanly down the middle
by a shooting star

The image is immediate, memorable, and devastatingly simple. The language is also restrained. The poet hasn’t said too much . . . or too little. And nothing whatsoever about herself.

That is not unusual. Japanese haiku often avoid direct mention of the poet’s thoughts or feelings, although this is hardly an inflexible rule. Even so, the poem conveys something beyond mere visual wonder. The dispassionate tone of the middle line masks an undertone of horror. Are we witnessing a vivisection? What is about to be revealed?

A haiku like that—edgy, but still traditional—could have been written by a contemporary Japanese poet. But not the one that follows. The American colloquial expression in the final line has no equivalent in Japanese.

star filled galaxy,
dark emptiness unending—
talk me off this ledge.

In the opening line, the poet offers the vision of a cosmos brimming with billions of stars. But she quickly walks back that impression. As many stars as there are in the galaxy, there is a lot more darkness. Infinitely more darkness.

The words “dark emptiness unending” could have come straight from the pages of Paradise Lost, where John Milton describes the flames of hell as emitting not light but its opposite. “Darkness visible” he calls it. That is what the poet has accomplished in her haiku. She has made visible “the abyss.”

That is the setup for the final line. Where is this ledge the poet speaks of? “Where is it not?” she would probably reply. Wherever she goes, there it is. The real precipice is within.

And yet, if the last line is an expression of existential dread, it is also an effort to reach beyond it. We can’t talk ourselves off the double ledge of isolation and loneliness that characterizes so much of life in the 21st century. We can only do that for one another. Increasingly, in English at least, that is what haiku are for.

The Tricycle Haiku Challenge asks readers to submit original works inspired by a season word. Our moderator, Clark Strand, selects the top poems to be published in Tricycle with his commentary. See past winners and submit your own haiku here.

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