summer sky waiting
until its page is ready
to be turned over
When asked why the haiku’s 17-syllable form has endured for so many centuries, the Japanese poet Kaneko Tōta (1919–2018) replied: “A set form used by generations of people yields the beauty of finality in this life where nothing is final.” Tōta’s words are as paradoxical to me now as they were when I first read them in 1976. But I know the beauty of finality when I see it.
The phrasing of certain haiku gives them a feeling of inevitability, as if their words were always destined to fall into a certain order. They become fixed. Immutable. Preserved in 17 syllables of amber. Tricycle’s Best of Summer Poem for 2022 is one of those haiku.
At first glance, there isn’t much there: just the comparison of a summer sky to a page of a book—possibly a novel. The word waiting suggests the approach of nightfall over a span of several hours. And yet we must marvel at the use of figurative language.
The poet has taken a vast cosmological event—the slow rotation of the earth over a summer evening—and reduced it to the flip of a page. The lightness of this is uncanny. Is the sky really as flimsy as a sheet of paper? Can the world be overturned as easily as that? The answer seems to be yes.
In popular idiom, to “turn the page” on something means to put it behind us. Clearly the poet has something like that in mind. But he has given the slightest twist to that familiar expression. The summer sky isn’t turning its page on the day. It isn’t even waiting to be turned over. It is waiting to be “ready” for that moment.
A poem like this offers a good opportunity to think about seasonality in haiku. Sky is sky; but there is an enormous difference between a winter sky and a summer sky. The quality of sunlight is completely different, as is the length of that light. The contiguous United States sees from 14 to 16 hours of sun at the summer solstice. If the year were a book of days, summer would be right in the middle of it.
The languorous tone of the poem makes a perfect match for the season. In the waiting game of life, a summer sky is as patient as they come. But it’s over very quickly once the waiting is done. Even on the longest day of the year, the sun sets below the horizon with a three-minute flip of the page.
Which means everything . . . and nothing. Life drops us in the middle of a story bigger than we are: it just goes on and on. “The beauty of finality in this life where nothing is final,” Tōta called it. In the greatest haiku, heaven and heartbreak can coexist in a single moment of time.
The Tricycle Haiku Challenge asks readers to submit original works inspired by a season word. Moderator Clark Strand selects the top poems to be published in Tricyclewith his commentary. To see past winners and submit your haiku, visit tricycle.org/haiku.
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