On another haiku by Jane McBeth

the old man’s hands
make the shape of a pot . . .
October sun

I have previously remarked upon the sharp-eyed freshness of Jane McBeth’s haiku, but as Martin Lucas wrote (and I never tire of quoting), “Haiku isn’t as easy as just looking, and it isn’t as easy as it looks”.

Knowing how much information to impart to the reader is a good starting-point for writing excellent haiku, because giving the reader too much information can both overload the haiku and prevent the reader from ‘completing’ the haiku with their interpretation of it; conversely, giving too little can, of course, prevent the reader from coming to any sensible conclusion as to what the writer is getting at.

This haiku by Jane McBeth, another featured in Snapshot Press’s marvellous Haiku Calendar for 2019, is a fine example of achieving the right balance between those extremes: we are presented with the picture of an old man gesticulating with his hands in a way that resembles ‘the shape of a pot’ whilst there is what we may intuit as bright autumnal, specifically October, sunshine. that wonderful light might be casting its glow on yellow and orangey red colours of leaves starting to turn, for we may, I think, safely presume that the scene is outdoors, though that may not be especially relevant. What is relevant is that the haiku contains a simile: there is an implicit resemblance between the round-ish shape of the pot and the shape of the sun. Is that it though, or is there more depth to this haiku?

There is another less obvious – but still implicit – simile between the autumn of the man and the actual autumn of the year, like the poet’s near namesake character in the Scottish play: ‘. . . my way of life / Is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf’ (Macbeth, Act V, scene 3).

Beyond that, are we to take literally the shape which the man’s hands are making, or are we to presume that this is another simile, i.e. that the shape is like the shape of a pot. Either way, one might discern that the writer is hinting at the man’s life/career of creativity and/or admiration of aesthetic beauty. These undercurrents are what gives this haiku added layers and resonance, but McBeth achieves that not by any showiness but by using simple language: all the words used are everyday and of Anglo-Saxon/Old English origin, though paradoxically the haiku is richer for those choices; indeed, they lend an added element, of assonance and alliteration, i.e. ‘make’/’shape’; ‘man’/make’, ‘old’/‘October’, which serves to bind the poem together.

To my ear and eye, the form of the haiku is just right, because it has four syllables, then six then four again; a ‘4–6–4’, which in English so often sounds beautifully poised, as it is invariably (almost) iambic, suits haiku such as this, which are quietly reflective and layered.

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