On a haiku by Sheila Butterworth

all day
the drop and roll of acorns
on a tin roof


The benefit of having the Haiku Calendar on my work desk is that the monthly selections quickly seep into my consciousness. This one, one of the three runners-up for October in this year’s calendar, must’ve been written, probably twenty-five or so miles to the north-west of where I am, on a day just like today here in Yorkshire: dominated by a keen south-westerly/southerly breeze; warmish, but fierce enough to shake the trees, specifically to loosen acorns from at least one mighty oak.

It’s a highly sensory haiku. The wind is implicit, as is the sound of the acorns hitting the roof, but the movement of the acorns and the surface of the roof – a tin roof – are clearly outlined, with an engagingly direct simplicity.

Underneath it all, and what makes this haiku really stand out, are the multiple timelines. The reader is told, first, that the action within the haiku has been happening ‘all day’ and, presumably, is still happening now. Yet set against that constant movement is the forensic focus on the journey of the acorns: they ‘drop’ onto the tin roof and then ‘roll’ along it, perhaps along its corrugations – and then almost certainly straight onto the ground, because a tin roof is unlikely to be a flat roof. Once on the ground, there is, of course, the possibility that some of the acorns will, over a much longer timeframe, furnish forth new oaks, in the great cycle of life, and all the biodiversity which oaks support.

It should be noted that the way in which Butterworth uses ‘drop’ as a noun makes the acorns’ movement seem more fluid, and, crucially, more incessant, than if she had used it as a verb – compare her haiku with this possible alternative:

all day
acorns drop and roll
on a tin roof


This version is passable, but Butterworth’s one is much preferable, because it shifts the emphasis of the poem from the all-day nature of the activity squarely onto the acorns’ journey from the tree; it is that ‘the’ which confers the central importance. We know that the acorns’ fall will not last forever, but it is as noticeable as all-day rain, with a similar, though more intermittent and therefore different, drumming sound.

A deeper reading could be, as it is for many autumnal haiku, a metaphorical one: that we too, as readers, will, if we reach that age, experience our own physical change, a slowing-down that leads inexorably in one direction. Whether, like the falling of acorns does, it will eventually lead to rebirth is, naturally, for the individual reader to decide or not.

5 thoughts on “On a haiku by Sheila Butterworth

  1. I was just admiring this one myself today on the Haiku Calendar. I’m really struck by its melancholy sense of time. Your analysis is brilliant, Matthew; it helped me see nuances beyond those few which struck me as I daydreamed about the poem at my desk, when I should really have been working… (might there even be a sense of irritation in that opening “all day”: the incessant punctuation of wood on tin – such a great haiku).

  2. What a wonderful haiku – so much in so little. Thanks for your analysis, too. Reminds me of an recording I once heard (where? where?) of John Cage talking about the distillation over period of years of a translation of a Japanese haiku.

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