On a haiku by John Hawkhead

there it is again
that harvest moon in the well
of my whisky glass

The Japanese tradition, like the preceding Chinese poetic tradition, is rich in moon haiku, and especially ones in which the moon is seen in water, particularly by poets who’ve drunk too much sake. With this haiku, first published in Presence 50, John Hawkhead cleverly reimagines the sub-genre. Hawkhead has been writing haiku, and has seen them published in many reputable journals, for many years. He’s also one of the very few English-language haiku poets on Twitter whose haiku are well worth reading.

I’m not a huge fan of statements in haiku, but this one sets up the picture and the mood engagingly: it strikes a tone which could be read as either wearisome or full of wonder, or anywhere between the two. There’s an audible pause at the end of the statement, as if a colon is in place.

The precision of the middle line needs careful unpacking. Why ‘that’? It possibly gives the reader a sense that the moon is being an irritant. Crucially, it means that the line doesn’t need two instances of ‘the’. Then we’re told that this full moon is a specific one, which appears closest to the autumn equinox; so here is the season reference. What gives the poem its real power is the fact that Hawkhead doesn’t opt for a more prosaic and generic option of writing ‘there it is again / that harvest moon / in my whisky glass’. The addition of ‘the well / of’ bestows a layer of depth.

If one reads the poem as a study of melancholy, in which a solitary whisky-drinker cannot even find solace in the sight of the moon at the bottom of his glass, then the word ‘well’ triggers its other noun sense, of a deep, round underground source of water. And the fact that the moon is visible in the glass means, surely, that the finger or two of whisky has been drunk, adding to the melancholic mood.

Even if one reads the haiku merely as an expression of curiosity – that the moon has appeared to align its bright white roundness into and with the roundness of the glass’s bottom – it is still a magical moment, like the alignment of planetary bodies.

A more cynical reading might be that including ‘the well / of’ enables the haiku to fall unobtrusively into a 5–7–5 pattern and provides an alliteration with ‘whisky’. For me, though, the addition truly enriches the poem. This haiku is the exception to the rule that 5–7–5 haiku in English are generally too verbose and therefore need trimming: here, cutting back to a 5–4–5 would diminish the poem’s effectiveness.

There is a recording of John Hawkhead reading some of his haiku on the Living Haiku Anthology website, here.

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