The Poetry of Moths

Early this week we talked about how moths are deeply connected to the human experience. Their mysterious nature has enabled them to be woven into our stories of life and death.  Some cultures recognize moths as a spiritual guides. Why others see them as the physical manifestation of those that have passed on. Perhaps because of the moth’s mysterious and magical nature, they have also become the inspiration for many poets.

For this post, I have collected four poems inspired by moths.  We will start with haiku and end with an excerpt from a hinged double sonnet. 


A Haiku by Buson

I will admit that I am a big fan of haikus.  A well crafted haiku has the ability to capture and transmit the essence of a moment. This is especially true for this moth inspired haiku written by Buson.

on the one ton temple bell
a moon-moth, folded into sleep
sits still

Buson lived in Japan in the 1700’s and is considered on of the great haiku poets. His work was heavily influenced by the work of Basho.(1)  Basho, who I cite in The Poetry of Crows, is said to be the poet who transformed the haiku into an honored form of poetry. 

White moth on leaf

A Response to Buson by Billy Collins

Billy Collins, who is the author of twelve collections of poetry, a former Poet Laureate of the United States, former New York State Poet, and a Distinguished Professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York,(2) wrote a wonderful response to Buson’s haiku which he titled “Japan”.

Here is that poem:

Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.
It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again.

I walk through the house reciting it
and leave its letters falling
through the air of every room.

I stand by the big silence of the piano and say it.
I say it in front of a painting of the sea.
I tap out its rhythm on an empty shelf.

I listen to myself saying it,
then I say it without listening,
then I hear it without saying it.

And when the dog looks up at me,
I kneel down on the floor
and whisper it into each of his long white ears.

It's the one about the one-ton
temple bell
with the moth sleeping on its surface,

and every time I say it, I feel the excruciating
pressure of the moth
on the surface of the iron bell.

When I say it at the window,
the bell is the world
and I am the moth resting there.

When I say it at the mirror,
I am the heavy bell
and the moth is life with its papery wings.

And later, when I say it to you in the dark,
you are the bell,
and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you,

and the moth has flown
from its line
and moves like a hinge in the air above our bed.

This poem can be found in Collins’ 2002 book titled Sailing Alone Around the Room.


Buson and Collins are not the only poets who have been inspired to write verse about moths.  Carl Phillips and Sean Nevin also write about the moth.  More specifically, these poets wrote about the Luna Moth.

“Luna Moth” by Carl Phillips

Carl Phillips is a Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets,  and serves as the judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. He is also the author of 12 books of poetry and the Poetry Foundation states that he is “one of America’s most original, influential, and productive of lyric poets.” (3)

His poem, “Luna Moth”, begins with:

No eye that sees could fail to remark you:   
like any leaf the rain leaves fixed to and   
flat against the barn’s gray shingle. But

what leaf, this time of year, is so pale,   
the pale of leaves when they’ve lost just   
enough green to become the green that means

loss and more loss, approaching? Give up   
the flesh enough times, and whatever is lost   
gets forgotten: that was the thought that I

woke to, (Read the full poem here)

“Luna Moth” was originally published in Phillips’ 1998 book, From the Devotions. You can find out more about this book at Graywolf Press


“Hinged Double Sonnet for the Luna Moths” by Sean Nevin

Sean Nevin is the director of the MFA Program in Poetry at Drew University. He is the author of two books and the winner of the Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition. (4)

His poem “Hinged Double Sonnet for the Luna Moths” begins:

For ten days now, two luna moths remain
silk-winged and lavish as a double broach
pinned beneath the porch light of my cabin.
Two of them, patinaed that sea-glass green
of copper weather vanes nosing the wind,
the sun-lit green of rockweed, the lichen’s
green scabbing-over of the bouldered shore,
the plush green peat that carpets the island,
that hushes, sinks then holds a boot print
for days, and the sapling-green of new pines
sprouting through it. The miraculous green
origami of their wings—false eyed, doomed
and sensual as the mermaid’s long green fins:
a green siren calling from the moonlight. (Read the full poem here)

“Hinged Double Sonnet for the Luna Moths” was originally published in Nevin’s 2008 book Oblivio Gate.   You can find out more about this book at Southern Illinois University Press.


I find the work of great poets very inspirational.  A well-written poem can carry the reader on a journey with words.  A skilled poet can link what might be seen as a mundane experience to an experience of deep and profound meaning.  They can turn a moth sighting into an analysis of the human experience.  I find that being able to read the words of such creative minds can be transformative and enlightening.

I wonder if you have any favorite poems about moths?  Feel free to share below. 

Luna Moth

Resources:

  1. Poetry Foundation: Buson
  2. Billy Collins website
  3. Poetry Foundation: Carl Phillips
  4. Poetry Foundation: Sean Nevin

18 thoughts on “The Poetry of Moths

Add yours

  1. This was a perfectly delightful tribute to moths and some very talented poets, Mark. I was unfamiliar with the Buson haiku and found it incredible. I was reluctant to read the Billy Collins response because I wanted to embrace the haiku, but oh my goodness, what an eloquent and moving poem BC wrote in response. Thank you for enlightening me.

    1. Hi Jet, I am so glad that you enjoyed this. I read all these poems multiple times and really enjoyed how they played off of each other. Who knew that moths were so inspiring!

  2. What a wonderful post! Poetry and nature! Marvellous! I’m especially happy to read Buson’s haiku as I try to write seasonal verses myself and love the response by Billy Collins. Thank you. Have a joy-filled weekend, Ashley 🙋‍♂️

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