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re:Virals 364

Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly commentary feature on some of the best contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. This week’s poem, proposed by Gloria Whitney, was:

the world having become
what it is
I plant a few bulbs

— Marian Olson
Desert Hours, Lily Pool Press 2007 ISBN 978-0-934714-35-8.

Introducing this poem, Gloria writes:

This poem resonates with me and my thinking that there is always hope. I was looking for a haiku that might reflect on Ukraine. I’m sure this is how the people of Ukraine have kept up their valiant battle. As they see their country falling down around them, I can see an old grandma kneeling down in what’s left of her garden planting a few bulbs, tears in her eyes, but happy to be there in her soil.

Opening comment:

The first lines of this little verse hark back at least to Aristotelian views of being and the world, and the last line to his assertion that everyone who can choose should adopt some goal for the “good spirit” — eudaimonia. The poet, however, has modified the well-worn phrase “the world being as it is” to the less-familiar “the world having become what it is.” This occasions a subtle change in meaning, and focuses us on the present and on the agencies for change. Marian Olson is not the first micropoet to use the phrase. Its Japanese equivalent occurs, for example, in a well-known waka by Saigyō Hōshi (1118 – 1190). The phrase is redolent of the state to which humanity has brought the world, rather than the natural simple “being” addressed by philosophers. The lines are perennially relevant. Today, when we think of what the world has become, we may be appalled, pessimistic, and seek to withdraw from it. Or we may marvel at the miracle of humanity’s achievements and love, and participate in the world. Either way, if we little people cannot (or dare not) change it much, we can at least “plant a few bulbs”.

The verse contains two images – one a vast one, the world no less, for a reader to associate with anything on the planet; the other, a few small bulbs; with a human agent in between. There is an approximate seasonality – bulb planting can be done at any time except winter, in regions with cold winters such as the poet’s former home in Santa Fe, but is generally done in autumn, in the hope of a bright spring. There is a strongly implied cut, pausing before the last line. There is the “third axis” in the allusion to the words of many writers before (see footnote) and hints of Aristotle, to anchor the poem.

Whether or not one regards lines 1 & 2 as an anchor hallowed by use, or clichéd trope — and I seem to recall similar haiku/senryu in English, but can’t (of course) find them in the time available — this little verse is charming, satisfying, and universally relatable. Get planting!

Jenny Macaulay:

Marian sounds as weary as I feel about the world’s current situation. And while we feel somewhat pessimistic, it could still be worth planting a few bulb, but only a few… just in case planting a large number would be a waste of time. A rather sad senryu in my opinion, but I’m always interested to read the diversity of interpretations.

Dan Campbell:

Reading Marian’s haiku made me think of my own experience in caring for bonsai. Caring for bonsai is like the spiritual practice of meditating and temporarily forgetting a chaotic and violent world. I first became interested in bonsai because bonsai trees are seen as symbols of harmony and peace. They truly are living works of art and each bonsai is as unique and individual as a painting or a sculpture.

“Bon-sai” means “planted in a container” in Japanese. As an ancient horticultural art form that emerged originally from China, the bonsai art form went on to be developed in Japan. Over time, Japanese students turned cultivating bonsai into a discipline that emphasized persistence and quiet contemplation.

I remember reading that bonsai practitioners have to acquire the perseverance and unconditional kindness normally reserved for devout monks. Bonsai is horticulture, art, philosophy and even a way of life in the form of a single tree. Bonsai truly are the haiku of the tree world.

Ann Smith:

Gardening can be a therapeutic escape. It can be mentally and physically beneficial to get your hands in the earth, tend your own small plot and empty your mind of everything else. Unable to do much to affect what is happening in the wider world with news of war, disease, climate change, floods and drought the writer does what she can to improve her own immediate world, her own little bit of the planet.

I like the filmic way the author takes us from a wide global perspective then zooms us in to a close-up of her bulbs. I am not sure which season we are in, it could be autumn when spring bulbs are planted or it could be spring when summer blooming bulbs are planted – either way bulbs are symbols of rebirth and hope for the future.

So the past, the present, the future and hope for the future are all here in this verse.

Radhamani Sarma:

Thanks for this insightful senryu, reflecting a philosophy combined with practical observation, experience, a note of bitterness dipped in dissatisfaction and desperate helplessness. It is all about the world we live in, we are born into, a world undergoing changes and miracles and developments; technological advancement on the one hand , extreme scientific innovations, shaking the roots and also for growth on a higher and higher plane. So much compressed and coiled, so much of jubilations and jejune barrenness.

The first two lines hint at gloom and “pensive melancholy:”

the world having become
what it is

has so much inherent, reflective of a decadent tone. It enforces multiple readings and the persona on close introspection, perhaps utters something analogous to “the world is too much with us” —
“what it is” the present situation, current scenario, full of thistles and thorns visible, impediments to walk upon. Not at all a happy predicament. The last line, perhaps, with the image of “bulbs” in the first person, denotes what, let us see: “I plant a few bulbs”… With all enthusiasm, as a remedial measure, as a yardstick of rectification, the persona offers to plant a few bulbs. Question remains: what are bulbs? Tiny stem with short leaves , serve as food storage (only a few, limited bulbs for various reasons). Perhaps, in a cooler climate, the persona believes only in planting a limited number of bulbs, taking into consideration, the potency, environment, decadence, it is not advisable to plant many bulbs, for it may not be salutary for growth, for cool or frost may not be congenial — in general any move or venture should be in tune with appropriate time, tenor and its sustenance.

Somehow, one is impelled by intuition, it is my humble presumption, to read the following; placing the senryu in some context; the opening lines of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land: “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land”…

Annette Makino:

I love this seemingly simple poem by Marian Olson — to me it speaks of hope for a better future no matter the struggles of the present. In our time we are managing the climate crisis and its attendant disasters; unprecedented attacks on democracy worldwide; and a lethal pandemic, just for starters. And yet we keep trying to make the world a better place in the ways big and small that are available to us, planting bulbs and practicing other “random acts of kindness.”

I am reminded of this quote by Clarissa Pinkola Estes: “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.”

Amoolya Kamalnath:

Planting healing and love –

There is the contracting of the vast world to something small like the bulb in this ku. The poem starts with the definite article, the, which is representing something vast, the world. The world has become something. What has it become? The poet expresses that the world has now come to a certain state, and this certain state doesn’t seem to be all that pleasant for her. This I say because, she states it in a matter-of-fact tone – having become/what it is. She says so probably because of all the chaos in the world today, the war, the extreme climate changes, the trafficking and the abuses etc. The poet seems to feel she can effect a change by planting a few bulbs. Bulbs are rounded underground storage organs present in some plants, consisting of a short stem surrounded by fleshy scale leaves. She could be planting seeds or bulbs of flowering plants like lilies which makes her (the) world look beautiful and happy.

On another level, it may be that she is planting seeds of love and compassion in the impressionable minds of young children, may be as a parent to her children and to her neighbours’ children or as a teacher to the many students in her classroom.

These little deeds and their fruits will help to make the world a better place to live in. This brings to my mind Michael Jackson’s song, Heal the world.

The poem is alliterative with both assonance and consonance and has a happy overtone to it.

Wendy Bialek:

Olson’s ku is one I can really dig into! (pun intended) leaving me with a very roomy and open ended feeling here…able to fill in the holes/blanks….multiple ways.

My ground work for planting this garden of ideas:

— bulbs….often planted way in advance of their blooming time, are often planted incorrectly…upside down, or too deep….. and when planted correctly, are still quite vulnerable to climate change, with extreme and sudden environmental conditions….ie. if the soil gets too wet the bulb will suffer rot, if it doesn’t get enough water…it will not grow. if the temps are too extreme it may not bloom. if certain hungry animals get into the flower bed…they often eat the bulbs….and your bed will be empty of these first blooming colours that lift spirits after winter cold.
— if we are fortunate and none of these drawbacks have occurred and a colourful crop of flowers cover our beds and give a temporary respite from the ‘blahs and the blues’ we will have to do the hard work…to dig them up….store them properly, and replant them, again, and again, and again….if we want to see a ground covering the next year, the year after that, and so on…..and if we fail to do this up keeping…we are eventually faced with overcrowding….we will only get greenery…and no blooms.
— the first few crops are often the most plentiful….each successive year, if we don’t plant additional bulbs and/or separate clumps (underground systems of reproduction) and space them out…again, and again….there will be greenery…but fewer and fewer blossoming flowers.

So now I go back to Olson’s ku: this ‘world’ is open to how the reader sees it!
Is it happy and fulfilling? So only a few bulbs will be enough to brighten spirits? Or is it so unpredictable that the efforts/losses and risks vs. rewards must be considered? My take here is that the author, at the time of the “haiku moment”…. is looking at the present conditions of her life and thinking of the future, planning the future……not knowing what the near future holds….but knowing the clock is running … could she be freezing a few eggs so when and if the time is ripe she can plan her family? A world with a sense of precaution. Digging deeper….it appears…..aha!!!!!… now!
she has decided to defrost a few of her previously frozen eggs and implant (plant) them now!

Wendy Mader — making a difference:

I read this little poem slowly, savoring each word. The first line: “the world…” caught my attention immediately. Partly because I’ve always been fascinated with the multitude of different, special, and lovely, as well as horrible, happenings occurring when one considers the whole world. Reading further, “the world having become….” I was immediately drawn deeply into the poem. Though I admit I was wary. And alas, my trepidations proved valid as I read the sobering conclusion of that thought: “The World, having become… “WHAT IT IS.” Immediately my thoughts were filled with sorrow and concern as I considered the recent famines, and unjust wars occurring across the globe. As well as the recent closer tragedy in my own USA homeland, that being the nightmarish plight of the many South American migrants struggling, limping….. even dying, in the cruel Texas heat at my country’s borders.

Yes, many things come to mind when I consider the first three lines of the poem examining how and why, our world has become what it is. And sadly, though I still consider myself “terminally optimistic,” I fear that at this point in history we may have more onerous tasks in front of us than we’ve ever had before. It was in this frame of mind that I slowly and thoughtfully read through the three short lines of this poem. I digested them slowly, and felt them very deeply in my heart.

Ah but then, a bright spot! For the last line of this astute little poem plants hope in the reader’s heart. And where does this hope begin? How does it evolve? As with most thorny problems, the rule of Ockham’s (Occam’s) razor (in which we are told that within a vast array of solutions, the simplest one is the best choice,) applies very well. Indeed, the author perfectly illustrates this principle in the conclusion of her poem. For as she contemplates the frighteningly heinous events that have “made the world what it is,” she chooses to take action. And she chooses the simplest, loveliest action that she can perform which will make a difference in the world. She plants a few bulbs. My heart was uplifted as I read the conclusion of this poem and I pictured the author kneeling with a trowel in hand, an old pair of garden gloves and a smile on her face. I imagined her planting those bulbs with care. All the while actively choosing to do something positive.

Then, I read this little poem through again, slowly, savoring each word. Yes, many things come to mind when I considered what our world has become. Sometimes the simplest action performed with love and hope can make a big difference. The author loves flowers, and the joyful hope for the kinder, more beautiful world that they represent, knowing in her heart that any action against evil lights a candle of hope in an otherwise dark world. And I felt my own heart smile.

Hopefully, others will see her little flower patch, and they too will be inspired to make a difference.


Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Wendy Mader has chosen next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. All with respect for the poet. Out-takes from the best of these take their place in the THF Archives. Best of all, the chosen commentary’s author gets to pick the next poem.

Anyone can participate. Simply use the re:Virals commentary form below to enter your commentary on the new week’s poem (“Your text”) by the following Tuesday midnight, Eastern US Time Zone, and then press Submit to send your entry. The Submit button will not be available until Name, Email, and Place of Residence fields are filled in. We look forward to seeing your commentary and finding out about your favourite poems!

garden party
the brief appearance
of butterflies

— Bryan Rickert
Stardust Haiku issue 61 January 2022

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Marian Olson (born Marian Harlene Showalter) died in 2018, aged 79. American college English professor, nonfiction writer, and poet. She published ten books of poetry, including four haiku collections, two books of tanka, and three of longer poetry. Olson resided in Santa Fe, New Mexico (Haikupedia).

Some of her verses may be read in the Living Senryu Anthology.

Desert Hours was reviewed in Frogpond 31:2 (Spring/Summer 2008). An earlier version of the poem appeared in Roadrunner Vol 1, 2005:

the world having become
what it is
I plant another bulb
— Marian Olson

(with thanks to Haikupedia’s Charles Trumbull for the traces).

Tracking the Japanese phrase for “the world being as it is” or “such is the world,” “the state of the world,” this world…” : the romaji are “yo no naka.” We find it from way back, apart from Saigyō:

In the Kokin Wakashu, a collection of early waka (tanka) from around 905, the phrase “yo no naka” appears fifteen times in an index of first lines.

Then there’s:

yo no naka ya / kaze no ue naru / nobe no tsuyu

such is our world
dewdrops teeming in the meadow
before the wind

— Shinkei 1406-1475
Heart’s Flower: The Life and Poetry of Shinkei, by Esperanza U. Ramirez-Christensen, Stanford University Press 1994.

yo no naka ya / chōchō tomare / kaku mo are

the world being as it is
butterflies anyway
that too
— Nishiyama Sōin 1605-1682
former samurai, leader of the Daurin school

yo no naka wo / asaki kokoro ya / asagi chô

such is the world
with a light heart…
pale blue-green butterfly
— Issa

A question in my mind is when if ever does an oft-repeated phrase, anchor, kigo, allusion &c. become a cliché? And does it matter? Is following a formula such as:

the world being as it is (do some positive small thing)


the world being as it is (yet here’s a lovely little natural thing)

or, as with another trope, say, of Santoka and Hosai (ichi-nichi mono iwazu / all day without a word):

all day without a word (some part of nature just gets on with it)

…adding anything original to the genre or just repeating it with a minor variation? Pillow words, or sending readers to sleep? Your views?

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. “A question in my mind is when if ever does an oft-repeated phrase, anchor, kigo, allusion &c. become a cliché?” – Keith

    (Is it) “…adding anything original to the genre or just repeating it with a minor variation? Pillow words, or sending readers to sleep? Your views?” – Keith
    To me, Keith, ‘the world as it is’, ‘the world as it has become’, ‘the world where we live’ & the like isn’t cliche in this haiku (nor is it a “pillow phrase”, as far as my understanding goes). Although I’m no philosopher, I’d turn to what I can make out of Heidegger rather than Aristotle.
    ” Being-in-the-world is Heidegger’s replacement for terms such as subject, object, consciousness, and world. For him, the split of things into subject/object, as is found in the Western tradition and even in language, must be overcome, as is indicated by the root structure of Husserl and Brentano’s concept of intentionality, i.e., that all consciousness is consciousness of something, that there is no consciousness, as such, cut off from an object (be it the matter of a thought or of a perception). Nor are there objects without some consciousness beholding or being involved with them.
    At the most basic level of being-in-the-world, Heidegger notes that there is always a mood, a mood that “assails us” in humanity’s unreflecting devotion to the world. A mood comes neither from the “outside” nor from the “inside”, but arises from being-in-the-world. ”
    the world having become
    what it is
    I plant a few bulbs

    — Marian Olson
    So for me, it’s the mood conveyed by Ls 1 – 2 that’s important. It’s a common and rather dour mood but is qualified by the action shown in L3. : she “plants a few bulbs”.

    What is it about bulbs? I consider my jonquils and bluebells (Spanish bluebells, not the “bluebells of Scotland’). Buried in autumn, they’re dormant. Come late winter (where I am in southern Australia) the jonquils send up green leaves and bloom. Bluebells bloom later. Right now in my yard there are many tall bluebell stems with blue buds that’ll be fully open in a few days. Once planted, bulbs will self-seed and the plants multiply over the years.

    The planting of some bulbs, L3 in Marian Olsen’s haiku, shows a different mood to that of Ls 1 &2, that of hope for or even belief in a brighter future, and also implies that human action, however seemingly small, has a hand in changing the world as it is, for better or worse.

    This haik is one I’d be very proud to have written.

    1. Lorin: I too love this haiku, and it’s one I trot out in discussion of the genre sometimes.

      We’ve touched on ‘pillow words.’ Wikipedia: “Makurakotoba (枕詞, lit. ’pillow words’) are figures of speech used in Japanese waka poetry in association with certain words. The set phrase can be thought of as a “pillow” for the noun or verb it describes, although the actual etymology is not fully known. It can also describe associations and allusions to older poems (see honkadori).

      Many have lost their original meaning but are still used. They are not to be confused with utamakura (“poem pillow”), which are a category of poetic words used to add greater mystery and depth to poems.

      So we have these, and also the kigo that accumulate meaning with re-use.

      Latterly we’ve had a verse by John Stevenson who purposely used the well-worn phrase “in the beginning” to anchor a senryu. We’ve also had use of allusion in the Haiku Dialogue. At Poetry Pea we had a workshop on “depth” by Joshua Gage and await the results. All these, it seems to me, are aspects of the same principle — the “third axis” of the well-known essay by Professor Haruo Shirane Beyond The Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson And Modern Haiku Myths

      The question of teasing out cliché from poetic intertextualities is a difficult one that often perplexes me. Some readers get wearied by repetition of ideas and phrases, others adore them, perhaps find them comfortable as old shoes.

      Authors may also stray into the areas of imitation or copying, using the justification of intertextuality.

      I say

      if you can’t bear

      there’s a hole
      in your sky
      when the moon goes by

      the Cherita Book 63 “i dream” edited by ai li June 2022

  2. Dear Ann Smith,
    In my quoting your comments, should cover the last lines too.

    “so the past, the present, the future and hope for the future are all here in this verse.”

  3. Dear Ann smith,
    In your observations, the following are so striking and interesting too.
    “I like the filmic way the author takes us from a wide global perspective then zooms us in to a close-up of her bulbs. I am not sure which season we are in, it could be autumn when spring bulbs are planted or it could be spring when summer blooming bulbs are planted – either way bulbs are symbols of rebirth and hope for the future.”

    So the past, the present, the future and hope for the future are all here in this verse.

  4. Dear Keith Evetts,
    Today Friday, evening in India, the first thing I eagerly look forward is re: virals
    and so vividly drawn to various comments, thanks to your efforts. So enriching this experience.

    1. Ah! Same here. Friday evening here in India, is re: Virals time for me too, for which I eagerly await. I just indulge myself in it as long as I feel like, it continues till late Saturday……
      It’s really amazing to read the varied interpretations and see some very interesting observations. It gives so much to think and learn.

  5. I must add that I was very tempted by Wendy Bialek’s extension of the theme into frozen eggs!…. I love reading the various commentaries, and finding surprises.

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