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 Rupa Anand, was:at the base of a redwood lessons on perspective
— GRIX (Robin Smith — they, them)
Frogpond 44. 2, 2021
Introducing this poem, Rupa writes:
I loved this unusual poem the minute I read it. The structure of the poem is shaped like its content — a tree, vertical and tall. Visually, the reader immediately connects to the poem. Redwood trees are the largest and tallest trees in the world, living for thousands of years. Their magnificence lies in their height, and the base or root goes only 6-12 feet into the ground and yet they have the strength to withstand floods and powerful winds. Apparently, their roots can extend outwards, up to 100 feet from the trunk where they intertwine and hold the tree.
So, what is the base of these tallest trees on earth trying to tell us? Perspective, hmm, any one who has stood under a redwood and looked up . . . well, that’s perspective!
Writing poetry in shapes — or “concrete” poetry — where the shape complements the message, is a technique that goes back centuries. George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” with two stanzas in the shape of crosses is a celebrated example from 1663. Blossoming since the 1960s, this means of presentation has been applied to many forms of poetry, and it is no surprise to find it used sometimes in English Language haiku: with such a concise form every element that can carry weight is useful. Visual design might, I suppose, be compared with calligraphy and arrangement in classic Japanese haiku, although such a comparison seems rather stretched. There is a trade-off if the reader has to make more effort to decypher the words.
In the poem under consideration, the shape complements the text and it’s not difficult to read, nor, if you have seen a redwood, is its message complicated. Learn from the redwood.
Confessional: I tried to grow a redwood seedling into a bonsai, once. I suppose it was a slightly mischievous challenge. There are two varieties where this can be done. Mine was never happy with its feet bound in a small dish, and after three years it grew sickly and died. I felt guilty and unclean about this. A reversal of the natural perspective of things.
Look forward to what readers learn from this verse.
I thought I’d lie down to read this poem and imagine I was lying at the base of a redwood tree looking up into its branches.
Sequoia sempervirens is its Latin name. It is a member of the cypress family. Sempervirens means always flourishing or evergreen and these trees are amongst the oldest living organisms on Earth, living for 1,200–2,200 years or more. Somewhere in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California is a redwood known as The President which is believed to be the oldest living, estimated to be about 3,200 years old . So here I am lying down looking up at this tree – all 68 years of me next to something that has been living for 3,200 years. That certainly puts things into perspective.
They are also among the tallest living trees on Earth and can reach up to 115.9 m (380.1 ft) in height. The President is approximately 75m (247 ft) high.
So here I am all 4ft 11 inches (and a bit) of me lying next to a 247 ft tree. That also puts things into perspective.
Because of us and our logging and development only five percent of California’s original coast redwood trees remain. So they are now listed as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. And that’s another perspective.
And, as I look up at this amazing tree, because of perspective, it narrows from its 8.2 m (27 ft) diameter to a point in the distance as indeed does the poem – a concrete poem which takes the shape of the object it describes
Well anyway that’s my perspective on this poem. I think I need to go and lie down now.
This is a calm haiku that, at most, challenges the reader to think about perspectives. I was substituting alternatives like “in the thick of a traffic jam, lessons in discordance” or “lying on the beach, lessons in white noise,” but there is a bit more in “perspective,” and the redwood is a tree full of meaning in its size and its possible age. In the end there is plenty to think about when compared with a human, but it is the reader who has to do all the work.
The concrete form adds a little extra to liven up this little poem, although it is not new — I have seen quite a few short poems about trees, most often pine trees, written in vertical form, sometimes with the letters of the closing words scattered at the base like leaves.
Amoolya Kamalnath – a lot to learn from redwood trees:
I think I can call this a concrete senryu. I hope I’m right this time. The poem is shaped like a tree and the lesson we can draw out of the poem is at its rather wide base, the poem describing a picture from nature. The poem has 13 syllables and is a monoku. There is consonance in the poem.
Sequoioideae, popularly known as redwoods, is a subfamily of coniferous trees within the family Cupressaceae. It includes the largest and tallest trees in the world. The California redwood’s Latin name is Sequoia sempervirens. This translates to Sequoia ever-living. A redwood tree can grow to be one of the oldest tree species alive. Redwood is considered to be a symbolism of wisdom and longevity among many other things.
Even though redwoods are massive, they have tiny cones of about 1 inch long to spread their seeds around. Most redwoods grow more successfully from sprouts that form around the base of a tree (when a redwood tree experiences stress which could be overcrowding, erosion, fire damage, or even being chopped down to a stump), utilizing the nutrients and root system of a mature tree. They have appropriately large root systems, often extending to hundreds of feet and intertwining with the roots of other redwoods. These underground networks spread out from their source—typically a dead tree (80%)—and end up growing in circular clusters, sometimes called fairy rings or cathedral trees. (Fairy ring: a ring of trees, with a circular clearing in the middle, because the original tree breaks down). Sprouts grow more quickly than seedlings and redwoods sprout from both stumps and roots. [Redwood regeneration by Jennifer Skene (https://www.kqed.org/quest/12543/redwood-regeneration)]
Threats to redwood trees include logging, fire suppression, climate change, illegal marijuana cultivation, burl poaching, cankers, fungi and mammals. Redwoods predominate in coasts because they are better adapted to flooding than other trees. Repeated flooding builds up the soil level at the base of trees. Redwood adapts by putting out new roots higher up in the soil.
The fact that the redwood tree produces sprouts at its base in times of stress could be a lesson for us human beings to see our failures/frustrations/disappointments/stressful situations from a fresh perspective and challenge ourselves to work harder and do better, even newer and better things. The wide base of networking roots challenges us to go back to our own roots and learn from our own rich culture. The Fairy rings could be a lesson in unity, to help and support the needy, the sick and the dying and then nurture their dear ones like it still does happen in many joint families especially in South and Southeast Asia (though the culture is rapidly deteriorating). In times of floods, the number of layers of roots helps the redwood trees. Similarly, if we can be cordial and maintain a healthy relationship with our family and friends, they will be our moral support in difficult times. The wider base of roots and sprouts of good relationships and hard work will help us grow tall and go a long way in our lives just like these trees.
Redwoods are shade tolerant (can survive at very low light levels and then grow vigorously when they receive increased sunlight) and are incredibly fire-resistant too due to their fibrous grooved bark. [Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) – Forest research and outreach (University of California Agriculture and natural resources)] ucanr.edu
We may bloom when the time is right for us, we should be able to wait patiently when conditions aren’t conducive. We could learn to be more tolerant and less sensitive in situations that deem it. Many lessons abound – a lot to learn from these redwood trees.
Thank you, Rupa for selecting this ku. I really enjoyed reading up in depth about these magnificent trees and analyzing the poem. Thank you, Robin for writing this poem. this poem came to me at the right time, and I did learn some lessons on my own perspective.
Author Robin Smith:
This is a childhood memory I’ve nurtured into maturity (I don’t often write in the present). It was the first time 12-year-old me witnessed redwood trees in real life and I was overwhelmed by their majesty. I was already in the habit of traveling everywhere with a sketchbook (I am a visual artist) and eager to capture their likeness. The original “perspective” in this poem is sitting at the base of a tree, drawing another tree down the trail ahead of me. I realize this is not what most people see – they want to look up. But, as in a piece of art, there can be different perspectives; the way I would never tell a person how to look at or feel about one of my paintings, I never assume to read for the reader. So, I wrote it as the child who was drawing, but also, as the adult for whom the poem grew into something different as I can reflect as a form of abstract perspective and imagine how I would now experience that encounter, having lived all the things I’ve lived.
The formatting simply made sense. The poem did not lie on 3 lines (nor 2 lines) in a way that was pleasing to me and a monoku didn’t do anything for it, so, as I played with it, I eventually tried the vertical format. I honestly thought it might be too on the nose, knowing how people would read it, but also knowing I can’t do anything about other people, and all other formats I felt took away from the poem, so, this is what won out.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, and for sharing all the effort researching the redwood tree, Amoolya 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!
I wake with my head on
a stranger’s shoulder
— Jenny Shepherd
Haiku Dialogue, The Haiku Foundation, 16 November 2022
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Robin Smith’s verses are everywhere! Award winner, editor of several journals, Touchstone panel editor…. and poet of many names; their interview with Julie Bloss Kelsey is here (as is Alan Summers’ sound advice therein: always trust your voice and never be in a hurry).
I like Robin’s approach in “all other formats I felt took away from the poem”. I think the same principle applies to all elements of a haiku or senryu. Each is present for a purpose, each should carry weight; and one way of testing when revising your own, or looking at others’ verses, is to take bits away and see whether the poem is diminished in any important respect. Another technique is the one mentioned by Harrison: to test the effect of subsituting a word or words for what seem to be the essential parts of a poem, to see whether the words the poet chose carry more, or less, import, and if so, then what and why.