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re:Virals 397

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

     old age home
     the sudden urge
     to climb a tree
     — John Pappas
     Failed Haiku #87 1 March 2023

Introducing this poem, Amoolya writes:

Old age homes have become relatively common nowadays. Climbing trees seems to have become a thing of the past, with technology reigning over us. How do you read this verse of John’s behind the fun?

Opening comment:

From the undergrowth of fashionable poetic striving, verses like this stand out like trees. I like it for what it is: simple, specific, universal and instantly recognisable. It has a touch of wry humour. It has vigour and a kind of assertive joy, even a tinge of desperation. And I like it for what it isn’t: it is not self-indulgent, has no laboured ‘thought of the poet’ in the first person, does not introduce some clever arcane word nor convey (or betray) an obvious emotion, is not made cloyingly lyrical or romantic, nor is it a deliberate jumble of words to decode like a crossword clue. (All of which sins I too have committed, I confess!). It reads well and smoothly, and feels “just right.” It has heart and it has truth.

Between the quick and the dead there’s slowing. We kick against it like salmon being reeled in to the gaff. The sudden urge — the vital force — affects everyone. Not yet in a care home, I am no longer agile enough to climb even our knotty old apple tree without a ladder. But hell I’d like to…

Vidya Shankar:

When I first read John’s poem, it was L2 that struck me foremost. The poet does not have just an urge but a sudden urge. Why, I wonder. Is the poet a kid who is visiting someone they love at the old age home and is so excited that they want to climb a tree in playful cheer? A middle-aged person who does not want to face the truths they face in the old age home and hence wants to ‘escape’ by climbing a tree and hiding amongst the foliage? Or an inmate of the home who wants to assert to someone, probably themselves, that they are still capable of kinetic movement? Whoever the poet be, they have not climbed the tree. They are probably close by and looking up at the tree, and I, having read this am standing with them, empathizing their emotions.

Lakshmi Iyer:

Growing old happens so quickly. We can hardly count the days and the years gone by, but we can always summarise our cherished childhood , youth and midway to getting old. I liked the premise of this poem, ‘old age home’ – now, where did I land? and Why? It may be one of those phases of life where there comes a necessity to leave the house, one’s belongings, family. But, you are treated well. You make good friends. Your energy is revitalized and then you feel you can do anything in life. Old Age has no bar. You hardly think of the physical disabilities. There’s a spur of mental strength. At this moment, you feel ‘the sudden urge to climb a tree’. For what? To pluck the mangoes or to fix the light, to simply sit or to take a photo shoot. The lost moments come reeling in you and the only hope is to act that immediately.

There’s a deep sense of longingness and an emptiness which the poet wants to reveal of all the things he couldn’t or didn’t allow somebody close to him. His honesty and care comes forth in this poem to narrate that incident which couldn’t be implied. Sometimes, you let go of things unimportant and sometimes you accept things less important, still more you forget certain things not at all needed to lead the life and still more one leads the life in ignorance. Old age is similar to childhood. That instant urge to do when asked not to do, be stubborn of habits which can be avoided, etc. But, as a middle aged person, I stand to speak so much but then what would I do when I grow 70….I would surely climb a tree!!!

Beautiful poem, simple and yet so much depth goes into it. Thank you!

Connie Pittman Ramsay:

This one totally takes me in.

I’m not in “an old age home,” but I am old. As of late, I have been visiting my cousin in a memory care facility who just passed on. I could see with this poem how one in a facility could have “the urge.” The urge is strong. The urge to take flight. Get outta there!

John Pappas’ haiku brings up so many things the old bones will not allow. Like, running down the street and feeling the freedom of completely letting the body be mindless. Just a simple kneel to get the ball that went straight under the couch while playing with my grandchild which I quickly change the game to “who can get to the ball first” which immediately brightens up her eyes as she runs to beat grandma who is pretending with the other half of her body to be agile. Yes, she will beat me. Fair and square.

Just thinking of “an old age home”, makes me want to runaway and be young, and free. To climb a tree. Oh Yes!!

And sometimes “the urge” is all we have left. It may only be in our imagination, but the mind has the last say or at least I hope it does. I never stopped climbing that elm tree in Goldsmith, Texas. I hope I never will. Thanks for taking me there, once again.

Rupa Anand:

A charming senryu that captivated me the instant I read it. L1 ~ sets the place and the tone. An old age home is for whom? The nouns coming to me are ~ an old person; an elderly person; a senior citizen; old people; elderly people; the old; the elderly; and senior citizens! John uses the word ‘home’, as an inviting place, not a care centre. A warm, inviting ‘home’ that for some reason is ‘home’ again. Perhaps, the person’s family is abroad, is deceased, is a widower or a widow, or whatever. A retirement home is sometimes called an old people’s home or old age home, although old people’s home can also refer to a nursing home as a multi-residence housing facility intended for the elderly.

In India, just a mention of the words ‘Old age homes’ brings frightening images of dingy, unkempt, cramped rooms with leaking roofs, shared dirty toilets, and deprived seniors depending critically on a grant from the government or charity by the wealthy. A life of terrible pity that no one deserves. Run by NGOs or the Government, short of funds, these old age homes have imprinted negative images upon the Indian psyche that once upon a time retained a thriving family culture of care and service. However, things have changed. No longer terrible places of abject misery and loneliness but homes to look forward to where warmth, care, empathy, and medical aid are provided to the elderly.

L 2 ~ the physical body is perhaps frail; but not the mind. The ‘sudden urge’ to do the stuff you did in your youth. Poignant, it reflects a young, active mind in an old body or memories of bygone or family times of camaraderie and fun.
L3 ~ Climbing trees provide a rich sensory experience here. Tree climbing helps us learn to think for ourselves and feel confident about our choices. Climbing a tree can help develop strong spatial reasoning skills. It is a great way to strengthen the mind and the will.

Young and old people are two sections of people in society that show differences between them in terms of their behaviour, nature, likes, dislikes and so forth. The young are adventurous. The old are impeded by age. Unlike a haiku, this senryu has no seasonal word or kigo. It is based on human emotions, a trifle nostalgic. Lovely, indeed.

Ashoka Weerakkody:

John Pappas senryu gives us a lot of hope, for now and specially for the latter years of life we shall probably endure now that the global pandemic is behind us. Indeed the opening line, “old age home” is virtually in camouflage when we grope for a season word, as a starting point for feeling the illusive vibrations the author may be trying to transmit via the antenae of his three lines. Old age certainly is the winter of one’s lifetime, hence the author is likely refering to the feelings of an inmate who is chewing at the fag end of his vanilla cigar, the last of the case, and in spite of all this negativity in the geriatric psyche he takes a last pull at it, one last pull, making the faded spark of light brighten up for a precious moment he could enjoy a refreshing puff of scented smoke. “The sudden urge” is the critical point of inflection we see with the second line, the moment the aging mind and soul leaves behind the pessimism that surrounds him and stands up with one spontaneous shot of adrenaline enabling him to “climb a tree.” The bottom line then, having seen the first line as the season word for winter of life, is this:
At the end of every Winter there’s always a Spring!
And as I said in the beginning, this poem gives us a whole lot of hope and that hope springs eternal!

Sushama Kapur:

This senryu resonates immediately for many reasons. The first two words in the fragment, “old age home” carry in them the weight of years, rich with experience, perhaps now unsettled by aches and ailments, and conditions that come with the passing of years. The next word “home” is generally synonymous to comfort, safety, love, family and even identity, but when collocated with “old age”, gets a whole new dimension: of dependency, of alone-ness, a feeling of being abandoned, and thus a predisposition to become even more of an island unto oneself.

Once the setting has sunk in (L1), the word, “sudden” in the phrase is intriguing. What has happened so unexpectedly? What thoughts or feelings have occurred that has made the “urge” manifest itself? Apparently something troubling or perhaps a build-up of emotions? We could visualise a resident sitting by the window looking out at nature, or in fact being outdoors, for the trigger of surroundings to do their work?

With L3, we move from horizontal (L1) and internal (L2), to vertical and physical. This image is heartwarming and at the same time achingly nostalgic. Climbing a tree is a thrilling activity, generally associated with childhood. It is all about grip and foothold, about agility and confidence, and a whole lot of fun, helped by vigour and health. The movement of reaching upward towards the sky surely also has a metaphorical level to it, of aspiring for goals and dreams – and achievement?

At this moment though, it has been reduced to merely an “urge”, which will remain thus.

So whether it is a young visitor talking or an older inmate of the home wishing ardently, the poem reaches out to the hearts of readers in its universal appeal. It shares also an underlying viewpoint of the need to savour moments while living them. Perhaps in the future, in the final lap of life, the person could bask in the glow of memories and be comforted?

Nairithi Konduru:

This poem is very interesting. It has ten words and eleven syllables. There is a lot of alliteration in with long o, short u sound and t sound.

An old age home is a home for aged people who don’t have anyone to care for them from the family, most of the times. An old age home resident is imagining climbing a tree, reminiscing about their younger days climbing trees; after visiting day, they compare themselves to their grandchild’s first time climbing a tree, they feel active and want to climb a tree, pluck its fruit and eat it. Climbing a tree would make them feel happy and accomplished.

It could also mean that some residents of the old age home are sitting in the garden and looking at a tree and feel an urge to climb that tree suddenly as they are chatting, just like they did in their younger days.

(Note: welcome, Nairithi, our youngest contributor by far. I wish I was eight again).

Harrison Lightwater:

You could read this as the residual memory and longing for youth of the inmates of the home; or (my reading) from the standpoint of a visitor to the home, presumably to see a relative in decline. Confrontation with the effects of debility stimulates the urge to “climb a tree” — or anything that offers reassurance old age is still some way off. A bucket list before one kicks the bucket.

A good senryu, neat, plain, detached, effective, and human. Now I want to climb a tree, to be sure.

Jonathan Epstein:

In an assisted living facility, an elderly resident — there by choice or not — experiences “the sudden urge/ to climb a tree,” possibly triggered by heightened awareness of mortality.

While “old age home” was once a dreaded final destination for the elderly, as an American, I think of ”old age home” in its newer incarnations — retirement home, assisted living facility, senior living — and the array of accommodations and amenities ranging from unpretentious (perhaps subsidized by a church) to high-end Louis XIV ostentatious; institutions that encourage ‘guests’ to be active as long as they can. Such places do not conjure up the darker associations of “old age home” — the elderly abandoned by uncaring family, the specter of loneliness haunting one’s last days. But such could be so for the imagined person in the poem in spite of well-appointed surroundings; and for haiku purposes, “old age home” scans well.

The first thing to notice in this poem is the dramatic contrast in rhythm and feeling. L1 has “old age” stamped all over it: three steady (if not shuffling) beats — thump-thump-thump — the sound of a walker lifted and dropped. What a contrast to the rhythmic, almost dancing iambic tetrameter of L2-3 — “the sudden urge/to climb a tree.” Even though the urge to climb a tree cannot be given physical expression, such a surge of desire fans the embers of life stoked by the realization that time is running out. There is poignancy here, the desire to give expression to the life force while coming to grips with the bittersweet acceptance that life is at its ebb. John Pappas has written a touching poem that celebrates the invincible human spirit.

Beata Czeszejko — freedom is the big theme:

I find it interesting to read the haiku by John Pappas because I remember Fellini’s film entitled “Amarcord”. The movie fragment depicts a short trip to a countryside where uncle Teo escapes into a tree. Both the haiku and the film show how a man could not resist that urge to break free from the idea that it seems the characters’ best time is just out of reach for good. Climbing up a tree – maybe a childish longing for being free is natural in a place where everbody has to be under control (even when it’s time for sleep time – sic!). However the question is: whose desire is it to be free – a visitor in a nursing home or a resident? There is no indication in the text of whom. Maybe both!

The image of a tree with a man climbing up a branch – though absurd – shows the second meaning that is returning to the time of his or her childhood (of the resident or the guest).
The infantile dream (climbing up) can also symbolize mental regression of the old resident that has a huge impact on the visiting person. It seems both are unhappy because of the situation in which nothing surprising is possible.

That’s why the form of the second and the third lines seems to me a masterfully written verse. There are many other layers hidden in this short text. During the second reading I found it possible that the resident suffers from a mental illness (related to the word “sudden” – means to me an unsuspected action of an insane man). The third reading gave me the image of an old man who turns into a bird (a climbing woodpecker) that can escape in the end.

To sum up – freedom is the big theme and John Pappas shows us readers how the big concept of liberation could appear unexpectedly in the image of escaping up a tree in the nursing home

Author John Pappas:

At a professional development session last year, a speaker referred to many of the educators present as the “temporarily able-bodied.” As I get older and learn the new limits of my body, and as I watch older relatives struggle with tasks they used to complete with speed and ease, this phrase continues to resonate with me. Walking to my car after a recent visit with my mother, I considered the trees around the property of her assisted living facility. When was the last time I climbed a tree? Could I even still do it? If so, how much longer until I can’t? What will I do with that urge when it is too late? How does one face the inevitable slowing down of old age and the loss of independence? As Philip Larkin notes in his poem “The Old Fools,” “Well, / We shall find out.” The poem emerges from this space.


Thanks to all who sent commentaries. An interesting range. Going beyond a basic reading, with Fellini’s film and perhaps a hint of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Beata has earned the palm and the privilege of choosing 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!

Poem for commentary:
Scott Metz poem

       — Scott Metz
     ea’s e  Winchester VA: Red Moon Press, 2022

The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy.


Thank you all for the variety of readings. I love it when a new contributor arrives with a cracking commentary and then puts up a challenging and very interesting poem as a proposal. Doskonale; dziękuję, Beatko! Readers’ thoughtful appraisals of, and reactions to, Scott’s poem are awaited with great interest. His book “ea’s e” from which the poem is taken received an Hon Mention in the latest Touchstone Awards. That might be your starting point.

John Pappas, one of several fresh and vigorous poets come to haiku, was very recently featured in the Foundation’s helpful New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners series. His bio and samples of his fine work are in the Haiku Registry and you will encounter him lately wherever haiku and senryu are published.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. old age home
    the sudden urge
    to climb a tree
    — John Pappas
    Failed Haiku #87 1 March 2023

    I like the poem, which is done simply and shows a truth. I can identify with the people who get these sudden urges to do things before the realization that(duh!) it’s a bit too late, now: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh, the bones and the muscles are literally weak and not really capable of tree-climbing.

    I was a tree climber as a small child, and onward. High in the branches of Coastal Tea-trees, whose twisted limbs seemed like the sinews of very old people, of protective ancestors, I was safe, I was hidden from anyone below and was rocked gently in warm breezes. I used to hang upside down from a branch, the back of my knees holding me across it. I graduated to Coastal Banksia, then all sorts of other trees in timber country, when we moved… less protective, more difficult trees to climb. I enjoyed doing the tarzan swings holding onto lianas, sometimes dropping into the river. I was still doing these things at 14, but with less imagination.

    One thing about getting close to old age is that early memories return in vivid detail, sometimes in dreams just before we wake. Why wouldn’t we have a sudden urge to climb a tree? We’re the ones who loved trees and being in them. We were safe up there in those limbs and canopies and we spoke to the trees and were answered. But that was then. That’s the sadness at the other end of life, when we forget, for a moment, that we’re old.

    Well, I appreciate this ku by John Pappas. I’m getting quite bored with all the ‘clever ku’ that abound currently. (Even those I write myself)

  2. I agree with Beata Czeszejko that freedom is the theme of this wonderful haiku. It brought back for me a memory :
    Over 40 years ago, I started a job in a nursing home as a social worker. We got a new resident – a man who had dementia, but had been a farmer. Every now and then, he would get “a sudden urge” to go outside and “inspect his fields.” I am happy to report that they allowed me to grab my coat and accompany him until he was ready to return to the care home. (Nowadays, they equip people with alarm bells if they are “wanderers” and make them stay put). As an aside, he was always a gentleman and made sure that he walked on the side nearest the street for my protection. Who doesn’t get “a sudden urge” for freedom, especially in a care home?!

  3. This senryu touched me on many levels even when I read it in the March issue of Failed Haiku.

    Apart from the assonance, the fact that the number of syllables is just one more than the number of words caught my eye/mind.

    The old age home, for me, brought back memories of my sister volunteering in one for a bit during her school days and her narration of some anecdotes. Also, my father is a primary care physician for an old age home he visits regularly, from a very long time. So having heard tidbits of their yearning for a carefree life in the ripe old age and also having heard from my own parents their childhood stories of tree climbing, this poem took me to all the places I’ve always cherished. It was my father who initiated me into climbing trees and rocks/hills and he was always enthusiastic for any such adventure. I asked him if he still feels like climbing a tree and he enthusiastically nodded in affirmation.

    There’s a sense of freedom on climbing a tree. We share space with nature for a period of time. We forget the cityscape and our inner struggles. Whatever the age, a tree does attract attention, for the multitude it can offer us humans.

    I hope more trees are planted and today’s and future generations too can take the same pleasure that the previous generations savoured. Today’s children are found indoors mostly and climb trees only through their favourite cartoons onscreen. A sad trend these days.

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