Skip to content

re:Virals 415

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 Jonathan Epstein, was:

     the way we shape
     one another
     —Alvin Cruz 
     Contemporary Haibun Online Journal #19.1
     August 1, 2023

Introducing this poem, Jonathan Epstein writes:

This haiku caught my eye with its focus on bonsai, the artful pruning and training of miniaturized trees in shallow containers. Bonsai is equally nature and the product of human hands, guided by centuries of tradition and patient, loving care. The way we ‘prune and train’ human beings is fueled and informed by a complex web of values and motives, fears and desires, ideals and needs… or does “the way” (not “ways”) suggest the dominance of religious/ spiritual tenets as the overarching influence? An intriguing senryu for pondering the human condition, I feel.

Opening comment:

One stage removed from the frequently-encountered “image plus personal thought of the poet” (in the first person singular) is the variety where there is an image that is juxtaposed with, and related to, an idea in impersonal terms. These are not so much telling the reader what the poet thinks, as inviting the reader to think on something. The phrase is often introduced by “the way” or “how.” Their success or otherwise depends on the extent to which the comparison, or metaphor,  stands up to reflection, and whether any insight is original, or beautiful, or challenging in some novel way.

So here we have a short verse comparing the way we shape people, with the art of bonsai.  Love and dedication may be common to both. Yet the verse refers specifically to “the way” we shape people; and the art of bonsai, rather than some other sphere of dedication to the beautiful arts, is put before us.  Here, for me, the comparison is strained. As a gardener who has tried to bonsai several trees, not very successfully, and by discipline a biologist majoring in experimental psychology, I have several questions.  If you think people are shaped by tightly confining them, making them dependent for their daily sustenance, restricting their growth, persuading them into twisted shapes, then showing them off, well, then, for you the analogy might stand.  I think of young Japanese girls with bound feet* when I think of bonsai, and although I love viewing bonsai as the miniaturised “essence of treeness,” the reason mine were unsuccessful is that I felt bad about confining and twisting them, so they graduated to larger pots, larger trees, and eventually the ground.

I hope that instances of bonsai’ed humans are rare.

How we shape people is more by understanding and applying positive and negative reinforcement to developing behaviours, including those famous secondary reinforcements, praise, money and sex. Although B F Skinner, like many psychologists, lost the plot when he tried to explain everything in terms of his laboratory conclusions, his basic experiments in operant conditioning along with those of John Watson were simple and illuminating; and an understanding of the principles comes in handy for shaping people’s behaviour. With love, of course.
* (note: corrected by Lorin in subsequent comments: Chinese)

Jennifer Gurney:

This one word of bonsai invites the reader into the poem by activating our collective prior knowledge of the term. When I think of bonsai, I think of a Japanese gardener carefully, methodically, reverently snipping the new growth of a tiny tree to shape how it grows. The goal is beauty, reflected in precision and attention to detail. The opposite of bonsai to me is an open field of wildflowers. While my personal preference is more toward the wild, I have a true appreciation for the dedication and skilled talent of bonsai-ists. (I’m not sure whether that’s actually a word, but you get the gist.)

Yet the meaning of the poem lies in the second and third lines: “the way we shape one another.” This poem invites me to sit with it as I would sit in a garden, admiring the plants and trees. With more reflection comes deeper understanding and appreciation. At first read, I thought the line could be a criticism of how we shape each other … with the reference to snipping and cutting. But I think it is a much gentler poem than on the surface. For when I think of a Japanese gardener who works with care and kindness for the plant, I think that is the direction this poem is pointing. That we shape one another in respect and love. Or perhaps in our best moments, when we strive to do so, that comes to fruition.

Ruth Happel:

This haiku appeals to me in providing a fanciful leap from the formal practice of tree pruning to the ways in which people are formed by each other. The process may be less formal, but equally formative. Many people grow up to live the dreams they first developed as children. Early experiences bend us in certain directions, and that is the way we grow, much as a pruned and shaped plant grows almost predictably into living sculpture.

I’ve always been fascinated by bonsai. There is something exquisite in the way tiny trees are formed from patient pruning and the vision to imagine how to shape a sapling into a mature tree. Living fairly close to Asheville, I visit the North Carolina Arboretum at different times of year to enjoy the garden. Once I happened to be there at the peak of fall color and was enchanted by the way the tiny trees on display in their bonsai collection were blazing with color. They were perhaps even more vivid than the larger trees in the surrounding forest.

The literal meaning of bonsai applies to creating miniature trees in containers. When applied to people, there are some interesting parallels. Plants in pots need to be cared for regularly, watered and fertilized often to ensure they continue growing. If we treat each other as bonsai, then we need to provide frequent attention and care, to allow each other to flourish. The words we say and the actions we take will cause others to either thrive or wither. We ultimately have an influence on the lives of others, but also some obligation to help shape each other so everyone can grow to their best selves.

Amoolya Kamalnath:

A verse having much meaning but with minimal words/syllables. Bonsai is the art of shaping a dwarfed tree. That is being linked to how we shape something else and is being shifted to saying we shape each other. This term ‘each other’ is wide open to interpretation. Who are the two people who are shaping each other (a parent and a child, a couple, an animal and it’s master/mistress, an employer and an employee, a teacher and a student)? Is it only two people or a group of people, as in a class teacher and the students in her class or a patriarch and the huge joint family who live together (though this scenario is much less these days even in the country of its origin) or even a particular political party or a particular religious sect.

Our lives are influenced by so many people (more than we can think) other than our near and dear ones. Each and every one who cross our path, physically or virtually, exert their influence on us and there is some small thing we absorb and hence a minuscule change definitely occurs. Sometimes an individual changes entirely, or so it seems, when they’re highly influenced by another person, be it someone senior or a very close friend. (I’ve been a night bird lifelong. When I was studying in second year during my under graduation in Medicine, there was this very senior surgeon who was working at the same hospital my mother was working. He showed much interest and concern regarding me and my studies (the surgeon and I had never met, it was only his goodwill for his colleague’s daughter). His words which my mother conveyed to me everyday as we chatted after she returned from work, influenced my mind so much that I started sleeping at 10 p.m and waking up at 4 a.m every single day for almost a year. I studied really very hard that year. It was surprising for me that I managed to be so consistent, someone who always switched off the alarm and went back to sleep. He really shaped my life. Even though I didn’t continue the 4 a.m thing later, I followed a lot of his advices meticulously and it helped me succeed in many ways.

This shaping of one another sometimes can go wrong too. Some people suffocate the other person in the name of parenting/friendship/love and it ends up with some very sad and/or dangerous consequences for the person experiencing it. When coercion has been used, it may rebound. Hence, we need to be wary of how much is too much.

In the process of pursuing this Japanese (originally Chinese) art, doesn’t the tree too shape us?

Ashoka Weerakkody:

Alvin Cruz may well be a bonsai culturist to express with such great facilty the mutual inductance that binds one with a bonsai tree he is intimate with. Bonsai is another magical art form that has descended down from the isles where Zen offspring Haiku too has its roots. Japan is historically famous for compactness, economy of space, as well as words!

Now when we think about mutual inductance, we might not forget too, that is the way everything electrical goes… This phenomenon makes it possible for men to get work done by supplying power to one primary circuit and get resultant function out of a secondary. In between these two circuits it’s empty space, nature’s bounty, yet it delivers motive power.

But when it comes to a minor activity like bonsai styling this mutual inductance does not work by currents and voltages or even frequencies as such, and inductances here do not measure in Henries. Even so, the behaviour pattern of the tiny tree which is the bonsai in making is moving the hand of the artiste so powerfully. It’s really magic but unlike the magician who does his tricks on stage, producing chicks out of eggs or pulling out rabbits by their ears out of an inverted hat, all within minutes, the magic performed by bonsai culturist tests everyone’s patience to the hilt.

The tree learns to obey the artiste as he prunes it down, sometimes against its genetic twists,, and the protests may pain the mind of the culturist who would go into some depression and vice versa when the tree, unable to bend backwards beyond the divine decree it’s born with, might even die off! It’s mutually induced joy and regret, obedience and rebellion and all that’s part and parcel of co-existence between man and man, man and beast and sometimes between man and bonsai.

Author Cruz takes the reader on a heart to heart journey of equality that transcends all species of living things with sympathy and concern for life in all its forms in defiance of the doctrine of the survival of the fittest, of the jungle.

Nairithi Konduru, aged eight:

Bonsai is a noun, it is the art of growing ornamental, artificially dwarfed varieties of trees and shrubs in pots. First we clean the bonsai tree. We shape it how we want by pruning. Most bonsai trees have fibrous roots. We can arrange the branches in the way we want by wiring them. We remove the soil and clean and shape the roots. Then we put it in a bonsai pot and add bonsai soil.

The other two lines “the way we shape one another”, refers to the way we trim a bonsai plant or the poet is speaking about the way in which we nurture a child with love and care. The poet could be referring to the way in which we shape a bonsai is like how we tell a friend that it is wrong to do a certain thing.

In the gym, bodybuilders shape their bodies with the equipments available there.

Parents, grandparents and teachers shape children.
1. How do parents shape their children?
Parents shape their children in many ways such as teaching them important life skills such as taking a bath, dressing by themselves and then also driving a car. Parents also tell their children whether something is wrong or right such as being honest instead of lying, being kind to people no matter what and be generous to others. Parents also give advice on important matters such as, “At night, it is better to go in a car than on a bike. If you want to write neatly, use an ink cartridge pen rather than a gel pen or a ball pen. If you want to grow your hair long and smooth, wash your hair regularly”.
2. How do teachers influence children?
Teachers influence children in many ways such as: the way the teacher scolds the class when we’re making noise, the same way the class monitor repeats. The way teachers speak in English, the children can improve their grammar.
3. Playtime with grandparents:
Most grandparents stay home but since they can’t run and play like us, we get to play other sorts of games like cards, do art competitions and trivia questions or just chat with them.
Grandparents teach us different types of new games.

Sébastien Revon — emotion vs intellect:

Alvin Cruz’s poem is another example of an image juxtaposed with a thought or statement. I’m not particularly fond of that kind of poem and one could argue that this is not even a haiku, I guess. But I am not going to go that route as my expertise in haiku is very limited. I am still learning the basics of this genre.

What I can say is that I am attracted to this poem in a rational way. The concept behind it is charming but is there an emotion here that is triggered in me? Not really: I think the poet here doesn’t convey an emotion.  Alvin rather writes about a process. We are not in the haiku moment.  I don’t vibrate emotionally but the poem does resonate in me more on an intellectual level.

I think everybody can understand that the relationship between the bonsai and the gardener is one of common growth. I could write about what I thought intellectually of the poem by developing this idea of common growth and the poem is well written in that sense. Nevertheless I am looking for something else when I read haiku. This didn’t happen here for me. I do appreciate the writing skill, the design of the poem, its efficiency. But I’d like to feel the soul of the bonsai, the soul of the gardener, intertwined.

One thing I can say is that the poem is inspiring and might be an object of contemplation that would trigger some writing ideas for me. So for that, I would thank Alvin Cruz.

Author Alvin Cruz:

This haiku was originally written as part of a haibun, which was published in Contemporary Haibun Online last April 2023. Just to put the haiku in context, you might like to read it here.

In the morning of New Year’s Eve 2022, I was taking a walk by myself in my brother’s beautiful neighborhood when I encountered a gardener at work. What intrigued me about him was that he seemed deeply immersed in what he was doing – tending to the plants and flowers in the village park. I stopped walking and watched him from a short distance. The delicate yet skillful way he trimmed the branches and cut the wilted leaves and flowers made a strong impression in a way that resonates with me personally. Being a teacher, I understand how important my role is in shaping the impressionable minds of young people. But imperfect as I am, sometimes I feel it is I who also need some “pruning” in my life. The truth is, these young people have – directly or indirectly – made a difference in my life by their tenacity, energy, and creativity.

In Japanese culture, growing bonsai is deeply embedded in wabi sabi – a traditional Japanese concept in which beauty may be found in what is impermanent and imperfect. I also learned that the secret to growing bonsai trees is pruning. And just like bonsai trees, people are shaped by their environment. Experiences may teach us lessons, but it is our genuine connection with humanity that ultimately brings out the true beauty in us.


Thanks to all who sent commentaries. With an Honourable Mention to young Nairithi for her view of being shaped, greatly enjoyable, the palm this week goes to Sébastien for a thoughtful comentary that I suspect was not easy to write. He 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!

Poem for commentary:

     the magnolia
     wasn’t ours, yet its absence
     — Patricia J. Machmiller
     Kingfisher #6, October 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.


Alvin’s credentials and short bio is part of a Poetry Pea podcast featuring him reading haiku from the Philippines.  A recent interview with Alvin was published in Whiptail.

Bonsai is the best known of the many ways in which trees are revered and modified in Japan.  It has spread throughout the world (I visit the bonsai at RHS Wisley several times a year). Others, where the tree is allowed to grow in the ground, are the increasingly popular niwaki (cloud pruning),  yukitsuri or “snow suspenders” where a central pole is erected, and ropes let down to support branches to guard against them breaking in winter.  Then there is the use of poles as props, for a similar purpose, or to create leaning trees such as the classic pine.  And the amazing, and useful,  daisugi, where trees are pollarded to produce many tall straight timbers for traditional Japanese house construction.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. A comment just received via the submission form, from Antoinette Botsford:
    ” And when we shape one another, do we make them smaller than they might otherwise be? Bonsai is extreme. Do we do that to our children, keeping them small overlong that we might better control them?
    Bonsai: elegant, unreal, contained. I admire the skill and patience it takes to create and maintain bonsais (and various styles of poetic expression), yet the very idea of creating bonsai makes me feel sad and constricted. I once had a mugu pine bonsai. After tending it sadly for a few years I set it free and planted it in a rockery where sun blazes most of the day in summer. In winter it is whipped and shaped by winds and rain. It grows now, unrestrained, and the garden is half shade-half sun because of it. In consequence, the garden has a greater variety of flowers, more possibilities than when the mugu was a miniature tree in two inches of gravel. Now that the pine has all its roots, its burly branches weather winter storm and southern drought, it produces cones shelters pine siskins and blue poppies. This is why we tell stories to the little ones.

    Like Bonsai, moving haiku is elegant and constrained–the story it tells is up to the reader, rather than the poet.

  2. ” I think of young Japanese girls with bound feet…” – Keith

    Foot binding never happened to Japanese girls, to my knowledge. Perhaps you mean Chinese girls, Keith?

    I’ve never been keen on “the way the something does the something” ku. I don’t know who started it, but several years ago there was a plague of them.

    1. I stand corrected! …but I thought they did it in Heian Japan. Anyway, bound feet and bonsai are linked in my mind…

Comments are closed.

Back To Top