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re:Virals 458

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, chosen by Richa Sharma, was:

far from the tree
firm opinions
on the best apples
—Lisa Billa, 
The Heron's Nest Volume XXVI, Number 2: June 2024

Introducing this poem, Richa writes:

Lisa’s free-style haiku elegantly bridges the distance between nature and man through the pivotal line phrase ‘firm opinions.’ I wonder if the poem is a condensed autobiography of a tree or a farmer? With each reading, the poem grows beyond simply mentally placing the reader in the scene. A single tree’s image in an orchard opens the gate to a maze of conditioned opinions and comparisons. We can then emerge from the chaos with an acceptance of change, new thinking, and our interconnectedness.

The poem caught my attention because it stresses the importance of a subtle sense of gratitude and self-realization, along with a satire on our social and cultural landscape. Lisa may be suggesting several important interpretations to put the reader in someone’s shoes with whom we can relate according to our similar experiences. The symbolic mood of the season word can be explored in great depth here. The unique subject matter here may invite different audiences to walk inside the apple orchard and read each fruit tree for something more than just commercial considerations. What are the parameters of society’s ‘best?’

Lisa, I am grateful for this poem. It has definitely brought about a small change in me after a chaotic phase. I am grateful or the opportunity to present the poem for a detailed commentary from interested readers.

Opening comment:

Thank you, Richa! A crisp, delicious haiku with a slightly tart edge, that has all the charm and staying power of a down home rustic proverb. I picture, for example, some bluff Yorkshire farmhand criticising “they Lunnon folk as know nowt about t’Ribston Pippin.”

Concise, verbless, in plain language and eminently intelligible, it highlights the way people have decided opinions about things of which their knowledge is less than first-hand or total. Naturally the subversive imp in me thought of haiku and of our activities here.  Also of politics and international affairs: I remember halfway through my career in diplomacy halting my engineer father in mid-argument with the words “you know as much about foreign policy as I know about engineering.”

However, does the thesis always stand up to examination? For in the case of apples, the proof of the apple is in the senses of the consumer: its beauty, its wholeness, crispness, and flavour. It is a question of taste, and who’s to say that, given a range of samples to choose among, the office worker’s or the botany professor’s is worse than the farmer’s? Distance may (or not) lead to a more detached assessment… How do you like them apples.

All up, an unusual and rich haiku of which anybody would be proud, and which deserves to be spread about as a proverbial saying along with its congeners (and counters) “can’t see the wood for the trees” and “distance lends enchantment to the view.” More on haiku proverbs, maxims, statements and the like in the Footnote.

Lakshmi Iyer:

We stay hundreds of kilometres away from our ancestral house and yet our mind wanders through every door and window and we guess what’s best for each of the corners of the house playing our childhood memories.

So exactly the same with the above verse where in spite of the poet staying ‘far from the tree’, the experienced eyes read the conditioning of the apple tree. Here the poet has just personified the behavioral patterns of human being with that of the apples.

A mother staying away from her kids definitely has this power and energy to read her child’s capacity and incapacity and advices, suggests and even firmly directs the best way to live their lives. It’s better this way to listen to what they say instead of jumping into conclusions.

I loved the methodical approach of the poet to construct each line in the manner  human characteristics fold and unfold.
L1 – far from the tree – beyond one’s reach
L2 – firm opinions – so true and so determined are the parents
L3 – on the best apples- they know which are ripe and ready to live their way.

Amoolya Kamalnath:

This is a sentence-like verse but with much food for thought.

The apples we eat are bought from carts or shops by checking their quality. They’re grown in conducive conditions created with the right amount of sunlight, water, manure, tending to etc. Living far away from where they’re grown, not knowing the harsh situations of the farmers or others involved in these apples reaching us, we opine regarding the best ones or the best variety when we see any fruit anywhere. Aren’t we all judgemental at some point in time? Is it necessary that we be so?

Tree is the parent and the apple fruits are the children. Firm opinions about the children may be passed by their teachers or even classmates at school. The resulting discouragement pulls the child’s morale down. There’s even this experiment where some good words are spoken around a plant which then thrives well and when discouraging words are showered around a plant, the plant wilts.

I also read here that far from the haiku which was developed and propagated by Basho etc, we also discern the haiku and other micro poems we read, past and present.

Jennifer Gurney:

I love this little poem!

Having grown up in Michigan, I spent many a fall afternoon picking apples. One summer my friend Shelley and I played a match of tennis, then cooled off in the air conditioning, playing gin rummy, drinking iced tea and eating apples down to their seeds. We did this every day for an entire summer.

My favorite apples back then were Red Delicious. Firm, bright red, juicy ones. They earned their name. Now, decades later, I’m firmly in the honeycrisp camp. Just a hint of tart and that delightful variegated skin with red mixed with green mixed with pink. They are always, 100 percent of the time, crisp. Hence the name. I don’t care for Golden Delicious (too sweet and soft) or green apples (too tart and too hard). Don’t get me going on mushy apples or worm holes … that’s a whole other conversation.

The author is spot on. Firm opinions on the best apples. And there’s not even a tree in sight.

Melissa Dennison:

I smiled reading these words. It brought back memories of family, and of lively discussions with diverse opinions. There is usually someone who thinks they are right or ‘know best’ (usually the older members of the family) and others who seek to placate or keep the peace. It’s ridiculous of course how the smallest of domestic chores and experiences can create such drama, but it also provides great material for comedy.

As this suggests, this drama is unfolding far from the tree. Could this be in a kitchen? Have the apples been picked by hand in the garden or do they come from a supermarket? What will these apples be used for? Maybe apple pie?

What I also noticed and liked is the use of alliteration in the words ‘far’, ‘from’ and ‘firm’. I do enjoy a bit of alliteration.😊

John Daleiden—how to make a definitive evaluation…:

Lisa Billa’s senryu “far from the apple tree” is a satrical comment on the human propensity to utter “opinions” about a natural object encountered daily in the world. The satire is accompished when the poet juxtaposes the words “far” and “firm.” In order to adequately form “opinions” about the qualities of “the best apples” the evaluator needs to be in a close proximity to the tree, not “far from the tree.” When the evaluator is at a “far” distance from the object being evaluated, “the best apples”, how is it possible to make a definitive examination? Is it possible to test the quality of an apple without touching it, or cutting it, or even tasting it? Without a tactile encounter with the apple, no solid or “firm” opinions can be reached. Such opinions are only a speculation based on distant observation, not an up close examination. By juxtaposing the words “far” and “firm.” the author ridicules the conclusions reached—those conclusions are at best unsubstantiated, or ever worse, false conclusions. Of course, ironically, the conclusions may be accurate, but the methods of reaching the conclusions are faulty. Thus, the poem ridicules the process used to reach an evaluation as to what are “the best apples”. This senryu very cleverly challenges the process of reaching conclusions. The poem brought me to laughter—an appropriate response to senryu.

Author Lisa Billa:

Thank you to The Haiku Foundation and Keith Evetts for this inspiring dialogue, Richa for choosing my poem to discuss, and The Heron’s Nest for sharing it! I’m very honored and look forward to reading commenters’ thoughts.

As a New Englander now living in California, autumn still inspires me. When I was growing up, my father, a native New Yorker, literature professor, and essayist who loved wordplay, enjoyed our fall outings to the local orchard for fresh-picked apples judged more flavorful than store-bought varieties; much later, my parents took my young children apple-picking. I experience fall as a season to appreciate ordinary pleasures, and a time of reflection and remembering. In this poem, I wanted playful language to keep a lighter tone and hint at cheerful debate. I like the concept that opinions, along with memories, can endure across time, distance, and generations.

These lines are meaningful to me but perhaps vague on images or associations, and I’m curious to see where others may find space for interpretation!

fireworks image

Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, John 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 starfish
      missing a leg
on the clearance shelf
—Randy Brooks
The Heron's Nest, Volume XXVI, Number 2: June 2024

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.


There’s a photo and short bio of Lisa Billa at Athena’s Academy.

. . . . .

No sooner do I nonchalantly promise “More on aphorisms, proverbs, assertions and the like in haiku as and when one is put forward for commentary” than up comes this one two weeks later. So I offer along with definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Any principle or precept expressed in few words; a short pithy sentence containing a truth of general import; a maxim.

loneliness lies within the listener, little cuckoo

A short, traditional, and pithy saying; a concise sentence, typically metaphorical or alliterative in form, stating a general truth or piece of advice; an adage or maxim.

little snail slowly-slowly climbs Mount Fuji

do not forget that in the thicket are plum blossoms

An expression of something in speech or writing, esp. considered in terms of its truth or validity; a declaration, an assertion.

even the captain bows down before the lord of spring

has a story
not to tell
—John Stevenson, Acorn, Number 49, 2022

unless you have fish
the pelican has no use
for you
—John Wills

a neutrino
passes through the chestnut
and the worm, too
— Lorin Ford, in ‘New Calendar’, a renku led by John Stevenson from January – September 2017. THF Archive of Completed Renku.

A traditional maxim; a proverb or short statement expressing a general truth.

we walk this world above Hell gazing at flowers

A proposition, esp. one which is pithily worded, expressing a general truth drawn from science or experience.

autumn leaves
rarer than gold
in the universe
Jeffrey Ferrara, Mainichi Nov. 29, 2023 in best of year

A proposition that commends itself to general acceptance; a well-established or universally-conceded principle; a maxim, rule, law.

where there’s people
there’s flies
and Buddhas

It’s quite possible that such verses would risk rejection by many a pedagogue of English language haiku today, for being ‘authorial,’ assertive or didactic. Which is tough on these masters of the genre.

. . . . .

Received from Lakshman Bulusu after the submission deadline:
“Best apples always have best qualities, no matter how far they are to reach. The same applies to people .

This piece throws light on the opinions people have about apples that they have neither tasted or they know about the apples and are opining about the best of the kind.

The most poignant image is ‘far from the tree’ that describes the taste of the best apples that people have yet to taste but know that they have the best taste. Or simply put they have tasted the apples from the tree and are now discussing about them even though they are far from them; but still relish the taste.

Metaphorically this could mean a liking by someone about someone who they know in terms of their ‘best’ qualities’ or of someone about whom they might have heard about, their good and golden qualities but are ‘far’ from them and are discussing about how that someone has brought good change or accomplished a lot of good that’s useful to the society as a whole.

A third meaning could about cultivation of apples trees that yielded best of apples and hence tilled the soil and took good care of the plantation land all the way from seed to fruit and now it I had become a discussion of good practices in apples blossoming. Some might have the apple blossoms while others might be venturing out there.

Either way, first and best apples create best first impressions. Similarly, the same applies to people.”
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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. In my experience a person’s “firm opinions” about apples, or anything, are not affected by proximity or distance from the object one has an opinion about. A red delicious apple could fall in my lap and I would still prefer a New England macintosh.

    1. See para 3 of the Opening comment.

      The proof of a pudding is in the eating.

      De gustibus non est disputandum.

      1. I believe that the concept of distance or proximity has a significant impact on human relationships. Every person has a unique subjective experience. In reality, we have tried to distance ourselves from nature overall, which is visible in most forests and species on the verge of extinction. For the tree, all apples are equal, and this is different from our civilization’s parameters, which are commercially oriented towards material satisfaction. Also, distance is related to the concept of time, which is really deep.

  2. far from the tree
    firm opinions
    on the best apples
    —Lisa Billa,
    The Heron’s Nest Volume XXVI, Number 2: June 2024

    At first glance, “far from the tree” and “apples” launched the old adage “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” in my mind. It probably became a truism long, long ago (meaning people tend to behave in manners close to those of the parents, usually the parent of the same sex) In my experience, the adage has been used more in the negative than the positive: neighbour A “Mary next door was caught shop-lifting.” neighbour B “Ah, well. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” (Though this adage can also be used in relation to positive things: Mother: “Richard scored top honours in 5th grade maths.” Father: ” Ah, well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

    But no. That well-known adage referred to in Lisa’s L1 is like a ghost behind another aspect of human behaviour: “firm opinions” about all sorts of things expressed by people who haven’t actually experienced those things, who haven’t “been there”.

    far from the tree
    firm opinions
    on the best apples
    —Lisa Billa,
    The Heron’s Nest Volume XXVI, Number 2: June 2024
    But hey, I see that Keith got there before me:

    “I wondered whether the commentator was subconsciously influenced by another apple adage: “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” (a child is like the parents in some way). ”

    …and who said “Opinion isn’t worth a damn” ? (I vaguely remember that from some poem or other)

    1. Thank you, Lorin.

      Probably Marcus Aurelius (but beware that more fake quotes are attributed to him even than to Einstein)

      1. Aurelius, Meditations tr. Hays: “to care for all human beings is part of being human.
        Which doesn’t mean we have to share their opinions. ”
        But that’s probably not the quote you are looking for…

  3. One of the delights of re:Virals is the variety in reader responses to many of the verses, and this is — or should be — of rare value as feedback to poets. It raises questions of communication. In these minimal verses, where ambivalences are encouraged, and readers are in essence invited to complete the author’s meaning without being ‘told’ it, does a verse fail if a reader makes a completely different interpretation from the meaning the poet intended and thought they had communicated? To what extent does that matter? Or does it fail only when a reader can make no sense of it whatever? Conversely, does it succeed if all readers see the same thing in it that the poet intended? Just how much space is left for a reader to enter, and possibly change, a poem in the light of their own experiences? Lorin takes a trenchant view of ‘co-creation.’ (see last week’s comment thread). Others that the line is drawn if readers are even slightly re-writing the poem, e.g. in last week’s, changing ‘melted’ to ‘melting.’

    I am more intrigued by the psychology of it; that is, the suggestibility of words varying according to the reader’s acquis of experience.

    Occasionally a reader’s interpretation (including some of mine) does seem really off beam and I wonder why. Sometimes it seems to be a cultural difference in apprehension, or a word that exists in one culture but not elsewhere. Other times an obscurity, deliberate or inadvertent, on the part of the poet. Or a word that the poet maybe didn’t realise had another meaning (e.g. and ‘scissoring’ — indeed when I googled to find ‘scissoring moths’ just now, Google asked “did you mean “Girls scissoring?””).

    In this week’s poem we have a range of reader approaches and I suggest that as usual they are all valid and valuable even if they weren’t the meanings that stood out to me or some other reader. Where the interpretation was familial I wondered whether the commentator was subconsciously influenced by another apple adage: “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” (a child is like the parents). But then I received Lisa’s own comment on the genesis of her verse, and there’s a strong family origin to it, that seems to have triggered reflections in readers by that process of telepathy we often find in poetry.

    1. I loved reading the responses.

      To add to the footnote, earlier many thought that haiku is the “Japanese epigram.” In the book by Asatarō Miyamori, some European epigrams have been quoted as examples and that’s a clear distinction between what people think is haiku or not. Epigrams lean toward senryū. But, a senryū is more biting, humourous, and vulgar.

      The Epitaph on Saon

      Here lapped in hallowed slumber Saon lies, Asleep, not dead; a good man never dies.

      By Callimachus, a Greek poet

      And here’s an example of a typical senryū:

      Llkite ivu kt no
      Kawo bakari

      Each and every face looks as if They expect to live for ever.

      By Shimpei

      Thank you!

      1. Thank you, Richa.
        epigram: A short poem ending in a witty or ingenious turn of thought, to which the rest of the composition is intended to lead up.

        It does sound like the pattern for many a senryu with a ‘reveal’ at the end. I’ll add to the collection…

        PS: the quote is:”
        Some British and American writers call the haiku “the Japanese epigram,” on the ground that in length it resembles the shortest European poems—the Greek, the Roman and modern epigrams. But this epithet is quite inappropriate, inasmuch as, on the average, the haiku is much shorter than the epigrams, which sometimes run to twenty or thirty lines, and are quite different in content, in subject matter, from the other. The epigrams, for the most part, treat of human affairs and aim chiefly at humour, cynicism and satire. On the other hand, the haiku treat principally of Nature — natural beauties and natural phenomena and always make some reference to the seasons; and humour is considered bad taste in haiku.
        —Asataro Miyamori, An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern, Maruzen Company, Tokyo, 1932.

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