Every good haiku has two layers of meaning. The first is the image or surface layer: what is literally happening in the poem. The second is the “turn of thought” added by the poet to that surface image to give it additional significance or meaning. A great haiku requires a third layer that gives a poem depth and dimensionality, transforming it into a virtual 17-syllable world.
Each of the winning and honorable mention haiku for last month’s challenge had that elusive “third layer” that builds a tiny world within a world.
- Tony Williams uses two rainbows—one mythical, one real—to encompass the entire history of human supremacy over nature.
- Barrie Levine finds a surprise the size of a rainbow awaiting her in the winter sky.
- Bonnie Bostrom reveals the essence of one of nature’s most elusive phenomena in a prism caught “between rain and light.”
Congratulations to all! To read additional poems of merit from recent months, visit our Tricycle Haiku Challenge group on Facebook.
You can submit a haiku for the January challenge here.
Winter Season Word: Winter Rainbow
a winter rainbow…
this time we are at the end
of the beginning
— Tony Williams
Although rainbows have appeared in myth and legend throughout the world, in Western culture the most famous rainbow is the one from the Book of Genesis. In chapter nine, following the Great Flood, God says to Noah:
I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.
The earliest translators of the Bible renamed its first book Genesis, after the Greek word for “origin.” In the Hebrew scriptures, the name derives from its opening word Bereshith, meaning “in the beginning.” These are the words being alluded to in December’s winning haiku.
The poet has used the Biblical flood to establish a symbolic timeframe for the Holocene, the period covering approximately the last 11,700 years of Earth’s history, during which human activity led to a mass extinction of plant and animal life. The words “this time we are at the end of the beginning” bookend the Holocene epoch with two rainbows: the one in Genesis and the winter rainbow the poet has recently seen. One rainbow marks the end of a great flood. The other, given the rise in sea levels projected for the coming century, could mark the beginning of one.
Is the poet saying that Earth’s biodiversity will be lost to us? Or is he saying that it could return? As a season word, “winter rainbow” is inherently ambiguous. Symbolically, it can suggest feelings of abandonment or hope. That the poet has left both possibilities open in his haiku suggests that he may be asking us to choose between them. The future is not fixed.
In the early 2000s, I wrote a book that treated the more puzzling episodes of the Greek and Hebrew scriptures as Zen koans. In the end, I came to think of the Bible as a single extremely long thought experiment, the purpose of which was to answer one question: What happens to a world in which one species declares dominion over all others? The Bible offered its own answer to that question: the Book of Revelation. The Bible is a portrait of the Holocene extinction.
Fortunately, that linear, end-times scenario is not the only narrative there is. A much longer and more durable narrative is the one offered by the four seasons, which is the story we honor in writing haiku. According to that circular narrative, all endings are temporary, all beginnings are arbitrary. Haiku may be the only form of literature in the world where the ecological sanity of human beings still remains in place.
stretched across the sky
for the length of my surprise
— Barrie Levine
Caught in a prism
Somewhere between rain and light
A winter rainbow
— Bonnie Bostrom
You can find December’s season word and haiku tips below:
Winter season word: “Winter rainbow”
One foot in the sky
One foot in Kamogawa
A winter rainbow
Japanese poet Mayuzumi Madoka’s comment: Kyoto is famous for intermittent showers in early winter, known as shigure. These showers are frequent, so it is no surprise that rainbows are a common sight. The Kamo River runs from north to south through Kyoto. A rainbow with one foot in the Kamo River and one on the other side of the city disappeared in an instant, before I could take a picture. However, its image is still clear and vivid in my mind.
Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the season word “winter rainbow.” Your poems must be written in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively, and should focus on a single moment of time happening now.
Be straightforward in your description and try to limit your subject matter. Haiku are nearly always better when they don’t have too many ideas or images. So make your focus the season word and try to stay close to that.
Remember: To qualify for the challenge, your haiku must be written in 5-7-5 syllables and include the words “winter rainbow.”
HAIKU TIP: MEET A CONTEMPORARY HAIKU MASTER!
The daughter of a well-known poet, Mayuzumi Madoka (b. 1962) became serious about haiku in her twenties while working as a television reporter on a segment about the tragic life of Sugita Hisajo (1890-1946). One of the most talented haiku poets of the 20th century, Hisajo had a falling out with her mentor Takahama Kyoshi, who suppressed her work and unjustly stigmatized her as a “mad woman.”
Madoka rose to prominence in 1994, following the publication of her bestselling book Biimen no natsu (Summer on the B-Side). Her other collections include Kuchizuke (Kisses), Kyoto no koi (Kyoto Romance), and Wasuregai (The Forgetting Shell). About Kisses, Hiroaki Sato wrote: “[D]escribing a love affair in haiku may be radical in conception, but Mayuzumi is a traditionalist in two respects: she uses a season word (kigo) in each piece and generally maintains the 5-7-5 syllable format.” Speaking her heart in fresh, contemporary language, while still respecting the haiku tradition, is a hallmark of Madoka’s style.
But Madoka is more than a traditional haiku master. She has written librettos for numerous operas and recorded her adventures along the Camino de Santiago, the Shikoku Henro, and other famous pilgrimage routes throughout the world. She has also used her fame to raise social consciousness about issues like bullying and suicide. In 2011, she worked with survivors of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown to compile an anthology, using haiku to help them express their feelings of dislocation and loss.
Most recently, Madoka created The Kyoto x Haiku Project, a volunteer movement intended to encourage the people of Kyoto to compose haiku and give voice to Formal Haiku poets from around the world. The project invites us to view life during the COVID-19 pandemic “through the small window of haiku and glorify it in seventeen syllables.” The project is currently accepting winter haiku submissions that include a reference to the seasonal theme of “birds.”
To learn more about Madoka, visit her website or read her essay “Haiku: The Heart of Japan in 17 Syllables.” You can also read Madoka’s most recent haiku in Japanese, English, and French on the Kyoto x Haiku Project’s Instagram.
A note on “winter rainbows”: In his book Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac, William J. Higgison writes: “Rainbows can be seen at any time of year, when an observer stands between the sun and a rain-shower cloud—provided the angles are right and the sky is clear in the right place. The droplets in the cloud act as prisms, dividing the light into different color bands as seen by the observer.” Because rainbows are anomalous weather events requiring special conditions, to see one feels like a revelation or a special blessing. That being said, seeing a rainbow in winter can evoke dissonant emotions, as in the famous haiku by Katō Shuson (1905-1993):
Et tu, Brute!
winter rainbow even now
ready to vanish
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