In haiku written before 1900, the season word “long night” was used to evoke a broad range of meanings and associations, only some of which could be characterized as “dark.” The word took on a more symbolic character during the 20th century, as poets used it to express feelings of fear, isolation, sorrow, grief, or existential dread. Chosen from more than 500 haiku submitted, the winning and honorable mention poems for this month’s challenge exemplified the contemporary approach to the theme.
- Jill Johnson offers an image of comfort and familiarity to evoke its opposite—the uncanny sense of things being “more than they seem.”
- Sergio Werner experiences a reprieve from loneliness in the sound of his neighbor’s footsteps pacing throughout the night.
- Marcia Burton feels the “bookends” of her mind stretched as far apart as they will go on the darkest night of the year.
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 November challenge here.
Fall Season Word: Long Night
Long nights are coming.
If you will hold the lantern,
I will get the door.
— Jill Johnson
In one of the oldest paradoxes of haiku, the more complex the wording of a poem, the less likely it is to have a complex meaning. A plainly phrased haiku is often more profound.
In this instance, the elements are few. Approaching long nights. A lantern. A door. Two people. The speaker and her companion arrive at a simple arrangement as they near a threshold. “If you will hold the lantern, I will get the door.” Nothing could be more ordinary.
And yet . . .
Haiku poets become adept at spotting “the uncanny” in the midst of everyday life—experiences imbued with a deeper significance that one can sense, although it may be difficult to explain them rationally. The word has come to refer to experiences that are vaguely disturbing or unsettling, but this was not always the case. It derives from the Old English cunnan, meaning “to know how to” or “be able to.” Thus, uncanny originally referred to things that were beyond our ability to do or to grasp—i.e., things that humans could not control.
On a late autumn night, the poet asks her companion to hold a lantern while she finds the keyhole and opens the door before them. As they stand at the threshold, the house is before them, the darkness at their back.
The lantern is telling. The anachronistic quality of that image invites the reader to visit an older, less brightly illuminated world. But it is the simpler image of a door that points to the deeper meaning of the poem.
If there is a single, all-purpose symbol for human civilization, it would have to be a house. Human beings began constructing fabricated shelters in the Upper Paleolithic, as evidenced by the many tectiforms (“roof-shaped” icons) found on cave walls throughout the prehistoric world. In the beginning, such dwellings had flaps, not doorways. Doors were added later for safety or privacy as our ancestors began to conceptualize the idea that parts of the world could be reserved exclusively for human use. That idea marks the earliest stage of the Anthropocene.
The poet hasn’t indicated any of this directly in her haiku. Rather, she has upended the image of two people about to enter the warmth and comfort of a home with the simple declarative sentence: “Long nights are coming.”
That is where the uncanny lives inside of this haiku. The words are more than an acknowledgment of the changing season. They feel like a prophecy.
walking back and forth
my neighbor too cannot sleep —
long night together
— Sergio Werner
stretching my bookends
as far apart as they go
long night in the dark
— Marcia Burton
You can find more on October’s season word, as well as relevant haiku tips, in last month’s challenge below:
Fall season word: “long night”
The nights are long now
remarks my wife at my side
and I think so, too
— Sumio Mori (1919-2010)
Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the fall season word “long night.” 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 “long night.”
Haiku Tip: Tell the story of the four seasons!
In haiku, the season word “long night” refers to the period following the fall equinox when dusk comes earlier and the days turn from cool. . . to chilly. . . to cold. A popular theme in Japanese poetry, many masterpieces have been written on the lengthening nights of autumn, including the following tanka by Ono no Komachi (825-900):
The autumn night
is long only in name—
We’ve done no more
than gaze at each other
and it’s already dawn.
(trans. by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Arantani)
The point of the poem is not to suggest that the autumn nights are short, but that even the longest nights of the year are too brief for Komachi and her lover.
Eleven hundred years later, the feminist haiku poet Sugita Hisajo (1890-1946) used the theme to describe the most quintessential of all modern ailments—insomnia and loneliness:
The distant striking
of a clock in the long night—
I counted each one
On its surface, Sumio Mori’s haiku offers a much plainer treatment of the theme. He is sitting with his wife in the early evening. Or perhaps they are out for a walk. She observes that the nights have gotten longer, and he agrees—although he doesn’t tell her so. That is all there is to the poem.
The haiku scholar Jim Wilson often speaks of the Allegory of the Seasons: the idea that human beings have long used the “story” of the year as a way of making sense of their place in the natural world. Following the terms of that allegory, the year mirrors the progress of a human life. Spring is birth. Summer is youth. Autumn is maturity. Winter is old age and death.
Mori’s wife might as well have said, “Our lives are passing.” But she doesn’t. “The nights are long now,” she says. It’s the realization of a person who experiences her life as one with the four seasons.
Mori confesses to the reader that he agrees with his wife. His thoughts are the same as hers. But his emotions are too strong, so the words remain unspoken.
This is as much a love poem as the tanka written over a thousand years ago by Ono no Komachi. And yet, for all its simplicity, Mori’s is the sadder, deeper verse.
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