Although haiku is defined by longstanding rules governing its basic form and subject matter, those rules are few and easy to follow. What makes an original or thought-provoking haiku is how freely the poet functions within those limits. To the simple formula of 17 syllables with a season word and a compelling turn of thought, the poet must add an individual stamp. At its best, a haiku shows the reader who we are and how we see the world. Each of the winning and honorable mention poems for last month’s challenge used the haiku formula to reveal the poet’s heart.
- Jill Johnson’s seven-year-old self personifies the north wind in order to claim its bracing power as her own.
- Kirsten Munro captures the spirit of the wind in her image of a heart crossing the ocean “like a bird’s wing.”
- Nancy Winkler rounds a corner on a city street for a surprise collision with the full force of winter.
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 February challenge here.
Winter Season Word: North Wind
When I was seven
I wanted to be a horse.
My name was North Wind.
— Jill Johnson
Among the hundreds of poems submitted for our January Haiku Challenge, this was the most original. That being said, it flouts the conventions of haiku in several significant ways. Which raises two questions: How does it flout those conventions? And to what poetic effect?
While the rules of formal haiku are simple—write a poem in 5-7-5 syllables, include a season word, and give it a compelling turn of thought—the conventions are another matter. These are the customs commonly observed by haiku poets, even if they aren’t exactly written in stone. What distinguishes this month’s winning haiku is the number of basic conventions it ignores. It focuses on a memory from the past rather than a single moment happening now. It also comes at the season word from a nonliteral slant. Finally, it employs a first-person pronoun in every line of the poem.
It is a myth that haiku poets never refer to themselves. But there aren’t many classical haiku that take self-reference quite to this extreme. The poem takes place in an interior world where there are no concrete images. Even the horse is a creature of the imagination.
Why, then, does it work so well as a haiku?
When the poet was seven, she wanted to be a horse. She even gave herself a poetic name based on that desire. There is no sense that this desire was fulfilled in any realm but the imagination. Then again, that seems to be the point.
In personifying the north wind as a horse, and becoming that horse, the poet has captured its essence—not as the wind exists on the tundra or coming off a frozen lake, but as it lives in the poetic imagination. There, its indomitable power becomes a lasting source of strength and inspiration. The poet has extracted the season word from the realm of meteorology and found a home for it in her heart.
In style and tone, this haiku belongs to the tradition of modern confessional poetry. In technique, it employs one of the oldest techniques in haiku—the pivot. The poem consists of two related sentences, but there is a shift in meaning between them. The first sentence feels nostalgic, even a bit melancholy. But the last five syllables suggest a leap.
The words “My name was North Wind” are more than an assertion of a seven-year-old girl’s will to power. They are a touchstone for individual dignity in a world that seems designed to erode our sense of self over time. That society makes it more difficult for women than for men to preserve freedom and autonomy is subtly suggested by the poem.
Carrying my heart,
Like a bird’s wing in north wind,
Across the ocean.
— Kirsten Munro
rounding the corner
crashing into each other
meeting the north wind
— Nancy Winkler
You can find more on January’s season word, as well as relevant haiku tips, in last month’s challenge below:
Winter season word: “north wind”
a north wind blows in
following the funeral—
sorrow is a sail
Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the winter season word “north wind.” 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 “north wind.”
Haiku Tip: Work with subjective imagery!
For much of the 20th century, it was felt that haiku should avoid subjectivity, focusing instead on the objective description of Nature. Most Japanese haiku poets were schooled in shasei, “the sketch from life,” which was the term that Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) used to acknowledge the influence of realistic Western-style landscape painting on modern Japanese haiku.
Needless to say, many poets felt silenced by this approach. In the latter half of the century, poets (women especially) began to experiment with more subjective, personal modes of expression. This shift revolutionized haiku poetry, making it more popular than ever before.
But how do we work with subjectivity in haiku? There is no single answer to that question, but there is a general guideline. The main image of the haiku (usually the season word) must remain grounded in reality. It’s the turn of thought introduced by the secondary image that introduces a more personal dimension to the poem.
In the example haiku offered above, the first two lines are purely objective. This makes it easy for the reader to find a footing in the poem. The last line, however, departs significantly from the realm of objective description. It is possible to imagine the mourners departing from the funeral with a stiff north wind at their backs, but that is not the point. Otherwise, the last line would read something like “nudging the mourners.” No. It isn’t the mourners’ coats that catch the north wind like sails, moving them forward through grief. It is their sorrow.
And so, it is all right to introduce subjective elements into your haiku, so long as the poem is grounded in something tangible or real. Give the reader a concrete image to work with in your haiku and you can afford to be a little more daring with the remainder of the poem.
A note on the north wind: In the northern hemisphere, the north wind blows southward, usually signifying the arrival of colder weather. In Greek mythology, Boreas was the god of the north winds, storms, and winter cold. He was physically strong with a volatile temper. For the Inuit, the north wind was ruled by Negafook, a spirit who simply enjoyed cold stormy weather.
Haiku poets have handled the season word in various ways. For Kurahashi Yoson (1931-2020), the bracing north wind intensified the beauty of a winter night:
Above the tall trees
a chill north wind is blowing
rippling the stars
Hashizume Sajin (1913-1986) used the season word to capture the mood of social unease and paranoia in early post-war Japan:
Out of the north wind
someone’s finger emerges
pointing straight at me
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