The poet Kai Hasegawa (b. 1954) once suggested that kokoro (“sincere feeling” or “heart”) is the quality most lacking in contemporary haiku. According to Hasegawa, the modern emphasis on realism has resulted in a form of poetry that is “only about things.” This was not the case with the winning and honorable mention poems for last month’s haiku challenge. Our poets wrote about their subjects with feeling, crafting poems that used objective imagery to convey wonder, awe, and an intimate sense of connection with their fellow creatures from the natural world.
- Kathy Fusho Nolan captured an uncanny moment of oneness with a garter snake as she let it cross her open palm.
- Devin Maroney felt a sense of childlike wonder watching a water snake wiggle its body, while its head remained “so still.”
- Lisa Anne Johnson discovered that, even when she knows a snake is about to strike its prey, she still can’t prepare for it.
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 August challenge here.
Summer Season Word: Serpent or Snake
A garter snake’s skin:
surprisingly cool and dry—
Palm up, belly down
— Kathy Fusho Nolan
The best haiku have a quality of elusive simplicity that defies easy analysis. At 17 syllables, the poem is over quickly. The trick is to create an image that is almost (but not quite fully) understandable so that it lingers in the mind, unfolding in the reader’s imagination on a kind of time release.
The scene is easy to visualize. Finding a garter snake on a summer day, the poet lifts it from the grass, letting it crawl over her open palm. Being coldblooded, the snake has skin that is dry and cool.
That is enough to satisfy the demand for a concrete image with a strong seasonal feeling. But it is not enough to produce a compelling turn of thought. Only in the last line do we understand what the poem is truly about.
In common parlance, slogans like “head up, shoulders back” are used to describe the posture of a single body. But that is not what is happening here. The words “palm up, belly down” apply to two bodies—the poet’s and the snake’s.
At first, the words don’t quite seem to make sense. Then they do. The poet has employed a bit of verbal magic to capture a moment of oneness with the natural world.
The snake’s belly is its “palm”—the part of it that connects with the earth. The poem therefore records a moment of true intimacy. A kind of “handshake,” as it were. At least one modern authority, Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959), has called that “handshake” the point of haiku. Kyoshi believed that son-mon, “saluting” or “greeting” the things of nature, was the essence of the art.
Little water snake
Body writhing, head so still
How do you do it?
— Devin Maroney
the snake strikes the mouse
and those of us watching her
all gasp together
— Lisa Anne Johnson
You can find more on July’s season word, as well as relevant haiku tips, in last month’s challenge below:
Summer season word: “serpent” or “snake”
The absent vowels
in the language of serpents
Not all alphabets include vowels. Nevertheless, all languages have spoken vowel sounds, whether their alphabets include them or not. Or at least all human languages do.
Finding a green snake in our yard, I watched its red tongue flick in and out. It could hiss if it wanted to. But it could not utter a vowel.
I considered this for a while before deciding that a snake didn’t need vowels. Its world was complete without them.
Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the season word “serpent” or “snake.” 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 word “serpent” or “snake.” For this month’s challenge, we are following a haiku tradition that allows an animal or plant to be called by more than one name. Hence, both “serpent” and “snake” haiku will be accepted for consideration.
Haiku Tip: Encounter the Nonhuman World!
The season words of haiku are divided into six traditional categories, only one of which addresses human affairs. Humans may be present in haiku that employ season words from the other five categories, but humans are not the main subject of the poem.
To be a haiku poet is to feel oneself drawn ever more deeply into relationship with the non-human world. With the length or shortness of the day. Its warmth or coolness. With plants and animals. Mountains and plains. Valleys, streams, and stones.
Even when we write about human affairs in a haiku, we write about them as they exist in relationship to Nature. Our purpose is to find the meaning of our lives within the passing seasons. To unite with rhythms that are older than human beings. Even older than hominids.
Basho summed up the haiku life in one of his earliest travel diaries. In The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, he writes:
Saigyo in traditional poetry, Sogi in linked verse, Sesshu in painting, Rikyu in tea ceremony, and indeed all who have achieved real excellence in any art, possess one thing in common: that is, a mind to follow Nature, and return to Nature, throughout the four seasons of the year.
The return to Nature that Basho speaks of is, of course, not really a return. It means to give up the illusions of human supremacy and human exceptionalism. We don’t become one with Nature through writing haiku. We come to realize that, between the human and nonhuman worlds, there is no separation at all.
In haiku we approach that realization gradually, one poem at a time. The season words are like an almanac. The poems of the masters are our Nature guide. To write a haiku on a summer theme like “snake” requires us to give up our anthropocentric preconceptions and look so deeply into Nature that, eventually, we begin to feel it looking back.
The snake has vanished
but the eyes that glared at me
remain in the grass
—Kyoshi Takahama (1874-1959)
A note on snakes: Snakes first appeared in the Early Cretaceous period, approximately 128 million years ago. There are around 3,900 species of snakes in the world today. Serpents are highly adaptive, having evolved to live on land, in trees, in the ocean, and in freshwater ponds, lakes, and streams.
Among the oldest symbols in the human repertoire, snakes have usually been associated with healing and transformation. In many cultures, they are believed to guard the secrets of birth, death, and regeneration. Once the ally of the Great Mother Goddess, the serpent was demonized by the Judeo-Christian tradition, where it was used to reinforce misogyny and justify male dominion over women.
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