As a general rule, when we want to know what a poet is trying to convey in a haiku, we look carefully to see how the season word is being used. In a good haiku, the season word will serve as a fulcrum for the turn of thought. The notable characteristic of last month’s word, “sweater,” is that its shape is anthropomorphic. Two arms. A hole for the neck. A torso. More than one poet from the challenge mentioned how a sweater assumes the shape of the wearer. And so, a sweater is never just a sweater in haiku; it is always a body as well. The winning and honorable mention poems for last month’s challenge each explored that theme.
- Katelyn Barnes turns a shopping trip into a meditation on love, touch, and discovering the body of the other.
- Nancie Zivetz Gertler experiences the all-enveloping embrace of an absent lover by climbing inside of their sweater.
- Mariah Blackhorse finds a surprising connection between a favorite sweater and the breath inside of her lungs.
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 March challenge here.
Winter Season Word: Sweater
What size do you wear?
Shopping, I see a sweater
… just thinking of you
— Katelyn Barnes
During the late twentieth century, two women, both born in 1962, revolutionized poetry in Japan. Popular interest in traditional verse forms had begun to fall off. Then came Machi Tawara’s bestselling book, Salad Anniversary, followed a few years later by the surprise hit Summer on the B-Side, by Mayuzumi Madoka. Both women were masters of a “light breath” style of poetry that found unexpected meaning in events from daily life.
Written in the traditional 31-syllable pattern, Tawara’s love tanka were refreshingly original and colloquial in tone. Madoka followed the time-honored form of haiku, but combined subjects like shopping, dating, and yoga classes with the traditional season words. The new style made Japanese poetry accessible again, restoring its status as a popular literature for people from all walks of life.
This month’s winning haiku exemplifies the “light breath” style of haiku. Its tone is conversational, its sentiment warm and cozy. “What size do you wear?” the poet asks of a would-be lover. The relationship is new, and she does not yet know the answer. The rest of the poem reads like a private thought, the follow-up to a voice or text message, perhaps. “Shopping, I see a sweater …just thinking of you.”
The poem is all about bodies. Their shape. Their size. Their warmth. The sweater on display at a clothing store invites the poet to imagine the as-yet-unfamiliar contours of her lover’s torso. This gives the last five syllables an element of restrained eroticism. “Just thinking of you” is a throwaway line that seems to add nothing but, on reflection, adds everything to the poem.
Light breath haiku are harder to write than they look. Such poems capture moments of found beauty or significance that, because they lie right at the surface of life, we are apt to gloss over in the course of daily events.
Is this mindfulness? Perhaps. But not mindfulness of the disciplined, meditative sort. Light breath haiku are emotionally mindful. The poets who embrace this style of haiku strive to know what is happening in their hearts from one moment to the next.
while i’m missing you
i climb into your sweater
and you surround me
— Nancie Zivetz Gertler
forming the shape asked of it
supple as a breath
— Mariah Blackhorse
You can find more on February’s season word, as well as relevant haiku tips, in last month’s challenge below:
Winter season word: “sweater”
always knitting me sweaters
like one of the Fates
Going through some old clothes, I remembered my great-grandmother and all the sweaters she knitted for me as a child. She felt ancient, almost deathless, even then. Part of me wondered if she wasn’t still there, knitting in her rocking chair, somewhere on the other side of the veil.
Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the winter season word “sweater.” 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 “sweater.”
Haiku Tip: Enter a yearly contest!
Founded in 1975, the California-based Yuki Teikei Haiku Society takes its name from a popular approach to writing haiku in modern-day Japan. Yuki means “with season,” while teikei means “having formal pattern.” Taken together, the words describe the two most familiar elements of haiku: the 5-7-5 syllable pattern and the use of season words.
Since 1978, the society has sponsored an annual contest for formal haiku in English. As with our Monthly Challenges, the season words are assigned. So those of you who have learned to write haiku in our online community, or by taking my “Learn to Write Haiku” course through Tricycle, will already know the basics of this approach.
In addition to the poems that you submit for our Tricycle Challenge this month, to hone your skills, review the season words for the contest and write as many haiku as you can on the ones that resonate with you. From among those haiku, choose your favorites to send to the contest following the submission guidelines on the society’s website. The deadline is May 31.
The Yuki Teikei approach to writing haiku was pioneered by Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959), the most influential haiku editor of the 20th century. Kyoshi wrote haiku as “an objective sketch from nature” and encouraged others to do the same. In essence, that means describing nature “as it is.”
Let’s take this month’s season word “sweater” as an example. The haiku I offered as a sample would not qualify as “objective description.” Its turn of thought relies on an allusion to Greek mythology and it uses a metaphorical comparison to get its point across. It qualifies as an English language haiku in spite of that, but not as a Yuki Teikei style of verse.
The following verse is closer:
the sound of your heart
through the wool of the sweater
comes from far away
There is a subjective element in the last line, with the idea of the wool muffling the sound of a heartbeat so that it seems to come from a distance, but the images are more concrete overall.
If we transform that element into an objective image, we end up with a juxtaposition like the following:
the sound of your heart
through the wool of the sweater
clouds again today
The turn of thought is more subtle now, but the emotional distance is still there. This is an objective sketch from nature, even though the human realm is also involved.
This “just the facts” style of poetry became part of the DNA of modern haiku, and every poet can benefit from learning to write this way. The Yuki Teikei approach teaches us how to convey subtle thoughts and feelings without stating them directly, relying on the images to speak for themselves.
A note on sweaters: Although knitted clothing (mostly socks, gloves, and caps) first appeared in ancient times, the sweater is a relatively modern invention, dating from the 15th century. The wool sweater made its debut among fisherfolk in northern European countries, where it protected them from the cold, even when damp. The term “sweater” became popular in America in the 1890s, when they were used as warm-up attire for athletic events. Since then, sweaters have become popular in countries around the world. Sweaters can be knitted by hand or purchased off the rack and come in a wide variety of styles.
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