Millions of haiku have been written in English over the last hundred years, but few have found their way into anthologies of English language poetry. The reason is simple. Until recently, haiku hasn’t reached the point where it could stand on its own as an English language poem.
The winning and honorable mention haiku for this month’s challenges employed the styles and techniques of English language poetry (see below) rather than imitating those of Japanese haiku. They show that the future of haiku in English is bright.
- Kate MacQueen borrows the wings of a barred owl to soar into the world of dreams (romantic self-expression).
- Shelli Jankowski-Smith experiences a mix of visual disorientation and visual wonder as a great bird assembles itself from parts—right before her eyes (surrealism).
- Kelly Shaw uses repeated consonants to bend two invisible elements: space and sound (alliteration).
- Pat Hull’s summer sky waits for the day to “turn over” like the page of a novel (figurative language).
- Barrie Levine’s grandmother brings the fresh blue scent of the sky in from the clothesline (synesthesia).
- Lorraine A. Padden finds in the clearest sky a symbol of open-hearted acceptance—and maybe hope (personal narrative).
These are but a few of the possibilities for haiku in English. The only limit on what can be expressed in seventeen syllables is your own poetic vision. And so, as we continue along this path together, strive to write haiku that pull their own weight as English language poems. Let’s see how many haiku we can add to the pages of mainstream magazines, journals, and anthologies over the next ten to twenty years.
You can submit a haiku for the February challenge here.
Winter Season Word: Owl
you! cries the barred owl—
my heart on the edge of sleep
answers with spread wings
At sixteen words, this feels long. The flow of a haiku is normally brisk, its form more tightly compressed. And yet, the poet’s words are in perfect accord with the tone of her haiku, which is emotionally expansive.
The poem takes longer to say because the poet wants it to take longer. Because she wants to prolong the moment of stepping past the edge of waking consciousness—that moment when the body falls into the oblivion of sleep…and the soul takes flight.
“I sleep, but my heart is awake,” says the Lover to her Beloved in the Song of Songs. Think of this haiku as a 17-syllable version of that ancient mystical love poem, and you will understand why the poet doesn’t want it to end.
Because owls are heard at night (often in the middle of the night), they occupy a mysterious place in folklore. They bring messages, portents, and prophetic visions. They can also bring invitations. The word “You!” is exactly that. The rest of the haiku is a reply.
As a further point of interest, the face of a barred owl resembles a heart. The hidden image is therefore that of a woman answering the call of her owl lover, spreading her wings to join him (or perhaps her) in the land of dreams—as an owl.
The Japanese haiku tradition has its roots in animism—the belief that all beings are alive and sentient, not just human beings. This haiku grafts western ideas about shamanism onto that ancient belief.
As my eyes adjust
a gliding wing attaches
itself to an owl.
warping the night air
the cry of an owl wafting
into my bedroom
Summer Season Word: Summer Sky
summer sky waiting
until its page is ready
to be turned over
The best haiku are often deceptively simple. You have to read them over a dozen or more times to take in fully what they have to say.
On its surface there isn’t much here: just the figurative comparison of a summer sky to the page of a book—possibly a novel. The word “waiting” suggests a late afternoon sky approaching evening over the course of several hours.
This poem offers an opportunity to think about seasonality in haiku. Sky is sky. But there is an enormous difference between a winter sky and a summer sky. The quality of sunlight is completely different, for instance, as well as the length of that light. The continental U.S. ranges from 14 to 16 hours of sunlight at the summer solstice. If the year were a novel, summer would be right in the middle of it.
The phrasing of certain haiku gives them a feeling of inevitability, as if their syllables were always destined to fall into place in a certain way. This is one of those haiku. It has that quality that the Japanese haiku master Kaneko Tōta (1919-2018) called “the beauty of finality in this world where nothing is final.”
In popular idiom to “turn the page” on something means to put it behind us. Clearly, the poet has something like that in mind. But he has given the slightest twist to that familiar expression so that it becomes more than a mere cliché. The summer sky isn’t turning its page “on” the day, it is waiting “to be turned over.”
For all its simplicity, this is an extremely complex haiku. After repeated readings of it, I am left with three koan-like questions:
Who is it that turns the page of a summer sky?
What does it take to become “ready” for that turning?
How many more pages are in its book?
The poet hasn’t offered answers to any of these questions. (Haiku poets don’t do that.) Rather, he invites us to consider them for ourselves.
As a final note, you have to marvel at use of figurative language here. The poet has taken a vast, slow cosmological event—the rotation of the Earth over the course of a summer evening—and reduced it to the flip of a page.
Because it relies so heavily on an English language idiom, this haiku would be impossible to translate well into Japanese. This is worth considering because the reverse is true of good Japanese haiku.
Japanese poets exploit their language to its fullest in writing a haiku. It is therefore important to remember that when we read a Japanese haiku in English, we are reading a translation, not a poem. The study of Japanese haiku will never tell us what an English language haiku should sound like. We will have to discover that on our own.
nana carries in
a basketful of towels
scent of summer sky
clearest summer sky
the oncologist tells us
chemo should end now
—Lorraine A. Padden
You can find the previous month’s season words and haiku tips below:
January 2021 Haiku Challenge Prompt
For January 2021, you may submit poems on two different season words. One is a winter word meant to encourage you to draw inspiration from the world around you. The other is a summer word to challenge your poetic imagination.
Summer season word: “Summer Sky”
In the summer sky
a cloud with its mouth open
eats a smaller cloud.
“I follow the seventeen syllable limit because it provides me with a pleasurable feeling of push-back, a resistance to whatever literary whims I may have at the time. If you want to create a little flash of illumination, the haiku tells us, start by counting on your fingers. A three-line poem with a frog is not necessarily a haiku.”
—Billy Collins, from Rattle #47, Spring 2015
Tribute to Japanese Forms
Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the summer season word “summer sky.” 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 “summer sky.”
HAIKU TIP: The Anatomy of a Successful Haiku
Of the twenty-five men and women who have held the position of U.S. Poet Laureate since the mid-1990s, one in five have written or translated haiku, or have cited haiku as an influence on their poetry. Of these, Billy Collins is the best haiku poet. The word Japanese word haiku means “comical verse,” and Collins has the right skills for it—a knack for saying something significant, even profound, in a simple, almost lighthearted way.
The opening line establishes a season word, one of the two main rules of haiku. The words also fall naturally within a rhythm of 5-7-5 syllables, which is the other rule. So far so good. Meeting those requirements qualifies the poem as a haiku. To make it a successful haiku, requires a third element—what Collins calls “a little flash of illumination.” In Japanese circles, it is called haiku humor—a form of laughter that vectors off in elusive or unexpected directions. How does Collins get there in his poem?
Every good haiku has two, or sometimes three, layers of meaning. In Collins’ haiku the first layer is easy to spot. It’s right there on the surface in the image of a larger cloud opening its mouth to “eat” a smaller cloud in the summer sky. The second layer comes after a second or third reading when we realize what the poet is really saying: The big fish eat the little fish…even in the sky.
The addition of that poetic “turn of thought” to the surface image of the poem makes for a good haiku indeed. But that is not all there is to it.
The art of haiku involves learning how to read haiku as well as how to write them. For that reason, it is important to take our time. Sometimes a good haiku is even better than we thought.
Behind in the secondary layer of Collins’ predatory cloud fish is a further layer that makes a good haiku into an excellent haiku. Because if the heavens seem to mirror the competitive, almost Darwinian struggles of life in human society, they also have a lesson for us.
Aren’t our struggles in the human realm, finally, also somewhat insubstantial and cloudlike? Somewhat empty?
For a long time it was the style of Buddhist poets to perform Buddhist ideas in their poems. It is another thing entirely to express those ideas, as Billy Collins has done here.
Winter season word: “Owl”
The cry of an owl
opens a door in the dark
that won’t close again
Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the winter season word “owl.” 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 “owl.”
HAIKU TIP: The Use of Poetic Language
One of the greatest misconceptions about Japanese haiku is that it favors clear-cut, what-you-see-is-what-you-get objective language with no artifice—in short, that haiku do not avail themselves of poetic devices like metaphor, personification, or figurative language.
It isn’t clear who created the idea that a haiku should not function as poems ordinarily do in English. It could have been D.T. Suzuki, R.H Blyth, or Alan Watts, who together invented an idea of “Zen haiku” that has no basis in Japanese tradition. Or it could have been the second wave of American haiku poets who insisted on writing terse little verses that were sometimes nothing but nouns.
The goal of haiku is poetic self-expression. That’s it! There is no secret handshake, no hidden truth apart from that. Haiku writers are poets—which means that they strive to express themselves optimally in the haiku form, choosing the perfect arrangement of images, sounds, and syllables to convey the thought or feeling they wish to get across.
We could add one caveat to that. The goal of haiku is poetic self-expression within the haiku form. Haiku isn’t free verse. Nor, in its subject matter, does it reinvent the wheel with every poem. Haiku poets draw their principal inspiration from the world of Nature and strive to express themselves through natural imagery, using a season word or some other strongly inflected natural image as the anchor for each poem.
So, in writing haiku this month about owls, free yourself into all kinds of poetic possibilities.
Dividing the night
into before and after…
A note on owls: In Haiku World, his book on season words and how to use them, William J. Higginson accounted for the association of owls with wintertime in haiku:
Many owls are most prominent in winter, when longer periods of darkness make their nocturnal activities overlap more with our waking hours. Also, their hooting calls increase with mating, mid-to-late winter and early spring for many species
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