There is no limit to what can be said using just seventeen syllables and a season word. Anything can happen when that liminal space is shared by the poet and the reader. The poet’s job is to provide an invitation to enter that space in the form of an image to which a turn of thought has been added. If the image is clear, the turn successful, the “door” of the poem will open. The winning and honorable mention haiku for last month’s challenge invited readers to explore vast horizons contained in the space of only a few words.
- Jesus Santos explores the moral, ecological landscape of the 21st century in his portrait of Fuji rising above suburban Tokyo.
- Kelly Shaw sees the world as a vast being beginning to stir and “open its eyes” as the sun rises above the winter horizon.
- Mike Heffner captures the apocalyptic mood of the 2020s with his image of a firestorm spreading across the winter sky “as the sun passes away.”
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 current challenge here.
Winter Season Word: Winter horizon
for miles nothing seems to grow
except Mt. Fuji
— Jesus Santos
A good haiku makes the impossible possible—if only because it packs so much more than seventeen syllables of meaning into its simple three-part structure. The result is a poem that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
On a winter day, the poet approaches Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan. Visible on a clear day from Tokyo, its iconic snow-capped cone grows larger on the horizon as he leaves the city, approaching it by train or car.
The middle line conveys more than the relative flatness of the coastal topography. “For miles nothing seems to grow,” offers a sly commentary on the urban sprawl of Japan’s capital and, by extension, on large cities everywhere—especially the most heavily populated.
A 2018 United Nations study estimated a population for Tokyo of 38 million people. But only 13 million inhabit the city proper. The rest occupy an area consisting of cities that were once discrete municipalities but have now been swallowed by the larger Tokyo metropolitan area, making it the largest city in the world.
In reading a haiku—especially a modern haiku—we often find that it poses an implicit question. Here the question would be, What does it mean to grow?
The growth of the mountain and the growth of the city are two completely different things. The more brimming with human culture and commerce a land area becomes, the less likely it will be to support biological diversity. The poet has set the soaring, pristine beauty of Mt. Fuji against the backdrop of a human world that seems to be thriving but is really a kind of wasteland.
And yet, it would be a mistake to suppose that the poem offers a critique specifically of Tokyo. In 2005, the New York Times journalist Thomas L. Friedman published the book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, in which he argued that geographical distance and cultural differences have been erased by the global economy.
A mere three years later, in 2008, that idea required some serious revision. In Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, Friedman explored the darker side of economic opportunity, examining how global warming, globalization, and population growth were threatening our collective future.
The winning haiku for the December 2023 Tricycle Challenge is very much a product of its era. It hardly matters if the poet has visited Japan or not. His Fuji is a moral, ecological axis—a symbol and a point of reference for those of us living in this hot, flat, crowded world below.
feeling something stir
shiver and open its eyes
— Kelly Shaw
As the sun passes away
The sky a firestorm
— Mike Heffner
You can find more on December’s season word, as well as relevant haiku tips, in last month’s challenge below:
Winter season word: “Winter horizon”
just like a bellybutton
one star in the sky
Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the season word “Winter horizon.” 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 “Winter horizon.”
Haiku Tip: Find the Optimal Seventeen-Syllable Solution!
Of the many wonderful things about the 5-7-5 syllable form for haiku, the most wonderful is that it tells us when a poem is done. Otherwise, we could go on second-guessing ourselves forever, endlessly revising a haiku.
We began these challenges three years ago by agreeing on this one very simple idea: “Getting the syllables of a haiku to sit naturally inside of its seventeen-syllable form is the primary challenge. Each haiku is a word problem in search of a satisfying seventeen-syllable solution.”
That being said, a haiku is not a math problem with a single, universally agreed-upon answer. For any haiku we might wish to write, there is an “optimal” solution, but that solution cannot be found by following axioms, theorems, or laws. Sometimes the answer comes in a sudden flash of inspiration. More often it is a matter of “poetic tinkering,” relaxing into an innocent, almost childlike spirit of play.
We usually have some hunch of what a haiku is about when we begin to write one. The 5-7-5 syllable form is a way of testing that hunch to see if it pans out. When the syllables finally fall into place—and they usually do if we stick with them—there is this little aha moment that says, finally, “That’s it!”
Once a haiku finds that optimal expression, we are done with it. We may be its author, but, in truth, it no longer belongs to us. No other form of poetry relies so heavily on the reader to complete its meaning. We did our best with the syllables. Now they speak for themselves.
A note on winter horizon: This month’s season word belongs to the “Landscape” category because it refers to the Earth and its topography. But it is an unusually panoramic word for that category, which typically includes entries like “winter mountain,” “frozen river,” or “withered field.” In winter, the horizon is stripped of all that is extraneous. In other seasons, it might suggest expansiveness, hope, or maybe longing. In winter, it usually means cold. But even here, in the great tradition of haiku that overturn our expectations, there is still room for humor and play.
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