At seventeen syllables, haiku is the shortest poem in world literature. It is now also the most popular form of poetry in the world, written in nearly every language. And yet, as haiku has spread internationally, one of the most important aspects of the tradition has largely been lost—the community of poets.
In Europe and the United States, haiku is often regarded as the domain of literary elites, but this is not the case in Japan, where haiku is deeply rooted in communal activity. Millions of amateur Japanese poets belong to haiku groups (clubs, really), which are sponsored by different “schools” of haiku, each with its own magazine. Most daily and weekly newspapers carry a haiku column featuring poems submitted by their subscribers, sometimes on the front page.
To help bring back this social dimension, we are inviting our readers to participate in the monthly Tricycle Haiku Challenge. Each month, moderator Clark Strand will select three poems to be published online, one of which will appear with a brief commentary. Each quarter, one of these poems also will appear in the print magazine alongside an extended commentary. In this way, we can begin to follow the seasons together—spring, summer, fall, and winter—and share the joy of haiku together as a community.
Anyone can submit haiku to the monthly challenge using the form below. To be considered for publication, your haiku must:
- Be written in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables:
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.
- Contain the “season word” assigned for that month:
A haiku isn’t only a word problem. To the seventeen syllables the poet must add a turn of thought that results in more than seventeen syllables of meaning—along with a word that refers to one of the four seasons. How the poet uses “season words” like dandelion or dew will typically determine the effectiveness of the poem.
Part of the reason haiku appeals to so many people is that its rules are simple and easy to follow, yet it can take a lifetime to master them. Ten million people currently write haiku in Japanese. There is no reason why millions can’t write haiku in English, too, provided they agree on the basics. The turn of thought you add to that simple formula of 5-7-5 syllables with a season word is entirely up to you.
Submissions close on the last day of the month at 11:59 pm ET, and the results will be posted the week after. Monthly submissions are anonymized and the winning poems are selected in a blind process.
May’s Winning Poem:
Spring Season Word: “soap bubble”
evening in the park
children blowing soap bubbles
tiny suns go pop
— Marcia Burton
You can find the honorable mentions, additional commentary, and May’s season words and haiku tips here.
This Month’s Season Word:
Submit as many haiku as you please using the submission form below. Just be sure to include this month’s season word.
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.