tricycle haiku challenge
Illustration by Jing Li

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. 

Requirements:

Anyone can submit haiku to the monthly challenge using the form below. To be considered for publication, your haiku must: 

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.


March’s Winning Poems: 

Spring Season Word: “Inchworm”

the inchworm’s progress
across a patient terrain
from my hand to yours

Freeman Ng

Fall Season Word: “Acorn”

sonogram photos—
the frozen beat of your heart
just one acorn wide

— Geneviève Wynand

You can find the honorable mentions, additional commentary, and March’s season words and haiku tips here


This Month’s Season Word:

For April 2021, you may submit poems on two different season words. One is a spring word meant to encourage you to draw inspiration from the world around you. The other is a fall word to challenge your poetic imagination.

Spring season word: “Kite”

In the land of dreams
I was a kite with no string
and you were the sky

While vacationing on Cape Cod, I woke in bed beside my wife and, in the moment between waking and sleeping, composed this love poem to her. In previous decades I would never have allowed myself to write a poem like this and call it a haiku. Japanese women poets of the last half-century have revolutionized my understanding of what is possible within the form.

Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the spring season word “kite.” 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 “kite.”

HAIKU TIP: USE THE ENTIRE FLOOR!

Speaking at a Japanese language symposium in Bucharest in 2010, the poet Mayuzumi Madoka (b. 1965) compared the fixed limits of the 5-7-5 syllable form for haiku to the 12 x 12 meter area of a floor exercise in gymnastics:

Writing a [haiku] can be likened to an Olympic event. One of the best-known Romanian athletes is Nadia Comăneci. If she stepped outside the 12-meter by 12- meter performing area in the floor exercise, for instance, points would have been deducted from her score. If, on the other hand, she limited her movements to the center of the mat to avoid a penalty, her score would have been low. The highest points are given to exercises that use the entire floor, including along the perimeter. A gymnast’s foot landing firmly just inside the perimeter after a flip along the diagonal is breathtaking and beautiful because of the tension created by the danger of falling out of bounds.

According to Madoka, it is the very obligation “to operate within the confines of a narrow, constricting poetic structure” that makes 5-7-5 syllables the ideal arena for poetic self-expression. There are enough syllables to perform the work of poetry, but only that. No more. To write a good haiku, we have to bring some verve and daring to the task. In Madoka’s analogy, we must use the entire floor.

In the latter part of the 20th century, Japanese women haiku poets like Madoka began to put their feet very close to the prescribed border of traditional haiku, greatly expanding the possibilities for the form. The traditionalists resisted the trend toward self-expression in haiku, but it was too late. The tide had turned.

The use of 5-7-5 syllables continues to be the norm, as does the inclusion of a season word. Increasingly, the rest is a matter of what you can get away with without falling out of bounds.

So…in writing your haiku about “kites” this month, don’t be afraid to take some risks. You may enter as many haiku as you like, so feel free to experiment with different approaches to the theme.

A note on kites: Although kite flying approaches the level of a sport in some cultures, in the English-speaking world it is mostly a recreational activity for children and families. Kites indicate springtime in haiku because of the windy weather associated with rising temperatures and the joy of being outdoors again.

***

Fall season word: “Galaxy”

Distant galaxy
all wound up over nothing—
the same everywhere

The galaxy I saw through the lens of a telescope was inconceivably far away. I recognized myself in its spiral nevertheless. As above, so below.

Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the fall season word “galaxy.” 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 “galaxy.”

HAIKU TIP: PROWL THE LEAKY EDGE OF LANGUAGE

The haiku form is very simple—just seventeen syllables arranged in a pattern of 5-7-5, including a season word. And yet, as we have seen in the results of our Monthly Haiku Challenges, that simple form can express a multitude of meanings. With a little finesse, we can say almost anything in a haiku. But there is a major pitfall we can stumble into.

Mediocre haiku come in a variety of guises, but the thing many of them have in common is their use of clichés. The word comes from the French for “stereotype” and refers to an idea or expression that has been used so often it has lost its original power. Clichés are predictable meanings expressed in unoriginal words—“safe” meanings that don’t challenge us because we’ve seen them so many times before.

If you haven’t spotted the obvious problem, here it is. A seasonal expression used by generations of people can become so predictable that it loses its vitality. The result is millions of Japanese haiku about cherry blossoms that all sound exactly alike. And it’s not just cherry blossoms. Every season word is a potential cliché.

During the 1970s, when Kamakura Sayumi (b. 1953) was embarking on her career as a haiku poet, she complained that the verses she heard at her monthly poetry gathering were “non-risky haiku that made everyone sigh with relief and say, ‘Yes, I’ve seen that kind of haiku before.’” Driven by her dissatisfaction with that state of affairs, she became one of the most original voices in modern haiku poetry. Sayumi used season words in ways that Japanese readers had never seen before. An example:

Why don’t we just bloom
instead of getting angry:
crocus in flower

How does she do it? How does any poet take the age-old themes of haiku and make them new again?

Poetry lives in the expressive possibilities of the language we use every day—in slang or common idioms, in news headlines, in snatches of popular song. Sometimes the words of a haiku will slip right out in conversation. As haiku poets, we learn to prowl the leaky edges of ordinary language: the places where new meanings are always seeping through, like water, into the land of what is already known or understood.

In our approach to working with a given season word, we may start at the center with entirely conventional or expected meanings. But we don’t stay there. If we keep spiraling outwards, we will eventually find the places where good haiku live.

Our job as haiku poets is to travel to those outer “leaky edges” and bring a poem back to the center to revitalize the language we think in and use as our principal tool in creating and maintaining culture. This is the principal work of every good poet, but for the haiku poet that work is more specific. Our task is to revitalize the language of the seasons, keeping it ever fresh and new.

A note on galaxies: Although one may see stars at any time of year, in haiku the word “galaxy” is associated with autumn. At night the air is crisp and generally clearer. And more stars become visible as the leaves fall from the trees. Beyond that, the cooler weather puts us in a more philosophical frame of mind. On an autumn night, it feels natural to look up and contemplate eternity.

It’s not that the stars
are indifferent: their troubles
have already passed


Previous Winners

January

February

March

Submission Form