Illustrations 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 autumn sun 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.

To learn more about the history and principles of haiku, check out Clark Strand’s online course with Tricycle, “Learn to Write Haiku: Mastering the Ancient Art of Serious Play.”


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.

Winter season word: “Turnip”

Turnip in my hand—
its cold roundness heavier
than a baby’s head

— Sister Benedicta O.S.H. (1936-2022)

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

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, for which the season words are pre-assigned.

In addition to the poems that you submit for our Tricycle Challenge this month, to hone your skills, you may wish to review the season words for the contest and write haiku on any that resonate with you. From among those poems, 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. His “just-the-facts” approach to poetry became part of the DNA of modern haiku, and every poet can benefit from learning to write this way. Yuki Teikei haiku teach us how to convey subtle thoughts and feelings without stating them directly, relying on the images to speak for themselves.

This month’s sample haiku offers a fine example. Some background about Sister Benedicta may be helpful in understanding the simple, but strangely powerful imagery of her poem.

Born Andrea Sender in 1936, Sister Benedicta’s father was one of the most acclaimed Spanish novelists of the 20th century. In July of 1936, Ramón José Sender was vacationing with his family when the civil war broke out. Sender escaped on foot over the mountain to join the militia, leaving his wife and children behind, believing the nationalists would not harm them.

It was a tragic blunder. Amparo Barayon was imprisoned and later executed in a graveyard by a man whose advances she had spurned some years earlier. The atrocity was reported in newspapers around the world, but it contained one inaccuracy: It was said that Amaparo’s infant daughter Andrea, imprisoned along with her mother, had died because she refused to eat after her mother was shot.

A few years before Benedicta wrote this poem, in a retrospective article about the Spanish Civil War, the New York Times again reported on her death as an infant. It was one of those mistaken historical details that takes root in the collective public imagination and simply refuses to come out.

Benedicta’s turnip haiku took first prize in the contest sponsored by the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society in 1994. Not that I was surprised. The judge, a Japanese haiku master, wrote: “At some time in her life the poet must have cradled a dead baby in her arms.”

Knowing something of Benedicta’s life as a nun, this could have been true, so I asked her. But she said no. She was having trouble figuring out what to do with any of the season words on the list that year when, opening the refrigerator in the convent refectory one night, she saw a turnip. She took it out and held it in one hand, whereupon the comparison to a baby’s head had instantly sprung to mind. She wasn’t sure where it had come from.

Benedicta was overwhelmed with emotion when I told her what I thought about her haiku. That the baby was her—the part of her that died in that prison in Zamora the night her mother was dragged out to the graveyard and shot. The newspaper account hadn’t been correct about the facts. But it also hadn’t been wrong.

I have since come to believe that the best haiku come this way—that we write them from a place inside of ourselves that lies well below the conscious level of our minds. The images themselves are objective, but they open a window on the soul.

A note on turnips: Turnips are grown in temperate regions worldwide, both for their fleshy, white taproot and the vitamin-rich greens of their stems and leaves. Because they store well, they are often consumed from late fall through winter. Beginning around 4,000 years ago, turnips were cultivated from the Mediterranean to India. They eventually spread to China and then to Japan around 700 C.E. Turnips have long been used in animal fodder and were sometimes the only crop left during times of famine, although their nutrients—unlike the potato—are not sufficient to sustain human life.


December’s Winning Poem: 

Fall Season Word: winter horizon

winter horizon
for miles nothing seems to grow
except Mt. Fuji

— Jesus Santos

winter horizon haiku
Illustration by Jing Li

You can find the honorable mentions, additional commentary, and December’s haiku tips here


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