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.
April’s Winning Poem:
Spring Season Word: “dandelion”
With its deep taproot
the dandelion stays calm
as its head explodes
— Nancy Winkler
You can find the honorable mentions, additional commentary, and April’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.
Spring season word: “soap bubble”
That little wobble
in the soap bubble before
it becomes a world
Blowing soap bubbles with a child, I noticed something: the larger the bubble, the more it wobbled coming off the wand. The wobble didn’t last for long. Soon the bubble became perfectly spherical—like its own transparent world.
Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the season word “soap bubble.” 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 “soap bubble.”
HAIKU TIP: WRITE LIKE A CHILD!
Most people who write haiku in English (or enjoy reading them) first learned about the form in grade school. Why was haiku taught to millions of elementary school children from the 1960s onward—not only in America but throughout the English-speaking world? Was it because haiku are so accessible and easy to understand that even a child can write them? Or was it the focus on nature and the seasons that made haiku a natural fit for elementary school curriculums?
The answer to both questions is yes. A good haiku evokes an innocent sense of wonder at the beauty of the changing seasons. And writing haiku favors a childlike sense of play. Even accomplished masters of the form will tell you that their biggest challenge is remembering to be direct and simple in what they write.
In teaching haiku to grade school children over the years, I discovered that nearly all were able to grasp instantly what a haiku was. I would start by reading a few examples—invariably about insects, flowers, or birds. I would then ask them to name their favorite things from nature. I would take one or two of these as my subject and compose a haiku for them on the spot to show how easy it was, counting off the syllables on my fingers as they watched. After that, we would write a few haiku together. Then we would go outside.
I’d ask the children to find the subjects for haiku in the schoolyard or playground around them and then try to describe it in 5-7-5 syllables. If they couldn’t write yet, I would have them recite the haiku aloud to me, counting off the sounds on their fingers, and I would write it down for them. Finally, we would return to the classroom and read the haiku aloud, giving each child the chance to say what they liked about their classmates’ poems. I still remember the look on their faces when they realized they had written their first poem.
Although a lot is involved in mastering the art of haiku, the most important thing is to retain the curious, openhearted mind of a child. Even the most subtle feelings or complex thoughts of adult life can be stated in 17 syllables, provided we are able to remain simple in our souls.
What does it mean to have a simple soul? In haiku, it means coming to each poem in the faith that there is a straightforward way of getting at its essence. That there is an innocent way of saying even difficult things.
Adults are often surprised at the wisdom of children—wisdom they seem to come out with spontaneously in certain moments, unaware that they have said something profound. A good haiku is exactly like that.
Naturally, this is difficult for adults. We live so far from the world of childhood that, even if we have children or grandchildren of our own, it is hard to access that simpler, more wonderous way of looking at the world.
That is why we have haiku.
A note on soap bubbles: In Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac, William J. Higginson writes, “Blowing soap bubbles is one of the first activities of young children unfettered by snowsuits.” We could blow soap bubbles at any time of year, but there is something about releasing them onto a gentle breeze that makes most people associate them with the joy of being outdoors as the weather turns warm again. In Japanese haiku, soap bubbles belong under the category “humanity” for springtime, and to the subcategory “children’s toys.” In crafting your haiku for this month’s challenge, remember that you are writing specifically about soap bubbles—rather than, for instance, bubbles on a stream.