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.

Spring season word: “Firefly”

if others see it
is it still an inner light
you tell me, firefly

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

Haiku Tip: Master the Art of Greeting!

The Japanese haiku master Takahama Kyoshi (1884-1959) felt that the true purpose of haiku was son-mon, or “greeting.” According to his granddaughter, Teiko Inabata, Kyoshi believed that “haiku poets can have son-mon with any being in nature—from pebbles to mountains, rivers, clouds in the sky.”

In early haiku, “greeting” was a formal convention that meant acknowledging some aspect of the season in every poem. With Kyoshi it became an animistic approach to the natural world that was almost a religion in itself.

According to Inabata, Kyoshi recited the motto Kacho fuei (“formal composition on birds and flowers”) as if it were the name of Amida Buddha and regarded his heart as a place to converse with all living and non-living things. “Through repeating son-mon, he realized that there is no difference between his life and the lives of birds and flowers.”

In practice, the “Art of Greeting” means experiencing the subjects of our poems as living beings. Whether they are animate or inanimate to a conventional way of thinking matters not at all. The whole universe is alive for the haiku poet. Everything in it is a “who” not a “what.”

A note on fireflies: Roughly 2,000 beetles belong to the Lampyridae (“marsh fire”) family. Although some species do not emit light as adults, all glow as larvae. Fireflies live in temperate to tropical climates and are partial to bogs or damp wooded areas. Bioluminescence plays a role in sexual selection, with females flashing synchronously from the ground in response to the flash of a specific male. Firefly populations are in decline worldwide as a result of habitat loss, pollution, pesticide use, and climate change. Nevertheless, “firefly festivals” remain popular in many countries—especially in Japan, where special parks are set aside for that purpose.


April’s Winning Poem: 

Spring season word: “Butterfly”

as evening settles
I walk beside the river
with a butterfly

—Suzanne Tyrpak

butterfly haiku
Photo by Jing Li

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


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