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.
August’s Winning Poem:
Summer Season Word: “Cicada”
what are you thinking
of the world you’ve found this time,
cicada brood X?
— Linda Papanicolaou
You can find the honorable mentions, additional commentary, and August’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.
Fall season word: “Morning glory”
If it were a job
to gaze at morning glories,
how would I apply?
I happened upon a morning glory in full bloom and instantly thought of the famous haiku by Bashō:
Think of me as one
who eats breakfast while gazing
at morning glories
It occurred to me that Bashō must have considered this his job description. Good work if you can get it.
Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the fall season word “morning glory.” 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 “morning glory.”
HAIKU TIP: LIVE IN THE THREE-CORNERED WORLD!
In his 1906 novel Kusamakura (“Grass Pillow”), Natsume Sōseki summed up the artistic lifestyle in a sentence that has since become famous: “Putting it as a formula, I suppose you could say that an artist is a person who lives in the triangle which remains after the angle which we may call common sense has been removed from this four-cornered world.”
The protagonist of Kusamakura spends his days wandering through the countryside in search of poetry without giving much thought to the bottom line of economic utility. For which reason, Sōseki’s “formula” is a kind of inside joke. Haiku are accomplished by removing that which the world considers important, but the poet knows to be extraneous or even false. The result is a poem of three lines—not unlike those that make up a triangle.
Some years ago, I gave a talk in California entitled “Nature Is a Moneyless Economy.” I was supposed to speak on Japanese Buddhism, but the stock market had crashed the day before, and it was all anyone could think about. So I put on my haiku hat instead. The point of the talk was simple. Remove the bottom line from Nature and it would remain unaffected. The rains would fall. The seasons would turn. The flowers would bloom as they had for millions of years. All without getting paid.
As a human construct, money has caused catastrophic damage to the natural world. But money is not real. Eco entrepreneurs are just entrepreneurs.
An accomplished haiku poet, Sōseki knew all of this. In the triangle that remains after our concern with profit has been removed, all that is essential to life is fully preserved. In its focus on Nature and the seasons, the “three-cornered world” of the haiku poet feels smaller than the world of getting and spending, yet more beautiful and durable.
That is what makes it possible to find solace in the small world of haiku, even as the larger world spirals out of control. It’s what makes it possible to say important things, urgent things—even if we say them playfully, using only 17 syllables and a season word. Haiku is the three-cornered world that remains when the illusion of human supremacy has been removed.
A note on morning glories: Morning glories belong to the Convolvulus genus, a class of climbing vines with trumpet-shaped flowers that usually open in the early morning and close by the end of the day. Morning glories have long been a favorite subject for haiku, the most famous example being a poem written by the Buddhist nun and haiku master Chiyo-ni (1703-1775):
The morning glory
has captured my well bucket—
I beg for water
Morning glory vines grow throughout the summer but blossom most profusely in autumn, for which reason they are associated with that season in haiku.