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.


April’s Winning Poems: 

Spring Season Word: “Kite”

Pulling at its string
The kite hangs in taut freedom—
Liberating wind

— Kathy Fusho Nolan

Fall Season Word: “Galaxy”

star filled galaxy,
dark emptiness unending—
talk me off this ledge.

 Becka Chester

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


This Month’s Season Word:

For May 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: “Frog”

Onto a flat page
of quiet water, a frog
writes the letter O

The water of the small pond was perfectly still. I approached it knowing that there would be frogs gathered along the bank. Sure enough, as I drew close, one leapt in.

I thought of writing a haiku, then realized—“Oh! The frog beat me to it!” The frog’s haiku was only one syllable. So I added sixteen more.

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

HAIKU TIP: CONNECT WITH THE THING ITSELF!

The most famous of all haiku—the one about the frog jumping into an old pond with a plop!—was most likely composed at a drinking party where Bashō and his friends had gathered to create a haikai-no-renga, or “comical linked verse” composition. There may have been frogs or ponds nearby. Most likely, there were not.

At a haikai gathering, the poets took turns adding playful “caps” to one another’s verses to produce a poem of multiple authorship, usually 32 stanzas long. The opening verse was called the hokku, and the rule was that it had to be written in 17 syllables and contain a season word.

In the late 19th century, Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) declared that the hokku was its own separate art form and renamed it haiku, meaning “playful verse.” Shiki believed that the subjects for haiku are all around us and encouraged his followers to carry their notebooks into the field, composing poems directly from nature.

The idea of a haiku as an “objective sketch” from nature gained broad acceptance among Japanese poets during the first six decades of the 20th century. That accounts for the Western notion that a haiku should be composed from direct experience. Haiku were first being written in English around that time.

In contrast to Shiki’s “sketch from nature” approach, haikai-no-renga favored imagination over observation. Bashō wrote poems about places he never visited and experiences he had never had, as did virtually every other haikai poet before Shiki. Shiki’s genius was to marry the older, imaginative tradition to a more objective, concrete style of verse.

Frogs can be found in many places at this time of year. Look for water—or for damp, low-lying areas where water might collect after a rainfall. Better yet, wait for a May shower and venture out into it. Or step outside in the evening and find a frog with your ears.

If you can’t find a real frog, don’t hesitate to learn about frogs from a book or YouTube video. The point is to connect with the thing itself so that your haiku draws its inspiration from the natural world.

Once you arrive at that image-drawn-from-nature, don’t be afraid to tweak it. Sometimes an imaginative twist is just what is called for to produce a clearer image in the reader’s mind.

A note on Bashō’s frog: Regardless of how or where he composed it, Bashō’s frog haiku defied the poetic conventions of his day. Before Bashō, frogs were always celebrated for their singing in Japanese poetry. To celebrate the sound of a frog’s body plopping into the water was considered humorous in a subtly profound way. Shiki insisted that the various Zen interpretations of Bashō’s haiku were unfounded. “The special feature of the poem,” Shiki insisted, “is that it hides nothing, covers nothing, does not use the slightest artifice, and contains not one ambiguous word.”

***

Fall season word: “Ginkgo”

Ginkgoes at the end
of their yellow waiting game—
Tokyo has fallen

The ginkgo leaf is the official emblem of Tokyo, which is famous for its ginkgo festival, held annually from mid- to late autumn as the leaves begin to turn. Standing beneath those very ginkgoes, I was reminded of one of their most notable features—their leaves fall all at once.

That thought gave me a chill. The firebombing of Tokyo by US forces in 1945 killed 100,000 people in a single night and left 1 million homeless. As horrific as that was, the city had rebounded. But there was another challenge ahead—and not just for Tokyo. Coastal cities everywhere are now locked in a “yellow waiting game” as storms increase in power and sea levels begin to rise.

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

HAIKU TIP: KEEP THE HAIKU FLOWING!

Sometimes a haiku with a clear image, crisp phrasing, and a compelling turn of thought comes out finished right on the spot. But not always. Not usually in fact. It can take some time and involve writing twenty to thirty versions of a poem to get that perfectly simple, inevitable sounding haiku that grabs the reader right from the start.

This is what our Monthly Haiku Challenges are for. When composing haiku on an assigned theme, you won’t usually find yourself inspired to create a masterpiece the moment you put pen to paper. So keep at it.

Of course, you could always get lucky—especially in the beginning. More likely, you’ll have to feel your way into it, trying out the sound of the season word on your tongue to see what other images or associations naturally “stick” to it in order to create a poem.

Anyone with some time and a sense of play can come up with a dozen haiku by writing in this way. See if you can get the season word to sit inside of a 5-syllable phrase like “yellow gingko leaves” and take it from there. Make that phrase the first or last line of a page full of haiku and you are on your way.

To come up with something truly expressive, something original or personally relevant—that can take more time. The key is to stay loose during this process. Write a dozen different versions of the same haiku, or a dozen completely different haiku. Just keep your pen moving…or your fingers tapping on the keys.

As a general rule, it is better to work fast than slow. It is better to produce a lot of bad poems in quick succession, one of which is okay or even good, than to puzzle self-consciously over a single haiku for minutes or hours on end. Improvement in haiku comes from writing a LOT of haiku. That is how haiku poets learn.

A note on ginkgoes: Ginkgo biloba is the only remaining species of Ginkoales, which first appeared 290 million years ago. That makes it the oldest tree species in the world. Because it has changed so little since the Middle Jurassic, it is sometimes called “the living fossil.” Ginkgoes have been known to live for up to 2,500 years and are extremely tenacious. Trees located a thousand yards from the epicenter of the atomic blast at Hiroshima were charred but quickly returned to health. All other plants and animals in the area were destroyed.


Previous Winners

January

February

March

Submission Form