frost on the pastures
in rural America
adding to the white

—Dana Clark-Millar

Although haiku poetry is governed by certain time-honored conventions, there is no universally agreed-upon rule about what subject matter can or cannot be addressed within the form. Poets are always testing the limits of haiku, pushing it in new directions to see what can be said using just seventeen syllables.

Japanese haiku took a political turn during the lead-up to World War II. In 1937, the most influential magazine of the day, Hototogisu (“little cuckoo”), created a special section devoted to patriotic haiku—poems that became increasingly militant after 1939. But Japanese fascism was not without its critics. Some poets wrote haiku that opposed the war, and many of these poems are considered masterpieces today.

Saito Sanki (1900–1962) was the nominal leader of the antiwar haiku movement. Here are two famous poems of his:

Machine gun bullets:
right between the eyes a red
blossom blossoming

At Hiroshima,
to swallow a hard-boiled egg
the mouth opens wide

The first haiku is shocking in its nontraditional use of the season word hana, for “cherry blossom.” About the second, written in Hiroshima on a dark night one year after the bombing, it is best to let Sanki speak for himself:

Sitting on a stone by the side of the road, I took out a boiled egg and slowly peeled the shell, unexpectedly shocked by its smooth surface. With a flash of searing incandescence, the skins of human beings had as easily slipped off all over this city. To eat a boiled egg in the wind of that black night, I was forced to open my mouth. In that moment, this haiku came to me.

The Kobe Hotel, trans. Saito Masaya

Sanki was imprisoned by Japan’s Special Higher Police for writing haiku like the first one. The second was published in a magazine but was omitted from Sanki’s second collection for fear that the book would be censored by American Occupation officials, who suppressed information about the atomic bomb.

Political protest haiku have been written in English, too, but they have rarely succeeded as well as this season’s winning poem. The first two lines offer a panoramic landscape of rural America, its pastures covered with frost. The scope is national, not local, as we would ordinarily expect in a haiku. Only in the last line do we understand the significance of that choice. We are being shown not just a visual landscape but a political one.

A good haiku works through the subtle nuances of spoken language, and this one is no exception. Expressions like “killing frost,” “hard frost,” and “frosty reception” inevitably influence our reading of the final line, making it clear that the spread of white nationalism through the American heartland is the real subject of the poem.

A poem like this is unlikely to be met with censorship in 2022 America. But it still takes courage to write it. The chill I felt when I first read it gets deeper with every day.

The Tricycle Haiku Challenge asks readers to submit original works inspired by a season word. Moderator Clark Strand selects the top poems to be published in Tricycle with his commentary. To see past winners and submit your haiku, visit tricycle.org/haiku. To read additional poems of merit from recent months, visit our Tricycle Haiku Challenge group on Facebook.

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