january 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. Monthly submissions are anonymized and the winning poems are selected in a blind process.


July’s Winning Poem: 

Summer Season Word: “serpent” or “snake”

A garter snake’s skin:
surprisingly cool and dry—
Palm up, belly down

— Kathy Fusho Nolan

haiku challenge snake
Illustration by Jing Li

You can find the honorable mentions, additional commentary, and July’s 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.

Summer season word: “cool/coolness”

The light of the sun
the light of the moon—coolness
of a pilgrim’s staff

— Momoko Kuroda (b. 1938) (Adapted from a translation by Janine Beichman.)

Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the summer season word “cool” or “coolness.” 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 “cool” or “coolness.”

Haiku Tip: Make writing haiku into a daily pilgrimage! 

I found this month’s sample haiku, by Momoko Kuroda, listed in two recently published anthologies of Japanese haiku. Both books included several hundred haiku by modern masters, featuring one verse per poet. In each case, the editors must have felt there was something about this poem that summed up her approach to haiku.

In her book Kyo kara hajimeru haiku (“Haiku Begins Today”), Momoko advised: “Compose many haiku and throw many away. In the process you will discover the true state of your mind. If you start writing haiku, compose a lot of them—as many as five a day. Make your first haiku the starting point for the others. Then you can be the first to choose which one comes closest to what you want to express. The rest can be thrown away without reluctance.”

This is good practical advice for any aspiring poet. But it is also an important lesson on following the path of haiku. Writing haiku is a daily pilgrimage to “the heart of the matter.” Our goal is to get at the pith or essence of what we have to say, refusing to abandon the journey until we have reached our goal. Efforts that don’t capture that elusive “something” that makes for a good haiku can be abandoned along the way. A pilgrim can’t carry much if she wants to complete her journey.

As a poet, Momoko is best known for her haiku pilgrimages to famous places across Japan. Her “Cherry Blossom Pilgrimage” took twenty-eight years to complete, and she spent nine years walking to the sites commemorated in the artist Hiroshige’s “One Hundred Views of Edo.” Taking such journeys in search of haiku is an important part of her “haiku philosophy” of directly observing the subjects of her poems.

In his anthology Well-Versed: Exploring Modern Japanese Haiku, the newspaper columnist Minoru Ozawa wrote about Momoko’s poem:

Night and day she is guided on her way by the light in the sky. The words used for that light, “light of the sun” (nikko) and “light of the moon” (gekko), are also the names of the two bodhisattvas that attend Yakushi Nyorai, the Healing Buddha. Thus another meaning is that she is making her pilgrimage under the protection of the sunlight bodhisattva and the moonlight bodhisattva. She walks single-mindedly, supported by her pilgrim’s staff.

Ozawa notes that Momoko’s use of the summer season word “coolness” is meant to suggest not only a feeling of relief from the scorching heat, but also a feeling of comfort. In Japanese Buddhism, a staff is often symbolic of the dharma, he points out. “The staff illuminated by sunlight and moonlight may in fact be an incarnation of the Healing Buddha himself.”

Momoko’s haiku is the title poem for her book Nikko gekko (“Sunlight/Moonlight”), for which she received the Iida Dakotsu Prize, one of Japan’s highest literary awards.

A note on coolness: In haiku poetry, “coolness” is associated with summer, when the relief brought by breezes, shade, or simply touching something cooler than oneself is most welcome. As an alternative, the word “cool” may be substituted, especially in cases where it is used as a noun. One of the most famous examples comes from Basho:

Enjoying the cool
with my feet against the wall
for a midday snooze


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