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.


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.

Winter season word: “sweater”

my great-grandmother
always knitting me sweaters
like one of the Fates

Going through some old clothes, I remembered my great-grandmother and all the sweaters she knitted for me as a child. She felt ancient, almost deathless, even then. Part of me wondered if she wasn’t still there, knitting in her rocking chair, somewhere on the other side of the veil.

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

Haiku Tip: Enter a yearly contest!

Founded in 1975, the California-based Yuki Teikei Haiku Society takes its name from a popular approach to writing haiku in modern-day Japan. Yuki means “with season,” while teikei means “having formal pattern.” Taken together, the words describe the two most familiar elements of haiku: the 5-7-5 syllable pattern and the use of season words.

Since 1978, the society has sponsored an annual contest for formal haiku in English. As with our Monthly Challenges, the season words are assigned. So those of you who have learned to write haiku in our online community, or by taking my “Learn to Write Haiku” course through Tricycle, will already know the basics of this approach.

In addition to the poems that you submit for our Tricycle Challenge this month, to hone your skills, review the season words for the contest and write as many haiku as you can on the ones that resonate with you. From among those haiku, choose your favorites to send to the contest following the submission guidelines on the society’s website. The deadline is May 31.

The Yuki Teikei approach to writing haiku was pioneered by Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959), the most influential haiku editor of the 20th century. Kyoshi wrote haiku as “an objective sketch from nature” and encouraged others to do the same. In essence, that means describing nature “as it is.”

Let’s take this month’s season word “sweater” as an example. The haiku I offered as a sample would not qualify as “objective description.” Its turn of thought relies on an allusion to Greek mythology and it uses a metaphorical comparison to get its point across. It qualifies as an English language haiku in spite of that, but not as a Yuki Teikei style of verse.

The following verse is closer:

the sound of your heart
through the wool of the sweater
comes from far away

There is a subjective element in the last line, with the idea of the wool muffling the sound of a heartbeat so that it seems to come from a distance, but the images are more concrete overall.

If we transform that element into an objective image, we end up with a juxtaposition like the following:

the sound of your heart
through the wool of the sweater
clouds again today

The turn of thought is more subtle now, but the emotional distance is still there. This is an objective sketch from nature, even though the human realm is also involved.

This “just the facts” style of poetry became part of the DNA of modern haiku, and every poet can benefit from learning to write this way. The Yuki Teikei approach teaches us how to convey subtle thoughts and feelings without stating them directly, relying on the images to speak for themselves. 

A note on sweaters: Although knitted clothing (mostly socks, gloves, and caps) first appeared in ancient times, the sweater is a relatively modern invention, dating from the 15th century. The wool sweater made its debut among fisherfolk in northern European countries, where it protected them from the cold, even when damp. The term “sweater” became popular in America in the 1890s, when they were used as warm-up attire for athletic events. Since then, sweaters have become popular in countries around the world. Sweaters can be knitted by hand or purchased off the rack and come in a wide variety of styles.


December’s Winning Poem: 

Winter Season Word: Snowflake

Outside my window
it keeps reciting itself —
the snowflake sutra.

— Jan Häll

snowflake december haiku
Illustration by Jing Li

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


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