inside of the plum
the ocean, the horizon
and midsummer’s day
A friend once asked me to explain the secret of haiku. “There isn’t one,” I said. “Just read the Earth as a love letter and write back in 5-7-5.”
Poets have been doing this for 800 years now and have never exhausted its possibilities. The seasons turn, and the letters keep coming. You could write 20,000 haiku in a lifetime, as the poet Issa did, and still not answer them all.
But nature in the abstract is not the subject of haiku. Each poem must address one specific thing. Working together over the centuries, haiku poets have compiled a detailed almanac of the plants, animals, and meteorological phenomena that change throughout the year. These phenomena, called “season words,” are the subject matter of haiku.
As a rule, haiku poets avoid including more than one season word per poem. It should be clear whom their letter is addressed to, after all. But there are exceptions. In the Best of Season haiku for Summer 2023, “midsummer’s day” contributes to the feeling of ripe fullness at the heart of the poem. But the love letter is meant for the plum.
At first, the poem seems to present a riddle. How can the ocean, the horizon, and midsummer’s day fit inside of a plum? The use of three panoramic images in a single haiku suggests that the poet was in an expansive mood. Why confine them to so small a space?
Standing on the shore, gazing across the ocean at the horizon, the poet bites into a plum. People don’t close their eyes to savor the taste of an apple or an orange. Even when eating a peach, they are likely to keep them open. But a plum?
When the teeth pierce the skin of a plum, the mouth is filled with such sudden sweetness that the other senses naturally retreat into the background as taste comes to the fore. Plums are small, round, and over with before we know it—like the open lips of a lover in a kiss. We close our eyes to focus in such moments so that not one second is lost.
Why? Because seconds are always lost. That’s why we call it a moment. Moments never last.
The feeling of being surrounded by a world in flux is at the bottom of all great haiku. In 1688, the poet Basho wrote in a letter to his friend Ensui:
Cherry blossoms whirl, leaves fall, and the wind flits them both along the ground. We cannot arrest with our eyes or ears what lies in such things. Were we to gain mastery over them, we would find that the life of each thing had vanished without a trace.
Occasionally, in the midst of nature, we experience a moment of transcendent emotion that allows us to feel oneness with something larger than ourselves. Most of us reach for our phones to capture the moment for Instagram. The poet writes a haiku instead.
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.