The most significant event in the history of modern haiku has been its internationalization. That process began in the early 20th century but did not take hold fully until the advent of social media in the early 2000s. Since then, haiku has become a form of world literature.

It is too early to say if there is any broad consensus about non-Japanese haiku—what it is and what it does. The popular culture agrees that a haiku should be written in 5-7-5. Beyond that, it is largely a matter of “whatever you can get away with in 17 syllables.”

In that spirit, the April challenges invited our poets to gaze skyward—at a kite or a galaxy—and express themselves as freely as possible in 5-7-5. These were the winners:

  • Kathy Fusho Nolan discovered the fundamental paradox of kite flying—that liberation comes with limits.
  • Alex  J. Lubman offered a green kite as a gift to springtime, thus capturing the childlike joy of the season.
  • Suzi Golodoff accepted an invitation from life itself to “let out all her string”.
  • Becka Chester captured the existential vertigo of the 21st century as a galaxy filled with “dark emptiness”…and ledges everywhere.
  • Laurance Sumners invited us to contemplate the heavens in a place without distractions—and “only rocks for chairs”.
  • Tamar Enoch’s galaxy was the only container large enough to cradle the sum of all our sorrows.

Congratulations to all!

You can submit a haiku for the May challenge here.

***

Spring Season Word: Kite

WINNER:

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

— Kathy Fusho Nolan

Modern haiku often explore paradox: a seeming contradiction that, on further consideration, turns out to be true. As a subject for poetry, kites are especially paradoxical.

A kite must submit to an earthbound limit in order to fly. Release the string and a kite will fall. Pull it taut, and the kite will soar into the sky. But the string is essential. 

A good haiku always gives the impression that the poet has left much unsaid. Sometimes we have to recite a poem five or six times over, very slowly, in order to get at its deeper meaning.

The words “taut freedom” hover as a contradiction at the center of the poem. Taut means “tight,” while freedom seems to imply just the opposite of that.

Is the poet saying that limits are necessary? I think so. But there is more to it than that. Limits aren’t just necessary. Limits are liberating. A lotus floats serenely at the surface of the water because its roots are stuck in the mud.

No mud. No lotus.
No string. No sky.

That is the deeper message of the poem.

In haiku, the season word keeps our attention anchored in the natural world. It’s like the person standing immobile, keeping the kite on a tether so that it can rise into the sky. The string is the 17-syllable form.

But what about the wind?

The wind is the elusive turn of thought that…when a poet gets it just right…brings a momentary feeling of exhilaration. A little boost of the spirit that elevates our perspective on life, giving us a taste of liberation.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Spring deserves a gift.
We send up a bright green kite
For her to play with.

Alex  J. Lubman

that tugging tension
to just let out all my string
this fluttering kite

Suzi Golodoff

***

Fall Season Word: Galaxy

WINNER:

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

Becka Chester

There were two possible winners for our autumn season word challenge. Both turned out to have been written by the same poet. Choosing between them was difficult but instructive. What makes a great Japanese-style haiku does not always make a great English language poem.

immense galaxy,
cleaved cleanly down the middle
by a shooting star

Had the second poem been written in Japanese during the mid-20th century, it would have found a home in a major anthology. The image is immediate, memorable, and devastatingly simple—a galaxy “cut in two.” The only thing missing is the poet.

That absence can be forgiven so long as we read the poem as an imitation of Japanese haiku. Japanese haiku often avoid direct mention of the poet’s thoughts or feelings, although this is less true of haiku in Japan today.

The first poem could have been written by a contemporary Japanese poet. But it wouldn’t be as good. There is no Japanese equivalent to the American colloquial expression “talk me off this ledge.”

In the opening line, the poet offers the vision of a cosmos brimming with billions of stars. But she quickly reverses course in the second. As many stars as there are in the galaxy, there is a LOT more darkness. Infinitely more darkness.

“Dark emptiness unending” could have come straight from the pages of Paradise Lost, where John Milton describes the flames of hell as emitting not light, but its opposite. “Darkness visible” he calls it. That is what the poet has accomplished in her haiku. She has made visible “the abyss.”

That is the set-up for the final line. Where is this ledge the poet speaks of? “Where is it not?” she would probably reply. Wherever we go, there it is. The real precipice is within.

And yet, if the last line is an expression of existential dread, it is also an effort to reach beyond it. We can’t talk ourselves off the double-ledge of isolation and loneliness that characterizes so much of life in 2021. We can only do that for one another.

That is what haiku are for.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

starry galaxy—
the road ends at the mountain
only rocks for chairs

Laurance Sumners

So many sorrows
It takes a vast galaxy
To cradle them all.

Tamar Enoch

You can find April’s season words and haiku tips below:


For April 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: “Kite”

In the land of dreams
I was a kite with no string
and you were the sky

While vacationing on Cape Cod, I woke in bed beside my wife and, in the moment between waking and sleeping, composed this love poem to her. In previous decades I would never have allowed myself to write a poem like this and call it a haiku. Japanese women poets of the last half-century have revolutionized my understanding of what is possible within the form.

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

HAIKU TIP: USE THE ENTIRE FLOOR!

Speaking at a Japanese language symposium in Bucharest in 2010, the poet Mayuzumi Madoka (b. 1965) compared the fixed limits of the 5-7-5 syllable form for haiku to the 12 x 12 meter area of a floor exercise in gymnastics:

Writing a [haiku] can be likened to an Olympic event. One of the best-known Romanian athletes is Nadia Comăneci. If she stepped outside the 12-meter by 12- meter performing area in the floor exercise, for instance, points would have been deducted from her score. If, on the other hand, she limited her movements to the center of the mat to avoid a penalty, her score would have been low. The highest points are given to exercises that use the entire floor, including along the perimeter. A gymnast’s foot landing firmly just inside the perimeter after a flip along the diagonal is breathtaking and beautiful because of the tension created by the danger of falling out of bounds.

According to Madoka, it is the very obligation “to operate within the confines of a narrow, constricting poetic structure” that makes 5-7-5 syllables the ideal arena for poetic self-expression. There are enough syllables to perform the work of poetry, but only that. No more. To write a good haiku, we have to bring some verve and daring to the task. In Madoka’s analogy, we must use the entire floor.

In the latter part of the 20th century, Japanese women haiku poets like Madoka began to put their feet very close to the prescribed border of traditional haiku, greatly expanding the possibilities for the form. The traditionalists resisted the trend toward self-expression in haiku, but it was too late. The tide had turned.

The use of 5-7-5 syllables continues to be the norm, as does the inclusion of a season word. Increasingly, the rest is a matter of what you can get away with without falling out of bounds.

So…in writing your haiku about “kites” this month, don’t be afraid to take some risks. You may enter as many haiku as you like, so feel free to experiment with different approaches to the theme.

A note on kites: Although kite flying approaches the level of a sport in some cultures, in the English-speaking world it is mostly a recreational activity for children and families. Kites indicate springtime in haiku because of the windy weather associated with rising temperatures and the joy of being outdoors again.

***

Fall season word: “Galaxy”

Distant galaxy
all wound up over nothing—
the same everywhere

The galaxy I saw through the lens of a telescope was inconceivably far away. I recognized myself in its spiral nevertheless. As above, so below.

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

HAIKU TIP: PROWL THE LEAKY EDGE OF LANGUAGE

The haiku form is very simple—just seventeen syllables arranged in a pattern of 5-7-5, including a season word. And yet, as we have seen in the results of our Monthly Haiku Challenges, that simple form can express a multitude of meanings. With a little finesse, we can say almost anything in a haiku. But there is a major pitfall we can stumble into.

Mediocre haiku come in a variety of guises, but the thing many of them have in common is their use of clichés. The word comes from the French for “stereotype” and refers to an idea or expression that has been used so often it has lost its original power. Clichés are predictable meanings expressed in unoriginal words—“safe” meanings that don’t challenge us because we’ve seen them so many times before.

If you haven’t spotted the obvious problem, here it is. A seasonal expression used by generations of people can become so predictable that it loses its vitality. The result is millions of Japanese haiku about cherry blossoms that all sound exactly alike. And it’s not just cherry blossoms. Every season word is a potential cliché.

During the 1970s, when Kamakura Sayumi (b. 1953) was embarking on her career as a haiku poet, she complained that the verses she heard at her monthly poetry gathering were “non-risky haiku that made everyone sigh with relief and say, ‘Yes, I’ve seen that kind of haiku before.’” Driven by her dissatisfaction with that state of affairs, she became one of the most original voices in modern haiku poetry. Sayumi used season words in ways that Japanese readers had never seen before. An example:

Why don’t we just bloom
instead of getting angry:
crocus in flower

How does she do it? How does any poet take the age-old themes of haiku and make them new again?

Poetry lives in the expressive possibilities of the language we use every day—in slang or common idioms, in news headlines, in snatches of popular song. Sometimes the words of a haiku will slip right out in conversation. As haiku poets, we learn to prowl the leaky edges of ordinary language: the places where new meanings are always seeping through, like water, into the land of what is already known or understood.

In our approach to working with a given season word, we may start at the center with entirely conventional or expected meanings. But we don’t stay there. If we keep spiraling outwards, we will eventually find the places where good haiku live.

Our job as haiku poets is to travel to those outer “leaky edges” and bring a poem back to the center to revitalize the language we think in and use as our principal tool in creating and maintaining culture. This is the principal work of every good poet, but for the haiku poet that work is more specific. Our task is to revitalize the language of the seasons, keeping it ever fresh and new.

A note on galaxies: Although one may see stars at any time of year, in haiku the word “galaxy” is associated with autumn. At night the air is crisp and generally clearer. And more stars become visible as the leaves fall from the trees. Beyond that, the cooler weather puts us in a more philosophical frame of mind. On an autumn night, it feels natural to look up and contemplate eternity.

It’s not that the stars
are indifferent: their troubles
have already passed

Get Daily Dharma in your email

Start your day with a fresh perspective

a photo of a Buddhist meditating
Explore timeless teachings through modern methods.

With Stephen Batchelor, Sharon Salzberg, Andrew Olendzki, and more

See Our Courses

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.