The season words of haiku lend “weightiness” to an otherwise slight, often lighthearted poetic form. A haiku might sail off into triviality or pointless humor without the paperweight of the season word to hold it down. Once grounded in the season, poets are free to reveal what is in their hearts.
Each of the winning and honorable mention poems for last month’s challenge explored the possibilities for self-expression in English language haiku, using only 17 syllables and a season word.
- Linda Papanicolaou offered a dark “conversation starter” about 2021 in her question to this year’s cicadas.
- Lorraine A. Padden mixed hope with melancholy in her poem about an empty cicada shell “defeating” the end of summer.
- Erin Langley made a comical, bittersweet comparison between cicadas and poets who toil in obscurity to perfect their craft.
Congratulations to all! To read additional poems of merit from last month’s challenge, visit our Tricycle Haiku Challenge group on Facebook.
You can submit a haiku for the September challenge here.
Summer Season Word: Cicada
what are you thinking
of the world you’ve found this time,
cicada brood X?
— Linda Papanicolaou
Of the fifteen “broods” of periodic cicadas in the continental United States, Brood X (or “Ten”) is the largest. Appearing at intervals of 17 years, it surfaces along the East Coast from Georgia to New York and as far West as Illinois, reaching its peak at midsummer.
The last emergence of Brood X was in 2004. After this year, it won’t reappear until 2038. Periodic cicadas are invulnerable to massive predation, since any predator that relied upon them as a principal food source would starve in the interval before their reappearance.
All of which contributes to a remarkably economical turn of thought in this month’s winning haiku. The poet has simply posed a question: What do the Brood X cicadas think of 2021?
In most years the effect of this would be humorously topical. In 2004, for instance, the conversation might veer toward: What do you think of Facebook? What about The Da Vinci Code? Who knew Nehru jackets would be back in style? This year it’s a different story. Pandemic. Insurrection. Nazis. Climate chaos. The list could go on.
The opening line establishes a strangely intimate tone. “What are you thinking?” is not a question we ask of strangers, but of those whose inner life we keep tabs on so that we know what they are feeling. The middle line unexpectedly broadens the subject of that question to take in the world as a whole. The last offers that little twist we expect at the end of a good haiku. The poet is speaking to cicadas who, after 17 years below ground, have resurfaced to a different world.
Or have they?
The poet knows what she thinks of 2021. At this point, everyone knows. In asking the cicadas, she is, in effect, asking for a second opinion from the nonhuman world.
With nothing but our imaginations to go on, we can’t say exactly what the cicadas’ answer would be—only that their perspective must be radically different from ours. It feels impossible for us to agree as a species on how to address our problems. For the cicadas, oneness of purpose is not a problem. We can’t stick to a five-year plan. The cicadas can go for seventeen. Perhaps there is something to learn from them after all.
Whatever answer the poet got from the cicadas, it will have to do until they reappear in 2038. And what will the world look like then? That dark question lies at the bottom of this extraordinarily simple, emotionally nuanced poem.
A further note on the language of the poem: Words often do double and triple duty in a haiku, suggesting additional meanings that come through with repeated readings of the poem. Apart from its literal meaning, the term “Brood X” is especially powerful for its secondary associations, brood meaning “to worry or fret over” and X representing an unknown variable in mathematics.
whose shell is the only thing
that defeats summer
— Lorraine A. Padden
seventeen long years
cicadas toil underground
— Erin Langley
You can find August’s season word and haiku tips below:
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: “Cicada”
after they are born
As cicada season wound down, I knew that they must be laying their eggs. So I consulted a nature guide to discover what that might entail.
I learned that a female cicada lays her eggs in the small grooves of tree limbs. Upon hatching, her offspring fall and immediately burrow into the ground, feeding on the roots of their host tree for up to 17 years before reemerging as adults.
This knowledge filled me with wonder, but also with sadness—although I knew the sadness wasn’t justified. The cicada’s “children” were quite happy tunneling their way through the mycorrhizal network below the tree where they were born. It was meaningful work that benefitted the cicadas, the tree, and probably the whole forest. That network was where they belonged.
In the end, I decided that my sadness was for myself. I did not belong to the world as fully as the cicadas did. Or, at least, I did not experience my belonging to it as fully.
It was then, after almost five decades of writing haiku, that I felt I had finally begun to understand Matsuo Bashō, [Japan’s most celebrated haiku poet].
Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the summer season word “cicada.” 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 “cicada.”
HAIKU TIP: BELONG TO THE EARTH, NOT THE SKY!
Haiku is the only poetic form in world literature that takes the seasons as its primary subject matter. Like most forms of poetry, haiku favors self-expression. The difference is, in haiku, we express ourselves using 17 syllables and a season word.
As haiku poets, we never forget that our lives are embedded in the cycles of birth, death, and regeneration that govern all life in the natural world. As modern humans, however, we are likely to feel some dissonance with those cycles. Civilization teaches us to resist them, or to rise above them—as if we could live in the sky.
A poem written by Bashō in 1693, the year before he died, demonstrates that feeling of disconnection:
The morning glory:
this is another thing that
cannot be my friend
Western writers have gone to great lengths to find a spiritual message in this, but no Japanese critic I have read interprets the poem that way. A comment by Bashō scholar Iwata Kurō (1891-1961) is fairly typical:
It was a time when Bashō was deeply depressed, and even the beautiful flowers of the morning glory could not lift up his heavy heart; he sank into still more intense grief and loneliness.
Bashō’s mature haiku convey a yearning for oneness with nature. And yet, nature often eludes him. His morning glory haiku reveals the inner gulf that lies, not just between Bashō and the flower, but between modern humans and the natural world.
Bashō’s contemporary, the French mathematician Blaise Pascal, unknowingly sums up the problem in his Pensées:
Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a “thinking reed.” There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour [i.e., a virus], a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this.
A smart man, Pascal, but not much of an ecologist. Sentient awareness does not make human beings superior to nature. If anything, our capacity for self-absorption has made us a danger to the natural world. We are the slayers now.
Nowhere in Bashō’s writings do we find the idea that human beings are inherently wiser or more enlightened than nature. Quite the opposite. Bashō regarded nature as the one true teacher. That is why he wrote, “There is a single spirit that flows through all great art, and that is a mind to follow nature, and return to nature.”
If we summed up Basho’s core teaching on haiku as simply as possible, it might go something like this: Get yourself grounded! Belong to the earth, not the sky!
A note on cicadas: Best known for their whirring drone in mid to late summer, cicadas generate that sound with tymbals, corrugated exoskeletal structures in their abdomens. Cicadas emerge annually, although their larval stages may last from one to 17 years. One North American genus, Magicicada, emerges at predictable intervals, earning them the name periodic cicadas.
Cicadas have been used for food and medicine for thousands of years and appear often in myth and folklore, where their ability to exit their shells in molting is often remarked upon. Over 3,000 species of cicada can be found in tropical to temperate regions around the world.
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