In his keynote address to the Haiku International Association in 2012, the nuclear physicist Akito Arima, himself an acclaimed haiku master, spoke of haiku as a form of animism: the belief that all things—plants, animals, stones, even weather—are sentient and alive. According to Arima, all forms of spirituality, including Buddhism, are animistic at their core. Animism is where Buddhism meets ecology, and haiku has always occupied that space.

The winning and honorable mention haiku for this month’s challenges explored the space of “animated ecology,” using natural phenomena to express a broad range of experiences, thoughts, and emotions.

  • Mariya Gusev’s windblown icicle wants to flee from the wind but can only lean southward from its lonely eave.
  • Barrie Levine finds dry leaves on the ground at the end of winter, but no trace of an icicle once its season has passed.
  • Shelli Jankowski-Smith feels her husband melting away from her, along with the icicles, as the late season days grow long.
  • Lorraine A. Padden’s cloud-filled sky is a mother releasing “hailstone embryos” until her labor is done.
  • Pamela Geddis alludes to the harsh exile of a 13th-century Japanese Buddhist priest who taught the oneness of the human and natural worlds.
  • Kelly Shaw watches as hailstones either regroup or roll away from one another after the trauma of “their long fall.”

Congratulations to all!

You can submit a haiku for the March challenge here.

***

Winter Season Word: Icicle

WINNER:

alone on an eave
an icicle leans southward
to escape the wind

—Mariya Gusev

There are few things as satisfying for the reader of haiku as a poem that says what it means through pure imagery. Modern haiku often violate that convention to stunning effect, but the beauty they produce is different from that of classical haiku. Bashō described that classical beauty as fuga, meaning “simple elegance or grace.”

An icicle “alone on an eave” may be the last icicle of the season. Or it could be the first. That is not the point. With many icicles the effect would be lost. For which reason, the poet shows us just one.

The turn of thought, which is buried in the image, doesn’t show on the surface of the poem. The wind that blows the icicle at a slant is a steady north wind—a wind that causes it to “lean southward,” gradually freezing it in that position.

To describe an icicle in this way produces a level of poetic tension that shouldn’t be possible in seventeen syllables. But there it is. The southerly direction that the icicle wants to flee toward would be its undoing. Cold as it is, the north wind keeps the icicle “alive.”

To call this ironic is to miss its melancholy aspect. To see it only as a melancholy reflection on the inevitability of suffering is to miss its deeper meaning. To the heart that is open, the whole world and everything in it feels breathtakingly, heartbreakingly sentient. Even an icicle.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

so unlike a leaf—
no trace of an icicle
after its season

—Barrie Levine

The days so long now 
I feel him melting away… 
icicle husband.

Shelli Jankowski-Smith

***

Summer Season Word: Hailstone

WINNER:

dropping its full weight
the sky no longer bearing
hailstone embryos

—Lorraine A. Padden

Modern haiku frequently offer the reader an experience of disquiet beauty. The poet will take an image from nature, usually a season word, and come at it from a slant so that its meaning vectors off in an unorthodox direction. Sometimes that “veering away” from convention is accomplished through a figure of speech. In other cases, it occurs when a poet uses nonpoetic language (the language of science, for instance) in an unexpected way.

Although the use of “hailstone embryos” in a haiku is strikingly original, that term is not the poet’s invention. It comes from meteorology. Embryos are the ice particles that form around microscopic “seed” matter in the atmosphere, serving as cores for a hailstone’s initial growth.

When the conditions are right, hailstone embryos will form in the tornado-like conditions inside of a summer thunderstorm. Embryos can fly upwards through a cloud mass at speeds of 120 m.p.h., gathering mass until they become too heavy and finally fall to earth.

Until recently, it was believed that the onion-like layers of hailstones developed as the result of falling and flying back upward repeatedly through super-cooled air. That theory has now been discounted—with one exception. In multi-cellular thunderstorms, a hailstone can be ejected from the bottom of a “mother” cell only to become caught in the updraft of a lower “daughter” cell.

The atmospheric sciences are peppered with expressions like “mother,” “daughter,” and “embryo.” But these are only descriptive. Meteorologists don’t believe that clouds have daughters, or that hailstones are alive.

There was no separate category for beliefs called animistic prior to the Axial Age. All Homo sapiens were animists. With the rise of cities and nations, however, anthropocentric ways of thinking gradually displaced the belief that we occupy an entire universe of living things.

In many places, animism persisted into the modern age. In Japan it was called Shinto. Shinto is responsible for the emphasis on seasonality and weather in haiku poetry. More than that even, Shinto accounts for the working belief in haiku that the non-human world is alive.

The only form of ice that summer produces, hailstones are doomed to melt quickly because of the season in which they fall. Due to their rounded, semi-opaque appearance, they really do resemble embryos. That “borrowed image” from the sciences feels both dark and strangely tender.

This is the “disquiet beauty” one often finds in haiku written in an age of extinction and climate collapse—beautiful…but also sad. After her labor, the sky is empty. And soon the hailstones, too, will be gone.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

hailstones bruise the earth,
still Nichiren continues
his walk on Sado

—Pamela Geddis

after their long fall
some of the hailstones regroup
others roll away

—Kelly Shaw

You can find the previous month’s season words and haiku tips below:


February 2021 Haiku Challenge Prompt

For February 2021, you may submit poems on two different season words. One is a winter word meant to encourage you to draw inspiration from the world around you. The other is a summer word to challenge your poetic imagination. Coincidentally, both words refer to forms of ice.

Summer season word: “Hailstone”

Lying together
in a little pile: hailstones
knocked out on impact

Hail can be violent—damaging crops, cars, windows, even people. But these hailstones looked peaceful. They were out cold.

Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the summer season word “hailstone.” 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 “hailstone.”

HAIKU TIP: UNPACKING A SEASON WORD

In their book 5-7-5 The Haiku of Bashō, John White and Kemmyo Taira Sato distinguish between “ice pellets,” a winter season word, and “hailstones,” which are for summer:

Ice pellets, with their irregular shape, indeed belong to cold, winter weather and come about when snow is partially melted on falling through a layer of warmer air, and then refrozen; whereas hailstones worldwide, which are normally spherical and formed by accretion, are a hot weather or summer phenomenon caused when the heated ground leads to the formation of cumulonimbus clouds in which supercooled droplets, initially carried on specs of pollen or dust, are repeatedly driven through sub-zero air by the violent updrafts and downdrafts until their increasing weight finally leads them to fall to earth.

Hailstones have long been a popular topic for haiku. Bashō rushes out with a group of children to witness fresh hailstones glittering in the sun. The modern Zen poet Santōka Taneda finds some amusement in the fact that “hailstones, too” enter his begging bowl.

Sometimes the turn of thought is purely visual, as in the following haiku by Sekitei Hara (1889–1951):

Suspended above
the snowcapped mountains, the moon
dropping down hailstones

The visual similarity between a hailstone and a daylight moon leads to the impression that the moon itself has “dropped” them.

One of the most famous modern poems to employ the season word was published posthumously in 1976: 

With a hailstone held
in its beak, the firebird soars
into the heavens
—Mitsuhashi Takajo (1899–1972)

This haiku became famous when the critic Ōoka Makoto featured it in his front-page poetry column for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s leading newspaper. He wrote:

Where is the firebird flying? It flies in the poet’s heart. And it holds in its beak a single hailstone, against whose glittering ice the flames that engulf the bird increase its brightness. Cold, yet hot, a bird in a woman’s dream.

Takajo died in 1972 at the age of seventy-three. Defying the conventional script for a women’s life until the end, she wrote many poems like this, romantic and touchingly courageous self-portraits.

The “firebird” of Takajo’s poem is a phoenix, a female figure of extraordinary power that features prominently in Japanese myth and folklore. To identify with such a creature, claiming its power as one’s own, was something that had never been done before in haiku.

This is haiku at its most broken open. The poet is a flaming bird with a hailstone in her beak. The whole thing is fantastical, impossible, valiant, doomed to failure, and beautiful in that transcendent way that makes people believe in realms like heaven or nirvana. But such poems are not uncommon in Japanese haiku today. Beginning in the 1970s, women poets, especially, began to use the haiku form in ways that had never been attempted before.

We have only just begun to tap into the possibilities for haiku in English. To the list of traditional season words, we will doubtless add new words of our own. And even when using the old words, we will discover possibilities that no Japanese poet would imagine.

After a hailstorm in Woodstock, New York, last summer, I tried something I haven’t done since I was a child and put one in my mouth. The taste was surprising. This gave rise to a haiku with political overtones:

Forced out of heaven,
the hailstones become bitter
and white as they fall

In the back of my mind were thoughts about white privilege and white supremacy, and how closely related they are. Which goes to show that it is possible to say many, many things in haiku—using only seventeen syllables and a season word.

 ***

Winter season word: “Icicle”

Cold drops of water
from the melting icicle
waking up a stone

Standing next to a window at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I watched an icicle at the end of a downspout begin to melt in the high desert sun. Watching it drip onto the stone trough at the bottom of the spout, I thought, “Wouldn’t it feel bracing to stand under that icicle, like a Japanese monk meditating under a waterfall!”

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

HAIKU TIP: CREATING A TURN OF THOUGHT

There are three basic elements to a successful haiku: form, season, and the turn (or “twist”) of thought. If your poem follows the 5-7-5 syllable form and includes a season word, you’ve got the first two elements. For the third, you’ll have to be more creative. More expressive.

Think of haiku as a game of “show and tell.” The imagery of the poem shows your readers something, while the turn of thought tells them what you want to say. A poem that is all show and no tell won’t make for a very satisfying haiku. A good haiku is not a photograph, but a poem. 

In the example above, the first two lines offer the reader the image of a dripping icicle, while the last gives that image a twist. The twist comes with the idea of the icicle “waking up a stone.”

What would the poem have been like without that twist? Consider this version:

Cold drops of water
from the melting icicle
dripping on a stone

The image is the same. The repeated sounds (“drops” and “dripping”) even add a bit of music to the poem. But the significance of the moment is gone. Now it is little more than a snapshot.

You will know that you have achieved a satisfying turn of thought in your haiku when it expresses exactly what you want to say. In my case, I wanted to capture that end-of-season feeling when the temperatures wobble and—moment by moment—the Earth shakes off her slumber.

A note on icicles: Icicles form when snow melts on a roof, eave, or other overhanging structure. They drip by day and freeze by night, and that is how they “grow.” In haiku, icicles are a late winter theme.

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