Since January 2021, Tricycle readers have been invited to participate in the monthly Tricycle Haiku Challenge to follow the changing seasons together and share in the joy of haiku. For those unfamiliar with the form, a haiku is a 17-syllable poem written in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, often containing a “season word” that refers to one of the four seasons. Beginning with the wintery season words of “owl” and “icicle,” poets have worked their way through springtime’s “inchworm” and “kite,” and summer’s “wind chimes” and “cicada.” They’re now turning to fall with the season word of “morning glory.” 

In each month’s prompt, moderator Clark Strand shares several pointers on how to write a successful haiku. Below are a few key tips for anyone getting started on the art form.  

The best advice of all? Read a lot of haiku and write even more! Submit as many haiku as you like to the monthly challenge here. Also join Tricycle’s new haiku Facebook group, moderated by Strand, where you can exchange ideas with other poets, ask questions, and share your own haiku. 

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CREATE 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 following haiku, the first two lines offer the reader the image of a dripping icicle, while the last line gives that image a twist. 

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

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.

KNOW YOUR SEASONS

Nearly every Japanese haiku poet owns a saijiki, or “season word almanac.” A saijiki lists the words associated with each season, accompanied by examples of famous haiku that use those words and often photographs or illustrations as well. Part nature guide, part anthology, a saijiki is the basic “how to” text for writing haiku in Japan.

A saijiki classifies the words for each season under seven broad categories:

The Season: the names of seasons and months; the temperature; the length or shortness of the day; solstices and equinoxes.

The Sky and Elements: astronomical or meteorological phenomena; qualities of light or shade.

The Earth: landscape or seascape; forests; fields; mountains; streams; rivers; lakes.

Humanity: food; clothing; work; sports; recreation; arts and crafts; home; seasonal moods.

Observances: anniversaries; holidays; festivals; all activities, foods, or decorations associated with such events.

Animals: mammals; amphibians; reptiles; birds; fish; mollusks; insects.

Plants: blossoming plants or trees; foliage; garden and wild flowers; fruits; fungi; other forms of vegetation.

Every season word will fall under one of these categories. For instance, the June season word “wind chimes” belongs to Humanity. That much is simple. But which season does it belong to? Here it gets interesting. Why summer? Can’t wind chimes be heard in spring?

William J. Higginson, who wrote more on the topic than any other Western author, observed that the season words of haiku are assigned to the time of year when our consciousness of them peaks. He offered beer as an example. One might drink beer at any time of year, but it is at the height of summer that a cold beer is most refreshing.

Following the same logic, wind chimes are associated with the months when their sound is most welcome—on hot summer days when the stillness is relieved by a passing breeze. “The very essence of wind chimes is the coolness we feel in that breeze,” Higginson wrote.

With its season words, haiku poetry strengthens our connection to the rhythms of the natural world, reconnecting us to values that are older, wiser, deeper, and more wholesome than the values associated with any single cultural moment. Using season words, it becomes possible to convey thoughts or feelings that would be difficult to express in any other way.

PRACTICE YOUR SCALES

Because of its fixed pattern, formal haiku lends itself to melody. Something about counting out 5-7-5 syllables on our fingers feels like practicing musical scales. Once we have practiced those scales enough, it is only a matter of time before we are able to create music of our own. The trick is to master the scales.

Haiku poets accomplish this by writing hundreds, even thousands, of 5-7-5 syllable verses. Gradually the lips sync with the fingers, the fingers sync with the mind, and the music begins to flow.

The trick is to maintain a spirit of “repetitive play.” Musicians take their scales seriously, but they don’t confuse them with music. In the same way, formal haiku poets give themselves permission to write many haiku in the 5-7-5 syllable pattern without worrying whether they amount to poetry or not. We just write one haiku after another in that pattern and eventually the poetry will come. 

Its body twisting
in wind: visible inchworm,
invisible thread

Did you notice that the above haiku contains eleven short “i” sounds? Probably not. I didn’t when I wrote it. But I had written over a dozen different versions of it before I got to this one, and the moment I saw it I knew that I was done.

The more we practice, the more second nature it becomes to express our thoughts in 5-7-5. Then, when we find that we have something to say in haiku…some bit of music to score…the syllables will slip right out. Bashō did this. Buson did this. Even Shiki did it. If there is another way to master haiku, I don’t know what it is.

It takes a little time, but the rewards are worth it, as anyone who has even mastered a musical instrument will attest. 

PROWL THE LEAKY EDGE OF LANGUAGE

The haiku form is very simple—just 17 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.

KEEP THE HAIKU FLOWING

Sometimes a haiku with a clear image, crisp phrasing, and a compelling turn of thought comes out finished right on the spot. But not always. Not usually in fact. It can take some time and involve writing twenty to thirty versions of a poem to get that perfectly simple, inevitable-sounding haiku that grabs the reader right from the start.

This is what our Monthly Haiku Challenges are for. When composing haiku on an assigned theme, you won’t usually find yourself inspired to create a masterpiece the moment you put pen to paper. So keep at it.

Of course, you could always get lucky—especially in the beginning. More likely, you’ll have to feel your way into it, trying out the sound of the season word on your tongue to see what other images or associations naturally “stick” to it in order to create a poem.

Anyone with some time and a sense of play can come up with a dozen haiku by writing in this way. See if you can get the season word to sit inside of a 5-syllable phrase like “yellow ginkgo leaves” and take it from there. Make that phrase the first or last line of a page full of haiku and you are on your way.

To come up with something truly expressive, something original or personally relevant—that can take more time. The key is to stay loose during this process. Write a dozen different versions of the same haiku, or a dozen completely different haiku. Just keep your pen moving…or your fingers tapping on the keys.

As a general rule, it is better to work fast than slow. It is better to produce a lot of bad poems in quick succession, one of which is okay or even good, than to puzzle self-consciously over a single haiku for minutes or hours on end. Improvement in haiku comes from writing a LOT of haiku. That is how haiku poets learn.

MAKE THE MOST OF A SINGLE WORD

Haiku often make use of wordplay. Because a haiku is so short, words must sometimes do double-duty. Otherwise, it is difficult to generate what Bashō called “surplus meaning”—messages that go beyond the literal meaning of a poem. One of the most common methods for generating surplus meaning is the use of puns.

The language of everyday life is filled with surprising possibilities, for which reason the haiku poet looks for meanings that veer off in unexpected directions. Used as a verb, the word fling means “to throw.” Used as a noun, it refers to “a short, casual sexual relationship.” A pun, yes. But not a very satisfying one . . . until it is combined with tossing a pebble at the summer moon.

I toss a pebble
at the quiet pond: my fling
with the summer moon

Haiku poets are always playing with words and images, mixing and matching them until they come out just right. If someone tells you that haiku is a serious business, you can be sure they don’t know anything about writing haiku. The lighter and more carefree we are in handling the words and syllables, the more likely we are to arrive at something that really works. 

The difference is often the matter of a single word. Finding that word is the task of the haiku poet, but to fulfill that task we have to stay alert to the subtle nuances of spoken language—and stay playful most of all.

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