One of the most common techniques in haiku poetry is to craft a five-syllable phrase containing the season word in order to “anchor” the poem in nature. With that phrase securely in place, the poet begins to play with the other twelve syllables, searching for an elusive turn of thought to complete the poem.
The opening lines of the winning and honorable mention haiku for last month’s challenge were identical, with the exception of a single word—and yet what a difference that one word made in each case.
- Dana Clark-Millar offers a chilling portrait of white nationalism as it spreads like a killing frost across rural America.
- Jake Jaskowia finds a lesson worthy of the Tao Te Ching as the frost on a windowpane transforms right before his eyes.
- Stephen Billias sees two worlds (and two seasons) in the frozen hillside above a valley where spring has already arrived.
Congratulations to all! To read additional poems of merit from recent months, visit our Tricycle Haiku Challenge group on Facebook.
You can submit a haiku for the February challenge here.
Winter Season Word: Frost
frost on the pastures
in rural America
adding to the white
— Dana Clark-Millar
Although haiku poetry is governed by certain time-honored conventions, there is no universally agreed-upon rule about what subject matter can or cannot be addressed within the form. Poets are always testing the limits of haiku, pushing it in new directions to see what can be said in just 17 syllables.
Japanese haiku took a political turn during the lead-up to World War II. In 1937, the most influential magazine of the day, Hototogisu (“Cuckoo”), created a special section devoted to patriotic haiku—poems that became increasingly militant after 1939. But Japanese fascism was not without its critics. A few poets wrote haiku that opposed the war, some of which are considered masterpieces today.
Saitō Sanki (1900-1962) was the nominal leader of the anti-war haiku movement. Here are two of his most famous poems:
Machine gun bullets:
right between the eyes a red
to swallow a hard-boiled egg
the mouth opens wide
The first poem is shocking in its nonseasonal use of the traditional season word hana, or “blossom.” About the second, written on a dark night one year after the bombing, we can let Sanki speak for himself:
Sitting on a stone by the side of the road, I took out a boiled egg and slowly peeled the shell, unexpectedly shocked by its smooth surface. With a flash of searing incandescence, the skins of human beings had as easily slipped off all over this city. To eat a boiled egg in the wind of that black night, I was forced to open my mouth. In that moment, this haiku came to me.
Sanki was imprisoned by Japan’s Special Higher Police for writing haiku like the first one. The second was published in a magazine shortly after it was written but was omitted from Sanki’s second collection of haiku for fear that it would be censored by Occupation officials, who consistently suppressed information about the horrors of the atomic bomb.
Political haiku have been written in English, but apart from a few poems by the African-American novelist Richard Wright, who was surveilled by the FBI for his civil rights activism, they can be hit or miss. The winning poem for our January challenge stands up to the best of them.
A haiku like this is unlikely to be met with suppression or censorship in 2022 America. But it still takes courage to write it.
The first two lines offer a panoramic landscape of rural America, its pastures covered with frost. The scope is national, not local, as we would ordinarily expect in a haiku. Only in the last line do we understand the significance of that choice. We are being shown not just a visual landscape, but a political one.
A good haiku works through the subtle nuances of spoken language, and this one is no exception. Associations like “killing frost,” “hard frost,” and “frosty reception” inevitably influence our reading of the final line, making it clear that white nationalism is the real subject of the poem.
A haiku like this is unlikely to be met with suppression or censorship in 2022 America. But it still takes courage to write it. There were dozens of superb haiku to choose from for January, but this one had something special. I felt a chill when I read it that I still haven’t been able to shake off.
Frost on the window
Slowly melts into water
Changing, not going
— Jake Jaskowia
frost on the hillside
but not here in the valley
two worlds, winter, spring
— Stephen Billias
You can find January’s season word and haiku tips below:
Winter season word: “Frost”
The power lines stretched
across the kingdom of frost
north of all music.
—Tomas Tranströmer (1931-2015)
The haiku scholar Tadashi Kondo believes that the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer intended this poem to describe what it felt like after a stroke left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Others have suggested that the power lines, running parallel to one another, look like a musical score empty of notes. Tranströmer taught himself to play the piano again after his stroke, although he could only use his left hand. He claimed that music helped to keep him alive into his eighties.
Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the winter season word “frost.” 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 “frost.”
HAIKU TIP: WRITE MODERN POETRY!
When Tranströmer’s haiku were translated into Japanese following his Nobel Prize in Literature in 2011, his publisher Oda Kyuro noted: “Many of the old school will reject his unexpected metaphors, since metaphor is banned in [Japanese] haiku. But it is specifically the use of metaphor that is Tranströmer’s strength!” Tranströmer’s haiku belong more to the tradition of modern poetry than they do to classical haiku, Oda explained, insisting that this makes them useful models for Japanese poets working in the form today.
The suggestion that Japanese haiku might need to be brought up to speed on modern poetry will doubtless shock some purists. But haiku is an international art form now, and if poets want their haiku to be taken seriously (in any language) they will have to meet the demands of the times. It is no longer enough just to produce pleasant nature sketches. A haiku has to mean something.
In his foreword to The Great Enigma, the most comprehensive collection of Tranströmer’s poetry in English, the translator Robin Fulton wrote: “Whether a Japanese haiku master would feel on common ground with the mentality behind these Swedish examples of the form, I have no idea. I prefer to regard them simply as a set of syllabic poems (whose syllabic count I have matched) with an ability to surprise and puzzle that far exceeds what we might expect from their miniature dimensions.” Which is another way of saying that Tranströmer’s haiku, although they break with tradition in many ways, nevertheless fulfill the most fundamental requirement of the form: to produce a 17-syllable poem with MORE than 17 syllables of meaning.
The bulk of Tranströmer’s poetry is written in free verse, but his haiku follow a 5-7-5 syllable pattern in Swedish. He experimented with haiku in the 1950s, becoming more devoted to the form after his stroke in 1990. His wife Monika Bladh has said that Tranströmer found a sense of freedom writing in such a strict syllabic form. “Working within [such] restrictions can function as a sort of game.”
Despite their serious subject matter, Tranströmer’s haiku display the sense of poetic play that is the enduring hallmark of the genre. The following haiku suggest the range of his work in the form.
The presence of God.
In the tunnel of birdsong
A locked seal opens.
Death bends over me—
I’m a chess problem, and he
has the solution.
The darkening leaves
in autumn are as precious
as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
A wind vast and slow
from the ocean’s library.
Here’s where I can rest.
–Translations by Robin Fulton
A note on frost: In Haiku World, William J. Higginson writes: “Frost is winter’s dew… Ground frost—also called hoarfrost or white frost—forms on cold, clear nights when heat quickly leaves the ground, making it colder than the surrounding air (and below freezing).” Although frost appears in most regions from mid-November through mid-March, it is most common in winter, for which reason the word is identified with that season.
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