Historically speaking, haiku has its roots in premodern ways of thinking about the natural world. That is why nearly every formal haiku contains a season word like “swan.” Between our lives and the lives of other beings, even inanimate beings like the “summer moon,” there is no dividing line.

Each of the winning and honorable mention poems for this month’s challenge breached the invisible barrier between the human and non-human worlds, revealing the fundamental oneness that exists between them.

  • John Hawkhead leads us to the edge of a moonlit cataract, inviting us to contemplate the larger implications of “falling apart.”
  • Mary L. Tigner-Rasanen finds in the water of an abandoned bucket a world big enough to hold the moon…and mosquitos, too.
  • Laurie Haynes’ moon is a shape-shifter able to enter any body of water—even one as small as a tear.
  • Lynda Zwinger transports us to a meditation hall where dark-robed monks “glide to stillness” like black swans on a quiet lake.
  • Shelli Jankowski-Smith offers a bittersweet portrait of life-long monogamy in the image of swans floating “both together and alone.”
  • Alex Lubman’s sleeping swan rests weightlessly atop the water outside of a museum…like a beautiful statue set adrift.

Congratulations to all!

You can submit a haiku for the August challenge here.

***

Summer Season Word: Summer Moon

WINNER:

standing at the edge
a summer moon falls apart
in the cataract

— John Hawkhead

Haiku has been called “the art of the unsaid.” We can’t say everything in 17 syllables—in fact, we can say very little—so haiku poets become adept at suggesting meanings that aren’t explicitly contained in the poem. The reader intuits those meanings based on the poet’s use of rhythm, word choice, imagery, or idiom.

On a summer night, the poet steps to the edge of a rushing stream where he sees the moon “fall apart” in the water—a poetic conceit that echoes a famous Japanese haiku by Chōshū (1852-1930):

Moon in the water
broken over and over—
and yet there it is

In Volume 3 of HAIKU, his magnum opus of translations with commentary, R.H. Blyth wrote about this poem: “The astounding persistence, the faithfulness of things, their law-abidingness [in the sense of dharma], is felt in deep contrast to the waywardness of life.”

Blyth was interned as an enemy alien by the Japanese government during World War II, and so he would have experienced the devastation of the Allied Forces’ repeated bombings that left over 600,000 civilians dead and millions homeless. In his comment on Chōshū’s poem, perhaps there is some awareness of those losses and the way that the Japanese people rebounded from them after the war.

And yet, by 21st century standards, Blyth was an innocent. Chōshū, too. Both men experienced loss and hardship. But neither could have conceptualized the collapse of civilization in its entirely.

The opening line of this month’s winning poem strikes a different pose. This is no Buddhist reflection on the resilience of the cosmos. There is nothing whatsoever poised or pious about it. Rather, the poet gives us the feeling that he is about to fall over the edge.

This is a masterful poem in its pairing of emotional honesty with extreme simplicity. The poet takes us to the edge of a moonlit cataract and invites us to gaze into it. “Stand right here, and you will see what I saw,” he seems to be saying. “But watch your step. There is no sense in falling before we have to. In the meantime, there is beauty.”

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Abandoned bucket.
The water holds mosquitos
and the summer moon.

— Mary L. Tigner-Rasanen

summer moon held by
the pond, the puddle, her tear
shape-shifting to fit

— Laurie Haynes

***

Winter Season Word: Swan

WINNER:

in the sitting hall
black swans gliding to stillness
saving all beings

— Lynda Zwinger

The term “black swan event” originated from the Western belief that all swans were white—an assumption that was proved false in 1697 when Dutch explorers discovered black swans in Australia. In modern parlance, the term has come to refer to statistically improbable, “extreme outlier” events—especially those with a disproportionate effect on history, science, finance, or technology. The winning haiku for this month adds religion to the mix with its allusion to the bodhisattva ideal of “saving all beings.”

The “black swans” of the poem are not actual swans, but black-robed bodhisattvas—monks at the end of their walking meditation, “gliding to stillness” before their cushions in preparation for another period of zazen. In Japanese haiku, season words are rarely used metaphorically. A swan…is a swan…is a swan. In Western poetry, which is deeply rooted in figurative language, such constraints would be too limiting. And so, the poet offers us the vision of monks in a meditation hall as swans on a quiet lake.

The style of the haiku is elegant, its image graceful and even dignified. Had the poet meant to undercut the idea that we can save others by sitting on our butts, the effect would be funnier—a bit like Sengai’s inscription on his sumi-e painting of a smiling frog: “If by just sitting one becomes a Buddha…” But no. The comparison between saving all beings and a black swan event is meant to suggest the nonlinearity of that event. The fact that it disrupts our basic narrative about religion, ourselves, and, well…almost everything.

What does it mean to save all beings in a planetary ecosystem where all matter and energy are being endlessly recycled and recirculated? 

What does it mean to embrace the bodhisattva ideal while participating in ecocide and climate apocalypse? 

To answer such questions requires us to think, not outside of the box of the planet, as if we could solve our problems by migrating to Mars or nirvana, whichever comes first. Rather, it requires us to think ever more deeply and profoundly from inside of it.

Surely, this is what the poet’s “black swans” are doing in the lake-like stillness of their meditation hall. It had better be what they are doing if they want to make good on their vow.

A masterful English language haiku in the modern mode, with a hidden eco-spiritual message.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Floating in tandem 
both together and alone 
swan monogamy

— Shelli Jankowski-Smith

a statue adrift
outside the art museum
the swan is asleep

— Alex Lubman

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


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

Summer season word: “Summer moon”

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

A perfectly still, round moon sat atop on the surface of the pond. I wanted to wade out to her, but the water was too deep. So I tossed a pebble instead.

I watched until the ripples were gone, and then it was over: my fling with the summer moon.

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

HAIKU TIP: 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.

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.

A note on summer moon: In keeping with the weather, the tone of summer moon haiku is usually somewhat mild. The summer moon is associated with love and romance, and with a refreshing feeling of coolness at the end of a hot day.

***

Winter season word: “Swan”

The swan is a heart
to which wings have been added
so it flies away

A swan beat the water with her wings as she rose into the sky. I couldn’t help but think of the hunter who married a shapeshifting swan maiden, hiding her “feather-skin” so that she could no longer become a bird. In most versions of the story, the maiden recovers her swan’s wings and flies away, leaving him heartbroken in the end.

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

HAIKU TIP: STUDY THE KOANS OF THE HUMAN RACE!

The Swan Maiden is one of the oldest legends in the human repertory. Part of a story genre called “the animal wife,” it seems to have originated in prehistory before traveling across the world. Variations on the same tale exist in cultures wherever swans appear. As a mythic figure, the Swan Maiden is often allied with shamans and connected to the ancestral realm.

In 1951, as an anthropology student at Reed College, the poet Gary Snyder wrote his undergraduate thesis on a version of the tale told by the Haida people of the Pacific Northwest. In it, a chief’s son falls in love with a goose girl, then loses her and finally follows her into the sky, turning into a seagull.

In He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village, Snyder uses the Haida story as a reference point for exploring mythic transformations in versions of the Swan Maiden from cultures around the world. He writes:

To go beyond and become what—a seagull on a reef? Why not. Our nature is no particular nature; look out across the beach at the gulls. For an empty moment while their soar and cry enters your heart like sunshaft through water, you are that, totally. We do this every day. So this is the aspect of mind that gives art, style, and self-transcendence to the inescapable human plantedness in a social and ecological nexus. The challenge is to do it well, by your neighbors and by the trees, and that maybe once in a great while we can get where we see through the same eye at the same time, for a moment. That would be doing it well. Old tales and myths and stories are the Koans of the human race.

To my knowledge, Snyder has never stated that season words are also koans—texts embodying the deepest truths about life and the world we live in. But this is true in many cases. The season words of haiku trace their origin back to an earlier way of seeing and knowing whereby human beings were able to experience their lives as fundamentally united with the natural world.

A note on swans: In his entry on “swan” in Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac, William J. Higginson explains: “Most swans move from inland ponds to open saltwater and brackish marshes when the freshwater freezes up in late winter, gathering in substantial flocks; this probably accounts for the traditional assignment of late winter for the topic.”

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