The Japanese critic Kenkichi Yamamoto once offered the opinion that (1) haiku is a classical form of literature written in 5-7-5 syllables with a season word, and (2) that kokkei (humor) is its essence. When pressed to define kokkei, however, Yamamoto was often vague or evasive. Perhaps he didn’t want to limit it. Think of haiku humor as “laughter that vectors off in elusive or unexpected directions” and you wouldn’t be off the mark. There is no way to define the unpredictable laughter that lives at the heart of most good haiku. How could there be? It is always reinventing itself.

Each of the winning and honorable mention poems for this month’s challenges experimented with new possibilities for humor in English language haiku.

  • Lynda Zwinger finds a dry, almost rueful amusement in the paradox of mindfulness—the moment we have it, it slips away.
  • Clifford Rames crafts a clever satirical commentary on “doing nothing” with his comparison of zazen posture to chimes hanging slack in the still morning air.
  • Lorraine Padden’s relaxing summer day is punctuated by the music of wind chimes and the dissenting voice of a crow.
  • Genevieve Wynand brings the mighty hunter of Greek myth down to size by setting him down for a good story on his mother’s lap.
  • Eric Lohman’s image of Orion’s belt holding up his pants highlights the absurdity of forming constellations with stars that are so far apart.
  • Shelli Jankowski-Smith offers a 17-syllable critique of white male privilege with her “clueless Orion,” ignorant of how much space he takes up in the sky.

Congratulations to all!

You can submit a haiku for the July challenge here.

***

Summer Season Word: Wind Chimes

WINNER:

wind chimes say nothing
that you don’t already know—
it’s now, then it’s not

— Lynda Zwinger

Haiku humor can be exceptionally droll. We all know the person whose delivery is so dry that, at first, we don’t realize they’ve made a joke. The laughter is on a short delay in such instances, and that lag is part of the humor.

The best word to describe wind chimes on a summer day is desultory, “occurring randomly or occasionally; without plan or purpose.” In that sense, wind chimes make a good summer theme. The heat can drain the meaning from most activities. On a hot day we don’t mark the time so much as pass it. Wind chimes are perfect for that.

The chimes have nothing new or original to say. In fact, they seem able to deliver only one message. They ring—and their sound brings our minds to the present moment.

But they don’t stay there. The moment moves on, and our attention drifts away.

The poet’s succinct, deadpan way of saying this—“it’s now, then it’s not”—is the essence of haiku humor. A simple turn of phrase that captures an elusive reality: It’s always now…except when it’s not. The moment slips away.

Is the poet poking fun at the branded banality of “mindful living” ads and slogans? Perhaps. But the humor goes deeper than satire. Hers is the dark laughter that comes from knowing there are no new lessons in life—only the old ones we haven’t mastered yet…and continually struggle to relearn.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

dawn meditation—
windless, wind chimes slip into
a zazen pose too

— Clifford Rames

the pace of a day
as measured by the wind chimes
and an angry crow

— Lorraine Padden

***

Winter Season Word: Orion

WINNER:

storytime beneath
a processional of stars…
my small Orion

— Genevieve Wynand

When I discovered that Genevieve Wynand had won the Tricycle Challenge for a second time, I wrote to congratulate her and received the following reply:

“The monthly challenge has become a really important part of my practice and my writing. To work with an established season, to be in the now of the writing moment but the past or future of a lived moment (or of a present moment, if it arises as such), to play or contemplate or stretch… The season words live at a soft hum through the month, even when I can’t pin them to the page.”

This is what it feels like to write formal haiku. The 5-7-5 syllable structure becomes a vessel for carrying that “soft hum” of the season word through our days like a mantra until, eventually, a haiku takes shape around it.

I see the poet repeating the word “Orion” over and over at intervals, dropping it for awhile to come back to later, only to discover that it has never completely left her consciousness. The word has gotten under her skin.

I imagine her working with the constellation in the beginning only to find that approach felt too distant. There are few things in the human repertory more abstract or artificially constructed than an imaginary shape in the night sky.

Finally, she settles on the words “small Orion.” With that shift, at last, the poem becomes intimate. The hunter is drawn down from the sky to a mother’s lap, where he becomes a little boy listening to a bedtime story.

Such a beautiful idea. And a touchingly humorous one as well. But it is also haunting. “The Hunter” exists as a potential in every young boy and the gendered stories we tell our children often encourage them along that path.

The middle line is elegant—“a processional of stars”—but it suggests something formal, fixed. Even inflexible.

Taken as a whole, the poem offers a mother’s affectionate portrait of her son. But it is impossible not to feel the depth of her concern for his future and the person he will become.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Orion’s belt stars
though trillions of miles apart
they still hold his pants

— Eric Lohman

He’s just freewheeling 
and man-spreading through his space 
clueless Orion

— Shelli Jankowski-Smith

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


For June 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: “wind chimes”

Unable to speak
unless spoken to: wind chimes
on the veranda

My mother had a stroke that made it difficult for her to summon familiar words, although she could converse normally if prompted. After one phone call, I noticed some wind chimes hanging motionless in the slack between breezes and felt her frustration even more deeply.

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

HAIKU TIP: 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, “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.

***

Winter season word: “Orion”

He is made of stars
but mostly made of nothing:
mighty Orion

I learned to find Orion in the night sky as a child and loved filling in the blanks with my imagination: the skirt fashioned from the skin of an animal, the club, the shield, the dagger dangling from his belt. As an adult, I was shocked at how little there was to go on with any of this. Just a few stars and a whole lot of nothing.

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

HAIKU TIP: USE A WESTERN SEASON WORD!

Unlike most season words, Orion has no equivalent in the Japanese haiku tradition. The Japanese have constellations, some of which overlap with ours, but this is not one of them.  In Western culture, however, its roots are remarkably deep.

In 1979, in the Ach valley of West Germany, archaeologists found a mammoth ivory carving from 38,000 years ago bearing the shape of this constellation. Paleoastronomers believe Orion, the Hunter, to be one of the oldest and most widely recognized constellations of the prehistoric world.

Orion’s hourglass shape is easy to spot from November through February, for which reason it is associated with winter—especially late winter, when its stars are brightest. The positional rising and setting of Orion in the Southwestern sky has long been used as a way of recognizing the seasons of the year.

Orion has a rich and varied history in Greek and Roman mythology. In some stories, he is a tragic figure—the lover of Artemis, who was tricked by Apollo into slaying him with her bow. In another myth, he is the arrogant hunter who once boasted that he would kill every wild animal on the planet with his mace. Overhearing this threat, the goddess Gaia sent Scorpio to slay him. Since then, he hunts only in the sky.

I wrote a haiku last February alluding to the latter myth:

Orion stalking
the heavens with his great club:
better there than here

Given the mass extinction brought on by human activity since the Neolithic, I felt that Gaia had a point.

Orion is closely associated with two other constellations: Canis Major and Canis Minor. Because they seem to follow him through the heavens, these were thought to be Orion’s hunting dogs. Canis Major is alluded to in a fine late-winter haiku by the American poet Susan Polizzotto:

while awaiting spring
Orion travels westward
shadowed by his dog

All three constellations are included in Ptolemy’s 48 Constellations of the Ancient World

Get Daily Dharma in your email

Start your day with a fresh perspective

a photo of a Buddhist meditating
Explore timeless teachings through modern methods.

With Stephen Batchelor, Sharon Salzberg, Andrew Olendzki, and more

See Our Courses

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.