Although there are many rules for writing haiku in Japanese, haiku in English needs only three: the 5-7-5 syllable form, the use of season words, and the requirement for an original “turn of thought.” If we wanted to imitate Japanese haiku, we would need many more rules. If we want to create haiku that capitalize on the unique possibilities for poetry in English, three is all we need.

The winning and honorable mention poems for this month’s challenges all danced within these basic parameters, breaking new ground for original haiku in English.

  • Freeman Ng crafts a literary allusion that gives greater depth and breadth to his haiku about love.
  • Deborah Fass’s close observation of nature allows her to witness an inchworm ascending on a thread of evening light.
  • Suzi Golodoff uses the looping movement of an inchworm to satirize the quest for self-discovery.
  • Geneviève Wynand fashions an expansive metaphor to describe her child’s heart in a sonogram photo.
  • Sasha A. Palmer experiences the bittersweet side of gardening when her spade cuts an acorn in half.
  • Marilyn Ashbaugh’s rain-filled acorn cap offers a poignant visual elegy for the half-million lives lost to COVID-19.

Congratulations to all!

You can submit a haiku for the April challenge here.

***

Spring Season Word: Inchworm

WINNER:

the inchworm’s progress
across a patient terrain
from my hand to yours

Freeman Ng

In the late spring, inchworms lower themselves down from the trees on filaments so thin they are often invisible to the naked eye. For the most part, descending inchworms don’t watch where they are going, or don’t have much control over it—which is how they sometimes come to rest on a shoulder or an arm.

It is always with some wonder that we discover these small creatures making their way across the landscape of a body so much larger than their own. Children, especially, enjoy watching them crawl from palm to palm and will sometimes “share” an inchworm.

Is that what is happening here? Somehow, I think not. The language of the poem suggests that the speaker and his companion are adults reenacting the childhood ritual. They may be friends. More likely, they are lovers. In that case the inchworm is a go-between.

That alone would make for a richly nuanced haiku. But there is a deeper layer to explore.

The opening line alludes to a book that is generally regarded as the earliest English novel. Published in 1678, the full title of John Bunyan’s allegory of the soul’s journey is The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come. It is, by modern standards, a cumbersome and tedious book that even Christians don’t read anymore.

To replace Bunyan’s moralizing pilgrim with an inchworm goes beyond humor. Beyond satire even. If there is a deeper message to the poem, it lies in the contrast of worldviews: between the hostile world presided over by the angry God of English Puritanism and the patient hands of the human lovers assisting a fellow creature on its way.

There is something heartrending about that contrast…but something healing about it as well. “Ecology not theology” is a helpful motto for our age.

A further note of interest: Allusion is one of the most underutilized techniques in English language haiku. A recent issue of Frogpond, the official journal of the Haiku Society of America, included only two poems that alluded to other works of art or literature, neither of which made effective use of the technique. By contrast, allusion is common in Japanese haiku.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

So easy to miss—
on a thread of evening light,
climbing, an inchworm

Deborah Fass

inchworm on a leaf
tries to walk up to itself
but then keeps going

— Suzi Golodoff

***

Fall Season Word: Acorn

WINNER:

sonogram photos—
the frozen beat of your heart
just one acorn wide

— Geneviève Wynand

Centuries of literary wisdom dictate that a season word must be used literally. If an inchworm appears in a haiku, it must appear as an inchworm. The word can’t be used figuratively or metaphorically. Between a season word and the thing it signifies stands an irrevocable equals sign. An acorn is an acorn is an acorn.

Except when it’s not.

During her sonogram, the poet heard her child’s heartbeat for the first time. Later, looking through the photos, she was able to locate the source of that sound. Such a small thing. Just one acorn wide.

Never mind that an infant’s heart in the second trimester is roughly the shape and size of an acorn. All that the child is. All that he or she will become. All they will feel. It’s right there. The turn of thought is breathtakingly simple. That so much could dwell in a space so small—and in a single moment of time, no less—is astounding.

There is more. The comparison of a child’s heart to an acorn presumes the presence both of a human mother and of the Mother of All Mothers, which is the soil. The bodies of those two mothers appear discrete, but ecology teaches us that they are inseparable. We now know that there are more microbial “dirt” cells in the human body than there are “human” cells.

Once we have expanded upon that dimension of the poem and the radical interdependence that it implies, we may notice that the deeper meaning of the poem is on a slight lag. A close reading reveals that it isn’t the infant’s heart that is being compared to the size of an acorn, but the size of its heartbeat.

Photography is a melancholy medium where human subjects are concerned. A photograph can yield a perfect likeness and remain lifeless. It can capture a heartbeat…but not a beating heart.

For me, melancholy edges out over wonder in the final analysis. The last line feels pregnant with heartache. What will become of a thing so small? Will it break? Will it suffer? How can it possibly survive? Heartache isn’t the only emotion overflowing from the 17-syllable cup of this haiku. Just the strongest one.

A further point of interest: The use of season words in Japanese haiku is going through an overhaul. Contemporary poets are allowed much greater latitude in how they use season words, partly as the result of Western influences. The figurative use of seasonal expressions has a long history in Western poetry, stretching all the way back to Homer.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

clearing the garden—
my spade cuts through an acorn
in its shallow grave

Sasha A. Palmer

in an acorn cap
fall drizzle forms a teardrop
half a million gone

— Marilyn Ashbaugh

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


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

Spring season word: “Inchworm”

Its body twisting
in wind: visible inchworm,
invisible thread

An inchworm dangled in the breeze below a maple, seemingly attached to nothing. I knew the thread was there, but even as I drew closer, it remained invisible to the eye.

Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the late spring season word “inchworm.” 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 “inchworm.”

HAIKU TIP: 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.

Did you notice that the haiku cited above 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.

A note on inchworms: Although inchworms are cataloged alongside caterpillars as a summer season word in Japanese haiku, in North America inchworms become visible well before the summer solstice and therefore indicate late spring. The name “inchworm” derives from the size of these small creatures, and from their manner of locomotion—the way they loop and then straighten their bodies, seeming to “inch” along surfaces, as though measuring them.

***

Fall season word: “Acorn”

Acorn cap whistle:
absolutely anything
screams if you let it

I held an acorn cap between my thumbs to make a whistle. The sound that came out of it felt raw and primal—like a scream. I hadn’t made the acorn cap scream, I decided. I had only released the scream that was inside of it.

Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the fall season word “acorn.” 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 “acorn.”

HAIKU TIP: CONTAIN THE UNCONTAINABLE!

The purpose of a haiku is to contain in seventeen syllables MORE than seventeen syllables of meaning. Otherwise, there would be no point in writing so short a poem. A haiku should suggest more than it says.

The original title for my book Seeds From a Birch: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey was to have been The Life of Things. The idea for that title came from the poet Bashō, who once wrote:

Cherry blossoms whirl, leaves fall, and the wind flits them both along the ground. We cannot arrest with our eyes or ears what lies in such things. Were we to gain mastery over them, we would find that the life of each thing had vanished without a trace.

This is as close as Bashō ever came to protesting the idea of human supremacy—the belief that humans have a right to exercise dominion over Nature. Bashō was an animist at heart. Nothing was inert or unfeeling in his universe. All things were sentient and alive.

I was wondering what kind of haiku Bashō would write today when I happened upon an acorn cap and used it to make a whistle. My guess is, the mass die-off of plant and animal life we are currently living through, which some have called the Holocene extinction, would have filled Bashō with horror. Most likely, were he writing today, Bashō’s haiku would contain elements of ecological protest.

Nevertheless, a day later I came upon another acorn and realized that the scream I had released the day before was also the sign of an irresistible life force. 

Uncontainable—
the oak inside the acorn
will rip it apart

Life is resilient. But also ruthless. Life never gives up.

A good haiku partakes of “the life of things.” It doesn’t arrest the life of each thing—doesn’t stop that life or even try to preserve it. A haiku contains meaning the way an acorn contains the oak.

A note on acorns: Acorns fall in late autumn, providing food for a wide variety of animals, from worms to birds, rodents to large mammals. In premodern times they were also a major food source for humans, who would leach them of tannins and grind them into flour. Long considered a symbol of strength and innate potential, acorns were connected to fertility and immortality in Celtic culture. The name Druid derives from the Irish-Gaelic word for “oak tree,” and it was once believed that consuming acorns conferred the gift of prophecy.

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