In all of literature, haiku is unique in its quest to find the meaning of human life as it relates to the natural world. The season words of haiku are more than a literary convention. They offer a way of belonging to the world that is wiser and more durable than belonging to a civilization.

The winning and honorable mention poems for this month’s challenges explored the possibilities for relating to nature from within nature.

  • Lynne Rees used one of the oldest techniques in haiku to describe healing from grief—with the help of a frog.
  • Peter Kaufmann’s comparison of the heart to a croaking frog united the bodies of two lovers with the landscape.
  • Resa Alboher invited a green frog to “disappear” on a green leaf, flirting ecologically with the ideas of egolessness and death.
  • Barrie Levine transformed a guided temple tour into a reflection on the marginalization of nature in the modern world.
  • Tracy Davidson explored an earthy, ancestral dreamscape in which her departed grandmother outlives the oldest of trees.
  • Susan Polizzotto responded to the ultimatums of her lover by “choosing the ginkgo,” claiming it as a symbol for her new life.

Congratulations to all!

You can submit a haiku for the June challenge here.

***

Spring Season Word: Frog

WINNER:

the easing of grief
a stone beneath the cypress
becomes a small frog

— Lynne Rees

As a body of literature, English language haiku contains few poems with mythic depth or historical resonance. That is why haiku are seldom included in anthologies of English language verse. But that is about to change.

Cypress trees were associated with mourning in the ancient world. The wood was used to create Egyptian sarcophagi, while cypress wreaths adorned statues of Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld. Even today, cupressus sempervirens remains the most common species of tree in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cemeteries.

The poet can afford to leave a lot unsaid here because of these associations. She doesn’t have to describe the graveyard, for instance. The words grief, stone, and cypress are enough. The light is dim, the space liminal. The stage is set for a very special, very old kind of magic that only Nature can perform.

The transformation of an inanimate object into an animal is one of the oldest tricks in haiku. The most famous example is by Arakida Moritake (1473–1549):

A fallen blossom
returned to the branch? But no…
it’s a butterfly!

For its effect, the poem relies upon a visual misperception, which is corrected in a delightful way.

There is none of Moritake’s lightheartedness in this haiku, but the corrected perception is still there. Lost in mourning, the poet finds a place to rest her eyes in the gloom of the cypress shade. A small stone at her foot seems to express the intractable immobility of her sorrow.

Then it moves. And her grief moves with it.

It is important to note that her grief has not been removed…only eased. The humor of the poem (and there is humor in every good haiku, however dark or uncanny) lies in the fact that a small frog performs this act of redemption, rather than something more grand.

It doesn’t take much to show us that the world is constantly renewing itself, provided we are attentive. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is stuck. When something is lost in nature, something is always given.

It’s not over until it’s over—and it’s never over. This is the wisdom of haiku.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

The heart is a frog
You and I a silver pond
Reflecting the moon

—Peter Kaufmann

Little lime-green frog
the same color as this leaf…
Why not disappear?

—Resa Alboher

***

Fall Season Word: Ginkgo

WINNER:

ancient ginkgo tree
extolled by the tour leader
and then we move on

— Barrie Levine

The setting is probably Asia—Japan perhaps, where the 800-year-old ginkgo at Zenpuku Temple is said to be “the oldest living thing in Tokyo.” Or maybe the poet has visited China’s Gu Guanyin Monastery, where a 1,400-year-old tree dwarfs the nearby meditation hall. The oldest ginkgo outside of Asia lives in a churchyard in Geetbets, Belgium, where it is thought to have been planted by missionaries returning from China in 1750—though that hardly qualifies it as “ancient.”

The three trees have one thing in common though: they were protected by their proximity to long-lived sacred institutions. Whatever else we may say about organized religions, they are in it for the long haul and are good at protecting their interests. Those “special interests” are the source of the poem’s ecological critique.

In a good haiku, where every syllable counts, the use of an unusual, formal-sounding word like “extol” is always deliberate. Derived from the Latin extollere, it means “to place on high, raise, elevate.” The tree, which is spectacular in the girth of its trunk, the depth of its shade, and the span of its heavy, gnarled branches, may be older than the temple itself. Certainly, it is worthy of praise. But the tree is not the focus, the temple is. And so the group moves on.

The poet has offered us a 17-syllable tour through the Anthropocene, the geological epoch of human domination in which religion, like science and industry, has always played a decisive role. In the Anthropocene, nature is the sideshow. Humans are the point.

That knowledge accounts for the wistful feeling produced by the final line. The poet would like to linger with the great tree, but she is part of the tour. There is no way back. Only forward. Civilization must go on, even if it destroys itself.

The theme is the diminishment of awe in the modern world—even within institutions whose purpose is to preserve that feeling. That is why haiku, a premodern form of poetry, is still relevant today. A good haiku is a tiny temple with nothing in it but a tree or a frog…and a brief moment of awe.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

in deep-rooted dreams
my Japanese grandmother
outlives the ginkgo

— Tracy Davidson

it comes down to this:
you give an ultimatum
I choose the ginkgo

— Susan Polizzotto

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


For May 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: “Frog”

Onto a flat page
of quiet water, a frog
writes the letter O

The water of the small pond was perfectly still. I approached it knowing that there would be frogs gathered along the bank. Sure enough, as I drew close, one leapt in.

I thought of writing a haiku, then realized—“Oh! The frog beat me to it!” The frog’s haiku was only one syllable. So I added sixteen more.

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

HAIKU TIP: CONNECT WITH THE THING ITSELF!

The most famous of all haiku—the one about the frog jumping into an old pond with a plop!—was most likely composed at a drinking party where Bashō and his friends had gathered to create a haikai-no-renga, or “comical linked verse” composition. There may have been frogs or ponds nearby. Most likely, there were not.

At a haikai gathering, the poets took turns adding playful “caps” to one another’s verses to produce a poem of multiple authorship, usually 32 stanzas long. The opening verse was called the hokku, and the rule was that it had to be written in 17 syllables and contain a season word.

In the late 19th century, Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) declared that the hokku was its own separate art form and renamed it haiku, meaning “playful verse.” Shiki believed that the subjects for haiku are all around us and encouraged his followers to carry their notebooks into the field, composing poems directly from nature.

The idea of a haiku as an “objective sketch” from nature gained broad acceptance among Japanese poets during the first six decades of the 20th century. That accounts for the Western notion that a haiku should be composed from direct experience. Haiku were first being written in English around that time.

In contrast to Shiki’s “sketch from nature” approach, haikai-no-renga favored imagination over observation. Bashō wrote poems about places he never visited and experiences he had never had, as did virtually every other haikai poet before Shiki. Shiki’s genius was to marry the older, imaginative tradition to a more objective, concrete style of verse.

Frogs can be found in many places at this time of year. Look for water—or for damp, low-lying areas where water might collect after a rainfall. Better yet, wait for a May shower and venture out into it. Or step outside in the evening and find a frog with your ears.

If you can’t find a real frog, don’t hesitate to learn about frogs from a book or YouTube video. The point is to connect with the thing itself so that your haiku draws its inspiration from the natural world.

Once you arrive at that image-drawn-from-nature, don’t be afraid to tweak it. Sometimes an imaginative twist is just what is called for to produce a clearer image in the reader’s mind.

A note on Bashō’s frog: Regardless of how or where he composed it, Bashō’s frog haiku defied the poetic conventions of his day. Before Bashō, frogs were always celebrated for their singing in Japanese poetry. To celebrate the sound of a frog’s body plopping into the water was considered humorous in a subtly profound way. Shiki insisted that the various Zen interpretations of Bashō’s haiku were unfounded. “The special feature of the poem,” Shiki insisted, “is that it hides nothing, covers nothing, does not use the slightest artifice, and contains not one ambiguous word.”

***

Fall season word: “Ginkgo”

Ginkgoes at the end
of their yellow waiting game—
Tokyo has fallen

The ginkgo leaf is the official emblem of Tokyo, which is famous for its ginkgo festival, held annually from mid- to late autumn as the leaves begin to turn. Standing beneath those very ginkgoes, I was reminded of one of their most notable features—their leaves fall all at once.

That thought gave me a chill. The firebombing of Tokyo by US forces in 1945 killed 100,000 people in a single night and left 1 million homeless. As horrific as that was, the city had rebounded. But there was another challenge ahead—and not just for Tokyo. Coastal cities everywhere are now locked in a “yellow waiting game” as storms increase in power and sea levels begin to rise.

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

HAIKU TIP: 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.

A note on ginkgoes: Ginkgo biloba is the only remaining species of Ginkoales, which first appeared 290 million years ago. That makes it the oldest tree species in the world. Because it has changed so little since the Middle Jurassic, it is sometimes called “the living fossil.” Ginkgoes have been known to live for up to 2,500 years and are extremely tenacious. Trees located a thousand yards from the epicenter of the atomic blast at Hiroshima were charred but quickly returned to health. All other plants and animals in the area were destroyed.

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