Just as a bird needs two wings to fly, a poet must learn the art of reading haiku as well as writing them. No form of literature depends more fully on our emotional and imaginative response to what we read. Studying the work of other poets inspires us. . . and reminds us what is possible in haiku. Our “haiku minds” must be bigger than our individual minds. No one can master haiku alone.

Each of the winning and honorable mention haiku for last month’s challenge offers an invitation to enter deeply into another poet’s experience.

  • Lynda Zwinger explores the connection between gravity and beauty, finding poetry in seashells and falling stars.
  • Alex Lubman waits on a hospice lawn for a sign from the heavens that the moment of death has arrived.
  • Susan Tamara Darrow captures the precariousness of life with a metaphor that exposes her illusory “safety net.”

Congratulations to all! To read additional poems of merit from last month’s challenge, visit our Tricycle Haiku Challenge group on Facebook.

You can submit a haiku for the December challenge here.

***

Fall Season Word: Falling Star

WINNER:

tides and gravity
debris becomes poetry—
seashells, falling stars

— Lynda Zwinger

We can say anything in a haiku—but we can’t say everything. With only 17 syllables to work with, we can do little more than suggest the possible meanings of a poem. “The poet creates half of the haiku,” explains the Japanese critic Hasegawa Kai, “while the remaining half must wait for the appearance of a superior reader.” To become such a reader should be the goal of every writer of haiku. There are no great haiku poets who aren’t also great readers of haiku.

This month’s winning poem is immediately appealing, even though it may be difficult at first to construct the scene in our imagination. Has the poet stepped out onto the beach on a starry night to witness a meteor shower? Or is she merely thinking about the ocean on a night of shooting stars, letting her imagination find an unexpected connection? The scope of the poem is impressive either way.

Tides and gravity. The opening line conjures an image the size of the planet. We could be looking at the earth from space. The second is almost a riddle: How does debris become poetry? The third line offers the solution. Seashells and falling stars are serendipitous forms of “found poetry”—beauty that occurs on its own.

Or, not quite. Their beauty results from the action of planetary forces so vast and pervasive they are hard to relate to. To bring those forces down to scale is the purpose of the poem.

Notice how the poet has crafted her haiku as an analogy: Tides are to seashells as gravity is to falling stars. And yet, she gives that turn of thought such a melancholy twist.

Debris becomes poetry when the world is left to its own devices. But that is hardly true of the human world. Who will make beauty out of all our messes? That sad little question waits for us at the end of this masterful poem.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

on the hospice lawn—
we wait for a falling star
to unzip heaven

— Alex Lubman

Again, and again,
I slip through the safety net—
Like a falling star

— Susan Tamara Darrow

You can find November’s season word and haiku tips below:


Fall season word: “Falling star”

Catch a falling star
and put it in your pocket—
it will burn a hole

Although it employs a season word, this poem belongs to the genre of Popular (rather than Formal) Haiku. Popular Haiku go for the witty, pithy statement that overturns our expectations. Like the punchline of a joke, their delivery is typically somewhat flat. Even deadpan. Popular Haiku are often satirical or anti-poetic in tone.

Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the autumn season word “falling star.” 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 “falling star.”

HAIKU TIP: GET YOUR GAME ON!

As an artform, haiku is not as monolithic as most Western readers suppose. Even Japanese traffic slogans are often written in 5-7-5. The same with jokes, advertising jingles, and public service announcements. And this is nothing new. Arrangements of 5-7-5 syllables are pervasive in Japanese culture and always have been.

In the premodern age, this gave rise to the first popular poetic pastime in world literature. One person would contribute a poem written in 5-7-5 syllables, the other a 7-7 syllable verse to complete, or “cap,” that poem. Or sometimes the order would be reversed.

The practice of “verse capping” goes back 1,300 years to the Kojiki (“Record of Ancient Matters”), the first book ever published in Japan. But the poets included in that anthology, which privileged the culture of the nobility, were hardly representative of Japan as a whole. This changed with the advent of printing and mass-reproduction. By the 17th century, Japan could boast the highest level of literacy in the world.

With so many more people suddenly able to read and write, verse capping games became incredibly popular. A local referee (usually a poet of some note) would issue a challenge written in lines of 7-7 syllables, and participants from all walks of life would submit 5-7-5 syllable caps for judging.

These 17-syllable caps ran such a broad gamut in terms of quality and content that it is hard to know how to categorize them today. Verses could be sublime, profound, witty, funny, satirical, dirty, or even scandalous. Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) cut his teeth on 17-syllable poetry as a verse capping referee during his years in Tokyo, and it was probably this experience that accounts for the down-to-earth quality of his haiku.

One can understand why Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) wanted to dismiss the older, more freewheeling style of 17 syllable verse in his effort to establish haiku as a serious modern artform. But in so doing Shiki and his followers restricted the scope of 17-syllable versification, imposing rules that poets of previous centuries would never have understood the logic for, much less observed.

There are now upwards of 10 million active haiku poets in Japan, plus millions more writing in other languages around the globe. Although there are still some who believe, along with Shiki, that the goal of haiku is “the objective description of nature,” many write haiku as a form of popular literature, incorporating elements of ordinary speech, slang, and topical culture to give their poems accessibility and mass appeal.

We are following that older verse capping tradition in our Tricycle Haiku Challenges, using season words instead of 7-7 syllable phrases as prompts. The use of seasonal themes provides us with a vital connection to the haiku tradition, while still allowing for a broad range of self-expression.

For the rest, we favor the older, premodern approach that sees the 5-7-5 form as a game-like invitation to expansive poetic play. At its most basic, a haiku is whatever you can get away with in 17 syllables. That is the only “rule” that holds true across the entire history of haiku.

A note on “falling stars”: Although one can witness a falling star at any time of year, they are more common during an annual meteor shower like the Leonids, which peaks this year in the early hours of November 17. Falling stars are associated with autumn in haiku poetry because of the dense cluster of meteor showers during that season.

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