The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once observed that the difference between societies with writing and those without written language was that the former wrote almost entirely about themselves—the human story of the rise and fall of empires—while the latter, so-called “primitive” people, had vast oral lore about plants and animals. They experienced themselves in constant conversation with all kinds of beings, not just humans.

Each of the winning and honorable mention poems for last month’s challenge honored that “conversation” with the creatures of the natural world.

  • Susan Tamara Darrow alludes to a famous cricket haiku, offering an implicit critique of anthropocentric ways of thinking. 
  • Alex Lubman asks his daughter what she likes about haiku and gets an answer that goes to the very essence of the art.
  • Shelli Jankowski-Smith finds her “inner cricket” after the temperatures drop and, finally, they all go quiet.

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 November challenge here.

***

Fall Season Word: Cricket

WINNER:

Black lacquer armour
Becomes his burial urn –
Samurai cricket

— Susan Tamara Darrow

Japanese haiku often employ literary allusions to suggest meanings not explicitly contained in the poem. Haiku in English seldom do. This is largely a result of how haiku, like the proverbial message in a bottle, first washed up on Western shores.

During the first half of the 20th century, Japanese haiku was dominated by the literary theory of a single poet. Influenced by Western realism, Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) advocated a style based on the objective description of nature. “What you see is what you get!” summarized Shiki’s approach to haiku.

Because haiku arrived in the West when Shiki’s influence was at its peak, English language poets developed the idea that a haiku should limit itself to the concrete description of the thing itself. Their haiku became “little islands of now” that seldom referenced anything outside of themselves.

The winner of this month’s challenge breaks that pattern by alluding to one of the most famous poems in Japanese literature: a haiku written by Bashō on September 8, 1689 and recorded in his masterwork The Narrow Road to the Deep North:

Oh, how pitiful!
beneath the ancient helmet
a cricket chirping

Visiting the Tada Shrine in Komatsu, Bashō saw the helmet of the 12th-century samurai Saitō Sanemori. At 73, Sanemori was the oldest warrior to die fighting for the Taira clan in its battle against the Genji. Sanemori dyed his white hair black so that he would not be spared by virtue of his advanced age—a ruse that was discovered only after the fact.

Sanemori’s story was told in the 14th-century epic The Tales of the Heike and, later, in a Noh drama that bears his name. The opening line of Bashō’s haiku comes from the play. Sanemori’s decapitated head is brought to the victorious general Higuchi Jirō, who exclaims, “Oh, how pitiful!”

And so, this month’s winning poem alludes to a haiku by Bashō. . . which alludes to a Noh play. . . which dramatizes an even older tale. It isn’t easy to compress eight centuries of literary history into 17 syllables. It is even harder to do so in a poem that balances pathos with play.

Crickets stop singing when the evening temperatures drop below 50 degrees, then die in the late autumn cold. But they may expire from other causes, including disease, predation, pesticides, or contact with environmental toxins. In recent decades, their numbers have been heavily impacted by habitat loss.

In 2017, Jean-Christophe Vié, deputy director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Global Species Program, predicted that “the sound of crickets in European grasslands could soon become a thing of the past.” Given its funereal tone, the collapse of global insect populations is the necessary backdrop for the poem.

The use of capital letters to begin each line, the British spelling of “armour,” and the somewhat somber, dirge-like rhythm—all suggest a formal lament. Only the final line preserves the essential humor of a good haiku.

The words “Samurai cricket” call Sanemori to mind—but with a twist. Their purpose is not to memorialize the human warrior, as Bashō did. Driven by anthropogenic factors like climate change, the Sixth Extinction is a battle between Homo sapiens against all other species on Earth. The cricket is the warrior now.

You can’t come at a critique like this without employing humor. A truth that big is impossible for humans to take in. So the poet reduces its dimensions to those of a single cricket, a fallen warrior in the battle for the soul of a planet. . . whose own body “becomes his burial urn.”

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

I ask my daughter
what she likes about haiku—
she answers…“crickets!”

— Alex Lubman

They’ve all gone quiet 
I guess I’ll just have to be 
my own cricket now

— Shelli Jankowski-Smith

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


Fall season word: “Cricket”

Scraping together
a small living: the crickets
make it sound easy

You don’t need everything to make a life for yourself. It is possible to live well and live small. From the way they sang, the crickets were doing just that.

I wanted the poem to acknowledge the difficulty of a life lived on the margins. At the same time, it had to preserve the lightness and humor of a good haiku. That meant there had to be puns.

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

HAIKU TIP: KEEP IT LIGHT!

Lightness is an essential virtue in haiku. If we try to say something too serious in so short a poem, it will usually come out sounding ponderous or forced. By keeping things lighter, paradoxically, we nearly always accomplish more. So try hard, but not too hard—and always remember to preserve the spirit of play.

In haiku, we learn to say things simply. If a thing is true, it can be stated in 17 syllables—that is our primary article of faith. It’s what gives us the confidence to tackle difficult emotions or complex issues, knowing that we will be able to winnow out what is distracting or evasive and get to the pith of the matter.

Lightness and humor are closely related in haiku. That is why the character HAI (俳) in haiku is sometimes translated as “comical” or “not taking itself too seriously.” But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t struggle to get at the truth you want to convey in your poem. It just means handling that truth in the simplest, easiest way.

Learning to stick with the idea for a poem until that has happened is the greater part of mastering the art of haiku. That is why each month we focus on a single seasonal theme. This kind of training will stand you in good stead as a haiku poet. It is also good training for life.

A note on crickets: Crickets are found in tropical to temperate zones, where they have adapted to diverse habitats, including grasslands, marshes, forests, beaches, and even caves. Primarily nocturnal, they are known for the chirping songs of their males, produced by scraping their wings against a harp-like membrane that amplifies the sound. They chirp at differing rates depending on their species and the temperature. Crickets have frequently appeared as characters in literature, especially in children’s books. In poetry, they are most often appreciated for the beauty—and sometimes sadness—of their song. Crickets stop singing when the temperature drops below 50 and typically die shortly afterward.

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