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Put Your Own Poetry in Motion

A Home Forum contest: Write verse for a bumper sticker

Ever find yourself cruising to work, staring at the bumper of the car in front of you? Wouldn't it be nice if instead of a blank space or an outdated campaign sticker you could read a little poem? It's not such a crazy idea.

If you live in New York City, you've had the chance to see verse on the move since 1992. That's when the Poetry Society of America and the New York City Transit Authority started "Poetry in Motion." The program puts poems (no more than 16 lines) on placards where ads usually go in 3,700 buses and 5,900 subway cars. New poems appear every three months. The program, which was modeled after the one in the London Underground, is also in Boston and Chicago. Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., will soon start their own.

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But what if you're not near a big city or you never take a bus? There's still a great way to put poetry in action - starting with your own car.

The average bumper sticker is about 3 by 11 inches, the perfect size for a three-line haiku. This form, which began in Japan, is perhaps the shortest and easiest poetic form in the world.

How to haiku

The hokku, or haiku, has been popular in Japan since the 17th century, but what most people don't realize is that it's actually a derivative of two other Japanese forms. The tanka is a 31-syllable poem whose five lines have 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 syllables. As tanka developed (it's been the classical form for more than 1,000 years), poets began to write them jointly in a series called renga. One would write the first three lines, and another would provide the last two. The haiku became a form in its own right as poets began to detach it from the linked verse.

The form is just the beginning. The Japanese masters had rules about what went into a haiku. First, it had to rely on accurate, original images drawn from everyday life - preferably from nature. There had to be specific references to time and season. Poems often conveyed a sense of exposure to the elements and gave readers a sense of their place in the cycles of nature.

Haiku poets do not editorialize about their subjects. The juxtaposition of images can suggest links between them, but a certain mystery must remain. The poet's job is to create a mood by seizing the moment and rendering it purely.

Tips from a haiku poet

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Carol Purington of Colrain, Mass., has written two books of haiku and has a book of tanka forthcoming. (Her poems appear regularly in The Home Forum.) She began versifying in 1979, after some neighbors gave her a book of haiku at Christmas.

People tend to like the form, she says, because "its subjects exist in the natural world we all share" and because "a haiku can be seen and shaped into words in a couple minutes."

But as with most art forms, haiku only looks easy. Carol soon learned certain lessons:

1. Figures of speech - simile, metaphor, personification - are almost impossible to use successfully in haiku. Instead, use clear images and compare two apparently dissimilar things. But imply the comparison, don't state it.

2. Use the senses of taste and touch, hearing and smell, as well as seeing.

3. Make nouns and verbs paint the picture. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly and thoughtfully. "As our English teachers said," Ms. Purington states, "the strongest words are usually short and concrete - say 'fat,' not 'obese.' "

Say it on a sticker

Last summer, Carol and her friend Larry Kimmel, another haiku poet, decided to bring their poems to the world - literally. (The suggestion came from Larry's wife, Kathleen Leahy.) Carol and Larry chose some of their favorite haiku and then had bumper stickers printed - blue lettering on a white background.

The most popular stickers were these two:

rubies on the right

diamonds on the left: I-91

by twilight

Larry Kimmel

A waver of snow geese

follows the sky

into the lake

Carol Purington

Now it's your turn

We at The Home Forum thought this was a great idea - haiku on bumper stickers. Would you like to try your hand at one? (Or two, or three, up to five?) You could follow the traditional form, or give it a twist: Let the third line be an observation, an insight, or even a pun. (No need to be rigid about the number of syllables.) For more details, see below

Send Us a Haiku, Get a Bumper Sticker

If they have poetry posters on public buses, why not a haiku on bumper stickers? Try your hand on a bumper sticker haiku, and send it in (no more than five, please). We will publish a selection of the poems in a June Monitor. After reviewing all the poems, we'll turn one or more of our favorites into a bumper sticker. Send in you haiku and a self-addressed, stamped, business-size envelope by May 21, and we'll send you a sticker.


The Christian Science Monitor

Bumper-Sticker Haiku

One Norway Street

Boston, MA 02115

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