Christopher Herold, Haiku Judge
On November 9, I received all the entries to the San Francisco International Haiku Contest 2011. Over the next week or so, I read each of them at least three times, wanting to give every poem more than one opportunity to break through my own personal leanings. Then I began to narrow the field, spending about 15 minutes every day for nearly a month with a diminishing stack of viable candidates.
In the process, I was surprised to discover that a great many of the poems submitted this year depicted scenes that expressed sadness, longing, or regret—fully three quarters of my twenty-eight-poem short-list. Most conveyed these feelings by way of autumn or winter imagery. It was as if there had been a mass recognition of the ephemeral nature of things, especially of our own mortality.
Happily, I found a good number of well-crafted haiku from which to choose. And, as always when I’m in the position of judging a haiku competition, I found the last cut the most difficult.
To choose my favorites, I followed the same path I do when I write haiku. I begin with what I perceive to be the experience itself. Is it an insightful connection? Will a good many readers also be able to relate to it? Might they be touched deeply? Is the revelation expressed in a fresh way? Does the poet employ simple, everyday language? When read aloud, do the words flow from the tongue with a pleasing rhythm? Does the overall phonology support the content of the poem? There are many more considerations, of course. I weighed them knowing what works for me and what does not. Each phase of selection demands a closer focus on ever more subtle nuances. Sometimes the gist of a poem can be so compelling that I find it overrides my hesitation over some peripheral matter of syntax or form.
Before making my choices final, I read all of the entries one more time. Again a surprise—in the light of a new day, I found several more haiku that spoke to me and placed them beside the ones I chose to be winners. Ultimately I made no changes but was pleased that my short-list had swelled to nearly thirty.
I’m glad to say that it was a pleasure to read all the poems submitted and an honor to have been invited by the Haiku Poets of Northern California to judge this year’s haiku contest. I congratulate the winners and thank all who put forward their work for helping to further expand my horizons.
HAIKU FIRST PLACE
you can forget
how to ride a bike
I cannot recall having read a haiku that employs an old adage in order to contradict it. At the least this is a highly unusual approach, perhaps unique among haiku. The poet merely replaces the word “never” with “can” . . . and adds italics.
Putting aside the scientific explanation of what the adage describes: “muscle memory” as facilitated by a certain variety of cell in the cerebellum (the molecular layer interneuron), I can easily relate to the poet’s experience. Simply, it is one of reaching the latter part of life and recognizing, via the autumn leaves, how our inability to function in ways we once were able, essentially applies to all sentient beings.
While unsuccessfully attempting to ride a bicycle (or observing this failing in someone else in their golden years), the poet simultaneously takes note of the colorful autumn foliage. Instantly, the connection is made. The would-be rider finds him or herself incapable of riding. So too, deciduous trees begin to shut down as autumn advances. With significantly less light, the leaves are no longer able to photosynthesize carbon dioxide and nutrient-rich water from the soil. And so it is that the green fades from the leaves and other colors emerge.
I see this as a positive experience. It is the recognition that we are part of a process that appears to be universal: the amazing cycle of birth, development, aging, and death.
Another unusual element in this is the italicization of the key word “can.” If it were not italicized, the power of the poem would be significantly diminished. Again, this is rare in my haiku-reading experience—that the italics are not only prominent but also essential to the poem’s success.
In addition to the above, I enjoy the poem’s natural rhythm and just the perfect breadth of disjunction. It is a moment keenly perceived, carefully considered, and masterfully rendered.
HAIKU SECOND PLACE
wildfire the night sky full of pine
Ernest J. Berry
If you have ever found yourself in close proximity to a wildfire, you will remember it as being at least dramatic if not traumatic. And it often takes such a trauma to dispel the sense of being separate from the world that we inhabit.
It is late summer. The grassy hills and forests in the vicinity have become tinder dry. Normally, the sky is above and the kingdom of plants and animals below. But on this night a fire has broken out in the forest, a forest of pines. Smoke pours upwards and with it the essence of all that is being consumed by flames. The poet breathes in the resin-scent and realizes that what once seemed separate is now unmistakably combined. Poets must write at such times and this poet knows that it is best to allow the experience to dictate the form. A single line emerges. And within that line, five times the sound of the long “I” calls to us, bearing with it the phonetic reality of the event and its emotional essence: Aye, aye, aye, aye, aye!
HAIKU THIRD PLACE
mist at dawn
from the other side
a loon’s call
I am drawn ever deeper into this poem. It is both peaceful and thrilling. I am gratified to be aware of the lake only by way of implication. It was essential that the poet use this technique for it accomplishes two things. Firstly, the lake is obscured by mist, so the omission of the word “lake” artfully describes its invisibility. Secondly, it allows the next line to suggest a supernatural component to the poem. The call of the loon seems to emanate from the spirit world, from “the other side.” At once beautiful, mysterious, and eerie, this poem is the like a good Stephen King or Dean Koontz Novel. In fact, it is a spooky novel, in miniature. Just reading it sends a shiver up my spine.
HAIKU HONORABLE MENTIONS
(in ranked order):
no way to answer
the grosbeak’s song
The grosbeak's song has been described as similar to that of a robin, only sung by an opera singer. There is a lightness to it that seems to respond, almost bravely, to the ebbing of light from the sky.
As is often the case, there is more than one way to interpret this poem. Read straight through, it can be taken that the deepening twilight is an inadequate response to the bird’s virtuosity. More likely, though, the poet felt the day drawing to a close and, hearing the undiminished beauty of the song, wished to respond, to provide empathic company, but knows that for a mere human this would not be possible.
a long list of regrets the maple in autumn
Entering the latter part of life, we become ever more aware of the things that we hoped to do or accomplish but haven’t. With each passing day it becomes more difficult to ignore the likelihood that we may never attend to those things. There is also much that we regret having done, even though we may understand that some of those things were done in ignorance. We especially regret the hurtful things we did knowingly.
I imagine being in the midst of a stand of maples as I come to one of those points in which I feel the weight of regrets. It is autumn and the leaves are no longer green. Instead, they have become a brilliance of yellows, reds, and oranges, each loudly calling attention to itself . . . as are my regrets. “I am all used up,” the leaves yell. “Soon I will fall from my tree.”
Scott Mason, Senryu Judge
The most powerful senryu come to us unbidden in our everyday lives, surfacing and then returning – with us in tow – to the depths of our own psyches…
As we stand at the edge of our “known” world, take heed: There Be InsightsSENRYU FIRST PLACE
death notice my first wife’s second husband
Obit or Rorschach?
When you encounter these seven words do you sense the flush of relief (a bullet dodged) or a pang of sadness, even guilt? An avenging angel or one suddenly mortal? Cynicism, sympathy or something else altogether?
Based on your own relationships, temperament or personal history, one or more such “takes” might apply. This brief poem’s place-swapping context, house-of-mirrors syntax and haunting assonance all cause us to identify or project.
So too with the author’s matter of fact tone: he reports, you decide – of whom the poem tells…
she lowers her voice
when she says it
So much depends … upon inflection, and indentation.
The lowered tone and sequestered last word shift this poem’s emotional register from one of sympathy or concern to something quite different: an implied accusation or expression of shame. (Just consider: a “miscarriage of justice” connotes fault, never fate.)
How a subtle gesture, or word, can betray others … and us.
annoyed with myself static cling
Like an atom, this tiny poem bundles attraction and repulsion – here a love-hate relationship that produces comic fission.
SENRYU HONORABLE MENTIONS
(no ranked order)
content to wait
A cunning and (mostly) funny commentary on the arc of sharing in lifelong friendships – from experience to remembrance to … fresh experience.
of the fortune-telling gypsy
Step right up … to the ultimate head fake!
a toddler’s nose
pressed to the glass
What it took William Blake two volumes to probe.
As we began, so we end: the tables have turned once again.
Roberta Beary, Tanka Judge
The winning entries all have one thing in common: They are tanka that stayed with me after several readings of all submissions. I found myself returning to these six tanka so many times that I now view them as old friends. Good tanka is good for the soul. The winning entries provide lots of nourishment.
TANKA FIRST PLACE
the wind whispers to me
that offer me a home
in the shape of a moon
The originality of the images coupled with the evocative sense of ‘stranger in a strange land’ merited a 1st Place award. The first two lines appear to lead to a traditional path. The third line is the turning point that brings this tanka to the next level. The fourth and fifth lines complete the journey. After reading this tanka I found myself looking at the moon with new eyes and listening to the language of the wind.
TANKA SECOND PLACE
our favorite walk
by the river –
deep in conversation
the same old ground
How ordinary is a walk by the river and how difficult is it to ‘make it new.’ That this tanka succeeds in doing so shows the skill of the poet. These five short lines encompass a couple’s complex relationship yet also give the reader a sense of their intimacy. The combination of the familiar “favorite walk” and discussion covering “the same old ground” add unexpected depth and ambiguity to the experience.
TANKA THIRD PLACE
in my medicine chest
gazing at the mirror
a face hard to recognize
The apparently effortless humor of the poet adds lightness to this tanka and makes it stand out from other submissions. But there is something more: a conflict present in the last two lines. This tanka led me toward another reading of Salad Anniversary by Machi Tawara. For this I thank the poet.
TANKA HONORABLE MENTIONS
(no ranked order)
on the porch
reaching for moonlight
I find it
on my fingertips
Out of the ordinary comes the extraordinary.
closing the door
against it –
a small room
for the night
An exquisite image open to many interpretations.
playing hide and seek
I was always afraid
I’d never be found
wild geese fly north
in a perfect V
A perfect evocation of the concept that the past always is present.
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