Monday, April 6, 2009

Fifth Annual Anita Sadler Weiss Memorial Haiku Awards-2009 Results

This just in from cathy drinkwater better:

FIRST PLACE: Ernest J. Berry

spring growth stepping stones to nowhere

This could well become a classic example of a minimalist haiku. Some might whisper that this haiku is rather Santoka-like. However, it needs reference neither to Santoka nor to minimalism, as it can stand on its own. It strikes me as if this haiku were a rare example of haiku which are born rather than composed. Technically, it has natural and successful hidden kireji (caesura) after "growth," partly because one naturally has a breath pause after saying "spring growth," and partly because the next word is in an "-ing" form (gerund), making it difficult for us to read continually from the previous two words.

Apart from the surface interpretation of a wonderful sketch of a young life ("spring growth") gradually overtaking the old, cold, and rigid entities ("stepping stones") until they disappear, the haiku seems to me to have a deeper perception akin to the famous Basho haiku of "summer grass...all that remains is an ancient soldiers' dream." Basho's is a much more striking and specific contrast, while the contrast shown in this haiku between "spring growth" and "stepping stones" is more subtle and general.

As a traditionalist in haiku, I am naturally pleased to see kigo (season words) used in this haiku. The tone of this haiku is quiet, but its impact is far-reaching. Moreover, this haiku has the splendid last two words which clinch the poem and do much more. They present a Zen-like enigma and profundity, or a curious attractiveness of nihilism, where life is contrasted with, or perhaps compared to, nothingness (death, maybe), presenting a quiet but nevertheless certain, pessimism. Oh, what glorious pessimism amidst a myriad of ostentatious signs of optimism!

SECOND PLACE: Origa (Olga Hooper)

off the cliff. . .

flying to the very core

of being

This haiku is the most original and interesting of all the eight best selected. If in a different mood, be it metaphysical or avant-garde, I might well have chosen this as the winner! Why, then, do I not do it now?

It is because I cannot be 100 percent sure whether I understand the situation in the haiku completely. Who is flying, for a start? Is it the author him/herself, or such things as penguin babies to attempt the first "flight" to get to the sea before being gobbled up by predators or crushed against the rock; or those baby seagulls in Sir David Attenborough's documentary, launching a life-or-death attempt at flying for the first time in life; or someone using a special sport parachute, or some kind of an imaginary flight in a metaphysical dream, or even in some macabre circumstances someone finally attempting to find out conclusively what it means for a human being to exist on this planet, or even in this universe, by jumping off the cliff and flying into that which may give him the ultimate answer: death?

Perhaps these things do not matter. What matters may only be the sense of profound fulfillment that some kind of an existentialist expression has been made possible of haiku, by haiku, and for haiku, just as in the case of philosophy, paintings, or much longer English poems. This haiku is a blessing and tribute indeed to the organisers of this haiku contest and all those participants and others who have been connected to it, since they can be celebrated and honoured for having realised this special haiku in their fifth contest and attracted this special haiku poet in their midst.

THIRD PLACE: Pamela A. Babusci

winter mountains

i lose myself

in whiteness

One of the characteristics of many haiku by Kyoshi Takahama (1867-1959) is depiction of a "big picture." The same can be applied to other eminent haiku poets, including Buson Yosa and Seison Yamaguchi. The "big picture" test is passed by this haiku with flying colours, quite apart from its most obvious excellence, such as: clear and striking image; unforced (i.e., natural) sense of brevity, which is far more important than the irksome theories of minimalist fundamentalists; wonderful rendering of snow without naming it; and implied man's humility towards nature, not vanquished by her power but quite awestruck by her beauty.

Another amazing thing about this haiku is that it is a highly "abstract" haiku which is painted by nothing other than specific and concrete objects. The sentiment expressed in this haiku is everybody's experience, namely, that which they have already known, and yet what a new and fresh discovery this is!

As there is nothing in the haiku which indicates the country where the author is, it has that universality and timelessness which are seen in many good haiku. This, of course , does not mean that country-specific or anything-specific haiku poems are bad. Sometimes good haiku have both of these characteristics. So, I go back to my old "dictum" that good haiku are good and bad haiku are bad, regardless of everything.

The clean, simple, and beautiful image of this haiku does not diminish its worth or significance at all. This means that we do not really need big words or pedantic terminology to express our innermost feelings. Are any of the words used in this haiku big, long, or difficult? Haiku started off by using ordinary language and plain words. It is the modern man's conceptualisation, theorisation, and unreasoning partisanship that have made modern haiku go astray. We must go right back to basics, that is, to the essence of haiku. This haiku is a timely reminder of this vitally important requirement.


marigold at dusk:

a bee's behind


This poem demonstrates a haiku-like sense of humour, which is an important ingredient of good haiku somehow ostracised from the American-led haiku movement. Those who feel dismissive of this haiku because it seems to them to make light of haiku's sanctity and importance as a serious business are proving themselves to be under the influence of that movement and to be merrily oblivious of the importance either of the sense of humour or the lightness (karumi) in haiku.

However, this is not just a sketch of a humourous scene. The key is the phrase "at dusk." Though one should refrain from reading too much into any haiku (a common mistake called fuka-yomi in Japan), the phrase stimulates an intriguing speculation. It is not in the morning that the sketch was done with all its hopes and freshness. Nor is it in the sunny afternoon when everything looked merry, happy, and shining. The dusk had set in and we were heading for darkness with all its negative implications.

Second Honorable Mention: Ernest J. Berry

snake skin

the Indian summer

slips away

The line 3 is an excellent play on words, probably unintended, in its association with the snake having shed its skin and sneakily disappeared. Also, there is wonderful alliteration everywhere with pleasant "s" sounds repeated, once again perhaps inadvertently administered.

Such treasured tools of Western prosody as these must not be discarded outright in haiku-writing as un-haiku-like. They enrich this haiku rather than diminish it. For example, without the pun, the first line could have looked irrelevant, having nothing to do with the Indian summer. The pun connects line 1 and line 3 and pulls all the lines together as a satisfactorily integral whole.

However, with or without such Western ways, this haiku is successful in its own right. Firstly, the theme, "the Indian summer," is a very haiku-like topic, and our sentiment towards it is universal whether you are Japanese or American. Secondly, the whole scene in the haiku is also universal (well, except for very cold places on earth) and even timeless, a very distinct characteristic of good, or even great, haiku. Thirdly, there is some kind of irony or sense of humour here, which is an important ingredient of haiku. Fourthly, it flows well and "swiftly" at that. Fifthly, the contrast between the joy of having Indian summer and the disappointment of it going so quickly and easily cannot be better written. Sixthly...and seventhly...etc.

Third Honorable Mention: Desiree McMurry

cemetery tree

the wind takes

its final leaf

The sentiment of the last two lines has been seen in other haiku. However, it is the combination of that sentiment with the first line that makes this haiku especially poignant and deep. It is also a good first line, strong and clear, and a reminder that a good first line is also good news for a prospective good haiku even before the second and third lines are written.

The season is expressed here in a subtle and clever way, as it is integrated in the main theme rather than forced artificially in the haiku like a necessary evil.

The cemetery tree, the wind, and the final leaf are in a sense all symbols of something else, though there is no need to look at them that way. Quite what they are symbols of is a guessing game to all readers, ranging from the most obvious to the most obscure. When this judge's wife died recently, the symbols were more than clear.

Fourth Honorable Mention: Karen VanOstrand

at the cottage

throaty frogs

serenade my dreams

"Throaty frogs" is a very humorous and haiku-like theme. "Dreams" put in this way is a very Japanese (originally Chinese) thing. The poem therefore is an apt way of putting things together to make it haiku. Line 1 and the word "serenade" are obvious problems.

"Serenade" is too easy and obvious a word to choose. It is, however, perhaps OK, partly because there are no other alternative words as good; say for example, "sing," "tell," or "orchestrate."

"At the cottage" is a little bit trickier because it does not seem to mean anything and therefore seems irrelevant and redundant. Is it put there as some kind of a toriawase (juxtaposition)? If the first line were something else, say for example, "full moon...", "spring night," "lonesome cottage," or "alone in bed," the haiku could well have been among the best three. And yet it is a good enough haiku to be given the position in the honourable mention.

Fifth Honorable Mention: Ernest J. Berry


my golden retriever

rolls in it

What a delightful way of depicting summer! Any dog lover would understand this. The pleasure the dog is having is also the pleasure of the author enjoying the coming of summer and all the lovely things one can do during the season.

This is an excellent example of haiku where certain perceptions (such as the joy of summer, or the beauty of an aspect of nature or loneliness or melancholy) can and should be expressed not by abstract words or adjectives but by picturing some other concrete facts or acts. Haiku is a specific art which is capable of expressing abstract notions.

What makes this haiku more than ordinary is the last word, "it" (i.e., summer). A dog rolling in summer is a fantastic leap of image.

Curiously, it is not gimmicky, helped significantly by the pronoun "it," which softens the impact and makes the expression more subtle, compared with the more direct "rolls in summer." Also, the "it" creates a surprise, an effective factor in haiku, because we almost automatically or blindly expect the third line to be something like, "rolls in the grass," "rolls in cow patches," or "rolls on the dry ground."

The affection of the author for the animal, his/her sense of humour, and the tried-and-tested philosophy that life after all is worth living, and that this world, all considered, is not that bad in the end are all exuding an optimistic feel-good factor and a sense of celebration of the whole universe. This is because dogs roll in all seasons!

1 comment:

Area 17 said...

If you don't know Ernie, he's a great haiku institution, and I was very lucky to share a haiku road trip with him to Katikati Haiku Pathway, North Island, New Zealand the world's largest haiku park outside Japan.

Well done Ernie!