Haiku Competitions – a judge’s process

by Cyril Childs

Judging a haiku competition. What does one look for? How does one arrive at the end results? In June I judged the Open Haiku Section of the 2006 New Zealand Poetry Competition and, in trying to answer these questions, I’ve chosen to focus on the process I used this year, though it was essentially the same as I’ve used previously in judging competitions. My way of doing things, of course, is likely to differ in substance and degree from what other judges do. I cannot speak for them.

In early June around 700 entries arrived by mail in two large envelopes. Each haiku was on a separate piece of paper with no other information apart from a registration number assigned by the competition secretary – a different number for each haiku. In some previous judging I’ve done, some sheets presented have contained several haiku which can be taken as an indication they were written by the same poet. This is obviously undesirable even though one does not know who that poet might be. It is also inconvenient to someone like me who puts individual haiku into piles and moves them among piles, in the judging process. Indeed, I’m grateful to Laurice Gilbert, competition secretary, for her thoughtful and efficient organisation of all aspects of this year’s competition.

It may be useful to preface further remarks by reminding readers that judging a poetry competition can only be, is always, a subjective exercise. The chance that another judge would arrive at exactly the same selection of winners from a large number of entries is so insignificant that it can be dismissed. One would hope, of course, that there would be a fair degree of agreement. It is also very likely that the end results depend on timing: the same judge is likely to respond differently to individual haiku from one year to another, maybe one month to another…

Perhaps, too, it should be stated that in NZ Poetry Society haiku competitions, as in many other English-language contexts, ‘senryu’ and ‘haiku’ are not differentiated. In contexts where distinction is made senryu are typified by extrovert humour, satire and irony applied to human events; haiku by detachment and acute observation of the symbiotic relationship between humans and the world around them (‘oneness with all things’). The vast majority of English-language haiku, and probably contemporary Japanese haiku, have both haiku and senryu qualities. Which of these qualities dominates depends ultimately upon each reader’s interaction with the poem.

The task in this year’s competition was to judge 20 awards in all: 1st to 5th in order of merit; and five ‘highly commendeds’ and 10 ‘commendeds’ not in any order of merit.

Starting with all the haiku in one pile, I went through them one by one and finished with three piles according to where I thought they might appear when it came to crunch time (final consideration): 1, highly likely; 2, likely; and 3, unlikely. This first stage took several hours over about three days. Pile 3 ended the largest, pile 1 the smallest. After a couple of days I went back to them freshened and concentrated first on pile 3: were there any there that, on reflection and more consideration, belonged in pile 2? – and there were a few. Next, pile 2: any there that, perhaps, belonged in pile 3 or 1? And next, any in pile 1 that fitted best into 2? I then put pile 3 aside and, a day or two later, concentrated on 1 and 2, extending them this time into three piles: highly likely; likely; and unlikely. You get the picture, I suspect. Eventually, two weeks later and after four or five such cycles, there were three piles labelled commended, highly commended and top five, totalling 20. The final stage was selecting 1st to 5th. At this time I also started writing my judge’s report to the Poetry Society. I found that preparing the commentary on each of the first five haiku was helpful to the final decision on 1st to 5th placings.

So what did I base my judgments on? Initially I looked for poems with fresh images; those that observed the ‘show, do not tell’ maxim; those that brought some everyday thing unexpectedly into sharp focus; and those that, in effect, opened a door to an unexpected train of thought. ‘Unexpected’ is a key word here. A haiku needs a degree of surprise to succeed. Mere reinforcement doesn’t work. Some subjects — ‘shag’s outstretched wings’ and ‘moon reflected in water’ for example — have been the subjects of many previous haiku. Any new haiku that uses such images needs a significant new aspect to surprise and succeed. Overt sentimentality, emotional guidance, padding, use of complicated words when simple ones were available, also tended to result in downgrading.

Several other factors are widely accepted as important in writing haiku though I won’t go through them here. Suffice, perhaps, to say that those wanting a checklist to use might look at the article Guidelines for Editing Haiku by Lee Gurga, or at the appendix of New Zealand Haiku Anthology (NZ Poetry Society, 1993; available in most public libraries). Such guidelines can be very helpful especially to those relatively new to writing haiku, though they can never be the last word, however experienced or eminent the compiler, because there are no hard and fast rules in haiku. The best advice regarding guidelines is, perhaps, read them, be wary of breaking them, but don’t be bound by them. In the end be guided by creativity.

Particularly in the latter stages of judging I focussed on setting out. How a haiku is set out — where are the line breaks, how are the lines placed in relation to each other? — is often not given the care and consideration it deserves; neither is it often addressed in ‘how to haiku’ articles and books. For these reasons, not because I gave it disproportionate attention in judging, I’d like to dwell on it here.

The objective in setting out should be to aid communication with the reader by providing appropriate emphasis or focus on key words or lines within the haiku. Sometimes it is also used to add a concrete dimension to the haiku. This dimension can be utterly essential to a haiku as in Cor van den Heuvel’s ‘tundra’ (i.e., that one word only, printed in normal-size type, centred on an otherwise empty page); and in Marlene Mountain’s ‘frog frog’ (i.e., two words, the letters of the first ‘frog’ arranged in the arc of a frog-leap and the second ‘frog’ placed as the frog at the end of its leap). (For the full effect, see both of these in {The Haiku Anthology}, ed. Cor van den Heuvel: Touchstone, New York, 1991; which should be held in every reputable NZ public library.) More often though, a concrete dimension merely adds depth to what is already there. At times it can be overdone.

Choice of line breaks normally comes first. This is perhaps best decided by writing out the haiku on one line, one space between each word, and trying various line breaks to find what best suits. This choice can be revisited later as the line arrangement is narrowed down. Three lines with left alignment is commonly used and often works well. It may be regarded as the ‘neutral’ choice since left alignment is the most common across all writing. Indentation is sometimes used for emphasis — often the first or third or the second and third lines. Three lines with centre alignment, which is not uncommon, is risky. It can add to the reading of a small proportion of haiku but frequently gives the impression that it has been used merely to make the haiku look pretty. It often puts most emphasis on the second line — usually the longest in a three-line haiku—whereas the first or third lines are the ones that most often merit emphasis.

One-line forms, often with extended spaces to guide the reader, can be effective especially for relatively short haiku. Those wanting good examples of one-liners might seek out the work of American poet Marlene Mountain and Australian Janice Bostok. Two-line arrangements are rarely used; even more rarely, in my view, do they work well. Other arrangements occasionally used are four lines, five lines, and one word per line. This last arrangement sometimes stems from a wish to mirror the traditional way that a haiku was written in Japan. My recommendation to writers is to try several arrangements and live with them a while before making a decision. Reading the haiku aloud sometimes helps. If indecision remains choice of left alignment is a safe option.

Some of the best haiku in the 2006 competition bring setting out into focus, and specific comment seems appropriate here. I will confine myself to the haiku placed 5th to 1st. I ask the forbearance of the poets who wrote them as their reasons for setting out as they have may not coincide with my thoughts.

on a twig
                        without breaking it

John O’Connor, First

Setting out is a key part of the winning haiku ‘wax-eye’. Seven simple words arranged in three lines, set out to give an effective concrete aspect to the haiku. We have to search a little for the beginning of the first line — appropriate since a wax-eye is small and often well camouflaged. Once found, we see him (or her) sitting on the twig-like second and third lines which seem to bend a little but do not break.

emptying the mousetrap
 the tiny
drop of blood

Jeanette Stace, Second

The setting out of ‘emptying the mousetrap’ troubled me initially. It is not usual to split an adjective from its noun nor for the second line to be the shortest. The haiku consists of two parts, each of six syllables: (1) emptying the mousetrap; and (2) the tiny drop of blood. Such a haiku often presents a problem in structuring. Here too, the sense that the ‘drop of blood’ is doing the ‘emptying’ needs to be avoided. It could have been tempting to arrange it in two lines. If it was, I’m pleased the poet resisted. It could also have been arranged in three lines in several other ways, though none of these, to my mind, would have worked as well as what the poet has chosen. Squashed between the first and third lines and almost centred as it is , ‘the tiny’ is trapped like the mouse: ‘tiny’ is the key word in the haiku, and the break to the next line emphasises it.

the creak      in the wood pigeon’s      flight

John O’Connor, Third

The arrangement of ‘the creak’, one line in italics, suggests flight — across the page left to right. This adds a subtle concrete dimension to the haiku.

To readers who wish to see a book full of excellent examples of well considered setting out I suggest they browse The Haiku Anthology. A concrete dimension to a haiku does not always work — for example, if it appears contrived, clumsy or overindulgent. Setting out needs to be well judged and complementary to the words. Many haiku might suffer from anything other than a neutral setting out. Two examples are ‘Christmas dinner’ and ‘exhibit’. The poets seem to have chosen the best line breaks. The images are simple and clear; there is no need for a concrete dimension or other than left alignment. These are two contemplative haiku that, in effect, ask nothing more of the reader than take me in and let your mind take over. Their depth lies in the pathways they create in their readers’ imagination.

Christmas dinner —
she cuts crosses
into the sprout

Andre Surridge, Fourth

the tuatara stares
at the class

Nola Borrell, Fifth

The total judging period this year extended over close to three weeks. At the end of the first 10 days about 50 haiku remained in contention. I took time to let these poems mature in my thoughts, both conscious and subconscious. As time passed some faded, others emerged. At this stage I particularly looked for haiku with images that remained fresh on re-readings, haiku that seemed to possess lasting resonance — that quality that makes a haiku stick in a reader’s mind and continue to delight for many years. In degree, it is what separates an excellent haiku from a good one; in its absence, whatever written is not haiku.

Towards the end of June my selections and report were sent off to the competition secretary. A few days later, the table had been cleared, and there was time to reflect on the top 20 poems as a collection and wonder, too, who might have written them. As a collection I was delighted to see such a good number of New Zealand subjects confidently explored in outstanding haiku. A few weeks later the results came out and poets’ names had replaced numbers.

Is this the first year that all top five, and as many as 17 of the top 20, placings in haiku have gone to Kiwi poets? Incidentally one of the non-New Zealanders in the top 20 has visited New Zealand, is well known to poets here and, perhaps, has some claim to honorary status.

Let me assure readers that my comments in the two last paragraphs apply to thoughts that came after the judging process, not during it. A judge needs to keep such thoughts aside in judging, something I don’t find much difficulty in doing when faced with a deadline and 700 sheets of paper, each with just a haiku and a number on it, and the task of making a ranked selection of 20 that I can justify to myself and, hopefully, everyone else.



Editor’s note: Cyril Childs (1941-2012) began writing haiku in 1989 and was editor of the New Zealand Haiku Anthology and the Second New Zealand Haiku Anthology. His haiku appeared widely in New Zealand and overseas and he has two poems on the Katikati Haiku Pathway. His book Beyond the Paper Lanterns, a journey with cancer (2000) is a collection of haiku and haibun. He wrote this article about his experience of judging the 2006 NZ Poetry Society senior haiku contest especially for Haiku NewZ. Read Cyril’s Showcase page.