NZPS International Haiku Contest Judge’s Report

By Ernest J Berry

Despite haiku’s rocketing popularity over the last decade – with countless promotions, competitions, on & off-line workshops; regional, national & international get-togethers; competitions and how-to-haiku books et al, the quality of entries doesn’t appear to have improved much since I last judged this competition seven years ago.

Too many of the offerings disqualified themselves by breaches of haiku’s basics and a large proportion of the remainder were of marginal quality. In my opinion, it is counter-productive to deny aspiring writers honest feed-back on the faulty premise that the truth may offend so I have tried to be as considerate as possible in this is respect – hopefully without discouraging anyone or overstepping the line between constructive and destructive criticism.

The setting-out and printing of entries was interestingly varied – from pencilled scribble to 48 pt fancy fonts on vellum. Such attempts to IMPRESS are a waste of time, effort & money. Remember, judges are swayed only by what they read – not by “the jewelled finger pointing to the moon” [Basho] –  a barely legible masterpiece will always beat brilliantly presented mediocrity.

Those who wonder why their baby didn’t ‘make it’ may like to check the following essentials

Was it

  1. brief
  2. believable
  3. evocative
  4. fresh
  5. poetic
  6. syntactic?

Did it

  1. scan
  2. sing
  3. expose
  4. juxtapose
  5. ahaa!?

Did it avoid:

  1. predictability
  2. tautology
  3. read-ons
  4. similies
  5. emotions
  6. hackneys
  7. adjectives
  8. adverbs
  9. metaphor
  10. anthropomorphisms
  11. sentiment.
  12. cuteness
  13. contrivance?

The commonest fault was trying too hard – usually showcased by adjectival diarrhoea and a surfeit of in, and, a, are and the. One incredible first line (referring to a cat) read: Sweet, warm, cream, soft fur 

Blimey! reminds me of Twain’s classic reference to adjectives viz:“if you see one, kill it”. To that I’d add my own axioms: “the keener the axe the cleaner the cut” and: “all literature is too loong”.

We should bear in mind that ‘spoon-feeding’ the reader with every tedious detail, however ingenious, is not in the spirit of haiku and tends only to blunt the axe of imagination. Refer to Eric Amann’s book Wordless Poem and, another of my axioms: “haiku means delete”.

Haijin tight-rope between brevity, impact, poesy, lyracy and comprehensibility; so if we want our work to be understood and appreciated we should avoid enigma, esoterics and any constructions which confuse or look like shopping lists, sentences, headlines, epitaphs, epigrams, anagrams or telegrams. Nor do we want riddles; political, religious, romantic or emotional rants; or rehashes of tired haiku about sunsets, reflections, cherry blossoms, ‘fall’ leaves, et al. OR: random snippets of prose which any untutored scissor could produce.

Consider the famous: “old pond/ a frog jumps in/ water sound”  [Matsuo Basho], or  the lesser known but equally evocative “dusk/ up to my ears/ in birdsong” [John O’Connor], or gunshot/ the length/ of the lake [jim kacian]. These three classics, which contain only one adjective, no 5/7/5,  just 2 definite articles and average only 8 syllables between them, could have been written by any [literate] toddler; so you see, complexity is no match for simplicity.

I’ve noticed many of our mainstream poets and literary brains still can’t get their heads around haiku so you don’t need to be an egg-head to write it. On the other hand, we do want poetry – something which grabs us by the shorts – where every word and syllable works its passage toward an end product that SINGS! … Discipline, constraint and the courage to delete could prove the difference between winning and losing.

So to this year’s worthy winners:

NB: all criticism is subjective and depends on infinite variables concerning a judge’s gender, identity, idiosyncrasies & background. These factors could spell the difference between winning and losing.

backing out
of the spider’s web
… sorry

Quendryth Young, Australia, First

Shades of Issa? This pearl survived all readings till it topped the ‘probables’ pile. To me it has nearly* all the requirements of a classic – the poet entices us down this alley, path, corridor, avenue, whatever – between fences, walls, portals trees, (we’re left the choice of scenario – which is important because it allows the widest variety of readers to relate in their own ways) … It’s sparse , disciplined, multi-layered, open-ended, non-specific, and atmospheric – without mentioning dusk or morning mist the poet has us on a wordless leash of time and climate.

Reminds me of beach-combing some years ago when my life crossed paths with that of a a tiny netted crab. As Icarried it back to the ocean I thought – “hope nobody heard me apologise” – If they HAD, I may not have identified with this poem and there could have been be a different winner.

* deleting ‘spider’ might be worth considering.

Another option:       backing out/ of  the spider silk/ … sorry

As with all haiku there are countless alternatives each of which brings its own scenario.

waiting room
a calendar shows
the wrong month

Jim Kacian, US, Second

Bearing in mind the anonymous: “Sorry this letter is so long – I didn’t have time to write a short one” – I can appreciate the discipline it took to abbreviate this pregnant tale … ‘waiting room’ is so evocative and something we can all identify with so it’s a good start … and in true haiku spirit the writer spares us such details as ‘teen pregnancy’, spring rain, trimester, morning sickness etc. … then our boredom wanders to the wall calendar we are neatly jolted into reality!

Well done – we have a short story in 8 words – like WOW!

spring thaw
my ex returns
the lawn mower

Joanna Preston, New Zealand, Third

Dunno whether to laugh or weepy at this one! – is their romance perennial like the grass? – are they at the breaking point? Or reconciling? This could be the shortest Mills ‘n Boon ever! A highly evocative mistresspiece.

two hands
on her teacup
still it shakes

Andre Surridge, New Zealand, Fourth

Unfortunately something we all relate to these days as we become more aware of Parkinsons – the staccato repetition of ‘t’ accentuates the rattle – can’t you just HEAR it? – ouch!

abed with fever
swirl and eddy of finches
in the apple tree

Jeffrey Harpeng, Australia, Fifth

Normally, I don’t dig 5-7-5 but for some reason this one got to me big time. Then again, if it had been rendered:

fever
the swirl of finches
in the tree

it might have reached the top!

No dissertation on haiku is complete without stressing brevity . Even apart from haiku it could mean the difference between life and death: the fewer words we use to get a message across, the quicker it’s comprehended and and acted upon. For example, “take care – achtung- you are entering a – minefield” [a standard sign in Korea during the 1950 war] … by the time one read it one was dead. Or the ubiquitous : “PASSING LANE 500m  AHEAD”…. ahead? – where else?

the quality of haiku is not strained
it droppeth like a gentle
plop from a
strain
er

**

Editor’s note:  Ernest J Berry is an internationally known haiku poet. He has won numerous awards and his haiku are published widely. Two of his poems appear on the Katikati Haiku Pathway. Read more at his Showcase page.