2012 British Haiku Society Haiku Contest

I cojudged the 2012 British Haiku Society’s annual haiku contest with Alison Williams, each of us choosing our selections independently. The following two reports of my choices and commentaries start with a shortened text as published in Blithe Spirit 23:3, May 2013. After this is the longer text I initially submitted. Both originally written in March of 2013.

2012 British Haiku Society Haiku Contest

The novelist Katherine Paterson once wrote about a key motivation for her work: “I am called,” she said, “to listen to the sound of my own heart—to write the story within myself that demands to be told at that particular point in my life. And if I do this faithfully, clothing that idea in the flesh of human experience and setting it in a true place, the sound from my heart will resound in the reader’s heart.” This, to me, is the essence of Japanese poetry forms, especially haiku—to set one’s personal experience in a true place so that fidelity to one’s own heart finds resonance in the reader’s heart. Haiku, as a result, becomes a sharing of vulnerability, a sharing of emotion that comes from the heart. This was as true a thousand years ago as it is today. No wonder Ki no Tsurayuki’s preface to the first Imperial poetry anthology of 905, the Kokinshū, begins with a matching proclamation: “Japanese poetry takes as its seed the human heart.”
        In this context, I narrowed 437 submissions down to eight and chose the following poem for second place:

        moonrise
        a commuter train
        without a soul

                Roland Packer, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Seldom can an abstraction or subjective feeling, such as thinking a train has a soul, succeed in haiku if it is not grounded in a concrete image, as we see here (set in autumn if one interprets “moon” in the traditional Japanese manner). More importantly, we get a sense that it is so early in the morning that perhaps the train is still empty, and thus does not yet have its “soul” of people. A deeper reading is that this train may well be full of morning commuters, yet is still utterly soulless, its occupants behaving as dutiful automatons on their way to another daily grind. The word “soul,” too, brings an open-endedness to the poem that allows for many interpretations.
        The following is my choice for the winning poem in the 2012 British Haiku Society haiku contest:

        shadows under water
        my daughter asks me
        how to wish

                Hamish Ironside, Teddington, England

It is easy to imagine observers on a bridge over a stream, or by a wishing well. “My daughter” tells us of a relationship, and we sense a young girl. Her wish may be childlike, but “under water” first offers very adult overtones. It can mean that your house or stocks are worth less than you paid for them, or it can mean that you feel like you’re drowning, either literally or metaphorically. These overtones heighten a contrast between an adult world and the child’s innocence. The verb “asks” turns the static image-moment of shadows under water into a dynamic moment—the instant something happens, thus focusing the poem. And then everything snaps into place with the word “wish.” We feel a child’s unsullied hopes and dreams, and her trusting desire to welcome help from her parent, to wish for something brighter against the shadows of reality. We are left with many possibilities for what could be wished, and such an open-endedness is perhaps the best we could ask of any haiku.
        My gratitude to all the poets who listened to their own hearts and submitted their poems, and to the British Haiku Society for the opportunity to select winning poems.

2012 British Haiku Society Haiku Contest [longer text]

The novelist Katherine Paterson once wrote about a key motivation for her work: “I am called,” she said, “to listen to the sound of my own heart—to write the story within myself that demands to be told at that particular point in my life. And if I do this faithfully, clothing that idea in the flesh of human experience and setting it in a true place, the sound from my heart will resound in the reader’s heart.” This, to me, is the essence of Japanese poetry forms, especially haiku—to set one’s personal experience in a true place so that fidelity to one’s own heart finds resonance in the reader’s heart. Haiku, as a result, becomes a sharing of vulnerability, a sharing of emotion that comes from the heart. This was as true a thousand years ago as it is today. No wonder Ki no Tsurayuki’s preface to the first Imperial poetry anthology of 905, the Kokinshū, begins with a matching proclamation: “Japanese poetry takes as its seed the human heart.”
        In reviewing all 437 submissions for the British Haiku Society’s 2012 haiku contest, my first thought was to recognize that nearly all of the poems are an offering of the poet’s heart, each verse emerging from a private haven of emotional introspection and appreciation. I am truly grateful to have received each of these moments, and to be entrusted to experience them. Thank you to each poet for sharing these private and personal introspections.
        E. E. Cummings is famous for saying “since feeling is first,” emphasizing his appreciation for heart over mind. But he said feeling came first—not instead of mind. In narrowing my selections to what ended up being 23 top contenders for the BHS contest, I looked for several traits that balanced both head and heart. One trait was flawless crafting. It’s surprising how many poets submit poems with misspellings, grammatical problems, and other issues. Another was an effective use of a two-part structure to create implication and resonance between the two parts. Such a structure isn’t necessary in every haiku, but most of the best haiku use it for good reason. Likewise, I don’t believe seasonal references are required in every haiku, but their use can deepen the poem by connecting a present ephemeral experience to the larger cycles of life, sometimes adding a metaphorical layer of interpretation as readers equate each season to a stage of human existence.
        Another trait I looked for was ordinary shared experience, presented in an instant of vulnerability, a moment that says, “This is what happened to me—maybe it also happened to you.” Yet merely presenting the ordinary is never enough. Again and again the best haiku seem to make the ordinary extraordinary, not the least by simply opening our eyes to the everyday. I think what exists in the finest haiku is a sense of awe and wonder. As Billy Collins once put it in The Paris Review, “Almost every haiku says the same thing: ‘It’s amazing to be alive here.’”
        Finally, each poem had to speak to me personally, with the poem resounding to the sound of my own heart. It is here, in fact, where a dozen judges would likely pick a dozen different poems, not necessarily because their perceptions of quality are all that different, but because they are being true to their own individual hearts. Nevertheless, if the best poems are sufficiently open-ended (yet not too ambiguous), it is likely that they will speak deeply to many different hearts.
        In this context, I narrowed my 23 contenders to eight top poems and eventually decided on the following poem for second place:

        moonrise
        a commuter train
        without a soul

                Roland Packer, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Years ago I used to say that one should avoid subjectivity and abstraction in haiku, but now I think it’s more important to control these aspects of one’s haiku. Here, to think of a train having a soul is indeed an abstraction, yet it is grounded in clear and immediate images (set in the autumn season if one interprets “moon” in the traditional Japanese manner). Seldom can an abstraction or subjective feeling succeed in haiku if it is not grounded in a concrete image, as we see here. More importantly, we get a sense that it is so early in the morning that perhaps the train is still empty, and thus does not yet have its “soul” of people. But a deeper reading is that this train may well be full of morning commuters, yet is still utterly soulless, all of its occupants behaving as dutiful automatons on their way to another daily grind. The word “soul,” too, brings an open-endedness to the poem that allows for many interpretations.
        The following is my choice for the winning poem in the 2012 British Haiku Society haiku contest:

        shadows under water
        my daughter asks me
        how to wish

                Hamish Ironside, Teddington, England

First we see an image of shadows under water. It is easy to imagine observers on a bridge over a stream, or by some other body of water—or even just a wishing well. The word “shadow” points to the object that is making the shadow, and “under water” suggests three different realms of existence—above the water, the water’s surface, and objects below the water (as well as the water itself). The reference in the middle line to “my daughter” tells us of a relationship in the poem, and we sense that this is a young girl. The girl’s wish may be very childlike, but “under water” first offers very adult overtones. It can mean that your house or stocks are worth less than you paid for them, or it can mean that you feel like you’re drowning, either literally or metaphorically. These overtones heighten a contrast between an adult world and the child’s innocence. The verb “asks” turns the static image-moment of shadows under water into a dynamic moment—the instant something happens, thus focusing the poem. And in the last line, everything snaps into place with the word “wish.” We feel a child’s unsullied hopes and dreams, and her trusting desire to welcome help from her parent, to wish for something brighter against the shadows of reality. Asking how to wish is both a practical question (does she just drop a penny into the water?) and a more metaphysical one (what does one wish for, and why, and must one think of this wish only in one’s head to make sure it comes true?). We are left with many possibilities for what could be wished, and such an open-endedness is perhaps the best we could ask of any haiku. This poem also resonates with me personally, since I have two young children at home. I want to teach my own children to wish, and to wish well.
        Again, my gratitude to all the poets who listened to their own hearts and submitted their poems, and to the British Haiku Society for the opportunity to select winning poems.