In 1999 I was asked to judge the haiku/senryu category of the 36th Annual Poetry Contest sponsored by the Robert Frost Chapter of the California Federation of Chaparral Poets, located in San Jose, California. I’ve forgotten where or how results were announced, and how many poems were submitted. Submissions were not by experienced haiku poets, and I found it a challenge to select the best of what was submitted. I have no record of the winning poet’s identity. Commentary originally written in September of 1999. California Federation of Chaparral Poets contest results can be viewed online for 2006 and later years.
The great Bald Eagle
Silent in the old pine tree
Harvest moon rising
The so-called traditional approach to haiku requires a set syllabic form and a seasonal reference. While the vast bulk of haiku published in English tend instead toward free or organic internal form (due to language differences between English and Japanese), with seasonal reference optional, this poem does a decent job of following a set tradition. Specifically, it uses a 5-7-5 external syllabic form without resorting to unnatural line breaks, and uses “harvest moon” as a seasonal reference (an effective sort of haiku shorthand, anchoring the poem in time). In addition, this poem exhibits an effective caesura after the second line, thus dividing the poem into two parts that juxtapose with each other, creating tension and contrast yet also harmony. This technique gives the reader a gap to leap in apprehending the poem. Caesura and juxtaposition are often overlooked characteristics of the best haiku. The feeling of sabi (melancholy loneliness) of the bald eagle that sits silently in the old pine tree is echoed by the autumnal loneliness of the harvest moon. The poem also uses specific images in a specific place, and captures a clear moment in its focus on nature, all of which are key characteristics of the best haiku.
In terms of craft, I think the poem might be improved by putting “Bald Eagle” in lowercase letters so as not to draw undue attention to the phrase as words. It might also be good to add a dash after the second line, and to begin each line with a lowercase letter. Many English-language haiku don’t start each line with capital letters. By not starting the poem with a capital, and by avoiding end-punctuation, the poem suggests that the image-moment captured in the poem is purposely incomplete. The lack of a capital letter and closing punctuation also suggests that the image was present before and after the moment of the poem, yet the poem captures the moment in the ongoing continuum of time. The word “great” feels like it may have been added to achieve a five-syllable line, and thus feels not quite right. “Silent” is also an overused word in haiku, and perhaps it could be replaced by referring instead to the bird’s closed beak or folded wings (showing rather than telling). As a whole, however, this poem exhibits a number of effective techniques that make a haiku succeed.
Other poems submitted for this contest, although they may have followed a set syllabic convention, often failed to apply many of the other essential characteristics of haiku, including the use of natural language; using objective images rather than subjective analysis or judgment; presenting a now-moment in the present tense; avoiding titles (never used in haiku); avoiding simile, metaphor, personification, and anthropomorphism; showing rather than telling; being specific rather than general; and being concrete rather than abstract. To learn more about writing haiku in English, I recommend William J. Higginson’s excellent book, The Haiku Handbook (published by Kodansha in 1989). For some of the finest examples of haiku in English, I also recommend the third edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (W. W. Norton, 1999). Thank you for the opportunity to judge this year’s haiku/senryu contest.
—Michael Dylan Welch, judge