My best recollection of this contest is that it was judged for the online Haikuforum in February/March 2000. I’ve forgotten other details of this contest, and had no record of the winning poets, but in January of 2018 I was able to confirm two of the authors online, as indicated. If you know the identity of any of the other authors, please let me know. Commentary originally written in March and April of 2000.
One may write haiku for many reasons: as a means of spiritual awareness, to enjoy a literary hobby, or to participate in a serious genre of poetry. I suspect that most poets write haiku because they are in awe of the world around them and feel compelled to record their sharp moments of keen perception. And their poems, in their best incarnation, use words carefully chosen to freeze the moment and recreate the juxtaposition of images that caused their emotional response rather than the emotion itself.
Submitting one’s haiku for a contest requires another motive entirely. Submitting purely because of the perceived prestige of winning a contest smacks of ego, and that’s not what haiku are about. Haiku are about sharing intuitive moments of wonder. I trust that the poems for this contest have been shared in that spirit of delight one has when you’re hiking with a companion and excitedly point out a deer or bobcat as it appears at the side of the trail. Then you can both pause to admire. It’s not just the admiring that matters in haiku, but that communal sharing of the admiration.
Contests can be a fun way to share your poems with others, and one of the virtues of anonymous reading is the opportunity to focus on the poems rather than the poets. I trust that those who participated in the reader-selection process have felt a rewarding measure of community with their fellow poets in re-experiencing the image-moments captured by so many of the poems contributed to this contest. I hope you’ve paused to admire all of these haiku moments, and have focused on the delight of shared experience.
One is naturally curious to find out who wrote the best poems. Defining what is best is often a subjective matter, though, and is shaped by changing whims and evolving aesthetics. A few of my selections overlap with those poems selected by readers, but most do not, which serves to illustrate the subjective nature of haiku appreciation. This subjectivity is haiku’s strength, however. The genre has been defined as a “half-written” poem, one that the reader must finish in the same way that a viewer of a minimalist brushstroke painting imagines the missing details or perceives the entire mountain range suggested by a single stroke of ink. By being subjective and intuitive in this manner, haiku remain engaging in ways that no other genre of poetry can be, and the differences in what appeals to one person more than another are particularly emphasized in haiku.
The following poems appeal to me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have dwelled with these haiku. Of the poems entered in this contest, I respond most to the following selections, although on another day I imagine I might shuffle them around a bit. The true winner, though, is any poem that works for you as the reader, or works for you as the writer. No matter what your reasons for writing haiku or for entering contests, please join me in sharing and celebrating the following moments of wonder.
—Michael Dylan Welch, Judge
my mailbox filled with
the neighbor’s mail
The first question one might ask on reading this poem is why the neighbor’s mail is presented as being in the poet’s mailbox. To me, the answer is what makes this a successful poem. The first line tells us as utterly directly as possible that it is spring, but this is not an incidental detail. In spring, the weather turns warmer, the days grow longer, the flowers and trees begin to bud, and all of nature is renewed and invigorated. The mail carrier is likely distracted by nature’s celebration of new beginnings, and his or her attention lapses long enough to put the wrong mail in the poet’s mailbox. Isn’t this poem therefore really about the joy of spring? Surely the poet empathizes with the mail carrier in the pleasure of spring, and now even has an opportunity to chat with a neighbour to exchange the misdirected mail.
pulling a white sheet
from the chair
This is a simple but sensuous poem. On first arriving at the cottage, the renters must make the beds. Clean white folded sheets have been laid on a chair beside the bed. The rented cottage suggests the summer season. The white sheet, which I imagine billowing in air streaming from an open window as the sheet is pulled from the chair, suggests coolness as the season begins, or suggests coolness in spite of the onset of summer. Here, in this poem, we see the moment when the sheet is pulled from the chair, and we enter into the experience of the season, of the temperature, and of the anticipation of enjoying a long summer vacation at this private cottage location.
deer hair caught
on the bottom strand
Haiku are often about the absence of things. The deer is absent here, but we still see evidence of its recent presence. This poem’s refining detail is the indication of the deer’s hair being caught on the bottom strand of the barbed-wire fence. Perhaps the deer is trapped and has stretched its neck to graze beyond the fence; the deer has not left hair on the fence’s top strand while leaping over. Whether the deer is trapped or not, we look down with the poet at the fence’s bottom strand, see the grasses the deer must have been grazing upon, and pause just long enough to wonder what the deer might have been feeling when its hair became snagged. Perhaps, as well, we think of the detrimental effects of humanity upon nature, here symbolized by the sharp barbs of the barbed-wire fence and the solitary tuft of deer hair. The deer’s hair is a small reminder that all of humanity and nature is interconnected.
Honorable Mentions (in order)
Each of the following poems has keen seeing and objective images to recommend it. The pleasure boats nudge each other almost in a gesture of love at the fullness of high tide, and the tide’s height echoes the dying fullness of the season contrasted with the promise of the dawn. We can measure the growing flood by the shrinking height of the bulrushes. We sit in the beach-side swing with the red-haired boy after he has waited his turn on a busy summer day. We see cherry petals in a new way floating in a stream after a sudden spring shower. We see the woman by the river more clearly not just because the morning mist is lifting but because we are shown the sharp detail of her sliced bread. We share an interconnectedness with nature by seeing the smooth place where branches rub as a result of yet another March wind. And we feel a moment of compassion for a cat that is still curious about our approach while it escapes from spring rain by hiding under the steps of a house. In all, we share in moments of perception in the following poems by seeing what the poets saw and feeling what the poets felt. This is indeed the deepest pleasure of haiku.
at full tide two pleasure boats
nudge each other
inch by inch shorter
new dune grass
a red-headed boy taking a turn
at the swings
the streambed fills
with cherry petals
morning mist lifting—
a woman with sliced bread
beside the river
the smooth place
where two willow branches rub—
yellow eyes of the cat
under the steps