BRITISH HAIKU AWARDS 2012
The adjudicators were Allison Williams and Michael Dylan Welch
The winners each receive £125. The runners-up each receive £50.
The winners are Roland Packer and Hamish Ironside
The runners-up are paul m. and Roland Packer
Alison Williams writes:
The quality of a haiku is not something that can be measured according to entirely objective standards. There are writing skills that can be learned but the most important thing is how well it communicates and communication takes two. The success of a haiku depends on the reader’s receptiveness as well as the writer’s ability. I hope I have done justice as a reader to the haiku submitted to this competition.
As I first read through the entries some disqualified themselves immediately. They met the dictionary definition of haiku but in more important respects missed the mark.
The next, much harder, job was to let go of those that had potential but were let down in someway, for example, by a didactic conclusion or an awkward phrasing. Those, that is, where the author’s hand weighed too heavily.
In many years of reading haiku I have found that my favourites did not always make an immediate impact, some took time to fully appreciate. I didn’t want to rush to shortlist. I read the remaining haiku over and over and eventually there were five that I found myself coming back to. As I read and re-read these I found more in them than first met the eye. A common factor with all of the final five was the writer’s ability to use precisely the right word in the right place to allow the meaning to expand beyond the literal.
The winner is:
a commuter train
without a soul
— Rowland Packer (Canada)
I love the light touch and simplicity of this and, at the same time, the depth there is to find beyond the obvious surface meaning. It’s night time and the train, so packed with humanity during the rush hour, is now deserted. Not a soul is on board. The moonlight shows us the emptiness and enhances the melancholy mood. The soullessness of mass transport and commuter life is implied but not directly stated. The absent commuter is dignified, but also made ghostly, by being referred to as a ‘soul.’ I see in the three lines a movement first from the heavenly to the mundane and then an elevation of the mundane.
And the runner-up:
— paul m. (USA)
A strange and intriguing observation. I wonder if the fading light prompted a lamp to be lit, showing up these traces? Or perhaps the day has involved a great deal of activity, maybe Christmas preparations, after which the many things that have been touched and handled become apparent. Fingerprints can, of course, be used in evidence, to convict. The exaggeration of the prints being on ‘everything’ suggests an emotional response – possibly guilty feelings or some level of OCD. Whatever the cause, this haiku, without stating anything about the events that led up to the moment, gives me a glimpse into someone else’s unease.
Michael Dylan Welch writes:
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:
a commuter train
without a soul
— Rowland Packer (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 (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.
The adjudicator was Linda Jeannette Ward
The winner receives £125. The runner-up receives £50.
The winner is Clare McCotter
The runner-up is Claire Everett
Linda Jeannette Ward writes:
There is so much to consider in a tanka competition when change itself seems to have characterized the English-language form over the past two decades. Traditional elements that continue to be of importance in the contemporary form include a five-line presentation, pivot words or phrases, cultural or literary allusions, and the juxtaposition or interplay of subjective emotion with natural or seasonal reference. To achieve this without an excess of sentimentality is an art that probably comes either as a given talent, or with much practice over time.
Once in a while we’re given a tanka that embodies most of the elements of the traditional form, including a correspondence between self and cosmos. The winning tanka exudes a timelessness: it could have been composed in Heian period Japan, or yesterday in Europe, America, or other English-language cultures:
now the pleiades
and my dark horse have gone
winds from the mountain
come to howl
inside this cage of bone
— Clare McCotter (N. Ireland)
In only five lines, this poet has flawlessly expressed mysterious depth, the “yugen” often found in classical Japanese tanka. This poem also has a musical cadence with an over wash of sorrow and loneliness that one can hear/feel echoing “inside this cage of bone,” just as the literal elements of the poem harmoniously resonate with the sounds of “now,” “mou,” and “howl” in lines one, three and four. It is as if one has a visitation of the wind, possessing self after all else has been driven out along with the loss of that “dark horse.” The mystery is presented in the first line with its reference to the disappearance of “the pleiades.” These seven stars, representative of the seven daughters of Atlas in Western mythology, have been symbols in ancient legends around the world. In one story, the Pleiades are said to be a veil between the living and dead. Cultural allusions continue to be a strong feature of tanka in Japanese and English-language forms.
So, what has the poet lost? What was that dark horse, the unlikely winner that one hopes will come from behind? We aren’t told, nor do we know how the Pleiades have been lost. Perhaps clouds have moved in, metaphorically covering the stars one has wished on for so long . . . perhaps the veil between life and death has been lifted, leaving nothing but black sky and howling winds. What is clear is the depth of the despair that is left to resonate throughout the poet’s being – his inner self trapped within a body.
In judging the historically important Tanka Splendor competition, Jane Hirshfield advised poets: “. . . tanka should contain the music of language that has passed through the body.” The runner-up tanka expresses in exquisite juxtaposition the deeply felt frustration of trying to compose a poem or song in just this way.
once more, the robin
whose every word
the weight of my pen
in this eggshell world
— Claire Everett (UK)
The challenge for the tanka element referred to by Hirshfield is to bring together inner and outer nature as seamlessly as jazz musicians who produce a sound greater than the sum of its parts. As an American who has never had the pleasure of birding the United Kingdom, I’ve missed the opportunity of observing the English robin and hearing its song. As entrants were judged anonymously, I was unaware as to whether the robin of this poem was of British or American origin. Here in the United States, our red-breasted robin sings with its whole body – the sweetness of the song seems to throb throughout its breast. I suspect this is true of the English robin as well.
With this poem, the poet has evidently witnessed the effortlessness of the robin’s song, and presents a shift, as in classical tanka, that offers a contrast with the heaviness of the writer’s or composer’s traditional tool when trying to break through to that same place from which the natural lyricism of nature dwells. The expression of the emotional element in this tanka is accomplished in the best poetic tradition of show, don’t tell. The poem, taken as a whole with its distinct but smooth shift from outer to inner nature, gives us a unity that sings, prompting us to read it “once more.” This tanka, with its subtle linking between the first three and last two lines, is structurally, as well as emotionally satisfying.
The adjudicator was Graham High. The winner receives £100.
The winning haibun is “Urodynamics” by Jane Fraser (Wales)
Graham High writes:
There has been considerable growth of interest in the possibilities offered by the writing of haibun over the last fifteen years, encouraged in part by the BHS, and the quality of writing has likewise increased during that period. I was disappointed therefore in the overall standard of submissions to the above competition. There were 46 entries in all, two of which had to be disqualified, sadly, as having been previously published.
The haibun I finally settled on as the winner was ‘Urodynamics’. I believed in the veracity of the experience and it held my interest through its invocation of all the senses taking us through a bio-mechanical melange of sensations and processes. The narrative displays a range of communicated impressions as well as the detached sense of being alienated from one’s own body. The prose style is clean and spare using short sentences and an unobtrusive flow of integrated dialogue while the descriptions are both objectively clinical whilst subjectively vulnerable – using works like ‘maze’ ‘dimness’ ‘echoes’ ‘clouds’. Most of the more fuzzy words are introduced through the haiku so that this world of interior perceptions is carried largely by the poems – a nice and strategic balance which could have been taken further as, at first reading, some of the haiku seem barely differentiated from the surrounding prose
Considered individually not all of the haiku are strong enough to stand alone away from the prose context but the writer successfully uses them in a more cinematic way to mark a shift of scene or time. The ten haiku, evenly and fairly satisfyingly placed, are inclined to be word-heavy. Some offer heightened concrete images of the X-ray suite, while others suggest imagery from outside and use the haiku as a side window to show a different aspect of the scene.
The tone and quality of the writing was sustained, over what is a fairly long haibun, in a satisfying way. Overall the haibun engaged my interest and convinced me that it had a clear focus on what it was trying to do and handled the subject well.
Urodynamics Jane Fraser
last days of summer,
my cotton socks soaked through
by a sudden squall
I’m bothered rather than concerned with my waterworks problem as I make my way from the car park to the X-Ray suite. “Get undressed. You can leave your top things on – but pants off. Gown does up at the back. Put your clothes in the basket and come through when you’re ready.” It’s not just the metal shopping basket that reminds me of Tesco.
on the conveyor belt,
goods passing at top speed
towards the check-out
The theatre is clean; antiseptic clean. Sister’s in blue scrubs; radiography team in white; Mr. Emery, the consultant, in his shirt and tie, relaxed. I tense up. There’s a lot of kit in here, brand spanking-new, draining the NHS budget. And it’s all for me. “We’d like you to pee in the pretend loo, so we can measure your flow before we get going with everything else.” Apart from Sister, they’re all behind the glass screen, at the computer monitors, watching my performance. I’ve never been videoed before. “Well done,” says Sister, “let’s get you up on the table now. Nice and gently does it.”
flat on my back,
eyes closed, hands together now
across my chest
Sister deals with the catheters. There’s one for every orifice. Despite the anaesthetic gel, I feel the sensations. A bit like tickling, she tells me. “Good girl,” she says. I suddenly feel both very young and very old. I open my eyes and watch the clear water drain from the drip they’ve set up, seep along the transparent tubes and finally disappear into the temporary plumbing system they’ve inserted into the hidden depths of my body. They want to test the capacity of my bladder.
me, watching them,
watching an inflating balloon
on the screen
“You’re doing well,” says Sister, “not long now.” A pat on the arm. Mr. Emery gives me the thumbs-up from the other side of the glass screen. The white team are recording results in a silent huddle, bent over their machines, Mr. Emery bent over their shoulders. I can see him thinking. His smile has slipped away.
four goldfish in a bowl
swimming round in circles,
open-mouthed and silent
He emerges from the bladder control centre. More instructions for me. “We’re going to tip you up. You don’t have to do a thing; the table will do it for you.” Out of my control. There’s the press of a button, the whirr of electronics, a smooth transition. The wonder of science. I’m standing vertical, my fridge-cold, bare feet flat on the boards of this magic bed, my catheters dangling. I feel like a cow in a stainless steel milking parlour. Alone in a full room, out of kilter with a woozy head. I am on the edge of panic. I have the frantic urge to empty my bladder, to let go.
He’s back in mission control, Mr. Emery, but Sister, whose told me she’s called Lynne now, is holding my hand and telling me gently, “I’m here,” in a new tone that denotes the other sense of the phrase. “Try and hold as long as you can; I know it’s difficult – but Mr. Emery needs to assess how your bladder is functioning. I squeeze. Tears in my eyes. A few sly and shameful drips on the white kitchen-roll between my feet.
in black and white on the TV screen,
the balloon about to burst
“You can void now,” Lynne tells me. “Beware of flash floods,” I feebly joke as she nimbly connects my internal plumbing to a large plastic hose. She places the end nozzle into the pretend loo. Pure relief.
at the tide’s turn,
alone on the white porcelain shore
watching the water ebb
“That’s it. All done. You can get dressed now and then Mr. Emery will come and have a chat with you.” I feel safer somehow in my tight, white jeans and T-shirt. Unmedicalised. Intact. Foolishly young. I wait in the corridor for him to come, breathing in the buzz and business, the semblance of ordinariness on this, the other side of the double-doors where the over-light sanitised space lies within.
me, watching the hands
of my watch tick by –
can’t make out the time in the dimness
The minutes seem to dawdle but too soon he comes towards me, carrying my notes and what looks like a heavy load. I let him off the hook. Make it easier for him. “It’s worse than you thought, isn’t it?” I say. “Mmm,” he replies, too gently for my liking. “There’s nothing nasty, but there’s major nerve and muscle damage to the pelvis – it seems like your gynaecological past has caught up with you.” I switch to the minor key. I sense my watch rewinding, the hands going backwards.
home and dry at aerobics
pink leotard and leg warmers
jumping-jacks along to Fonda
He promises he’ll do his best to keep me anatomically functional. I try to believe him. He talks me through the options if he can’t. His voice seems to echo loudly in my head. We shake hands and say goodbye. I search for the exit through the maze of corridors.
through the cumulus clouds
a peep of blue sky
magnifying by the minute
The British Haiku Society would like to thank the four judges for the time and careful consideration they have put into the task of selecting the winning pieces. The comments in their thoughtful reports are informative and instructive.
Thanks are also due to all those who took part in each of the sections of the British Haiku Awards. As expected, haiku was the most popular section attracting entries from 14 countries while haibun entries came from 6 countries and tanka from 5. The majority of entries came from 5 countries: England, US, Wales, Ireland, Scotland
It is interesting to note that the US seems to favour the newer sections of haibun and tanka while Wales and Ireland have taken a shine to haibun. Australia also provided 9.5% to tanka.