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SEA SHELL GAME #4

Judge: Jane Reichhold

March 20, 1997

1.

Hollow rain on hollow pain.

Simple thoughts on a sharp lived day

Wish these gentle truths' away.

2.

morning mist her period arrives a week late

Reading Poem #1 gives us a classic example of the kind of haiku written by a person well-grounded in European literary history who attempts a haiku without any knowledge of the form other that it has three lines. The author did not even attempt to count syllables, and another banister on which newcomers lean. The author does show signs of being competent in writing Western style poetry, complete with rhymes all in the right places. Either this person is not destined to write haiku or truthfully has little interest in the form as something new and very different. I do not mean discourage the author. I only want him/her to see that if s/he is truly interested in writing haiku (why when what s/he does, s/he does so well?) s/he needs to read a book of haiku which makes her/him 'fall in love' enough with the form to give up the security of what s/he can and has written. Reading Poem #2 gives us a good example of what a haiku is and shows us how far our traditional poetry (as perfectly done in #1) is from haiku. No question: Poem #2 wins as a haiku.

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3.

Sun and exhaust smoke

I half expect a vision

-- winter city street.

4.

winter night rain

patters on the roof --

the wipers groan

These two haiku are a better match. In Poem #3 the author was aware of the technique of comparing three dissimilar things: sun in smoke, visions, and a city street in winter, so the elements are 'properly' perceived and it is easy to image that s/he truly felt the poem as written. All of this is excellent and shows someone whose antenna are perfectly aligned to receive haiku.

It bothers me that there are strong closures at the end of each line. This makes the poem 'choppy' and disregards the concept that haiku have one caesura. It is as 'wrong' to have three lines ending a grammatical phrase as to have a run-on sentence. The reader should take a small breath in one place. A 'rule', which if followed, ruins the other 'rule' that haiku is a poem which can be said in one breath. Another icon to lead one astray. Poem #4 demonstrates the caesura with a dash at the end of the second line which makes for perfect form and thus wins.

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5.

The sky wears fetching

hues of lapus lazuli

as dawns humming dies.

6.

mist on water's edge

watched from heights above the shore

folds his weathered hands

Poem #5 is a prime example of another of these techniques from Western poetry heritage which has to be discarded (carefully, however) when writing haiku. The 'idea' that the "sky wears" and that "dawn hums" is called personification. Nature is given human qualities. Many people will emphatically tell you this is not allowed in haiku. But we do this in 'common everyday speech' so much we hardly notice (unless someone is making up riddles). How easily we say "the road runs down the hill"; as if it had legs as we and some animals have.

If one is just learning to write haiku, it could be very helpful to make it a personal 'rule' that one banishes all personification in writing about nature. Especially for this author, who gives us two examples in one poem, the exercise could sharpen her/his awareness of language and of perception to take up this rule. For others, for whom this is only an occasional 'problem', or who are aware of the difference, a judge would perhaps allow a personification if it were a common figure of speech (pun intended) or if the personification held the whole idea of the poem in a very subtle way. It is no wonder there is the 'rule' not to use personification. It is tricky and the reception of its use varies from person to person.

Poem # 6, looking very good, squeaks by to win.

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7.

dairy lights

pinned against the early dark --

up the next hill, home

8.

clothing, confused, strewn

about the floor, like lovers

entwined in bed

Here, again, Poem #7 uses "pinned against" which implies (somewhat) human action. For me the poem would be just as good without the phrase though I see some connection between this verb action and the idea of "home". Enough to give Poem #7 the win in this round.

Poem #8 is correctly perceived but the use of the word 'like' is such a blatant no-no that there is no way the poem can be considered as a haiku. This is one of the basic tenants of haiku, one of the most important differences between Japanese genres and Western literature. It is important because it designates a shift in perceiving. By using the words 'like' and 'as' we are expressing that something reflects something else -- tangled clothes = tangled lovers. But the Oriental method of expressing this (without our signals that a metaphor is coming) allows one to see the oneness in the situation. That the lovers are twined in sex, passion, or desire and that the clothes, too, as a part of the humans are doing the same thing. Here is 'personification' by implication. This method allows the Oriental poet to personify objects and nature with a sleight-of-hand which not only adds mystery but makes the reader think. Anything you can accomplish this -- when the reader must add her/his thoughts to complete your poem, you have an excellent haiku. Author of Poem # 8: you came so close, it hurts to say #7 won.

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9.

Among the branches

A cobweb motionless hanging

While catching the rain

10.

Sea shell drying in

my pocket pales and is dull

without the ocean.

Here we have two examples of haiku from shasei school of Shiki. The author has viewed a scene or an occurrence and then simply stated it in the most common terms. Shiki would be pleased (I think). However, for me, this is not enough. Both 'events', though common enough, I believe, should contain some greater or newer 'truth' or 'vision' or idea, to be worthy of being honored with a poem. When this style of haiku are sprinkled among other styles (as here in this contest), these are the ones which are considered "ho-hum". There is nothing left for the reader to do. The image the author saw easily comes to mind and most of us have observed both haiku several times. The job of the poet (IMHO) is to bring us a vision, a new way of seeing things. The cliché, which the author of Poem #9 wisely avoided, was that the dewdrops were jewels on the web. By avoiding that pitfall, s/he can already have some pride of her/his progress.

Poem #10 loses, (not because it is this style I do not admire), but because it is written as a complete sentence; perfect right down to the period. Even if one felt the inspiration deserved to be a haiku, it could, with a bit of rewriting be written in the haiku-style -- with one closure after line #2 by leaving out the "and". In my pocket / the seashell dry and pale / without the ocean If one were writing a tanka, one could enrich this image with a further comparison that the author, like the shell, dulls and pales when far from the sea. By getting rid of the pocket line, one could incorporate this idea even in a haiku.

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11.

Twisted fingers

attempting to knit

hungry cat meows

12.

tendrils of lovesongs

curl with the cigarette smoke

blue in the lamplight

This is a good match. Both of these authors are working with cross-over images. In Poem #11 there is a play of words on 'knitting hands' and 'hands that knit' (though I doubt the author was fully conscious of this because the last line tells us information that hints that a scene is being simply painted). The feeling that these images point to is frustration. A person's old (arthritic) fingers are attempting to knit and still the cat whines about being fed. The author wants to knit and cannot; the cat wants fed and doesn't get what it wants, either. So there is a tension set up that allows the reader to enter because many of us have surely had such similar situations. That the author is pointing our attention to a frustration is rather unhaiku-like. Usually one thinks of haiku as pointing out the joys, the pleasures, the little delights of living, even when the going is rough. And that is important -- the 'when the going gets rough'. If one only wrote of lovely things, the haiku become insipid. Coming from our Western literary history, where bitching is so valued, it is even more wholesome reading haiku because they give us a spiritual lift. Life is good. It depends on the point of view. If you tend to see situations in a negative way, maybe haiku is just what you need to teach you to look at the positive side or at least a neutral one: twisted fingers / knitting into the scarf / hungry cat cries Notice, that by using 'cries' you cannot tell if I have ended the haiku with a verb or a noun. The syntax would suggest it is a verb, but if you read just the last line it makes (a) sense to see 'cries' as a noun. An old haiku trick.

Poem #12 wins.

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13.

a deft thumbnail;

a cavernous nostril

awaits penetration

14

live trees black

against gray night sky

give me hope

Poem #13 is typical of the type of haiku-like poem that is commonly called a senryu (sen-you-rue). These poems are on the dark side of haiku, using images and language and subjects which commonly would not be used for a 'real' haiku. Because it is personal taste in subject matter and language that determines whether one would call this a senryu, one person's senryu is another person's 'real life haiku'. Most haiku judges would not find picking one's nose a very uplifting or insightful sight. The use of the word 'penetration' gives it a sexual twist and certainly adds to the dimension of the perceived scene. Actually, this gives it a very good senryu aspect. It shows a person being just who s/he is (we all have picked our nose) and adds the idea that the act is related (by penetration) to the sexual act. No wonder this is a pleasure to be enjoyed in private.

Some readers would find the fun of comparing nose-picking to sex to be more uplifting than black trees in a gray sky, and I, too, have moods when this would be true for me, yet the images of nature/nature of #14 bring it closer to the realm of haiku.

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15.

The sun's burning heat

keeps warm the newborn chickens

Soon they will be free

16.

small billy goat

with a sideward glance

ramming mom

I have several problems with Poem #15. First of all, the author of the haiku should aim for accuracy to make the poem believable. Chickens are hatched; not born. "The sun's burning heat" does not sound like the gentle heat that a young animal or bird would need. Also, the phrase "soon they will be free" makes no sense to me. Free of what? I have the feeling this is a dreaded 'desk haiku'. The situation where the author sits at her/his desk, trying to think of a haiku, grabs an image from memory and sets it down. Because memory is usually imperfect, and especially if one is not remembering an explicit scene, the information gets garbled. I suspect the "Soon they will be free" suggests the chickens are still in the eggs although in line #2 they are already 'born' or hatched. I think one can write haiku if there was an event which you experienced and return to in memory. But this 'return to an event in memory' means you have the psychic skill to transport yourself back in time to the very event, hold you there while you re-examine the situation and the action long enough to form an important thought about it.

Many times, in the evening, when I have time to sit and review the day, I revisit interesting or pleasant experiences to see if there is any haiku material in them which I was too busy to notice earlier. These haiku never have the freshness and immediacy of one I would write one the spot would have, but still I find it worthy training.

I suspect that the author of #15 was feeling trapped or confined, tried to transfer those feelings to chickens not yet hatched (valid material for a poem -- go for it!). But the author was working with a memory, or worse still, just an idea, of how it is for unhatched chicks.

Poem #16, then perfectly illustrates a small, accurately reported scene and does it in such a way that much more is implied. More on this poem in the next round.

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ROUND TWO

2.

morning mist her period arrives a week late

4.

winter night rain

patters on the roof --

the wipers groan

Poem #4 comes out of that section where personification was discussed. This poem demonstrates one of its 'gray' areas. It can be that the sound windshield wipers make could be called a "groan", but usually, one associates the slapping or clacking sound from them going back and forth. Therefore, I become suspicious that the author has transferred his/her 'dislike' of the rain falling on the roof. The fact that the haiku ends with a verb (I know I do it and many other people do it, but it is one of those situations to avoid) makes me value the poem less highly. In addition, to end with the depressing word 'groan' is not conducive to creating the upbeat and almost holy joy with which a haiku should leave the reader.

Poem #2 wins.

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6.

mist on water's edge

watched from heights above the shore

folds his weathered hands

7.

dairy lights

pinned against the early dark --

up the next hill, home

I wrote one judgment against #6 and by the time I got to the end of my thoughts I realized how good the poem really was. So now I am faced with having to say what makes Poem #7 less good. Probably the use of "pinned" along with "dairy'"lights. I know that the dairy lights in the distance may have looked as if they were pinned against the sky but for haiku I would like to see an association between the verb and the noun. Also, the use of the comma in the last line makes me wish the author had just written 'home up the next hill' to avoid this punctuation.

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9.

Among the branches

A cobweb motionless hanging

While catching the rain

12.

tendrils of lovesongs

curl with the cigarette smoke

blue in the lamplight

Though Poem #9 looks and sounds very much like a haiku, and not a bad one at all, I have trouble with reality and validity of the statement. When it rains, webs usually jiggle as the raindrops bounce on the strands. As the new drop catches the web, the other drops may be dislodged. The only time, I know of, that webs get covered with glistening drops is when they collect dewdrops. It can be at the end of the rainshower, there is still so much moisture in the air that webs will collect drops. So I am splitting frog hairs. These two poems are so closely matched, that is my only way of justifying my choice of picking #12.

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14

live trees black

against gray night sky

give me hope

16.

small billy goat

with a sideward glance

ramming mom

Poem#14 has the fault that the three lines read as one on-going sentence. With just a bit of rewriting, the author could have kept these words to say the thought in a haiku way. However, the inclusion of 'give me hope' is more tanka-like than haiku. Even if one wrote 'give hope', there would still be the 'problem' of the abstract idea. If one wants to truly make #14 a haiku, it would need an image in the third line that feels hopeful without saying that. Notice how deftly Poem #16 gives you an idea and an impression by simply placing pictures side by side for the reader. For that reason, #16 wins.

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ROUND THREE

2.

morning mist her period arrives a week late

6.

mist on water's edge

watched from heights above the shore

folds his weathered hands

Poem #2 is a classic example of equating states of nature with human feelings. Here it is done perfectly. The poem does not tell the reader how to feel about either "morning mist'" or "her period arriving a week late" but lets the reader figure out how s/he feels about this. This is excellent haiku tactic. Not always can an author make such good use of this technique. There is no reason this poem could not win. Except. I like #6 very much. I like its 'attitude', its quiet and meditative tone -- all which are top qualities in a haiku. I like the way the reader has to read it several times to find its path and the connection between the first line and the third. It is hard to write about awe but this author has done it.

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12.

tendrils of lovesongs

curl with the cigarette smoke

blue in the lamplight

16.

small billy goat

with a sideward glance

ramming mom

As charming as the phrase "tendrils of lovesongs" is, it is rather 'unhaiku-like' in the traditional sense. Perhaps as we assimilate the Oriental form with our Western poetics, this will become a vibrant part of the haiku of the present/future. If one compares a scene in a bar and a farm scene, one would say the more traditional haiku would be found 'out in nature' in the country. This is not reason enough to choose #16. Though I find #12 creates beautifully an accurate impression of a scene, #16 does more. It involves the reader in wondering what was the meaning of the small billy goat's sideward glance. This type of reader response is what lifts a haiku out of simply being a description of the scene.

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ROUND FOUR

6.

mist on water's edge

watched from heights above the shore

folds his weathered hands

16.

small billy goat

with a sideward glance

ramming mom

So, which one of these two is the better? It is easy to love the humor in #16 which is exactly right for a haiku. For me, the scene is perceived and reported with a minimum of words and transports faithfully what the author saw. The feelings generated by the scene are hinted at enough so the reader can follow the author's heart.

I keep stumbling over the idea in #6 that it is the mist that folds "the weathered" hands. Though this is a haiku technique, it is one that is not used very often because it is so difficult to pull off successfully. The fact that I keep stubbing my toe on the idea suggests that the technique is very close, but not completely perfect. Kudos to the author for trying. But for me, the action swings back and forth too much between the mist at the shore, the watcher on the cliff and the action there. Poem #16 is simpler and more compact, not only in writing but in scope. Thus, I would pick it as The Winner of The Sea Shell Game #4! Congratulations to the author -- Kathryn Terrell!

 

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