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THE SEA SHELL GAME #16

Judge: Jane Reichhold
Happy Halloween, 1998


ROUND ONE

1

early morning dew
creates prisms on freshly
formed butterfly wings



2

blue moon- bright stars
nightime livens up
with celestial lights


One of the most basic 'rules' that I have for myself for writing haiku is: The haiku should consist of two parts - the fragment (one line) and a phrase (two lines that fit together ). By having this 'rule' one can avoid having the haiku seem like a small sentence. Ku #1 shows this perfectly. If the ku were written out in one line it would only need capital letters and punctuation to be a complete sentence. Haiku have a trickier rhythm which gives them a characteristic sound that we Westerns admire. Ku #2 has done this step correctly and with that, wins this match.

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3

thawing snowman:
too small to fight the sun
too large to be unnoticed


4

city goes to bed
the stars are playing
in the nightime sky


In our English poetic heritage, such a comment as "city goes to bed" is an acceptable way of thinking of the subject, and is, in fact, even admired as being 'poetic'. However, in haiku, a genre coming from a culture very different from the Euro-American literary history, views the world differently. In Japan, and especially in haiku, there is a greater effort to separate humans and animals and inanimate things. Also, haiku seems to bring us back to reporting the facts, and as accurately as one can. Therefore, even the statement "the stars are playing" would be avoided. Are they really playing? Or is that the author's idea? In many poetry genre, both images would be welcomed and admired, but in haiku we must lay these aside. Thus, ku #3 goes ahead.

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5

eating leftover lunch
green stuff and beans
wilted lettuce salad


6

small helpless bird
destructive lawnmower
cold-hearted boy


Ku #6 is a perfect example of another difference between Oriental and Western poetry. Part of this concerns the differences in the religions. Buddhism has an attitude that is practically unknown to us. It is to be non-judgmental. To just accept things as we find them. To not decide whether any action or thing is good or bad. It just is. In haiku writing we speak of portraying just the 'isness' of the objects in the poem. That means that in ku #6 we would remove the words "helpless", "destructive", and "cold-hearted". Many people use their haiku writing to practice being less judgmental; to not place our emotions in situations where they may not be accurate. Ku # 5 goes ahead.

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7

hot weather is here
my popsicle a puddle
leaving just a stick


8

county jail
morning glories climb through
razor wire


Ku #7 is a good example of the other side of a way of seeing a happening in the 'correct' Oriental manner. Though I would grant you that a melted popsicle is not as tragic as a bird which has been run over by a lawnmower through the deliberate actions of a boy. Still there is loss, but #7 calmly reports (and probably accepts) the action as part of summer. The poem could have be stronger if the author had referred to summer and not the hot weather to let the reader figure out that it was the heat that melted the popsicle. One of the tricks of haiku is to offer the reader 'clues' to the observed event and then invite the reader to figure out for him/herself what the author was seeing. Ku #8 goes ahead of an otherwise finely seen and reported haiku. These two are very evenly matched.

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9

trees all around
noises in the distance
a tear trickles down


10

arctic icicles
the prism of colors
through a sunbeam


The author of ku #9 has understood one aspect of haiku and avoided that trap. In much of our Western poetry, we are used to stating that if something makes us sad, as in the case in #9, we would probably write "I am so sad". But the author has wisely removed the human action from its emotional load by focusing on describing an action that infers the feeling. Not only does this allow the reader to enter into the understanding of the ku, it also widens the possibilities of the action. What does "a tear trickles down" mean? Was the author sad? If so, why? Then the reader has to go back to the previous lines to get the rest of the information. My feeling was: "trees all around" - hmm, that sounds nicely like a forest; "noises in the distance" - was the author unhappy about some disturbance? Noise pollution? Was that worth crying about? Or were there other feelings? Allergies? If I were alone in the woods and heard nearby noises, what thoughts would I have to make me feel sad? Isolation? But isn't that what I would seek in the woods? But maybe the author was overwhelmed by such a feeling. . . so you see how this haiku set off the thinking patterns in me as reader. This is good and one of the goals of a haiku.

Still, the including of this emotional information is not as haiku-like as the 'colder' - cooler reporting of #10 which will go ahead.

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11

mind goes blank
a poem of three lines
requires much concentration


12

smells of cinnamon
cedar wreaths and shining trees
loved ones gather near


I completely understand the inspiration for #11. When one sets before oneself the 'job' of writing a poem, that demand, that goal is so big one cannot think or feel about anything else. Nothing else is happening in the author's life except the poem. Everyone who writes a lot ends up writing a lot of poems about writing. But haiku is capable of more - much more. The best advice for such poems is to save them, honor them, but go for a walk and be inspired with an even better idea for the next contest. There are poems in our notebooks and there are a few poems worthy of representing the author in contests. When you have a larger pool to chose from your chances are better with one like #12 which passes on this curve.

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13

apple blossoms
fill the air in awe. . .
butterflies dance


14

the crisp breeze swirls
sweeping the covered ground of
crunchy autumn leaves


I have a bit of a problem understanding the second line in ku #13 - "fill the air in awe". I think "awe" is a human emotion so I am having trouble with the idea that apple blossoms are taking over this human job. The use of "butterflies dance" makes me feel the author has not been able to shift over to the impersonal mode haiku requires. In the Japanese way of haiku the butterflies would be permitted to fly or float but dancing would be seen as being 'too human'. Another name for this process used in rule-making is personification. One should not treat the image 'things' as persons by giving them personal attributes. While this attitude gives haiku its clear coolness, serene and objectified, for some persons this goes against feelings that we are all one. As we dance, the flowers and butterflies dance. For these people, I would seriously suggest moving beyond haiku to come to another genre that more closely follows their feelings and beliefs. Do consider investigating tanka.

Notice how in #14, where we would so easily write about 'dancing leaves' the author has avoided doing this. For side-stepping that trap so adroitly, #14 goes to the next round.

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15

waving in the wind
shaking a leaf from it's limb
colorfully down


16

leaves float through the air
lifting from the frosted earth;
whirlwind of color


Both of these poems are very good and I am having trouble finding fault with them. They both have the added advantage that the authors were aware of the current season in which (I assume) the poems were written. They are not discussing seasons past or in the future, but are firmly set in the exact 'now'. Haiku writers make a lot of noise about being in 'the now' or in 'the moment' - an idea I agree with, but I feel that haiku is also writing and needs to exhibit the skillful use of words.

At first I was strongly attracted to the line in ku #15 - "colorfully down". What a marvelous word-play! (Something you will find more of in Japanese haiku than in most English ones.) This expression is a new (to me) and it fits so well into the poem. In the first two lines the poem sounds so somber with a branch moving in a (cold) wind and tearing the leaf from the limb. That makes me feel sad. Maybe not enough to get a tear to trickle, but still sad. I love it then with the author plays with the words and adds, at the same time, the color of autumn. Suddenly my mood is lifted and the sadness is replaced with joy. Quite an accomplishment for three lines.

Still there is a booby-trap for #15. Though haiku are supposed to be written as if the action is happening right now and therefore stated in the present tense Some Japanese critics have made the use of gerunds (verbs ending in ing) a no-no. Though I have trouble accepting this 'rule', and think their reason that because the Japanese language does not have gerunds we shouldn't use them either is not completely reasonable, I do find myself going over my own work and rewriting out the gerunds as much as I can. You can see that the author of #16 did avoid this 'problem beautifully and for that technical adroitness, wins over the lovely wordplay - "colorfully down".

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ROUND TWO

2

blue moon- bright stars
nightime livens up
with celestial lights


3

thawing snowman:
too small to fight the sun
too large to be unnoticed


Notice the difference between these two ku. Ku #2 paints for us a scene that is pretty easy to see in our mind's eye. In #3 the "thawing snowman:" is clear. But notice the next two lines. Judgmental? Right? The 'mental' in judgmental already explains the problem. Haiku are about using our senses - without our intellectual minds. This is not easy for us as Western writers. Yet here is part of the reason for our fascination with haiku. Haiku avoid other people's emotional hangups by keeping clear and centered in reality. For some people this makes haiku too blah and uninvolved. Others are delighted with the emotional 'rest' haiku gives us.

Still #3 engages my thinking and feeling a great deal and is probably close enough to be an 'acceptable' haiku to be published in a magazine. Yet in a contest, and one like there where superior work is beside superior work, I would advance #2.

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5

eating leftover lunch
green stuff and beans
wilted lettuce salad


8

county jail
morning glories climb through
razor wire


Haiku are also evaluated for their moods. Usually one attempts to show images which point out the poignancy of life, the special-ness of our experiences on this planet, a certain joy in nature. Ku #5 seems a real downer - "leftover lunch", "green stuff" (too minor to find the exact word for the item), and "wilted" lettuce salad. It does not seem the author enjoyed lunch and that feeling is what s/he wants to bring to us. Frankly there are enough downers in life. Haiku aims not at the Pollyanna stuff (in reference to a character in a book who always founds the bright side of every situation until the reader wanted to strangle her!), but at looking at the world with a level look. Neither up nor down, as in #5.

Though #5 brings us emotionally heavy images - "county jail" and "razor wire", the image of the flowers able to crawl through the fence gives one the hope that something good can come out of prison. For this, #8 goes ahead.

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10

arctic icicles
the prism of colors
through a sunbeam


12

smells of cinnamon
cedar wreaths and shining trees
loved ones gather near


I was first attracted to #12 because of its subject matter. Somehow the picture painted by #12 was warmer and friendlier than #10. I loved the way the author 'spoke' about a winter holiday but did not mention it exactly. This technique widens the poem considerably to make it nearly universal. If the author had mentioned Christmas, there would have been many people who would have lost interest in the poem at that point. Instead, the smell of cinnamon (is this the first time in this group where smell has been employed - good points for that!) is connected to "cedar wreaths and shining trees" (loved how s/he sneaked that half-rhyme in the line). All of these images, along with the "loved ones gather near" make this an emblem of the best of a winter holiday. The poem is upbeat, warm and friendly. Many persons would have been proud to have written such a ku. By nit-picking I notice that the three lines have end stops. Each line is a complete phrase. This causes a 'choppy' feeling to the rhythm. You see how #10 avoided this problem by hooking lines two and three with the preposition. It would have been easy to rewrite #12 to make this tiny correction. In the meantime, #10 goes ahead.

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14

the crisp breeze swirls
sweeping the covered ground of
crunchy autumn leaves


16

leaves float through the air
lifting from the frosted earth;
whirlwind of color


Not only are these two ku very similar and well matched, they could each be able to be published in any haiku magazine and be among the better works. Only because I must pick one over the other would I point out that in #14 two verbs are set together. In haiku, as in many other genres of poetry, some try to avoid the use of verbs. Here, because the verbs are so similar, many haiku writers would look at the situation and pick one term over another. I have the feeling, too, that the author of #14 was attempting to follow the rule of making the haiku in 5-7-5 syllables. This rule has been cited for so many years as one of the signposts of haiku that it is very hard to change. The truth now seems to be that the phonic units the Japanese are counting in their language are so small - usually one consonant with a vowel or maybe even just a consonant - that our syllables are not very accurate equivalents. When we, English writers, try to use 17 syllables in our haiku we have the problem, as does the author of #14. We need more words to fill up the count. Many authors also try to limit the use of adjectives and adverbs. For the understanding of #14 do we need to know that the leaves are "crunchy"? or did the author need to put that in for the count? It is possible to write 'perfect' haiku in 5-7-5, but it takes even more work and practice to do without padding out the lines just to make them fit a pattern.

Ku #16 goes on to the next round.

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ROUND THREE

2

blue moon- bright stars
nightime livens up
with celestial lights


8

county jail
morning glories climb through
razor wire

I know we have the expression - "blue moon" to mean the rare second time the full moon appears in one month. I have seen the moon appear red as it set or yellow as it rose. I have seen it so white it seemed a blue-white. But what did the author mean by the use of "blue moon"? I know this is a very small thing to pick at, but golly as these ku get winnowed out, the remaining ones are so very good I have to go at the tiniest things! So, if "blue moon" is a cliché, and clichés are discouraged in haiku, then I have a good reason for advancing #8 into the winners' circle.

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10

arctic icicles
the prism of colors
through a sunbeam


16

leaves float through the air
lifting from the frosted earth;
whirlwind of color


Again both of these ku are very good. I love the thought that while the leaves are "floating" (surely downward?) they seem to "lift" a whirlwind of color. This is sublime. I feel that the author of #16 did understand the need for the two lines of the 'phrase' part of the ku to hang together through syntax. For me, it was clear enough that I did not need the punctuation. If the author had written


"leaves float through the air
from the frosted earth
a whirlwind of color

the ku would have failed because of being a sentence. By wisely adding "lifting" and leaving out the article - a, the thought takes on the typical and traditional haiku form without needing the semi-colon. For that reason alone #10 goes into the winners' circle.

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ROUND FOUR - THE WINNERS' CIRCLE


8

county jail
morning glories climb through
razor wire


10

arctic icicles
the prism of colors
through a sunbeam


I love the idea in ku #10 that "icicles" are the prism. This is a fact that we know but is rarely stated. Also ku #10 perfectly shows how strong a ku can be when the use of verbs is avoided. This is not easy to write as we are so accustomed to using verbs with nouns. However, this author has managed the task so smoothly it looks as if anyone could do it. S/he gives us a clear observation for contemplation. Nothing is happening. The verb is gone. This calm, center of being is often the goal of haiku writers. And the author of #10 has accomplished it for her/himself and the reader.

However, for me, I love the way the verb works in #8. If the author had written that the morning glories 'twined' or just 'grew' through the razor wire the poem would not have reached the greatness it has here. But by using the one verb that shows what each person in the "county jail" wants to do - climb unharmed through the razor wire -- the ku is lifted into the aha moment. This shows how carefully one must choose the verb. To think (if one has not instinctively felt) of using the verb to show the way to describe the inner relationship between the two parts of the ku. Some people think of the first and last lines as 'terminals' across which the spark of the reader's imagination will leap. In ku #8 the terminals are "county jail" and "razor wire" - already highly loaded subjects. So what does one use as idea to jump-start the reader's spark? Though many images may come to mind: birds flying over (been there done that), a butterfly rising above, the one that I feel would come closest to the prisoner's heart is something that climbs through. Using the image of morning glories suggests 'the glory of a morning' which is also a nice thought - that the glory of a day also is able to climb through the razor wire. An excellent choice for every word in this poem. One of the tests of a poem is - could any of the words be substituted? Here, I cannot think of one. There is not a single spot of weakness. Every long-time haiku writer I know would be proud to sign their name to this ku. However, it was written by Gene Doty.


8

county jail
morning glories climb through
razor wire

Gene Doty


Comments Copyright © Jane Reichhold 1998.
Poems Copyright © Designated authors 1998.

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