As a memorial to Editor Bob Spiess, who died on March 13, 2002,
Modern Haiku sponsors The Robert Spiess Memorial Award
Many haiku of quality combine unexpectedness with inevitability
—that “shock of mild surprise” (Blyth), followed immediately by
the felt-significance of “Of course, that’s just as it is.” —Robert Spiess
First Prize: Carolyn Hall
an unfinished painting
on the easel
Mayflies belong to the order Ephemeroptera, from the Greek for “short-lived.” In their adult stage mayflies live no more than a day. Hall’s haiku relates this transient natural element to the human element of an incomplete painting on its easel. A “shock of mild surprise” arises from the juxtaposition itself, which feels both deeply intuitive and irreducible: death in an afternoon and an unrealized vision of reality. We are left to imagine what the painting might be of — but it seems likely a landscape painting, given the presence of the mayflies and, thus, the implication of a setting out of doors. Part of the landscape has suddenly risen up, perhaps distracting the painter, who while endeavoring to capture something for “all time,” frozen in a static image, now confronts the very essence of movement and ephemerality. How ironic it will be if because of that the painting remains unfinished. The connection between elements is underscored by carefully crafted sound patterns: the vowels of “may” and “paint-,” the “f” of “flies” and “-finished,” and the “z” sound of “flies” and “easel” (yes, an “s” often represents a “z” sound; trust your ears, not eyes). This extraordinary haiku, which possesses a rare je ne sais quoi, certainly delivers a “felt significance” that keeps one pondering it long after a first reading.
Second Prize: James Chessing
opening the door
to an unexpected knock
the fragrance of plum
Chessing took our theme speculation literally, actually using the word “unexpected”! The unexpectedness is confirmed by his startling third line, which presents the reader not with the solution to the riddle, with its tinge of anxiety, “who could be knocking at this time of day,” but offers instead the beautiful scent of a fruit tree in bloom. That the poet selects “plum” is also significant in that the blooming plum is one of the earliest signs of spring.
Third Prize: Kirsty Karkow
a box turtle
slowly unpacks its legs
first warm day
The key word “unpacks,” at once precisely descriptive and suggestively allegorical, universalizes the turtle’s action without merely anthropomorphizing it. The specificity of “box turtle” adds to the image, and the final “ks” sounds of “box” echo in “-packs.” We land safely in “of course” territory with “first warm day,” which at once “explains” and situates the action of the first two lines in a broader context.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
so few feathers left
it barely has a name
the melting snow
What is “it”? A bird, we deduce from the feathers. By losing its colors and field marks, the bird is also losing its name and becoming a nearly undifferentiated bit of reality. The snow, too, though immediately recognizable and handily lending itself to the Adamic impulse, is vanishing. This haiku illustrates perfectly the gist of Spiess’s speculation.
a passing cloud darkens
the skylit room
This very intellectual haiku works better the more the reader knows about the artist’s life and work but still appeals without a detailed knowledge of art history. Caravaggio (1571–1610) was an Italian painter renowned for his novel use of light. Whatever success he managed to garner in his lifetime was thrown away by his pugnacity, and he was frequently run out of town for brawling or, in one case, murder. This haiku apparently is set in a museum (judging from the use of the plural of the artist’s name), so the skylit room can be taken both literally and as a reference to the artist’s treatment of light, while the darkening might suggest the turbulence of the artist’s life.
he wills his body
“Autumn wind” is one of the most used of the traditional Japanese kigo, bringing to the haiku reader’s mind a time of natural decline and senescence—the “golden years.” It is not easy to find a new wrinkle on this old theme, but Hall has done so by focusing on the kind of decision a mature person makes. After the unexpected shift from nature to modernity, the reader mentally sighs and says, “Of course, that’s just as it is.”
the car surrounded
The flickering lights of the screen and whatever diverting, fictional, human-centered dream reality they portray are suddenly upstaged by the flickering lights of nature —here, now, and real—twinkling about the car.
the last long weekend
of the summer
Soules skillfully matches two images relating to the transitional period between summer and autumn. “The last long weekend” strongly hints that the poet is about to go back to a regular, humdrum existence. He writes “the summer,” not just “summer,” making it clear that this haiku is not a statement about summer in general. “Woodsmoke” suggests a campfire or a fire in a cabin fireplace — perhaps because of the chill in the air? A very nicely integrated haiku, full of feelings of sabi.
The 2010 Robert Spiess Memorial Haiku Award Competition received 377 entries from 8 countries. The judges want to thank each of the 99 poets who sent in their fine work and especially Billie Wilson for her peerless organizational skills, hard work, and unflagging good humor in making this competition possible.
Allan Burns and Charles Trumbull, judges