The Robert Spiess Memorial
2019 Haiku Awards
This annual competition has been a favorite of mine for some time: as a poet I’ve relished the periodic challenge of approaching haiku from a thoughtful perspective beyond my own sense of quality. Each previous year I attempted to select or compose haiku that might best capture the spirit of the featured “speculation” from Bob Spiess, longest-serving past editor of this journal. In the process I believe I’ve come to appreciate and understand better this capacious if diminutive poetic form.
Here is the speculation chosen for 2019:
Originality in haiku does not mean novelty but direct contact with things in their original nature.
The ontological thrust of these words presented a special personal challenge to me as this year’s judge: as a haiku poet I must often restrain myself from either “gilding the lily” or letting cleverness get the upper hand. In a related vein, this speculation also forced me to acknowledge and confront a certain bias against pure “suchness” (ding an sich) in haiku and other poetry which sometimes strikes me as offering little by way of edification (“One thing then learnt remains to me,— / The woodspurge has a cup of three.” – Dante Gabriel Rossetti) or insight (“Again I must remind you that / A Dog’s a Dog — A CAT’S A CAT.” – T.S. Eliot). But the examples just cited might be somewhat unfair . . . I was pleased to find that resonant work can emerge from attentive poets who choose to step at least partly aside, letting the things of their world “speak” of and for themselves.
One more challenge was posed by this year’s speculation. Its orientation to “things in their original nature” rather than to their “originality” (in the sense of novelty) inevitably yielded, and indeed sanctioned, numerous entries about commonplace subjects and everyday phenomena frequently encountered in haiku. Selected poems were screened against Charlie Trumbull’s indispensable haiku database as a precaution; but the responsibility is entirely mine for any of those selections which others might deem “too close” to previously published work found in that database. Let me only suggest that in haiku especially, where every element counts, even minor variations in word choice, syntax or structure can produce not just different poems but a world of difference in effect.
Scott Mason, judge
First Place: Matthew Markworth
fog . . .
it comes and
I’ve chosen this poem both for its audacious simplicity—six monosyllabic words, one repeated—and for its absolute fidelity to the spirit of this year’s speculation. But first let’s take note of a wonderful irony: the “thing” featured in this poem is about as thing-less as one could possibly imagine. The original, essential nature of fog lies in its amorphousness and apparent immateriality. As a result, this nearly wordless (and accordingly porous) haiku relates less to what fog is than what it does, morphing back and forth between presence and absence. But the poem also enacts what fog does to the poet and, by extension, the reader, whose “direct contact” with it is experienced as an approach and sensed anticipation (the enjambed second line) that only “resolves” in retreat and anticlimax (the truncated third line) . . . at least until its return. The winning haiku captures, without confining, the original nature of this most elusive “thing.”
Second Place: Cyndi Lloyd
not a thought
sparkle after sparkle
across the lake
Can one hope to top Basho? The old master once wrote “how admirable / to see lightning / and not think life is fleeting,” which I and others see as undermining, with intellection and judgment, its avowed praise of unmediated experience. In my view the selected poem comes much closer to the mark. True, it does invoke “thought,” but mostly in service to the poem’s experiential effect. I feel here a communion of sorts between mesmerized viewer and scintillating lake where sparkles are sparkles, not flashes of insight. I’ve been blessed with such moments on the water and am delighted to experience another one here, looking over the poet’s shoulder.
Third Place: Angela Terry
moon glow . . .
an owl’s screech
fades into it
Here again we have direct and immediate “contact” with something in- tangible, in this instance “moon glow.” The essential aspect of its original “nature” is an all-consuming nocturnal illumination—a kind of black hole in reverse—, even to the point of neutralizing, through the sorcery of synesthesia, the most nightmarish of sounds. Winter is coming.
First Honorable Mention: Tom Painting
a permanent scuff
from the cottage door
Sometimes a scuff mark is just a scuff mark. Here it’s also a lasting (if unintended) record of domestic life and the passage of those now departed.
Second Honorable Mention: John Barlow
the long shadow of a standing stone midsummer’s eve
For those who belong to the standing-stone-as-floor-calendar school, each monolith’s shadow might be considered a true (if ephemeral) artifact of its “original nature,” one to which this languid monoku pays horizontal homage.
Third Honorable Mention: Gary Hotham
a center for each ripple
A rain-peppered pond produces an aquatic ballet of overlapping ripples, but this poet and poem focus literally on their points of origin—their centers—which simultaneously appear everywhere. From just such a scene St. Augustine might have intuited the original nature of God.
Fourth Honorable Mention: Celia Stuart-Powles
the cat’s tail
a little higher
“Domesticated” cats have shed few if any traits of their underlying animal nature: witness any feline stalking a bird. The instant resonance of this charming haiku speaks as much to our own nature as theirs.
Fifth Honorable Mention: Alan S Bridges
the last drop of oolong
leaves the gooseneck spout
In Sound and Sense, Alexander Pope exhorts poets that “[t]he sound must seem an echo to the sense.” Here the "el" and “oo” sounds beautifully attenuate both the poem and the serpentine (and seemingly reluctant) passage of the last drop of tea. Winter has come.
Scott Mason, judge
Billie Wilson, contest coordinator