The Robert Spiess Memorial
2020 Haiku Awards
In Cantonese cookery there is a technique called wok hei, which was metaphorically described by Grace Young as "the breath of the wok," and is only achieved by the most accomplished chefs. It involves the application of intense heat combined with infinite variables of chemistry, artistry, and some say magic, to impart a distinctive flavor to the food. Similarly, in the practice of haiku, Robert Spiess embraced the tenets of the craft, but with extraordinary attention to an "inherent felt-rhythm" proffered by this year's theme, writing in the autumn 1988 issue of Pine Needles (Vol. 1, No. 4, p. 10):
". . . a haiku should not sound prosaic or choppy when read; it seems to need a sort of “hidden rhythm” that accords with the theme—this can only be felt, not ratiocinatively explained."
This "magical breath" is the critical element that I sought in selecting the haiku that follow.
Alan S. Bridges, judge
First Place: Corine Timmer
sprouting grass —
the slaughter tag
in the lamb's ear
The contrasting images in this haiku are masterfully assembled, the softness of emerging grass and a lamb's ear, set against the stark reality of the pivot line. While our society imbues the lamb with imagery of a pastoral setting and the symbol of Jesus Christ, in strict livestock terminology, a lamb is "a young sheep under 12 months of age which does not have any permanent incisor teeth in wear." The slaughter tag shows a flock number and has an embedded electronic microchip that identifies the unique individual. The soft 's' sounds mixed with the hard 't's almost secretly complement the cyclicity of this poem, the annual sprouting of grass and the harvesting of the lamb. The difficult subject matter and the skill with which it is addressed elevate this poem to First Place position.
Second Place: Terri L. French
in the center
of the cavern
a call to worship
Just as there are infinite forms of spirituality, there are many ways that this poem may be interpreted individually. I choose to read it in two ways, metaphorically as a centering of one's spiritual self in a hollow place, and secularly as an expression of reverence for the natural wonder of a chamber in a cave—and where it takes me is an abstract combination of both. And true to this year's theme, the repeated 'er' sounds in each line skillfully echo what one might experience in an actual cavern, as did I at the cathedral room at Luray Caverns in Virginia, as described by The Smithsonian, "There’s nothing more beautiful than these scarves, shawls, lambrequins of translucent calcite, some white as snow, falling in graceful folds, fringed with a thousand patterns, and so thin that a candle held behind one of them reveals all the structure within.”
Third Place: Julie Emerson
in a jar of rain
on her grave
A symbol of spring, the return of daffodils reminds me of my mom, kneeling with a spade and turning back the earth. Her daffodils still sprout but have lost their energy to flower. The second and third lines, "a jar of rain / on her grave," a conglomeration of single-syllable words, are beautifully composed, with internal rhyming elements in 'rain' and 'grave.' What sets this poem apart is the unique description of ‘a jar of rain,' rather than 'a jar of water,’ analogous to the grave, which is likewise a container that holds something that was once a kinetic part of the universe. Nature is happening all around us and the untended flowers are taken care of, as are we, as we appreciate the vision of this haiku.
Honorable Mention Awards (unranked)
shearing season —
before the first snip
the boy's wince
This palpable poem brings me back to my boyhood—I love the expression of innocence. It conveys that Robert Spiess "internal felt-rhythm," to my senses. Shearing season is in late February and early March, usually done in a shearing shed, the timing of which encourages pregnant sheep to stay inside where the lambs can be safely born. This is the time of year when the nights are still cold yet there holds the promise of birth, growth, and the return of warmth to the farm. I see the 'first snip' as symbolically representing the cutting of ties to winter and opening up a young boy's heart to what lies ahead.
a baby's cry —
While I don't share the connection physically, I can easily comprehend the complexities of a mother's reactions to a baby's cry. I like the haiku moment that is so naturally shared, in just a few words. The repeated 'b's and 'er's are effective in furthering the message in a very tender way.
the last of the sun . . .
I like the way this haiku begins and ends with three-syllable words and fills in with all one-syllable words. It has a musicality about it that draws me in and warms my soul, both in the substance and delivery.
four o'clocks in the bowl on the day she forgot my name
What triggers a memory? A bowl of flowers? A certain scent? Here is the juxtaposition of a memory created and a memory lost. The monostich format works perfectly to reflect this scene. The repeated 'o' sounds, the words 'four' and 'forgot' and the internal rhyme of 'day' and 'name' trans- form prose into poetry.
the distant flute
of a wood thrush
The use of 'flute' as a verb lifts this haiku to a magical level. It is almost as if the thrush is a woodwind instrument, coaxed out of hiding by the spring wind. In a flute-like manner, the male wood thrush is able to sing two notes at once. Henry David Thoreau wrote, "Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of Heaven are not shut against him.” Thoreau also wrote of the wood thrush, “He touches a depth in me which no other bird’s song does.” This haiku captures that sentiment.
When I was asked to judge this competition there were pieces of news emerging from Wuhan, China, which as I received the entries, had exploded to every corner of the world. Only by coincidence did I very early in the process begin drafting the introduction with an analogy to Cantonese cookery, which evolved centuries ago very near to the epicenter of the recent Covid-19 outbreak. I am grateful for the grounding that haiku has afforded me, and us, as we continue to connect with each other through this gift. Thank you to everyone who submitted your lovely and heartfelt poems to the Robert Spiess Memorial 2020 Haiku Awards Contest. Going forward, I hope we can live these words attributed to Mark Twain, “Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” Through our haiku family I trust that we can share and continue in that spirit.
Alan S. Bridges, judge
Billie Wilson, contest coordinator
© 2021 Modern Haiku • PO Box 1570 • Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459