The Robert Spiess Memorial
2021 Haiku Awards
I read the 530 submissions from this year’s Robert Spiess Memorial Awards with this Spiess "speculation" in mind:
In the better haiku there is a surprisingly large amount of subjectivity beneath the objectivity of the haiku's entities. This subjectivity is not stated as such, but is wordlessly perceived.
This may be most evident in nature-oriented poems where natural phenomena reflect the human condition. But as long as we are not told how to think or feel, even the most human-centric poems can be presented as objective description of an experience or situation — with a strong undercurrent of subjectivity. That subjectivity comes from the reader’s experience of the poem.
As anyone who has judged a contest knows, it is relatively easy to cull the best 100 from the 500. But it is an entirely different matter to cull the very best from those 100. I found myself writing commentary on nearly twenty poems, and that exercise helped me sort them into award winners and honorable mentions. Still, there are many fine haiku that necessarily ended up on the cutting room floor. I congratulate you all for crafting such fine haiku. And I thank Modern Haiku for giving me the opportunity to spend quality time with them.
~ Carolyn Hall, Judge
First Place: Tom Bierovic
the hospice nurse
gives it a name
An origami boat is light as a feather, floating in our imagination to who knows where. An upbeat image, to be sure. But then in the second line we are introduced to a hospice nurse, and the emotional valence of the poem shifts radically. In the third line we are momentarily misdirected into thinking the boat was given or gifted to someone. Instead, it is given a name. Naming ceremonies in almost every culture are important rites. To name something is to give it substance; to make it real. Substantial enough, in this instance, to carry the soul of the dead to what we often refer to as “a better place.” All this in just nine words! The “story” is whatever we make of it; whatever associations we bring to it from our own lives. It is important that the poet doesn’t spell out the name conferred on the boat. We are left to do this ourselves. Thus the objective becomes subjective. The emotions this haiku engenders in us are unique to each of us, and equally real.
Second Place: Alan S. Bridges
a new spot
on her spine
Thistle seed attracts goldfinches and other birds that crave its high concentration of protein and fat. It has been treated at high temperatures to prevent it from taking hold in your garden. But that’s not always the case. It has been known to take seed and become invasive. Like a malignancy that has taken root in the body. A new spot on her spine. The implications of this one small spot are enormous. The poet knew enough to present us with this simple declaration and leave us to our own reactions. The resulting poem is as powerful as a haiku gets.
Third Place: Sandra Simpson
no headstone —
the rosemary bush
finds its shape
This haiku brings to mind Peggy Lyle’s “I shake the vase / a bouquet of red roses / finds its shape.” But the two poems are very different. Here a rosemary bush stands in place of a headstone. It announces “Here lies . . .” Its shape reflects the shape of a life, presumably well lived. One can only hope that the life of the inhabitant of the grave was as unencumbered and unfettered as that of the free-to-find-its-shape bush. The delightfully pungent fragrance of rosemary makes me hopeful that this is true.
Honorable Mention Awards (in ranked order)
news of his passing
I walk my feet
through morning dew
Absorbing the news of the passing of someone close to us is emotionally overwhelming. The poet captures the sense of dissociation one often feels at such times. I am here; but I am not whole. My feet, my arms, my head, my heart, no longer make up one functioning body. So I “walk my feet” through morning dew. One foot in front of the other. There is a future for me. I will get through this. Perhaps as an automaton now, but as a more fully functioning person soon. The particular language the poet has chosen adds another layer of depth to this poem. One cannot escape the temptation to read the last line as “through mourning dew.” Even the grass under our feet feels the loss of this one soul.
This haiku is especially effective in this time of Covid-19 and the accompanying lockdown we have experienced over the past year. Four walls — both literal and figurative — have hemmed us in; curtailed our lives. On one hand, the nautilus, able to withdraw into its shell and seal itself off, is an apt metaphor. By contrast, the curvilinear shape of the nautilus feels very freeing — spiraling outward as if to empty its contents out into the world. Both humans and sea creatures are part of the same biological kingdom, Animalia. During this past year, one of them has been the more fortunate.
empty begging cup
the old man builds a cross
out of pennies
This poem tells it just as it is. One can see it perfectly. But what gives this haiku such depth of feeling, such enormous resonance, is what it doesn’t say. No mention of homelessness, though one can easily imagine that is the case. No mention of hunger, though one can easily imagine that as well. Just an empty begging cup, and a simple prayer in the form of a cross. As if praying for pennies from heaven. This one tugs at the heartstrings.
lullaby . . .
cradled in mine
We are lulled by the lullaby in the first line into picturing a mother croon- ing to her child. But the tables are turned. It is not a babe, but an old woman, being comforted. A grandmother, so close to the poet’s heart. All those years the grandmother held the child’s hand have narrowed down to this point where the child holds the grandmother’s hand in her own. “cradled” reflects the lullaby in the first line, and the repeated “l” sounds perfectly frame this poem.
the wail of saws
against the sycamore
Morning fog may obscure what is taking place. But the onomatopoeic “wail” of the saws reveals it. This haiku, perhaps more overtly than others, embodies Robert Spiess’s "speculation" that there is a surprisingly large amount of subjectivity beneath the objectivity of the haiku's entities. It is, of course, not only the saws that are wailing, but the poet as well. Who can bear to see this tree (and others) cut down? And for what reason?