‘An island entire’ – judging the NZPS 2011 Haiku comp

Judging is a lonely job in which a man is, as near as may be, an island entire. – Abe Fortas

Today my sack of poems from the NZPS 2011 International Haiku Competition arrived. This is my first time judging for the NZPS, and I’m feeling a strange surge of pleasurable anticipation. I know from previous experience (having thrice before edited the anthology) that there is likely to be a mixture of Good, Bad and Ugly, but that’s the case in everything. I have to say that I am greatly heartened to find that the entries all seem to be on sensible sized bits of paper too – I was dreading opening the parcel up to find kazillions of little strips that I would have to try to keep under control. (See my previous post about Things to avoid when entering a poetry competition.)

Obviously I can’t give any info about the individual poems, but I thought it might be mildly entertaining to blog a little about the process as I go through it. Results have to be completed and a Judge’s Report submitted by June 30th, so I have a tad over three weeks to get it all done. Which should be quite doable, although it does mean that I’ll probably spend the rest of this week obsessively reading and rereading nothing but haiku.

A couple of interesting questions (for myself, if no-one else):

  • how early on will the winner emerge?
  • What proportion of the entries will actually be haiku (as opposed to American Sentences, epigrams or pseudo-ku)?
  • How many haijin will I either recognise or think I recognise?

And a bit of trivia, to keep you guys amused until I surface again:

Right – hand me my snorkel and fins, I’m about to dive in.
Wish me luck!

(… as you waaave me goodbyyyyyye,
cheer-ee-oh, here I go, on my waaaaay …)

7 Replies to “‘An island entire’ – judging the NZPS 2011 Haiku comp”

  1. I’m not sure how you define “actually haiku” – for instance, what is a “pseudo-ku”? What I’m wondering is how many entries – particularly the schools’ entries – will be exactly seventeen syllables.

    As for American sentences – presumably a seventeen syllable entry all in one line can still be a haiku if it fulfils other haiku criteria – many Japanese haiku are written in one single line, after all.

    (And yes, good luck!)

    1. There are a couple of key things for haiku. The main one is that it needs to convey a moment of insight or recognition – the “ah!” moment. Realistically that’s the most important thing, and the hardest to nail. If there’s no sense of discovery (or realisation), then it’s not really working.

      Seventeen syllables is almost always too long for haiku in English – brevity is another key factor. I’m only looking at the adult entries, but from experience editing the anthologies the schools probably have proportionally fewer entries that go to the seventeen syllable count. Essentially you ask if there are words the poem doesn’t need except to fill the syllable count. If there are, it’s a fault and counts against the poem. I have come across some good seventeen syllable haiku – Jeff Harpeng had one in the NZPS anthology a couple of years ago – but they’re the exception. And it’s usually a surprise if I do go and count the syllables – if I start to wonder if it’s a counted-ku, that’s usually a sign that the poet hasn’t pulled it off. (A bit like a really good sestina – the longer it takes for you to realise that it is this form, the better the poem is doing its job.)

      Then there’s the absence of the poet – if you think about the classic personal lyric poem, the poet takes you by the hand and shows you something, telling you what they feel about it. (I know it’s more subtle and varied than that, but it’s not an unfair approximation.)
      Haiku needs to perform a disappearing act, so that nothing stands between the reader and the “moment”. In haiku, the poet just tells you where to stand, and leaves the looking (and the piecing together of significance) to the reader. Again, hard to explain and quite hard to do. But you know it when you see it.

      Use of metaphor is another tricky area. Haiku doesn’t use them. (Again, I’m generalising here. But it’s a good all-purpose yardstick.) A haiku can be a metaphor, but it shouldn’t actually use one. It’s what is referred to as an unresolved metaphor – the two things are presented side-by-side with no preference for one part to be tenor and/or the other vehicle. So instead of looking at the moon as a balloon (which limits you to seeing only the aspects of moon that are balloon-like, and the balloon itself not at all), you see the moon and the balloon, and can oscillate between them. It’s all about maximising the charge of the poem and leaving things open. And not putting anything between the reader and the moment – a good metaphor takes you away from the poem for a second, while you think “yes, how clever”. Again, tough to do and tough to explain, but something that you get a feel for if you read enough good haiku.

      And while you can get good haiku that are phrased as a single continuous sentence, they’re the exception. Because haiku began as the first verse of a long collaborative poem, it should always feel a bit unfinished. American sentences are more about the poet and about being definite. Closer to an epigram in feel. Haiku usually have a more broken feel – you sometimes see it described as “fragment and phrase”. Sentence construction will tend to privilege one part or another as the main focus – which takes us back to the point I tried to make about metaphor. And while Japanese haiku are printed as one line (and some very good English haiku ditto), there’s almost always a kireji in there somewhere – the “cutting” word that breaks it up. You can take a sentence and jiggle the syntax to make it (structurally) into a haiku, (and vice versa), but there is a difference between the two.

      What do I define as a pseudo-ku? Something that wears a haiku shape without actually managing to be a haiku. Fake profundity is a typical characteristic – I should be able to get some sense of what the “ah!” is, even if I don’t find it compelling. It’s not enough just to bang two bits of broken phrase together and call it haiku. Or things that are just descriptive without having any sense of depth. Once again I have to use the phrase “tough to do and tough to explain, but you get a feel for it.” (I think I’ll start abbreviating that to TTDATTE …)

      Has that thoroughly confused your question?

  2. Yes, good luck Joanna – I thoroughly enjoyed my judging experience with NZPS a few years ago, very intense though.

    Catherine, if you’d like to know more about where haiku is at in English, there is a range of good articles by various authors stored on the NZPS website:


    Look in the left-hand menu for “Archived Articles”.

    1. Thanks Sandra – should have thought of it myself … I blame it on being under-caffeinated. Which I’m just off to remedy!

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