Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur.
The judge is condemned when the guilty is acquitted.
– Syrus, Maxims.
After a short break while the earth moved, it’s back to judging haiku.
This is where I become the anal-retentive, über-picky, petty, finicky and super-hard-to-satisfy critic that people have always warned me I was becoming. (I believe that the German phrase is “Korinthenkacker†”.) Going through and scrutinising poems that I actually quite like. Does it actually say what I think it says? Am I giving it credit it doesn’t deserve? Is the spelling correct? (After allowing for regional variations such as US vs UK English?) Punctuation? Grammar? Does it succeed as a piece of good writing, as well as as a poem? Looking for reasons – however minor – to cut poems out of contention.
A surprisingly large number of basic errors have made it to here. Misspelled words, where the actual word makes no sense in context. Although I can guess what they intended, that’s not what I’m allowed to judge. There was plenty of this in the initial discards, which wasn’t surprising, but now I’m into the ones that have made it through a week of nit-picking. I wish I could quote examples, but they’re probably too distinctive for it to be fair. Not ‘hear’ for ‘here’, or that sort of thing. More like using psychotic where you meant psychic. Chart for chat. Or cart. Possibly examples of spell-checkers making automatic corrections, and the writer then not picking them up?
Another common problem is article abuse. Ok, some people like to strip ‘the’s and ‘a’s and ‘an’s out of poems wherever possible. (Apparently a hang-over from American Creative Writing Workshops in the mid to late 1980s.) I tend to think you shouldn’t take them out unless they’re redundant, but that if removal leaves the poem unharmed and elegant, go for it. BUT (and we’re talking completely callipygian here), you have got to be consistent. Seven poems that made it this far were cut because they used an article in one line, but not in another. And it clunked. It’s often something you see when people are following a syllable count (and was an issue for nearly all the 5/7/5 poems in the competition). It’s just not good writing. Certainly not good editing. And when we’re talking about a poem of seventeen words (or fewer), what excuse is there for not checking every single word?
And then there’s the punctuation thing. I’m widely known as punctuation-obsessive. And yes, lots of haiku are able to function quite well without using conventional punctuation (although then things like spacing and line breaks become absolutely vital). But as well as keeping meanings untangled, they help to separate fragments from phrases, and/or provide an emotional shading (a function Japanese uses kireji for). But even with only one piece of punctuation to use (the most common punctuation in English language haiku are dashes and ellipses), there are poems in this final group who have essentially just bunged it in. In two cases, doing so turns a pivot line into an overt metaphor, and ruins the poem. If I was editing? Not a problem. A quick chat to the poet, and the error could be corrected. But I’m not editing: I’m judging. And no matter how easily fixed the error is, it’s still an error. I can only judge what was submitted, as submitted.
One heartbreaking example is a poem that I’ve had in the top handful all through my deliberations to this point. I keep hoping that I’m being unnecessarily petty here, but I don’t think I am. It’s very simple – no apostrophe. The problematic portion is written:
in the nouns noun
pronoun noun […]
(Not easy to read, but I have to be very careful not to inadvertently give the poet what is still privileged information. Just substitute your own nouns etc.) Please tell me it functions as a grammatically correct phrase even without an apostrophe of possession (either plural or singular) for the first ‘noun’’‽!
† These and other invaluable terms may be found in CJ Moore’s In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World.