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Are you interested in a Call of the Page course? We run courses on haiku; tanka; tanka stories/prose; haibun; shahai; and other genres.

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Call of the Page (Alan & Karen)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Extended Judge’s Report for 2013 World Monuments Fund Haiku Contest from Alan Summers

Extended Judge’s Report for 2013 World Monuments Fund Haiku Contest continuing from:

n.b. Which monument am I sat in front of?  See at the very end.

Haiku (plural and singular spelling) are the shortest of all short poems, and rarely take longer than six seconds to read. Although there are many approaches, the most commonly recognised version is that of three very short lines, containing two images often, but not always, taken from real life, that bounce off each other.

These two images may or may not have an obvious connection at first reading, but create a friction where two things rub up against each other and the reader can make up their own new third or overall image, and become joint poet during that time.

This kind of short poem works well if it’s especially crafted with a well-written and intentional rearrangement of words from our common language, that pulls an emotional connection, and reaction, out of us which makes us feel included.

Haiku often allow every reader to be a joint creative writer/reader while they read it, and the poem should feel far greater than the sum of its physical count of words.  

So what actually makes a haiku?

To start with, haiku is commonly known as a poem with three very short lines.  By the way, the word haiku means both a single haiku and the plural of haiku, something we’ve taken from the Japanese lack of singular and plural meanings in their language, which makes for interesting slants of meaning.

In Japan, haiku came about in force, back at the end of the 19th century and very beginning of the 20th century, (haiku is the term coined by Masaoka Shiki who died aged 35 in 1902).  Though very modern, like most things, it’s connected to the past just as music is, for instance.

Haiku came from a connection with other literature covering a thousand years, when it evolved from being a starting verse in a long poem where each verse was written by different poets, and this long poem was called renga, and then after Basho (1644 – 1694), as renku.

Why is haiku so popular in the Western world?

It should be easier for Japanese people to write haiku because of their multi-based language system, yes they have three systems, we only have the one with just 26 letters.  The Japanese language systems have such a rich resource to capture an incredible amount of detail within so few characters and ideograms.

Yet an incredible amount of people attempt to write haiku in English all around the world, and I’m glad that they do.

Back to Japanese, can we write close to what a good Japanese haiku writer can, with just the one language system that we have, when…

The Japanese system of characters for their language:
©Smashing Magazine  
There are 50,000 kanji characters, but 1000 to just under 2000 are used by most people (phew!)

Then there are hiragana and katakana: each have 46 characters in modern use (there used to be more).

Kanji represents ideas or objects, hiragana expresses the grammatical relationships between them. Katakana is used to write words which have been borrowed from other languages, including various foreign names and names of countries.

The pool in total that many ordinary Japanese haiku poets might use is around 2040 characters or greater, instead of the 26 letters of the single English-language alphabet that we use.  Oh, and don’t forget that punctuation in Japanese is in words not symbols, as we use in English, and they are part of the sound-unit aka ‘on’ count as part of the poem, so that a 17-on Japanese haiku could be 15 or 16 sound-units long, plus one or two sound units that are the punctuation ‘word-phrases’.

A haiku is so brief it could easily be written on the back of a postage stamp (remember those things before txt messaging, and other social media?) but the techniques to make a good haiku could fill something the size of a novella, and millions of people every day have a go all the same, which is great news for us.

Regarding "on" and its mora length and nature here are three useful web links:

Haiku in English
copyright©Alan Summers, With Words

So how do we read, and even write, something so short as haiku in English that can still end up as a poem, without the benefit of the complex set of systems that the Japanese have?  As Japan borrowed art and writing techniques to incorporate into the modern haiku so we too borrow from them to do our haiku, with techniques taken from their use of a reference to a season or part of a season (kigo), and how to insert a type of pause between the two short parts of a haiku (kire, kireji).

The main characteristics of a haiku are two images that work well together, not necessarily close in direct subject matter, sometimes in slight opposition to each other: A juxtaposition is the most commonly used method, although there are others, especially in contemporary haiku, such as disjunctive methods.  I will touch on this at a later date. But for now…

Those two images create an electricity, charging up the reader to create their own vision of what the haiku has become as a poem.

Haiku work best with concrete images, yet often with a fine tightrope walk between objective and subjective phrasing.  This balancing act can be enhanced by other approaches, for example, fixing the haiku into part of a season, think Independence Day or Martin Luther King Day, or the British Guy Fawkes Day/Bonfire Night.  This can pin a haiku to a specific part of a season, even a day, and it’s amazing how other memories can flood in when this method is used. Remember, haiku are not so much nature poems but seasonal poems so urban subjects can of course be included.

It’s good to write a haiku in the present tense so that a reader feels the incident being recorded as a haiku poem has been so recent, that the reader need only turn their head to spot the moment being carried out.  That they too can become a witness alongside the original author of the poem who has recorded the incident as it happened.  This is a useful method so that each reader becomes a joint witness, even if the moment happened months or even years ago.  That’s one of the tricks or techniques that can be utilised in modern haiku.

One of the secrets of haiku is gently unearthing the reader’s creativity, reawakening the wonder of day to day life, and dismissing our sometimes jaundiced view of the world. As haiku can also be poems of place, in natural or urban settings, they are perfect for the World Monuments Fund Haiku Contest.

What did I look for when judging the World Monuments Fund Haiku Contest? 

Some of the above I’ve just stated, and also another technique, that of switching our perspective from something big to something small, or the reverse, to zoom in and then zoom out.  Something very effective in such a small tiny poem as haiku.

So what were the season time stamps in many of the winning haiku?

cricket is an Autumn seasonal reference in Japanese haiku, a time of reflection, memories, and a certain wistful sadness.

stars is also an Autumn reference, in the Japanese poetical sense.

butterflies are usually a Spring reference in Japanese haiku.

robin is usually seen as a seasonal reference to Spring in North America, and a Summer kigo in Japan, for the Japanese Robin.  In Britain the robin is a strong seasonal reference for Christmas unless accompanied with a dominant seasonal phrase from another season.

My Judge’s Report

A fine selection of verses which took quite a time to finally whittle down to a shortlist of first nine haiku, finally becoming six haiku, in order to pick prize-winning authors, and semi-finalists. Because of the nature of the organisation holding the competition, and that I am fascinated and moved by a strong sense of place (both external and/or internal), and identification with that place, each of the entries went through a tough and ruthless process. The final shortlisted haiku had to endure further relentless scrutiny and even further relentless scrutiny for a chance to earn their positions in the winning places of this competition.

First Prize, The Endless Column
I kept coming back to the Endless Column which seemed to both represent a particular place and event but also so much struggle in so many countries, not just Romania, but every country through time.   The mention of a cricket (another cricket) counting stars is a magical and memorable part of this haiku.  The two images worked well bouncing off each other, and another cricket is counting the stars lifted this haiku quite literally beyond its immediate place to perhaps one of Japan’s favorite haiku writers, that of Issa, who felt at one with all insects in particular, because of his tough and challenging life.

The second prize seems to beautifully capture so much of what is great about the American expanses, and how vital Route 66 is for American culture and for anyone who has travelled, or read about this amazing road, perhaps one of the biggest places, and monuments, and an iconic inspiration to those both inside and outside America.  Many of us are at a crossroads at some time in our lives, and perhaps passed by a rain-filled hubcap teeming with stars  which is such a terrific phrase for a haiku.

The third prize haiku combines the history of a world famous site known to many across media platforms as the Wailing Wall but by other names by those who live there.  It is a site for prayer and pilgrimage which dates back to the 4th century.  But do we not all need sustenance of one kind or another, even butterflies taking salt from the mud close to this religious place?

The Semi-finalists also, in their own individual manner, encapsulated something of the essence of place, from the famous maze of Henry VIII’s Hampton Court, with its incredible history and mix of complex politics, to the monument of love that the Taj Mahal represents, to Ha Long Bay, a precious and fragile area under risk from the tourist industry.

Alan Summers,
Japan Times award-winning writer

First Prize: Christina Oprea
Site: Endless Column
the Endless Column -
somewhere, another cricket
is counting the stars

Second Prize: Mark E. Brager
Site: Route 66
crossroads . . .
a rain-filled hubcap
teeming with stars

Third Prize: Mike Blottenberger
Site: Wailing Wall
near the Wailing Wall
butterflies drinking salt
from the mud

Semi-finalist #1: Matthew Paul
Site: Hampton Court
spring wind
a robin at Hampton Court
enters the maze

Semi-finalist #2: Neal Whitman
Site: Taj Mahal
photographs of Taj Mahal
in a well-thumbed book

Semi-finalist #3: Carol Judkins
Site: Ha Long Bay
gold rush-
in Ha Long Bay,
the dragon weeps

Please do visit the video of the award-winning entries:

Where am I sitting?

I’m sitting in Barton Farm Country Park in Bradford on Avon:

In front of the 4th Century Tithe Barn (with a large cross shaped opening/window):


Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn:

This shows the other side of that cross shaped window opening:

Alan Summers, 
a double Japan Times award-winning writer, Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions nominated, now based in Chippenham, England, runs Call of the Page, which provides literature, education and literacy projects, as well as online courses often based around the Japanese genres.   

He is a past co-founding editor for Bones Journal (contemporary haiku), and his latest full-length collection Does Fish-God Know contains contemporary and experimental haiku with short verse published by Yet To Be Named Free Press.

Various essays and articles include:

Haiku: The Art of Implication over Explication

More than One Fold in the Paper: Kire, kigo and the meaning of vertical axis by Alan Summers (April 2016)

575haiku - Traditional Haiku as three lines and in a 5-7-5 English language syllables pattern

Travelling the single line of haiku:

The Reader as Second Verse

Black dogs and afternoon rain:

Themocracy: The Themocrats and their Concept Albums
Four book reviews by Alan Summers of writers who weave theme:

The Golden Carousel of Life:  
Senryu, An Application to be a) human

Failed Haiku: A Journal of English Senryuū-An-Application-to-be-a-human-by-Alan-Summers.pdf 

An interview with Shloka Shankar of Sonic Boom magazine where I talk about the negative and white spaces of haiku as the White Paintings of haiku

We run various popular courses:

Haiku (plural and singular spelling) are the shortest of all short verses, with an intended arrangement of words to draw on an emotional reaction from a reader. The intention is to create an effect far greater than the sum of the actual number of words used.

“…a haiku often juxtaposes two [different] objects and challenges the reader to make an imaginary connection between them.”
From the Preface viii, Light Verse from the Floating World by Makoto Ueda
Columbia University Press, New York 1999

Traditionally haiku are rooted in the seasons, and you can have half the poem already written by adding a season. Haiku are also ideal for urban observations, and as a kind of short-hand for remembering events, the important days in our lives, and the often overlooked things that do matter and risk being forgotten.  Haiku can also make for excellent ecological and environmental writing. 

Above all these incredibly distilled verses can be wonderfully therapeutic.  They can also work out both the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ side of the brain which is a useful exercise to help stave off memory deterioration.

The secret of haiku is gently unearthing both our own creativity; reawakening or reigniting the wonder of day to day life and that of the reader too. It’s can be about dismissing or reducing our media jaundiced view of the world which is healthy even in the best of times and especially in the worst of times, to paraphrase Charles Dickens and the opening line to A Tale of Two Cities.

Haiku is The Golden Thread and our various haiku courses can help you find it.

For information on our popular online courses for haiku, and tanka poetry, or haibun or tanka story/prose please feel free to contact Karen Hoy, Course Director, at:


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