Judging Haiku

This summer, I had the pleasure to judge a haiku contest for the Iowa Poetry Association. I’ve judged their general adult category before, so I knew this would be interesting, and I reminded myself that 100 or so haiku only meant reading 1700 syllables! So I dove right in. Of course, it was a little harder than it sounds, and I found I learned a lot about haiku in the process.

I have taught haiku in poetry classes, of course, and I have taught traditional Japanese haiku (in translation) in World Lit classes. I’ve even written haiku, so I had a pretty good idea of what to look for. But the rules for American haiku can be a lot looser than for the traditional form: some argue that keeping the 5, 7, 5 syllable count doesn’t make sense in American prosody. And I agree to a point, though I respect the balance the traditional syllable count creates, even if I wouldn’t stick to it religiously. Having to judge, though, made me consider what I value in American haiku more carefully.

I enjoyed reading all the poems. Many were quite good and most of them, even those that didn’t make the final cut, had strong imagery — one aspect I look for in a haiku. What made the top poems stand out was their economy of language. I think a haiku should reveal a lot with few words, yet it is not a riddle that answers itself. The last line does not resolve the conflicts of the poem or answer a question that has been posed; the lines of the haiku should resonate like a bell struck once, and leave the reader to ponder the images.

Rhythm, and the sounds of the words, though not part of most descriptions of haiku, were part of what made the top poems stand out. There was no one rhythm or meter that I looked for; rather, a richness of sound and rhythm added to the overall significance of the poems. Tight grammar was also important. With one exception, I chose poems that did not include the first person pronoun, and I prefer haiku that don’t use personal pronouns at all. Traditional haiku is sometimes described as poetry without an ego, though that may not be exactly right. The poet doesn’t foreground him or herself in haiku, but is the observer who informs the reader’s vision. In that sense, there is an (unstated) ego.

I also looked for poems that included slight action as well as description to heighten the tension between images. Too much action would detract from the meditation, but if there was too little action, then the poem remained static and lacked energy.

Of course, I broke my own rules — one of the top poems did include an “I” pronoun, but it broke my rules very well! And surprisingly, it wasn’t hard in the end to rank the poems after reading them several times. I won’t say here who the winners were, but if you’re dying to find out, pick up a copy of Lyrical Iowa for 2009 when it comes out.

I was glad of the opportunity to read all the poems — even most of those who didn’t make my final cut had much of merit in them — and the process of judging a form like this gave me more opportunity for reflection than just reading the same number of poems would, or even than teaching or grading would.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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