back to John Hertz, fanwriter

Results of the Nippon 2007 Haiku Contest

from Progress Report 2 (2006)

No Worldcon bid conducted a haiku contest before. But no Japanese bid campaigned for a Worldcon before, either. Of course there was a haiku contest.

I did not judge or enter the contest, but bear a lot of the blame for it. I was asked to report the results. It was an offer I could not refuse.

Haiku are about four hundred years old. In Japan that is not very long. Neither are haiku.

The haiku is a kind of poetry to rouse anyone's sense of wonder. Its three unrhymed lines, of 5-7-5 syllables, communicate a moment. Because haiku are so short, they tend to work by the painter's rule of drawing a brushstroke to show where the mountain isn't. They may be great or small. They may joke or grieve or gleam.

In Japanese literature haiku naturally have a host of rules, for example that one haiku should reveal one season, and that the inner or subjective world, and the outer or objective world, should meet at the end of the first or the end of the second line. The contest did not choose to invoke these rules.

You can read up if you like: try R. Hass, The Essential Haiku (1994); D. Keene, World Within Walls (1976); R.H. Blyth, Haiku (1949).

The administrator and chief judge of the contest was Peggy Rae Sapienza, North America agent for Nippon 2007. Only entries in English were accepted. There were seventeen winners (one is a three-poem set).

Drunken autumn moon
Pours sweet streams of golden wine
And the river drinks

The form of haiku on a page can be interesting. In Japanese, the 5-7-5 syllable rhythm is so natural that a haiku can be written in a single line; this allows no enjambment -- an English-language term for making a phrase run across the break of lines in writing. There are no capital letters, and there may be no punctuation. We can use all of these in English.

The first New Year's dream:
A snow white pigeon
With a green olive branch

On sticky small feet
They walk up walls and ceilings
I want some fly shoes

Haiku means "sportive verse". Some of the great Japanese haiku poets are famous for comedy. The contest did not require science-fiction haiku. Some entries were ambiguous.

I remember stars
In the seasons of my youth
Glimmering through smog

Outside, in the cold,
A hunter's moon and the stars
My destination

The structure of Japanese, and its system of writing, promote a great deal of wordplay. One technique is the use of "pivot words", whose first part looks back to the previous thought, and whose second part looks ahead to the following thought, which is hard in English; see how this entrant approached it with the phrase the stars my destination. That is also the title of a famous s-f novel by Alfred Bester. This technique is much used in Japanese literature; there are poems in which each line is a quotation of a famous poem.

The sheep mills about,
Nervously waiting to see
What others will do.

The dog barks loudly,
Whining, scratching at the crack,
But the door stays shut.

The cat sits calmly,
Quiet, dignified, knowing
The door will open.

This triplet recalls the three haiku about 16th Century warrior-statesmen who unified Japan: Nobunaga, characterized in Nakanunara koroshiteshi-maé hototogisu, "The cuckoo doesn't sing? Kill it at once" (he destroyed all opponents), Hideyoshi, in Nakanunara nakasetemiseyoh hototogisu "The cuckoo doesn't sing? I'll let it sing" (he made the best of his lot), and Ieyasu, in Nakanunara nakumadematoú hototogisu "The cuckoo doesn't sing? I'll wait for it" (he was a master of patience).

          Early Fall
Somewhere in the dark
There is the touch of the mist
And the smell of grapes

In English we can communicate delicately by stating or omitting "a" and "the". This haiku has a title; in Japanese too, some haiku have titles, some don't.

The forsaken wife
Views the fallen maple leaves,
Lovely and forlorn.

See the echoes (certainly I meant that) of the "a" vowel in forsaken and maple, the "l" and "v" consonants in leaves and lovely. Great Japanese poems have expressed emotions the author knew as an artist but did not hold, for example a woman writing from the viewpoint of a man.

The suitor returns
Youthful lines better spoken
Time travel wins girl

A warm spring morning:
Coffee in a white mug and
Apple blossom scent.

          Midnight Snack
It's dark in my room.
I saw a glowing eyeball
Hungrily watching.

A decision made
Animé or food to buy
My tummy grumbles

From abandoned nests
White feathers tumbling slowly
Chill as early snow

See how the patterns of emphasis, and natural pauses, slow the second line, so that its shape goes along with its thought. Japanese does not have stress-accents.

After the sunset
A few glow-worms catch the fire
To light the dog's path

Out in the new fields,
The brown tubers are sprouting.
Hope they're edible.

The subjective world comes crashing in. Comedy? Tragedy? Both?

My brother is ill.
The doctors are all helpless.
This is a bad place.

How I long for home,
Where the hot blue sun lit up
The moons so brightly.

Whether or not you entered the contest, maybe you'll write haiku yourself, traditional or otherwise.

Maybe you'll have a look at Japanese culture. Many Japanese take an interest in Western culture.

As for me, I've had fun with this. I hope you all have. On to Yokohama!