Haiku Society of America Haiku Award for 2022 - Judges Commentary

Haiku Society of America Haiku Award
in Memorial of Harold G. Henderson

Judges' Commentary for 2022

Kat Lehmann & Matthew Paul


~ First Place ~

harvest festival
jars of fig jam
full of galaxies

Alison Woolpert, California, USA

This is a complex poem that presents, at first, as a simple scene from an autumn celebration. L1 and L2 progressively focus our attention inward from the broader festival to a table of jam in an unsurprising way until L3 expands the poem, and our perspective, to the scale of the universe. The subtle change in line lengths follows this trend, with L2 as the shortest line, a reversal of typical haiku structure. Fig jam is dark brown to near-black in color and includes clustered speckles of fig seeds that give the jam a physical appearance reminiscent of the night sky full of constellations. The euphony of the poem is pleasing, with repeating sounds of AR (harvest, jar) and F (festival, fig, full). Left there, it is already a wonderful poem, as this strong image leaves plenty of magical possibility for the reader to consider. If each jar is full of galaxies, the group of jars might describe a universe. There is a hint of William Blake here: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.”
But there’s more: a closer reading of the poem suggests the three lines of the haiku are moving us through three stages of a cycle. Staying with the galaxy theme, the L1 “harvest festival” could be the explosion of a star. The L2 jars could be the nebula that coalesces from that supernova release. We arrive again at the galaxies in L3 that would emerge from that nebula and the physical view of fig jam as constellations within a jar, which sets up the potential for the next cycle.
The structure could apply to other cycles as well. For example, autumn leaves drop (a colorful type of harvest festival, perhaps) and lead to the energy potential (the nutrients captured) necessary for spring (new galaxies). We, too, might exist within a line or moment of this poem: yielding from our toils, resting on what was gained, and looking toward our next expansion. The poem’s structure is essential for its delivery, and the surprise in L3 encourages the reader to cycle back to L1 for additional meanings.


~ Second Place ~

nights drawing in—
wondering how Dad is
in his patch of earth

Sean O'Connor, Ireland

This haiku was instantly attractive because of its originality, universality and simplicity. From the opening phrase, the reader knows it’s set a month or two after the summer solstice, when the evenings are arriving earlier and, implicitly, colder. This darkening sky primes a desolate or sorrowful state for the poem. In combination with the rest of the poem, the sense it gives is of time ebbing away: autumn in any year being, of course, a metaphor for the autumn of anybody’s lifespan. The cut gives the reader a pause, and time to savor the wording. The second element has a certain, pleasing ambiguity to it: the “patch of earth” could be an allotment or farmstead which “Dad” is tilling. More likely, though, is the sense that the father has passed away, and perhaps fairly recently, and has been buried, or had his ashes scattered, in the ground. The phrase “in his patch of earth” comes as a surprise to the reader, but not in the sense of a big reveal; on the contrary, it flows naturally and is rather lovely. Read aloud, the haiku has nice pace, balance and, through the usage of the familiar “Dad”, a conversational tone, as if the poet is speaking directly to the reader in an intimate way. The word “wondering”, too, is well-judged: the poet deliberately doesn’t say “I wonder”, and the lack of an overt “I” better enables the poem to resonate with readers who have lost their father or any other close relative or friend. It also links sonically to “drawing”, which helps the poem to cohere. The innate sadness of the unadorned wording is offset by a feeling, born from the word “is” and its end-of-line stress, that somehow the father is still living or existing in some way, and that hopefully he is doing well. In all, this is a melancholy but delightful haiku, which is likely to have universal appeal.


~ Third Place ~ tie

empty vase the last of the baby's breath

Lorraine A Padden, California, USA

The multiple readings of this poem converge to add depth to its meaning. On the surface, the haiku is set at the end of summer just as the baby’s breath flowers have died, leading to the empty vase that is perhaps still sitting on the table. Baby’s breath is a perennial plant that revives from the same root system each year until it eventually dies as all lifeforms do. Although the yearly withering of flowers is disappointing, it’s nothing of grand consequence.
In the second reading, an infant has died—a shift of enormous upheaval. In this interpretation, the “empty vase” takes on the substantiveness of a body after death. These two divergent meanings of varied weightiness coalesce as a reflection on the transience of life and its fleeting beauty. It’s this aspect as a layered ‘death poem’ that speaks across species to elevate this poem. The poem’s structure on a single line hastens its delivery and allows the first word “empty” to hang in the late summer air. We note that the internal rhyme of the poem works whether one reads it aloud with an American accent (vase / baby) or a British accent (vase / last).


~ Third Place ~ tie

autumn pond . . .
spending just-us time
with my thoughts

Scott Mason, New York, USA

This is another autumnal, reflective haiku with a twist of sorts. It’s a comparatively minimalist haiku, being just 3-5-3, but says enough to move the reader and make them think. On a superficial reading, one could imagine that all it’s saying is that the protagonist—without an “I”—is alone beside a pond, rather than spending precious time with their partner (or maybe someone else very close to them), but it then prompts the question of why. The three syllables of L1 evoke a broader scene—this could be a garden pond, or a natural one out in the open; either way, we see autumn colors and leaf-fall, perhaps into the water itself. The ellipsis feels right, and better than an em-dash or no punctuation at all, because it gives time for the reader to imagine that wider picture. There is also a concrete aspect to the ellipsis that is reminiscent of falling leaves. The present-participle that begins L2 looks and sounds better than “I” plus the present tense. It sounds better because “spending” enables trochaic meter, whereas “I spend just-us time” would juxtapose the stresses of “spend” and “just” jarringly. In any case, L3 includes “my”, so we know that this is a first-person haiku. We’ve certainly never seen the phrase “just-us time” in a haiku before, and it works really well here due to its brevity and its contrast to “my thoughts”. It has a tangible undercurrent of sadness at heart, but with an added feeling, maybe, that the protagonist has complex issues to work through or guilt at being seemingly selfish. The poem could also be a call for personal revolution in the autumn of life in which we value time alone for self-reflection. The twist at the end is, again, not so much a shock revelation but a natural, subtle evolution. Whatever the reader takes from it, it is, as Martin Lucas used to say, the reader’s poem.


~ Honorable Mention ~

stalks of corn
in their own language
evening breeze

Alan S. Bridges, Massachusetts, USA

Corn tends to be cultivated in evenly-spaced rows and cross-pollinated between plants with the assistance of the wind. This poem asks us to consider a type of social life for corn plants and what a community of a non-human species might entail. Standing in a breezy field of towering corn stalks, we might hear the rustle of leaves like a conversation. This is a fanciful, sensory summer poem that suggests we are eavesdropping on a society that communicates “in their own language”, of which we are only observers. There is an unmistakable emphasis on the word “own” which conveys this unorthodox yet understandable idea. The power of the haiku derives from the originality of this phrasing. The poem culminates with pleasing long-E sounds (evening, breeze) that, too, bring the sound of the wind, as if, as suggested by the italicization, the sound is the language. That sense of being alone among secret communicators can often be felt when the wind rustles trees; here it’s in a cornfield, an experience which many readers will have felt or can easily imagine. The wording is simple but effective, with a slant rhyme between “corn” and “own”, and a serene balance to the line division.


~ Honorable Mention ~

September twilight—
a honeybee's slow descent
into goldenrod

Julie Bloss Kelsey, Maryland, USA

Given that one reading of this poem is as a description of the end of a honeybee’s life, we can infer that “September” in this case refers to early autumn and this is a Northern Hemisphere experience. Lovely shades of yellow and gold saturate this poem as twilight, a honeybee, and goldenrod. Pleasing and mellow short-E sounds align the sound with the poem’s tone (September, descent, and goldenrod). At first reading, a bee is simply visiting the goldenrod flowers to gather pollen. Upon additional reading, the poem unfolds into a jisei, or death poem. Metaphorically, we are not yet at the winter of life or deep in the dark hours. This is twilight—the magic hour—and autumn, a steady descent into later hours and seasons. The words “descent / into goldenrod” feel at home with other death-related expressions like “going to glory” and “I’ll fly away”. Dylan Thomas wrote “Do not go gentle into that good night / […] Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Here we have the acceptance of a slow decline toward death.


~ Honorable Mention ~

where the fox kits
     last frolicked
          wisps of fog

Scott Mason, New York, USA

This is a haiku full of pictorial and sonic joy. The initial scene is lovely. The usage of “frolicked”, a word which came into English from late-Medieval Dutch and German, gives an air of unbounded, timeless merriment. On the ear, all those Fs, Ks and Ws, the three Os and other sounds combine very musically. Yet this is a poem in which time shifts from the beauty of wildlife, and an implicit metaphor of youthful freedom, to a present in which the space—maybe a garden or a woodland glade—is becoming a more dangerous or mournful place, with visibility being reduced by the “wisps of fog”, an autumnal harbinger of colder and harsher days and nights to follow. It is as if carefree play has given way to the maturity needed for the foxes’ alertness and survival. But what of the word “last” here? Is it simply the last time the observer saw them, or have the family of foxes had to move on, or, worse, been predated? Whatever the answer, the “wisps of fog” bring mystery, menace and a dose of unsentimental reality after the almost Rococo opening.


~ ~ ~

About the Judges

Kat Lehmann lives in Connecticut, USA. She is a Co-founding Co-editor of whiptail: journal of the single-line haiku, and an Associate Editor at Sonic Boom. Kat is the author of three books of poetry and serves as a panelist for The Haiku Foundation Touchstone Distinguished Books Award. Kat’s work, including her multi-haiku forms, can be read on her website: https://katlehmann.weebly.com
Matthew Paul lives in Rotherham, England. His haiku collections, The Regulars (2006) and The Lammas Lands (2015) were published by Snapshot Press, as was Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku, an anthology he co-wrote/edited with John Barlow. He was AssociateEditor then Co-editor of Presence for many years. His longer-poem collection, The Evening Entertainment, was published by Eyewear in 2017. https://matthewpaulpoetry.blog




These awards for unpublished haiku were originally made possible by Mrs. Harold G. Henderson in memory of Harold G. Henderson, who helped found The Haiku Society of America.

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See the complete collection of award-winning haiku from all previous Henderson Haiku Award competitions

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