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This Week’s Haiku, Next Week’s Tanka

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By David Lehman

August 19, 2014


 

Wow. I love writing haiku and am not surprised that others find the form appealing. Still, I didn’t expect to see 236 entries, some of them containing as many as five haiku, not to mention others that came in over the transom. And the quality was so high that any of 20 could take the laurels. After much hemming and hawing, I picked Paul Breslin’s haiku:

 

August

The sickle, asleep

In its shed all year, begins

To dream of ripe grain.

 

Farm implements—W. C. Williams’s red wheelbarrow, for instance—have a distinguished history in American poetry. I like the personification of the sickle in Breslin’s “August” and the way the poem captures the fleeting instant between summer and fall. The sickle is still asleep, but day is about to break, and during this period of intense rapid eye movement, when dreams are at their most vivid, what else would the sickle dream of (and wish for) but “ripe grain”? The alliteration (“sickle, asleep,” “ripe grain”) and the line-breaks are deft.

 

I always think it inadvertently humorous when a sportscaster says, after witnessing a brilliant performance on ice skates or skis, that the world-class athlete involved “came up short” and would have to “settle for silver.” In that spirit, Helen Klein Ross will have to settle for silver for her “Posthumous Work,” which celebrates a plausible miracle: “Tree fallen in stream, / long dead by late August, but / on a branch—blossoms.” Notice how she saves the key word for last, and how the three lines function as a montage of images: first you see the tree fall, then it is “long dead,” but then your eye is directed up close to a branch that defies the laws of mortality.

 

We have a three-way tie for third place. I admire the mystery and motion in Kushal Poddar’s “In August away / now a robin now nothing / below or above.” You can hear the sound of one hand clapping when I applaud the Zen humor in Tony Villanti’s “Suzuki san says / See the full moon of August? / Ha, there is no moon.” Erica Dawson divides her haiku into three quick questions: “Remember August? / Summer’s obituary? / The dried river’s course?”

 

Honorable mention goes to Lewis Saul’s homage to Japanese film directors: (“Kurosawa said / ‘Friend Ozu, Where’s the damned plot?’ / It rains in August.” Theodore Seto focuses on the month’s fickleness: “Janus is two-faced, / but at least he is honest. / August hides winter.” Michael C. Rush does a beautiful job anthropomorphizing the last full month of summer: “The old man squats, sighs, / shakes his shrunken head. August / is now, it seems, March.” Many of us dread the prospect of summer’s end, but Emily Lang sounds a hopeful note by naming a Vernon Duke song (as sung by Old Blue Eyes). “August in New York: / A welcome breeze brings hints of / Autumn in New York.” Isn’t the parallel structure of lines one and three nice? Marissa Despain doubles the number of song titles in this sweet haiku, which reminds us that poetry is often fictive: “April in Paris, / Moonlight in Vermont can’t beat / August in New York.”

 

So many others deserve to be commended. Elizabeth S’s effort is lovely: “In dark root cellar/ August peaches juicy ripe / Fill green Mason jars.” Kernan Davis has a winning pun, but what I like most in his haiku is “conversing” to describe what bluejays do: “It rains in August. / Hear the conversing bluejays. / Are they reigning now?” Maureen captures current events—a truce in one conflict, an embattled mountain in another—so subtly that her poem won’t date itself: “August truces hold / Then another mountain / Ouds’ strings, stretched, tighten.” James the Lesser’s wit is on display in a “schizy haiku” that has fun with a famous poem by Robert Frost: “Three paths diverged in / August – and I, I took the / two least traveled by.” David Fettig tells a narrative in 17 syllables: “‘August,’ she said. That’s / why she left. Skin peeling. Fruit / rotting. Love wilting.” Finally Elizabeth Benedict gives vent to the August melancholy to which so many of us are susceptible: “People nearly cry / When August days are counted / They go so damn fast.”

 

For next week, a tanka. What’s a tanka? A tanka is a haiku stanza followed by a two-line stanza consisting of seven syllables each. The great Japanese poets, such as Basho, sometimes collaborated to create renga, or linked-verse, in which one poet contributes a haiku and the next poet writes a two-line tail (and then a third poet writes a haiku linked to the tail, and so on and on).

 

My book of Japanese linked-verse is in another city as I write, so here’s an example of a renga stanza that I wrote to furnish an example:

 

The moon is ready to rise.

Dusk comes sooner each fall day.

 

I ask all contestants to write a two-line stanza that can build on Mr. Breslin’s winning haiku and create something new and surprising. Please enter your lines in the comment space below.

 

Oh, I almost forgot: each week’s winner—going back to the beginning of our crowd-sourced sonnet in May—will receive a complimentary copy of The Best American Poetry 2014.

 

David Lehman is the series editor for The Best American Poetry annual anthology. He has published eight books of poetry, the most recent of which is New and Selected Poems.

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