Next Line, Please

From Haiku to Tanka

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By David Lehman

July 18, 2017


 

 

At deadline time this week there were 133 posts in the comments field, many of them entries in the competition for the best “high-summer haiku.” The poets were obliged to observe the rule of 17 syllables distributed in lines containing five, seven, and five syllables in that order.

The quality of the poems submitted was high, which speaks well of our players. It also speaks of the continuing appeal of the haiku. Does this appeal reflect an era of reduced attention spans? Perhaps. It is, however, undeniable that the minimalism of the form imposes a strict economy that is almost always a virtue in writing. The trick is to use every syllable to create something small but wide in implication, like a stone skipping in a pond.

First place goes to Paul Michelsen for the most inventive of his multiple entries, “Three Haiku Chiseled Out of Poems Written by Suzanne Somers in the Manner of N. H. Pritchard”:

The Monotonous Lapping of Waves
for Don Knotts

T HE MO NO TO NO US
LAP P IN G OF W AVES KEE P IN G PACE
W IT H T HE PO IN T LES S TALK
 
 
The Charming Strangers of July
for Norman Fell

I N SUM MER W HE N T HE
S UN MAKES ME L AN G UID AN D WA
TER LAP S AT MY FEE T
 
 
Cliffhanger Scrawled in the Ladies’ Room at the Regal Beagle
for Priscilla Barnes

SOME(TI ME S I W ON D)ER
I F T HERE’S E NO UGH LO VE TO GO
A ROUND W IT H ALL T HE

Angela Ball characterizes these as “stuttering haiku,” a happy phrase. I agree with  Christine Rhein (“these demand rereading, savoring”) and Millicent Caliban (“an interesting experiment in haiku creation”).  Paul says he has “been wanting to play with Pritchard for a while, and this just seemed like a great opportunity to do so. I never imagined that Suzanne Somers would enter the mix, but you know what they say: Three’s Company.” For those of us unfamiliar with either Pritchard or Somers, the former was an avant-garde poet who experimented with unusual typography and spacing, while the latter played Chrissy Snow on the TV show Three’s Company. As for Don Knotts, I believe that he and Al Fresco were two of the title characters in Angels in the Outfield, but I could be wrong.

Alicia (A. E.) Stallings wins the silver medal for “Island Postcard”:

Cycladic summer
sequel, cicada, cica-
da, cicada, sic.

The poem is a feast of sound defying Billy Collins’s stricture against the word “cicada” in poetry.

Michael C. Rush finishes a strong third with “Some Are”:

Some are in the pool.
Swimming or just hanging out.
Look! That dark gray cloud!

Michael’s poem reminds me of Joseph Ceravolo’s work. Note how the punctuation—the period at the end of line two, the screamers in line three—contributes to the poem’s effectiveness.

If I limit myself to five for honorable mention, I would include Linda Marie Hilton’s “A day’s end”:

the maraschino
cherry sets amid[st] orange
horizon ablaze.

This, the most traditionally poetic of the entries, offers a beautiful blaze that seems to blend the beauty of sunset with that of a whiskey sour or Tom Collins. (Linda, I’d omit the title, which is implicit, and shorten “amidst” to “amid” in line two.)

Joining Linda on the dais is Sima for “Birthday”:

The year advances
Each July the twenty-eighth
No break for summer.

I like the way line three breaks off—and was moved to observe the date in question is also the birthday of John Ashbery, Marcel Duchamp, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Malcolm Lowry.

Of Jeff Johnson’s excellent efforts, I liked best the quietly subversive “Praying for a Coup”:

In July, along
the river road, the sumacs
are plotting crimson.

Leonard Kress puns on Miles Davis and a haunting line by Robert Frost in “Late July Night,” which he improved by dropping, at Byron’s suggestion, the words “in your mind” from line two:

Walk to the river
listening to “Round Midnight”
Miles to go till fall

In response, Byron and Paul Michelsen exchanged haiku, Byron writing:

I like the last line.
Wish you would lose the words “in
Your mind” in line two.

and Paul responding:

for byron

I love this haiku
which is one haiku speaking
to another one.

As a sucker for fireflies and dancing stars, I marveled at Elizabeth Solsburg’s “Summer nights”:

Fireflies in the grass
galaxy here in our yard—
mating dance of stars.


A tanka is a Japanese form in which a haiku precedes a two-line tail consisting of 14 syllables evenly distributed. For next week, let us take the following haiku, consisting of lines lifted from this week’s entries, and add a stanza break and two seven-syllable lines.  The result will be our summer tanka:

Work? No. Why? July. [Lee McAden Robinson]
Oceans imitate shell sounds [Paul Michelsen]
All summer I watch [Jeff Johnson]

One possible way to conclude these lines is with these two seven-syllable lines that served as middle lines last week:

A sedge of cranes overhead. [Patricia Smith]
Let it always be July. [Michael C. Rush]

Pretty good! But maybe we can do even better.

Deadline: Saturday, July 22, midnight any time zone.


David Lehman is a poet and the general editor of The Best American Poetry series. He teaches at The New School in New York City.

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