Peggy Willis Lyles was my editor at The Heron's Nest from 2002 until her passing in 2010. A few of her emails have made it through two laptop upgrades. One of the last correspondences was a change of address from February 2010. It's been almost ten years, but that folder remains on my hard drive just in case I need to ask her a question. In a way I did consult her about this year's contest entries. I took inspiration from her essay on an Editors' Choice Award. She wrote:
"The smallest of poems, haiku are powerful in their dynamic compression. They are fully capable of addressing all significant subjects affecting humankind — alienation and connection, transience and death, love and war. The best ones reward many readings, never growing stale. They involve readers, allowing us to participate and contribute without depleting the possibilities offered by evocative images. Such haiku convey strong feelings and suggest multiple layers of association. They validate our intuition and challenge our thinking. Often they expand understanding and open hearts."
Peggy Willis Lyles, THN December 2008
Her words remain lively and centering, encouraging writers to remain on the trajectory of excellence. I took these attributes to heart in judging this years' contest named in her honor. There were 1738 entries, and I read each and every one multiple times. Many thanks to John Stevenson, the contest coordinator—it's no small task with this number of entries. I hope you can hear Peggy cheering in the background. I think she would have liked these haiku.
So much is conveyed in four words. The three-line form asks the reader to slow down and ponder each and every word. Beginning with "lily" the author doesn't specify what kind of a lily it is but leaves the particulars to the reader. Is it a daylily, a tiger lily, calla lily, Easter lily, or waterlily?
I spent time thinking about various types of lilies, imagining the scene, and settled on Easter lily as my top association. I recall white lilies crowding the front of the church during the Easter church service. Many were purchased in remembrance of a loved one now gone. (The fact didn't escape me that this very contest is a memorial to Peggy Lyles.) Although the lilies are without speech they manage to speak volumes through their trumpet shape, color, and at times overpowering fragrance. Easter lilies stand in the wordless gap of grief and offer hope. The dead live on in our memories. The church is crowded with boisterous families and the lilies provide the counterpoint of silence. Framed in this stillness, church goers can hear the message of resurrection and rebirth.
That one word "lily" in English-language haiku has deep roots. Nickolas Virgilio's "lily:/out of the water.../out of itself" was published in American Haiku in 1963. It refers to a different type of lily, a waterlily, but a lily nonetheless. This winning haiku gives us a chance to remember a haiku penned many years ago by a haiku pioneer, and to invest new meaning in the lily.
the wintering over
Bay of Plenty, New Zealand
The language in this haiku is direct and precise. It allows the reader to easily enter the scene. An abbey is usually where a community of monks or nuns live. Only the most resolute believers take monastery vows. Here the abbey is in ruins—more rubble than sanctuary. This introduces a disrepair that seems to penetrate belief. Nothing endures. And it's winter. We feel the cold in our bones made even colder and starker by the distant stars. It's in this bleakness and darkness of the night sky, away from the light pollution that we can see the stars most clearly. Yes, the light endures and overwinters amongst us in the broken-down places.
Robin Anna Smith
Even without Googling the word "ulu" the sound of "ulu moon" is pleasing and it makes me happy. From the context we know that an ulu is a sharp object capable of carving snow. A quick look online and we learn that an ulu is an all-purpose knife with a semicircular blade and handle used by the Canadian Inuit, Russian Aleut, and Alaskan Yupik tribes. Known as a "woman's knife" it is used for a wide variety of communal activities from trimming meat, scraping animal skins, cutting hair, to adjusting blocks of ice for igloos. The design has been in use for at least 4500 years. The ulu is deeply connected with a woman's identity and is passed down through generations from an older female relative. It's believed that the ancestor's knowledge is contained within the ulu and remains accessible.
The ulu's shape is similar to the moon—a fat crescent closer to a half-moon than a quarter moon. In this haiku the moon is carving icy shadows, shaping the night. Using ulu to modify the moon, the feminine aspect is multiplied. A woman's moon is carving the snow. Consider the influence of the moon on the ocean tides and the cycles within a woman's body: the waxing and waning in 28 days. It is such a deep connection—ancient and ongoing. Winter is similarly complex as to what dies and what survives. All this makes for a powerful haiku.
deep autumn . . .
the peregrine folded
into slate-grey rain
If I were to guess the month, I'd say it's November. The last hurrah of brilliant foliage has come and gone. We are left with the steely blue-grey landscape and witchy bare branches, which match the plumage of the falcon. The bird is folded. The wing aren't folded "against" the rain as in shelter, but "into" the rain. This suggests that the bird is hunting in the rain and has selected its target. The falcon's stoop knifes though the scene in a deep dive. This death blow with wings is the avatar of late autumn. The staccato of single syllable words "slate-grey rain" along with the long vowel sounds integrates the driving rain. Not only does this haiku paint a vivid picture, but when read aloud, the sound amplifies the scene.
an innocent man
This haiku relies on the reader to construct a scenario, almost like a prompt with the promise of a story. It is left up to the reader to determine if the butterflies are alive and held captive by nets like in a butterfly sanctuary, or dead and carefully pinned in place. I once saw the work of artist Christopher Marley in a gallery. He creates meticulous mosaics out of beetle and butterfly specimens. The jewel-like arrangements were dazzling and awe inspiring until I realized that all these insects were killed for mounting on some collector's wall. I couldn't escape the sadness at the uselessness of their deaths. But our innocent man has a better outcome. We don't know how long it took to secure his freedom, but we can feel his unfettered joy—a complete transformation. It feels like the release of a thousand iridescent butterflies.
a raven's croak
echoes through stone
This is another haiku ripe with sound. "Wind-rippled tarn" sets the stage as a small mountain lake or loch. It feels ancient. Ravens make their gurgling croak that sounds like gronk. The sound is throatier and deeper than the sharp, nasal caw-caw of a crow. It's not an alarm call but more like checking in with family. "Hey, just to let you know, I'm home." Add this penetrating sound to the tarn and the scene becomes almost primordial—the dark calling to dark, feathers with a shiny sheen across the water conjures up some Magic: The Gathering-level sorcery.