Martin Lucas Haiku Award 2019 – report

First prize

Leonie Bingham:

single note
of a banjo frog …
starlit night

Second prize

frances angela:

stacked seed trays
he grew tomatoes
like his dad

Equal third prize

Claire Everett:

sea fret
a curlew alights
in some other spring

Kanchan Chatterjee:

the waitress says
she’s not good anymore …
Kathmandu autumn

Highly commended 

Sandra Simpson:

harvest moon – 
the kitchen table laid
with pieces of gun

Scott Mason:

 old Roman bridge
we stand mid-span
      and listen

Greg Piko:

spring melt
the neck of a swan
from the mountains

After whittling down my long-list of 50+ very capable and varied entries to a short-list of seven, the hardest part was then putting those seven into a ranked order. In truth, I loved each of them in their own way, and still do; and could quite easily have justified a different order on a different day, but after much thought I settled on this. It’s been a privilege to read these and, indeed, all the entries.

The first-prize winner grabbed my attention from the start with its cinematic and existential depiction of just a frog calling out alone under the stars. It’s a pared-back haiku, eschewing articles in the first and third lines which not only helps to emphasise the resonance of the scene but adds also to the alliteration, assonance and rhyme between ‘single note’ and ‘starlit night’. I presumed – and an online search confirmed – that the banjo frog is native to Australia, so, with the bushfires in that country destroying habitat and killing billions of creatures in the process, this poem must surely also be read within that critical context; as if the frog’s note, resembling a banjo being plucked, is a cry for help across the universe. It’s a technically accomplished haiku too, conveying so much in just 11 syllables and putting the reader right into the place of the unseen person witnessing the scene. Sometimes the most resonant haiku need little explication and that’s the case here.

The second prize goes to a haiku which I had to think long and hard about, not least as to whether it was a haiku at all, because of its statement-of-fact quality; I decided, though, that it most certainly was/is. It’s rare to find a haiku poet who uses the past tense even occasionally, so it’s a brave, supremely talented poet who can do so as ably as this. It’s a sad scene: the clearing away, presumably, of the ‘seed trays’ after the death of a man who, just like his father before him, had green fingers. The stacking of the trays implies that their use has come to an end, and that the tomato-growing line will not be passed on to another generation. The inclusion of three words ending with a ‘d’ emphasises the finality of the scene. As with the first-prize winner, the poet uses the 3–5–3 form to create a poignant, excellent poem which says so much in comparatively few syllables.

Both third-prize winners also arrested my attention from the off. If I’d thought of Kathmandu before, it would have been in the context of being the old Hippy Trail Shangri-la. I was surprised to find in fact – though this shows up my pitiful ignorance – that it’s a metropolis of 2.5 million people. Why that makes a difference I’m not sure, but somehow it adds context to a scene which, with that very Western-sounding phrasing in the middle line, could so easily be set elsewhere. The naming of a place in haiku is less common than it ought to be, I think, and let’s face it, if it was good enough for our old friend Bashō then it ought to be more commonplace. The poet depicts the situation entirely as it is, and leaves the reader to speculate, idly, as to why the waitress isn’t ‘good anymore’. The melancholy tone in the first two lines is enhanced by the season being ‘autumn’. I’m not normally that keen on haiku that contain spoken phrases like the one in the middle line here, but in this instance it’s undercut by the surprise of the location. In all, this is another attractive and well-balanced poem.  

I very much like ‘sea fret’ for the way that it uses time to disconcert the reader – we can’t actually ‘see’ the curlew, with its curved bill and equally distinctive call, but we can visualise it flapping its way through the thickness of the ‘sea fret’, before seeming to come back to earth in a different year and place. Obviously, that isn’t possible, but the haiku suggests that it is and therein lies its power. I’ve witnessed for myself – at Lowestoft – how a sea fret can very quickly envelop the coastline, so I can readily grasp what the poet is getting at, but the trick here is physics-defying and remarkable. Or maybe the words are just meant to say that the curlew is flying to a place where the spring weather is much more clement. I like both readings. The verb use is notable too: instead of using ‘flies to’ or some such, the poet instead implies the bird’s flight and provides an ending, of a temporary nature at least, by deploying ‘alights’. Equally noteworthy is the wording of the last line: having conjured the idea of the curlew journeying under the cover of the fog, it would’ve been tempting simply to say ‘in another spring’ or ‘in a different spring’; yet by using ‘some’ there’s a much better sonic quality to the poem, with that alliteration with ‘sea’. 

I wanted to highlight three other haiku which I feel deserve commendation. I like the clever way that the third line of ‘harvest moon’ wrong-foots the reader, who’s expecting some kind of foodstuff, and thereby takes the poem’s connotations to a different, darker place. The surprise is nicely set up by the use of the passive in the first two lines. I asked myself whether the first word of ‘old Roman bridge’ was necessary and decided that it actually enhances the haiku by giving a better-sounding balance on the ear, as if the o’s of ‘old’ and ‘Roman’ are imitative of the protagonists’ venturing out to the middle of the bridge; and providing a clearer indication (I think!) that this bridge is not located in modern-day Rome but is, rather, an imperial legacy in Britain. The rhyme of ‘stand’ and ‘span’ is mellifluous in the middle line, and the overall effect is a poem of simplicity which allows the reader to dwell on how one can be simultaneously in the present moment and in the ancient past. I noticed ‘spring melt’ firstly because it draws one’s attention not to the swan per se but to its (long) neck: I see the swan in flight, but other readings are certainly possible – it’s just a lovely nature haiku, which again sounds as good on the ear as it reads on the page. 

– Matthew Paul