David McMurray's Column

News letter from Professor David McMurray, Kagoshima International University


An Approach to the Judging of Haiku

Perhaps it is because of the moon. Autumn pulls at the heartstrings of haikuists around the world. Colored maple leaves plead with poets to compete in haiku contests.

When a haiku draws you into its world, whether you feel its images are real, whether you feel you have been amused, or continue to linger thinking about it long after you’ve read it, or quite simply whether you enjoyed reading the haiku or not, these are subjective judgments.

Although two haiku on a particular topic may contain the same number of syllables, have similar constructions and be grammatically correct, because of style one may be judged by readers as vastly superior to the other.

Creative writing is an art, and cannot be judged in the same way as examinations on mathematics or general knowledge, which can be right or wrong. Nonetheless, this newsletter suggests how the judging of haiku poetry can be carried out using a point system, either a priori or after a subjective assessment has been made. Specific judging criteria are: Creativity 10%, Traditions 10%, Line format 10%, Length 10%, Adherence to contest topic and photograph 10%, Poetics, grammar, vocabulary 10%, “Aha!” factor 10%, Delightfulness or sorrowfulness (aware) 10%, For realistic portrayal (shasei) 10%, For elegance or simplicity 10%.

If a haiku works, then it worked because the form, or style, and so on were well-handled, and if it didn't work, perhaps the form, content or style had let it down. When writing comments about why a particular haiku was successful or not, and to allow the assessment to be more easily understood by participants and audience alike, the following criteria could be allocated on this 100% point system.

Creativity 10%

This criteria rewards the writer who displays the ability to provide something other than a formulaic poem and who can do so in a novel or unusual way. In reviewing the poem, the judge can ask these questions.

Does the haiku express ideas not commonly found in the other poems?

Can this haiku be read in an unexpected way?

Does this haiku address the topic in a way that makes the reader think?

Traditions 10%

This criteria rewards the writer who nods to tradition, refers to a line from a well-known haiku or haikuist.

Line format 10%

International haiku penned in English can be composed in a variety of forms or style: 5-7-5 syllables, 3-5-3 syllables or free style. one-line, three-line, four line haiku. The majority of haiku composed in English are arranged on 3 lines, although 1-line and 4-line haiku are commonly accepted in contests. Conventionally the first and last lines contain 5 syllables and the middle line has 7 syllables. This convention has been challenged by most haiku associations around the world. The majority of haiku that win contests contain less than 17 syllables. Season words continue to be employed in haiku, but many haiku do not adhere to traditional almanacs.

Length 10%

17 syllables or less has become the current standard for haiku penned in English.

Adherence to contest topic or a photograph 10%

Topics are often related to seasons, or specific season words.

Poetics, grammar, vocabulary 10%

The judge must decide if the grammar is understandable and does not hinder a reader’s ability to comprehend the haiku.

The "Aha!" factor 10%

Exceptional haiku—those that display an incredible use of vocabulary, clever ideas, enough vagueness yet allow the reader to come to an understanding with the writer and leave the reader with a lingering thought. Haiku have the power to connect the dots between what is and what could be.

Delightfulness or sorrowfulness (aware) 10%

Poems can inspire and illuminate; a poem about the environment can move the reader to action or to tears.

Realistic portrayal (shasei) 10%

Poetic images can be literal or metaphorical; the poet can distil facts or amplify into the realm of imagination.

Elegance or simplicity 10%

The haikuist finds ways of using form and style to emphasize content, but whether formal or free verse, the end result touches the reader. Ideally submitted haiku use imagery and expression to evoke an emotional or intellectual response in the reader.

The subjective experience of the reader should be the main guide as to whether or not a haiku works, and then, for such purposes as writing a review, commenting on a student’s haiku, or judging a competition the assessment can include criteria such as form, length, poetics and the aha factor when it is appropriate to the particular poem.

Trying to judge short poems from the outset by applying a set of objective standards might be going about things in the wrong direction. Provided that the judges of a competition are experienced readers who can speak up about what it is they like or dislike about a poem, and provided that there is a panel of judges there is no reason why they shouldn't let themselves be guided first and foremost by their subjective experience of a poem. Objective standards can be used after a short list of haiku has been selected. Experienced readers have likely assimilated these objective criteria when they find that a particular haiku attracts them. When one judge is able to convince the other judges by support these subjective views with objective criteria, a winner can be declared. From that point it is up to all the participants and audience to decide for themselves if they agree with the decision.