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Judges' Commentary for
the Nicholas A. Virgilio Memorial Haiku Competition


 


Judges' Commentary for 2012


2012 Nicholas A. Virgilio Memorial Haiku Competition

Judges:
Geoffrey Van Kirk and Patricia Doyle Van Kirk
New York, New York

Judges’ General Comments

Haiku written by secondary school students often exhibit some divergent qualities. The poems can soothe, or they may startle. They can strike out in fresh directions, or they may tread familiar paths. They can be in tune with nature or seem wholly absorbed in self. Sometimes they are subtle; sometimes they are really in your face. That is to say, the poems are a good deal like the poets who pen them.

The 457 poems presented to the judges this year in the Nicholas Virgilio Memorial Contest featured this great divergence in topic, treatment, and tone. We took real pleasure in reading them and thank all the poets for their efforts and involvement. Quite a few poems zoomed in on homely topics; many depicted scenes shared with just a single parent or presented the things left behind by a grandparent. The potency of such felt moments of absence was often quite clear, the more so when emotions were evoked in true haiku style rather than expressed or explained. Still, a number of poems lacked the restraint needed in this area. Some student poets chose to tell rather than show, thereby limiting the readers' ability to enter into the poem and explore the feelings inherent in the moment.

After reading the entries on our own, we compared our choices and found there were nearly two dozen poems that made the first cut. Quite a few of these were joint favorites. We conferred; we sifted. In the end a half dozen poems had the spark and the allure to earn our votes as winners for this year's contest. We congratulate these six winners and offer our individual comments on each poem.

Geoff Van Kirk and Patricia Doyle Van Kirk

• • •

winter dusk
the crows
clotting the wind

Olivia Babuka Black, 14, Grade 8
The Paideia School, Atlanta, Georgia

This short poem summons us to look and to listen. The images are both delicate and stark. In the winter, that in-between moment, when last light ebbs, can have an elusive beauty. But here, even if the traceries of bare branch against sky seem feathery and pure, the majority of the poem summons a whoosh of sound which suppresses the visual delicacy of nightfall. The whirl of wind is thick enough that crows can congeal it into masses of black and noise. Not even mentioned in the poem, but still loud in our ears, is the racket the birds make as they caw and circle. The poet's choice of the word "clotting" here is powerful. It is a wonderful alliterative fit with "crows," and the open vowels of the two words together also suggest, as you say them aloud, the round clumps that are forming in air. However, the use of the verb in the poem also perplexes. Is wind "thick" enough to clot? Is the verb too figurative or metaphoric? While we can pause to explore the image and urge it to make sense, it ultimately succeeds and swirls us along in its wake, tingling with ominous power in the coming darkness. -gvk

There is a wonderful tangle of natural imagery here, the merg- ing of "winter dusk," "crows," and the "wind." Where the seasonal reference conjures up images of the stillness of the impending darkness, the appearance of the birds, and not just any birds, but luminous, black crows, breaks the scene and the silence. And because these creatures of the air are so agile and perhaps so numerous, they seem to have power over the very wind itself, "clotting" it with their numbers and their flight. The combination is unusual and magical. -pdvk

• • •

at the funeral
headphones hidden
beneath my sweater

Dino Romeo, 14, Grade 9
Sage High School, Newport Coast, California

The author here has a secret. At a time of life when families tend to band together and share communal pain, the poet may be about to tune out. It is easy to leap to the conclusion that, by the very mention of earphones, the speaker is not engaged at this solemn event. Although it's possible the headphones represent a callous wish to be elsewhere, there are other possibilities. This could be a poem about discretion; what's hidden under the sweater may stay hidden out of respect for the moment. Or there may be music cued up which connected the poet and the departed, and, by donning the headphones, our poet would escape into rather than escape from the moment. In any case, there's an appealing honesty to the poet's revelation of what's hiding behind the sweater. The haiku invites us to explore the ways, as individuals and as families, we approach what's momentous in life. -gvk

This poem offers a wonderful juxtaposition, pairing the image of a "funeral" and all the associations it conjures up for the reader with the subsequent, unexpected image of the "hidden" music "headphones." So we imagine the narrator present, not just at a funeral, but at "the" funeral, which implies it is for someone special or important. And in the midst of what is generally a solemn, dignified, even ancient, ritual, modern technology intrudes. Is music being played secretly as a distraction? Does it provide some comfort? Is the speaker only here out of obligation and, dare I say it, perhaps a little bored? Or have the headphones been left on inadvertently? Is there music even playing? -pdvk

• • •

summer waves
leave belly button sand
in my shower

Alex Manolakas, 18, Grade 12
Sage High School, Newport Coast, California

Those summer waves—they're powerful. Ride one wrong and, thunk, it tumbles you to the bottom. You come up sputtering, anointed with salt and sand. And then you do it again! In this poem, the waves reemerge powerful, almost personified. They reappear at home and seem to laugh as the poet does a last scrub. The remnants from a day at the shore, they cling! In the poem the beach sand goes toward the drain. But what about the sunburn? What about the echoes of waves crashing toward the beach and the sibilant rush they make sliding back the sandy slopes? It's all still with us long after the sun has set. Through a homely, amusing image, this haiku immerses us in the whole magic of a seaside day. -gvk

I like the way this poem captures an experience most of us have had, coming inside after a day at the beach, sun-soaked and water-logged, mellow and contented, but wanting to hit the showers first thing to wash off all that pesky sand. Sea sand, while fun to walk and play in on the beach, feels all the more uncomfortable the further we get from the shore. This writer offers us a playful take on this common scene with the use of the alliterative image of "belly button sand," which is reminiscent of childhood, and also manages to link the recent past of the beach visit to the sandy aftermath with the "summer waves" that "leave" the sand in the "shower." Outdoors effectively merges with indoors. The choice of the proprietary word "my," rather than "the," with "shower" is also intriguing, implying that the trip back from the beach is a return to the comforts of home, or at least to a familiar spot. -pdvk

• • •

rainfall
grey sky
in big puddles

Siani Macklin, 13, Grade 7
Sacred Heart School, Camden, New Jersey

This simple poem speaks of the drab and damp. As each line progresses, the poem widens a bit until the last line spreads out in imitation of the puddles it describes. But the poem is not just a portrait in monochrome. It seems to be about perception as much as it is about precipitation. While many of us bow in response to falling rain, the grammar of the poem says that puddles are the canvas, but the leaden sky is the subject and story of the last two lines. It's a bit of an inversion, isn't it, looking down to see what's up? The sky, be it boiling grey masses or flannel blankets, is at our feet. And if the puddles cover pale concrete, will the heavens look the same as when the puddles blanket playground asphalt? Does a falling drop spread rings? It's an imperfect view, this reflected vision of sky, and certainly an impermanent one. But who's to say we'd get closer to the truth of clouds by looking up? The poem here acknowledges that we may sometimes come to know a thing by its reflection and by what it brings to pass. -gvk

This haiku poem caught my attention immediately and left me pondering what "grey sky" in "big puddles" really looks like. As a long-time puddle splasher myself (the bigger the puddle, the better, by the way), I realized I couldn't quite imagine it, probably because any opportunity to view the reflection of the sky was lost with all that splashing. The writer reminded me that stopping to observe the beauty of this natural phenomenon was as important as playing in it. And the scaffolding of three lines, starting with one word, moving to two, and then three, knits the three different but connected images of the haiku delicately together for the reader. -pdvk

• • •

night on the lake
I touch
the moon

Abbey Shannon, 13, Grade 7
The Paideia School, Atlanta, Georgia

Here, in simple words, the poet presents a scene of quietness and delicacy. The two sections of the poem are well set out and sonically distinct. The hard consonant sounds of both "night" and "lake" make for a definitive beginning. In the hush of a still night by the water, all sounds are amplified. If you were in a canoe, a light bump of paddle on hull would resound the way the "k" sound clobbers the long "a" in the word lake. But the poet, alert and alive, hears no jarring sound. Instead, the last two lines present a mystical moment. In touching the moon, perhaps with finger or paddle brought to still water, the poet takes advantage of the quiet to make this delicate connection. The long, open vowels help to stretch out the phrase and highlight the moment of intimacy. -gvk

At first this poem appears to describe a fairly normal sight in nature, the moon's reflection in water. A closer look shows there is actually a lot more going on here. Is the speaker reaching down to graze the lake water with a gentle hand to "touch" the reflected "moon"? Or is this about standing on tiptoes and stretching towards the unreachable sky? Or is this, in fact, suggesting a figurative image about someone having achieved something great by soaring to the moon's heights? Or trying to? And what brought the speaker here? Is the speaker alone? Or with others? I wonder. In just eight words, this appealing haiku presents a scene open to many possible interpretations. -pdvk

• • •

stair of roots
I step
on each knot

Ainura Johnson, 13, Grade 7
The Paideia School, Atlanta, Georgia

While this haiku, with its short second line, has sort of stuttery line breaks, that staccato writing works in its favor. This is because the poet has depicted a story that is equally full of jarring motion. In addition, the succession of clipped consonants in all three lines gives a wonderful sonic echo to the painful progress of footsteps along this root-bound path. Is the poet going up or down? Each way would have its own challenges. What seems more important is the poet's own determination to take the roughest route. By tramping on each knot, the poet hits the hard spots. Even if the goal is to get the maximum traction on what could be slippery terrain, the poet has com- mitted to the more difficult path. Sometimes there's no better choice. -gvk

This haiku, aptly reflective of its meaning, seems to be structured very much like the actual steps of a staircase, with one three-word, three-syllable step on top of another, separated by a smaller, two-word, two-syllable riser. Beyond that, it works on many levels. The roots may have sprawled across a staircase in the park, or they may have formed a natural one over time. The inclusion of the human "I" in the scene reminds us that nature was there first and may sometimes impede human progress, in this case, up or down a staircase, or it may do the exact opposite, providing a means to assist us on our journey. It's all part of the natural order. Interestingly, the speaker here seems up for the challenge of overcoming any obstacles, in fact, almost going out of the way to "step on each knot" in the series of roots. Perhaps it is an inviting challenge. This haiku is certainly inviting. -pdvk

• • •

About our judges:

Geoffrey Van Kirk, a teacher, photographer, haiku poet and haiku workshop leader, has taught English to middle school students at the United Nations International School for twenty years. He is one of the two organizers of the Student Haiku Contest, an annual poetry competition sponsored by UNIS for students writing haiku in Japanese and/or English. He has published haiku in a number of journals and has been a member of HSA for the past year.

Patricia Doyle Van Kirk is a teacher at the United Nations International School and has served as Head of the English Department there for well over two decades. A Senior Examiner for the International Baccalaureate program and IB workshop leader, she teaches middle school and high school, and both she and her students have won prizes in haiku poetry competitions.

 

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