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Haiku Headlines Rhyming Haiku Contest (1991)

The Haiku Headlines Rhyming Haiku Contest was devised by David Priebe (Rengé), founder and editor of Haiku Headlines: A Monthly Newsletter of Haiku and Senryu. A contest exclusively for rhymed verses was unusual even in the early years of English-language haiku. The Haiku Headlines contest in 1991 was a one-off, but Priebe used the same basic idea and format for the Timepieces Haiku Week-at-a-Glance Contests and desk calendars that he compiled and published from 1993 to 1997.

In his Foreword to Ecopoems: Winners of the Rhyming Haiku Contest—1991, the published record of the contest winners, David Priebe explains in great detail how the contest came about and offers insight into the debate that had already been raging for some years about the appropriateness of using rhyme in English-language haiku. The long quotation that follows here is the entire text of the Foreword.

HAIKU is a miniature form of poetry that has been practiced to perfection and popularity In Japan for more than three hundred years; with structural roots of rhythm that go back a thousand years earlier. Haiku is traditionally composed in seventeen syllables (jion=sound symbols), in phrases of 5/7/5, and treat of natural themes and seasonal awarenesses that evoke emotions and insights into the world around us.

As a force in world literature, however, haiku has been influential only since the 1950s, when interest in Japanese culture and arts came into the limelight after the Second World War. Since then, many translations Into English from the Japanese classics by R. H. Blyth, Harold G. Henderson, Kenneth Yasuda, Harold Stewart, Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn, among others —have become classics in their own right. These introductions and translations have kindled our curiosity and imagination, and have inspired us to attempt transcribing our own “haiku moments” in the form. Nowadays, poets the world over are using the haiku form to give expression to their own subtle awakenings and surprises of recognition regarding aspects of phenomena that may ordinarily be taken for granted.

Despite the rules on classical structure, seasonal content, and cut-words (for which we use punctuation)—as well as other rules which some authorities would impose, such as avoiding rhyme—even so, the success of non-Japanese haiku composition is transcendental. Haiku societies, magazines and books now flourish around the world with growing popularity. Indeed, haiku has become public domain. 

Regards to rhyming, we beg to differ with the “authorities” who claim that we should avoid rhyme in English language haiku because the Japanese do not use it. “The chief reason … is that all Japanese words either end in a vowel or in “n”, and rhyming would soon become intolerably monotonous,” wrote Henderson in his Preface to AN INTRODUCTION TO HAIKU—a staple in every sincere modem haikuist’s library. But there is despotism in this quote if taken out of context. Henderson continues: “in Japanese the effect of definite form is given by an alternation of five and seven syllables; in English this method is impossible [a disputable point—author], and the use of rhyme or assonance, especially if it can be kept unobtrusive. Is perhaps the best available substitute. Thirdly, haiku are very short, and their grammar is often fragmentary. There is real danger that a literal translation might be mistaken for an unfinished piece of prose, and a haiku is not that, but a poem, complete as it stands.” Henderson admits that “I happen to like rhyme in a short poem of this sort, and I think that it Is at least allowable.” He therefore rhymed most of the haiku in his text. Likewise, Yasuda and Stewart also resorted to rhyming their translations.

But we are no longer dealing with translations merely. We are composing our own haiku, and occasionally come out with rhymed haiku that resonate with memorablity. I have written quite a number of them myself, and would not think to reword them otherwise; they ring so true, rhyming as they do. A few examples:

                    SUMMER COMES TO CLOSE
                                           FALLING FROM THE ROSE

                    WINTER MORNING LIGHT
                                       ROUSING THEM TO FLIGHT

                    POWER POLE TO TREE
                    MOCKINGBIRD’S UNBROKEN
                                       CHAIN OF MELODY 

It occurs to me, now and then, that other haiku poets, too, must occasionally write haiku that rhyme—yet one seldom ever sees any rhyming haiku published in the numerous magazines that are devoted to the sharing of our haiku experiences. Is the censure against rhyming haiku for real? Do editors reject rhyming haiku because they smack of poetic [device—ed.], or seem trite, or what?

Sometimes, when reading a haiku journal, I wonder whatever the editor saw in this or that particular verse. Sometimes it seems that anything goes. Then why not rhyme? But that is no excuse. Haiku is not a free-for-all. It is a refinement of subject and language that condenses the gist of a poetic moment into a memorable expression. Could not rhyme in haiku be considered a further refinement? I would like to find out what reputable haiku poets think about the possibilities of rhyme in haiku —not just a yea and nay poll of opinions, but rather to read examples of their rhyming haiku, to see whether or not they qualify as refined expressions of true haiku moments.

About six months ago it occurred to me that I would like to promote a rhyming haiku contest. HAIKU HEADLINES: A MONTHLY NEWSLETTER OF HAIKU AND SENRYU, which I founded in 1988, has attracted and published many highly esteemed haiku poets over the years. I’d be willing to stake my reputation as a haiku poet, editor and publisher, that many splendid rhyming haiku could be had from these poets, given the opportunity. I’d even be willing to stake the prize money to attract their best efforts: $100 First Place / $50 Second Place / $25 Third Place; and three Honorable Mentions, to which I would award a year’s subscription to the newsletter. Also, I’d be anxious to publish an anthology of 100 rhyming haiku selected as the best from the entries to the contest. I’d plan to send a free copy of the book to all of the poets whose haiku had been included therein.

So, in the March issue of HAIKU HEADLINES I began to advertise the contest, with the deadline for entries as June 30, 1991. In addition to advertising the contest again in the next three issues of HH, I had 500 postcard invitations printed and sent out. All in all, about 950 poets were notified of the event, and encouraged not to be intimidated by the rule against rhyme in haiku—welcoming them to enter their best efforts to the contest.

As the poems started coming in, I set about the task of communicating with candidates to judge the contest. For the preliminary judge, to choose 100 favorites for the anthology—I settled on Thomas Bilicke (TomBi) of Los Angeles, long-time friend, ginko partner, fine poet and sometimes editor/publisher of CAT’S EYE and RED & GREEN reviews. For the final judge of the top six for First, Second, Third Places, and three Honorable Mentions —Donald A. Hoatson of Punta Gorda, Florida, met the qualifications. Neither judge was aware of who had written which haiku. They both did superlative jobs of screening the material presented. 

All in all, 115 poets from around the U.S.A., Canada, Great Britain, Japan and Greece responded with 455 entries to the rhyming haiku contest. Fifty-three poets composed the 100 winning haiku. All are to be commended for their sensitivity and skill in composition, and for their courage to face the adversaries of rhyme in haiku. Especial congratulations to the top three place winners and honorable mentions. With these fine examples I’m sure that Mr. Henderson would have conceded that rhyme in English language haiku is not only “allowable”, but that our poets are indeed capable of composing haiku that rhyme admirably. My thanks to all for your enthusiasm and support.

                    Rengé / David Priebe
                    Los Angeles, California
                    August 17, 1991

Priebe gathered the results of the rhyming haiku contest and presented them in a book titled Ecopoems. Unusually, the haiku are printed accordion-style on heavy stock with separate front and back board covers. The reader pages through the first half of the book, then flips it over to begin reading the second half. Another peculiarity of Ecopoems is that the haiku are printed in all caps, a style that Priebe had favored in the early issues of Haiku Headlines. The first and second lines of nearly all the haiku were aligned left, the second and third lines aligned right (as in the examples above).

Top Winners of the Haiku Headlines Rhyming Haiku Contest—1991

JudgesThomas Bilicke (TomBi)
Donald A. Hoatson
Preliminary Judge
Final Judge
Number of entries455 by 115 poets from 5 countries
First Place ($100)Randy Johnson,
Olympia, Washington
            WHERE NO PEOPLE GO
Second Place ($50)Nina Wicker,
Sanford, North Carolina
                A DUST DEVIL SPINS
Third Place ($25)Greer Newcomb,
Palo Alto, California
             RAIN COMES TO A STOP
1st Honorable MentionPatricia Neubauer,
Doylestown, Pennsylvania
                 UMBRELLA FLOWERS
2nd Honorable MentionMatthew Louvière,
New Orleans, Louisiana
                                IN THE SILENT DAWN
3rd Honorable MentionSidney Bougy,
Memphis, Tennessee
                               A SPIDER SPINS

Ecopoems also includes 94 other winning haiku by 47 poets.

Sources / Further Reading

  • Priebe, David, editor and publisher. Ecopoems: Winners of the Rhyming Haiku Contest—1991. Los Angeles: Cloverleaf Books, 1991. Priebe’s Foreword is on pages 8–11.

Haiku Headlines: A Monthly Newsletter of Haiku and Senryu

Rengé / David Priebe

Timepieces Haiku Week-at-a-Glance Contest, 1993-1997

Compiled by the Haikupedia Editors

Updated on September 4, 2023