The painting rises from the brushstrokes as a poem rises from the words. The meaning comes later. – Joan Miro
Image: "Banana tree and gate to the banana tree hut," Matsuo Basho (1644-94), Idemitsu Museum of Art
Simply put a haiga is a painting that incorporates a haiku. But it's not quite that simple. The haiku is a reserved style of poetry and the painting that goes with it is expected to be the same, restrained, with minimal ink brush strokes and light colour. Strangely enough, "Hai" means comic and "Ga" means painting. In his article, 'A Brush With Poetry', in the World Haiku Review, Susumi Takiguchi, founder of the World Haiku Club, writes, "haiga is unromantic, down to earth (unpretentious) and humorous, dealing with unremarkable, day-to-day subjects and objects."
The relationship between the poem and the painting is interesting. They are meant to complement, and not explain, one another. Sometimes the poem and the painting appear to have nothing to do with one another. "[I]f the painting and haiku are [similar], it would mean that one has been added because the other is not adequate," explains Takiguchi.
The style of writing, the calligraphy, also becomes a significant part of the work as a whole.
The moon is a common subject in these poems and paintings, sometimes represented by the Zen circle ensō, which evokes a number of other meanings, including that of the void as illustrated by this haiku by Art Durkee. You can read about the construction of the poem here (scroll down to the entry headed '509. 28 November 2006, Beloit, WI'.
In recent years there has been an increased interest in the haiga only now poets are using digital images. A lot, to my taste, look like cheap greeting cards. But not all, certainly not this one:
A whole selection can be found at Modern Haiga.
The question I have, not being a practitioner of this style of expression, is which comes first, the poem or the image? I suppose it depends. But why incorporate an image in the first place? I'll let Ray Rasmussen answer:
Just as many haiku poets at some point ask themselves why they want to write haiku, haiga artists might ask the same question. For me, the answer is one of focus. With both photography and haiku, a big part of the motivation has to do with the process of doing, slowing down on a walk and taking something in that becomes the subject of a haiku, or paying attention to a haiku moment. With photography, this involves focusing my lens on a wildflower and looking at it in a way that I wouldn't have had I merely glanced at it as I passed by.
A second part of my motivation to produce haiga images from the haiku of others is that it helps me to focus on the haiku poem, to gain a sense of what it means, its mood and colour [can a haiku have a colour?]. The haiga image becomes my expression, my "here's a picture of what I hear and feel when I read the poet's words".
A third motivation is that the computer screen is an especially colour-vibrant canvas for art work. Creating haiga images is an excuse for working in form and colour. Whether the digital-art or photograph indeed enhances the haiku is an issue of importance for viewers of the work, but for me, it isn't the essential issue. The essence is process and getting more deeply into a poetic experience through the mediums of photography and computer digital work.
The next thing of course is to add some music to the work. Check out these haiga with a short musical accompaniment.
Poetry as art
The Japanese haiga is not the only approach to the illuminated poem. William Blake's overanalysed poem 'The Tyger' is an obvious example. It was first published in 1794 in the collection Songs of Experience.
'The Tyger' is found in draft in a notebook that takes the name the 'Rossetti Manuscript' from a later owner, the poet and Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It is the classic example of a working notebook, in which every corner is filled with jottings and drafts. What its existence proves is that the poem existed before the page in Songs of Experience.
Better examples can be found in Kenneth Patchen's Painted Poems:
"It happens that very often my writing with pen is interrupted by my writing with brush, but I think of both as writing," said poet Kenneth Patchen. "In other words, I don’t consider myself a painter. I think of myself as someone who has used the medium of painting in an attempt to extend." – Poet's Org
Throughout his prolific career, Patchen produced more than forty volumes of poetry and prose, most with a visual component.
"Like Picasso," wrote Henry Miller in 1946, "[Patchen] makes use of everything. The innovator and initiator are strong in him … One is no longer looking at a dead, printed book but at something alive and breathing, something which looks back at you with equal astonishment. Novelty is employed not as seduction but like the stern fist of the Zen master to awaken and arouse the consciousness of the reader."
Patchen is doing nothing new. The Spanish artist Joan Miró had been there before him. Possessing a deep love for poetry the artist once commented, "I make no distinction between painting and poetry." In his poetry paintings, Miró would write poetic phrases on his canvasses. One of the most famous examples of Miró’s poetry-paintings is his painting-poem of 1938, which features the French expression "une étoile caresse le sein d’une négresse" ("a star caresses the breast of a black woman") atop a vast black background.
It is becoming more and more common to incorporate text in works of art these days. Miró was very clear that what he was doing was melding poetry and art but not all artists are as clear. The Californian artist artist Tauba Auerbach, who used to work as a sign painter, often includes text in her works like this one:
Ink and pencil on paper 27" x 27" (2007)
which is reminiscent of the concrete poem by Edwin Morgan only this is art and his is a poem. She often uses eye charts, binary systems and elementary design to reveal the extensional functions of language. Are you looking at a poem or a painting? Or does it only become a poem when she says it is?
I left tackling this heading till last, even though I shifted its place in the list. The main reason was I found myself struggling to draw a real distinction between concrete poetry and visual poetry. Wikipedia provides this help:
It should be noted here that there remains some debate regarding the distinction between concrete poetry and visual poetry. There are three dominant views regarding the issue. One view is that visual poetry is synonymous with concrete poetry. A second view is that visual poetry is a type (or sub-category) of concrete poetry. And the last view (adopted in this article) is that visual poetry has evolved into a visual form distinct from concrete poetry. This view is supported by work identified as visual poetry in which, typographic elements are secondary to visual elements, or are minimal, or in some cases are absent altogether from the work.
So, if I take the third definition, then I'm looking for works in which there is both text and a visual image but where the text is subordinate to the visuals.
In his essay, From Concrete to Visual Poetry, with a Glance into the Electronic Future, Klaus Peter Dencker provides a whole selection of attempts to define and distinguish visual poetry from concrete poetry. At the end he has a go at putting it all in one sentence:
If concrete poetry has been made to serve against the wearing out of language and for the discovery of a new literalness, a new material and language awareness, then the chief service of visual poetry lies in the discovery of a new context awareness and new language reference systems, whereby language no longer means only alphabetic language.
The longest running visual poetry magazine online is Kaldron. It probably is one of the best places to start to get to grips with this challenging form of poetry.
An essay on the poet bpNichol provides several examples over the years from the fairly straightforward:
(Water Poem # 6)
which, for the life of me, I cannot identify as a poem. Art, yes, simple and quite restful. But a poem without words? I'm not sold.
Now, this one makes more sense to me but I still think of it as a witty visual pun rather than a poem per se:
The poet David Cole has this to say about his work:
For me, visual poetry is the presence of line and language within the same space so that the eye and mind inter-react in the 'reading' of the work. I am interested in how the mind makes meanings from fragments of language, all the way down to individual letters floating about, while at the same time seeing the poetic page as an artwork with traditional aesthetic signals which lead the viewer's eye in non-linear ways
5' x 5'; 1997
Now, would you not swear blind this was a long lost painting by Jackson Pollock? But let's take a closer look:
Is this art or is this poetry? I dunno. Some people don't think Jackson Pollock was art.
The future of poetry
I have no idea what the future holds for poetry. That's probably not the best sentence to start a section headed 'The future of poetry' but I'm not going to be around to see how the future will pan out. What is obvious is that the growth of technology is going to continue unabated until we have some dirty great financial crash or something more striking that they could make a Hollywood blockbuster out of. Who knows?
In the short term anyway it's clear that younger poets are going to take advantage of every new technological innovation that comes their way. My worry is that content is pretty much going to go out of the window. Most of the visual works I've run across have been pretty. There was one where you could rotate a poem, in 3D, 360° and its fun for five minutes. What I noted after I'd finished playing with it and moved onto other things is that I didn't actually read the ruddy poem. That says it all as far as I'm concerned.
I'm going to leave you with one of the more striking pieces. It reminded me of Beckett's Not I in its intensity and immediacy. It's by Dr. María Mencía, a digital artist and senior lecturer in Digital Media at Kingston University, London, UK, as well as a visiting academic at the RMIT, Melbourne, Australia. She holds a practice-based doctorate in Digital Poetics and Digital Art, University of the Arts – London. It's called Worthy Mouths. It says it all, but too fast for these tired eyes to make out.