Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 11 August 2008

Poetry and art (part three)

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:

'leaving home for good' by Liam Wilkinson; Yorkshire

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.

William Blake, Songs of Experience, 'The Tyger', 1794

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

Kenneth Patchen, Poem, 1976

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.

Joan Miró, A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress (Painting Poem), 1938

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:

Tauba Auerbach, Subtraction (Startling),
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?

Visual poetry

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:

A Study of Context 2: S into H by bpNichol

moving onto this oddity:

Two Birds: After Matisse
(Water Poem # 6)

by bpNichol

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:

Kama Sutra by Avelino de Araujo, 1994

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

Now, have a look at one of his Floor Poems:

Walkabout by David Cole
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.


Susan at Stony River said...

I love this post; I've been illustrating my own journal scribblings for years but never thought of taking them further. Thanks! I'm newly inspired. The links you included are helpful too.

Congratulations also on your recent novel! After the Sharp Words review I'll be looking out for it.

Glad to find you--

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for the kind words, Susan, and for the speedy feedback - I've only just finished tweaking the thing. I hope you check out parts one and two as well.

Susan at Stony River said...

You caught me doing just that!

I've also jotted down your blog address to pass to a friend tomorrow, who introduced me to poetry as performance art (Slam, etc). That was new to me too.

Very grateful for friends who pull me out of my Poe-and-Wordsworth re-readings for a look 'round once in a while!

Jim Murdoch said...

That's nice of you Susan. If you've developed an interest in spoken poetry then you might like my post The art and science of reading poetry out loud (with Stephen Hawking).

Art Durkee said...

One next step is to take the poem into multimedia, one style of which I have attempted here.

The usual criticism of these sorts of experiments—which most often seem to come from more traditionalist, "purist" poets—is that, the poem should be able to stand on its own two feet, and need no enhancement. Well, if you're a purist that believes that poetry is and can only be a language-based artform made up only of words, then the argument has some merit. And I don't disagree with it in principle. When I critique a poem, one criteria that comes up is that a poem ought to be able to stand on its own, and note need footnotes or explanations; it needs to be its own entity, and many of the greatest poems create and contain a complete universe of experience in which the reader is immersed.

But the problem with this criticism is that the critics tend to stop at dismissal, and do not take up the pursuit of "okay, then, what else?" The enhancement of poetry via illumination, as in haiga and the other forms you're discussing here, is NOT the same thing as providing footnotes or explanations. So, the criticism is a bit apples-and-oranges.

Another direction to take is the performance direction, in which the words come alive as spoken word. Now, don't get me wrong: I think most of what goes on at Slams, and poetry readings, and the whole "spoken word" movement, which is all-too-dominated by hip-hop-style aspirations and egoism, is crap. Rather, performance art has some very poetic and poetry-based aspects that have shown the best of what can be done with "enhanced poetry" (if you will). One need only think of Laurie Anderson at her best. But another very effective type of solution is Kenneth Gaburo's "metalanguage," which is the basis of pieces such as "Maledetto," which is still one of hte more amazing pieces out there along these lines. Far too few poets have pursued this direction for their possible work. "Maledetto" can be heard on the wonderful UbuWeb site at:

Anonymous said...

Let's hope it's not *all* about the technology. That strikes me as a bit empty.

Jim Murdoch said...

Adrian, I agree with you. I think that's the problem with anything new, we get all caught up with the medium and the content falls behind. It'll catch up. What I did find in my trawl through the Internet was that I couldn't always play the piece without downloading something new. I think once formats have settled down a bit too this will help no end, it won't be such a kerfuffle getting into the thing.

That's the problem I'm having at the moment with your piece, Art, finding a space to get into it. It's not like a poem where I can slink off into a corner with my book and read a bit. It's almost like I'm going to have to make an appointment to engage with it. At least that's how it feels. And maybe that's a good thing, because when I go out of the house to watch a film or whatever I'm prepared for it and committed to devote x amount of time to it. I'll get back to you.

Art Durkee said...

One thing I want to be clear about, and one reason I tried doing that poem as multi-media with hypertext links rather than presenting it as a video or animation, which I certainly have the technology to enact—and the comment about technology affecting artistic choices is valid, and so is the comment that it shouldn't all be about the technology—is that there's a certain point at which art becomes entertainment, and loses its force.

Art is interactive. Entertainment is passive. Art pulls you in, at its best, into its own world, and the experience is engaged and immersive. Entertainment never disturbs your world the way art can, it's far more floating than falling. Rob Brezsny, an artist/activist/writer/astrologer has put it this way, and I completely agree: "Creativity is life. Entertainment is death." The biggest problem with TV is that it's not a very interactive medium; you're expected to sit back and be passively entertained. (What this does to the mindset and expectations of generations of viewers is another discussion.) There are whole regions of the Internet whose paradigm is basically that of TV, passive entertainment. The good news is that there are whole regions of the Internet that are NOT like that, too.

So, I could make a video of a poem, using images and music. In fact, I have done so. But what I like about hypertext is that the choices of what links to follow, including none of the above, is up to the reader. There is a participatory aspect to this kind of presentation. Each reader of that poem will experience the poem differently, hopefully, in the choices they make on what "extras" to engage with. Each reader will partially create that experience, based on which links they activate, and which they'll ignore. It requires the reader to be engaged and to make choices, and to participate—and that's one reason I've taken a lot of crap for this attempt at multi-media poetry. If you can imagine, many people are actually MORE accepting of passively-watched video versions than versions in which they have to make choices and interact. (We'll just mention again that discussion for another time about generations of TV viewers being influenced by TV in how they respond to the universe.)

The most laughable reply I got to that multi-media poem when I first presented it was, "You're making me work too hard!" There is something profoundly funny and disturbing about a response like that to poetry—although it might explain a few things about what's wrong with the contemporary poetry scene in general.

A lot of Flash-animated VisPo is similarly passive for the viewer. One reason I have some difficulty with some of what I've seen with online VisPo is that it operates on the same paradigm as TV: "I am presenting you with my thoughts, and you'd better damn well receive them." Even painting is more interactive than this, because it allows for the time the viewer needs to become absorbed in the piece. A gallery display of VisPo might therefore be more engaging than these little anime mini-videos being presented online.

Online is often still too much like TV: people give you "content" (artists have become "content providers") that you're still expected to sit back and passively watch. One advantage of the Web, though, is the ability to clock away. That's a wee bit of non-passivity, even if at times it's not much more control over the medium than using the TV's remote control to click away. Another advantage of the Web is that everyone who does have access to that aforementioned technology is capable, time and talent permitting, of creating dialogue by making art, either de natura or in counterpoint and response to other artists. The possibility for artistic dialogue is greater than ever before, with like-minded artists who live all over the planet. (Look at what we're doing here!)

So, the possibility of making art/poetry/music less passive and more interactive is inherently supported by the technology. And that's why I presented that poem that way, rather than some other way.

Art Durkee said...

Artists have always used technology for making art. What else is a pencil? What else is a paintbrush? The point is that the tools must serve the art, not vice versa.

In other words, and here I'm speaking as an artist who has always used technology to make art, some artists learn the technology and discover what art can be made using it. It requires an exploration process, certainly, and a lot os sketching that needs not to finalized art but to failed attempts. At some point, however, the technology has been learned, or internalized, enough that the artist doesn't have to think about it anymore, and gets on with focusing attention on the art itself.

Stated another way: with new technologies, there is often a period that I call the "gee whiz! look what I can do!" period, when the tools are being discovered. After that settles down a bit, some people start making genuine art with the new tools. They have to incorporate them into their working process.

I'll tell you this, though. I was not a good painter or draughtsman. (Although I'm learning to draw now.) Then computer-assisted art-making tools came along. Adobe Photoshop allowed me to make the images that I saw in my mind's eye so that other people could also see them. Photoshop enabled me to overcome a personal handicap, in other words. So this is one case in which the technology was incredibly freeing and incredibly stimulating.

Technology is technology. It's what you DO with it that matters.

Jim Murdoch said...

Art, I've listened/watched/read through winter midwinter midlife life and my gut feeling was more one of confusion than anything else. I wanted to know how to interact with this, especially the audio pieces. At first I tried letting the music play as I read but then I'd hit another piece before the first one had finished. I felt a bit like when I read A Clockwork Orange flicking back and forward between the text and the glossary. Probably a better comparison would be having to eat a meal that's in three different rooms, the meat in one, the potatoes in another and the veg in a third. Bringing the whole piece together as an animation would have made me feel a lot happier about it.

As for the whole art / entertainment divide – if I'm not entertained by art then I would question how good the art is. It's semantics again, ruddy semantics. I think the word 'entertainment' has been devalued over the years because of what is presented to us in the name of entertainment. I doubt that the writer of Donnie Darko would consider his film 'art' but it certainly makes you think.

Interactivity is an option. When I go and watch a play or listen to a concert I don't interact with the performers. I don't expect to, I wouldn't like to and they wouldn't appreciate it if I did … unless you count a bit of polite applause at the end as interaction. I'm not a bit fan of interaction. I think of a work of art as something that some man or woman has done on their own and presented to me for my … let's say 'consideration'. I'm always annoyed by works of art where I find the artist hasn't done the work himself but just left instructions for others to assemble the piece and I don’t know why that should bother me because that's all a musical score is; all composers can't be Mike Oldfield. And I did used to enjoy playing other people's music and not just my own.

I do agree with you totally about the pen and the paintbrush. We can put too much of an emphasis on the tools that today's artists/writers/composers have available to them. But you're right – a cooling off period is needed. I remember seeing David Hockney playing with what was basically an early version of Paint years ago and really what he produced was nothing to write home about because he was still too enthralled with the process.

Just look at the art that gets produced in Photoshop these days. I would love to get better at it than I am but I spend enough time glued to a keyboard. If I'm going to take on a hobby then it'll have to be something physical before I lose the use of my legs completely. The trouble is computers are such damn fun.

Dave King said...

Keeping up the standard I see! Got off to a good start with the quote from Miro, "The meaning comes later". That sounds glib, but I think it is actually very profound. I really loved the "Leaving Home for Good" and the floor poems. You were saying last week about being bugged by not getting things about which you see others enthusing. I have always been that way with visual poetry (and concrete poetry), but I think your contribution here, particularly the "line and language in the same space" explanation has pushed the door open a chink - maybe more than a chink. Thanks for that.

Art Durkee said...

Depends on the concert. Some are far more interactive than others, and some artists invite it. The fact that interaction is still considered radical is symptomatic of the mindset that I have a problem with. I have been to plenty of concerts where the audience IS invited to interact with the performers. I've played several such concerts myself.

Of course you're more likely to get this at an "experimental music" concert than you are at your average coffeeshouse folk gig or arena rock concert. But that's perhaps another aspect of the mindset that I have a problem with: the mindset that already has decided that such things aren't feasible or doable or desirable.

Rachel Fox said...

I agree with might be helpful if we could make a strict divide with art/creativity on one side of it and entertainment on the other but I'm really not sure we can (well, I can' depends who I'm talking to, who is making the divide...and many, many other factors). Take one of Jim's favourites...Monty Python - it's very entertaining...but just because it's humour (and successful and popular) are we going to say it isn't art or creative work? Again you end up in that awkward area...everyone has a different idea of what qualifies as art, Art!

Jim Murdoch said...

Sorry, Dave, that's not one of mine but it is a good quote which is why I included it. I see visual art as an unholy marriage that somehow manages to work some of the time. But I've never found a piece yet that I can experience over and over again the way I can stand-alone works of art or musical compositions.

People can list of their top ten concertos, novels, films, paintings but I couldn't name my top one visual or concrete poem. I would have been hard pushed to even name a visual or a concrete poem before I wrote this article and, give me a few days, and I won't even be able to remember any of them. But 'Mr. Bleaney' affects me every single time I read the poem and I probably know it by heart. There are no tricks, no fancy images, just raw poetry.

As for the floor poem 'Walkabout', maybe if I'd seen it in its original setting it might do more for me but I will forget it. Strangely enough Lavender Mist is a painting I'd happily hang on my wall. Now, why that one and not the other? Indeed why that one and not one of Pollock's other paintings?

Anonymous said...

Dave puts his finger on my pulse as usual (jees, that sounds odd... never mind!)...

'The meaning comes later' can be such a truism of creative writing, I think, but lots of people don't seem to get it.

You have to be able to think that you're starting out writing one thing and then discover, as you go along, that you're actually writing something completely different. In this way the sub-conscious can be let play in your work.

('Shouldn't have had that last handful of M and M's)

Jim Murdoch said...

Ken, I'd really like to meet the writer who knows what he's writing about. You'll know this yourself. You start off writing with one thing in mind and the words just wander off on their own. That's why I've been having such a problem with what I'm working on right now. I've been trying to drive the words in one direction and they don't make sense when I do. Intent is one thing but the best things I've written have simply started with an idea, a few words usually, that I have let run to their natural conclusion.

Art Durkee said...

Rachel, I'd never say that Monty Python wasn't art, or only entertainment. I grew up on the stuff, and it molded, er, warped me for life. But that's precisely my point, and that's what makes it art rather than entertainment: it changes you. Art disturbs, changes, molds, gets under your skin.

I never said there was a clear distinction. But I think it is necessary to think about the distinction, and how it plays out.

There is of course creativity behind art AND entertainment. The difference is how the audience responds: actively or passively. I think it's a good possibility that art is something that you respond to actively, while entertainment is passive. This isn't to say that we will all agree on what art is, or isn't. Of course not. But I think this is a good thing to think about—especially as artists.

Rachel Fox said...

Behold the union of the warped of mind and spirit!
Yes, that makes more sense then, Art. Beware the wandering divide!

Anonymous said...

These three articles form a fantastic resource. The subject is one which has fascinated me for a long time. Thanks for the tremendous attention to detail and the enormous amount of work gathering the links. You've done a brilliant job.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Paul, that is what I was aiming for, well, more of an overview to be honest - the subject is too huge to try and cover even over three posts. It's something I have every intention of returning to in the future but then I've been planning on writing a post on Spike Milligan for almost a year now and still haven't got round to it.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Spike is wonderful. He actually wrote some very good poetry, as you probably know.

I thought I saw Jesus on a tram.
I said, 'Are you Jesus?'
He said, 'Yes I am.'

I've remembered that poem since I first read it, there's something haunting about it. Sorry this comment is a bit off topic, feel free to unmoderate it.

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