Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Haiku and Photography

Haiku poetry and photography are expressive art forms which share both techniques and effects.  Both have the capacity to evoke an idea or an emotion while using very spare resources.  Both rely on the engagement of the imagination to achieve full appreciation, while also  using a bit of ambiguity to good effect.  The comparison might be extended to include any kind of visual art such as painting or drawing, but it seems to me that photography's capacity to instantaneously capture a very narrow slice of time and distill its essence into two dimensions brings it closer to haiku.  Some of  the old haiku masters sometimes accompanied their poems with simple brush drawings.  It may be possible to similarly combine haiku and photos provided that the connections are not too simplistic or maudlin.

Some techniques shared by haiku and photography include:
Rhythmic patterns
Incongruous or unexpected juxtaposition
Perspective emphasis or distortion
Selective framing
Selective focus
subtle gradations of tone or shading.
The best description and analysis of haiku techniques I have come across is a short article by Jane Reichhold, who with her husband edited a journal of Haiku.  Her explanations have directness and clairty which is often lacking in critical writing about art.  She also is able to use her considerable creative talents to provide illustrative examples of the techniques she identifies.  Here, for instance, is one of my favorites in which she is talking about the "technique of the Sketch or Shiki's Shasei", a focus on reality, simply said:
waves come into the cove
one at a time
Haiku in the English language has a history of somewhat over a century in length.  Quite  a lot of authors have taken a stab at reconciling the major linguistic differences with translations between Japanese and English.  Many different styles of Haiku in many languages have come and gone over the years.  Much of the production in English during the first half-century used the 17-syllable form expressed in three lines of 5,7 and 5.  In recent times, shorter forms are favored and there is less emphasis on natural and seasonal themes.

It is probably no coincidence that I mostly like photographic work and haiku from roughly the same era which preceded the advent of  the digital age.  The photo books in my possession feature names like Blossfeldt, Weston, Lange, Smith, Mann, and Strand.  My favorite haiku author is Richard Wright, who is best known for his novels, including Native Son.  Wright died at age 52 in 1960; much of the last year of his life was taken up with the production of four thousand haiku.  Wright picked out the 817 he liked best, likely for publication, but he never saw them in print.  His daughter took on the job and got Wright's haiku work published as "Haiku: This Other World", 1998.  The whole collection is also available on line at the Terebess Asia Online site.

Wright might have a hard time getting his haiku published now.  He stuck doggedly to the now-deprecated 5-7-5 format.  I have no prejudice against shorter form work, but it seems to me that Wright's disciplined consistency is a source of strength and that it produces a very agreeable and identifiable voice for his poetry, as well as drawing on the expressive richness of English in the process.  Here is one of my favorites from near the top of the list:
Keep straight down this block,
Then turn right where you will find
A peach tree blooming.
Finally, I found it very interesting that Wright's daughter mentions, I think in her introduction to the haiku book, that Wright early in his European exile was interested in photography and that he processed his own film and made his own prints.  I don't know if any of that photographic work survived, or if Wright ever talked about any connections between his photographs and his poetry.

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