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HAI+GA PART III: WRITING
IN ITERATIVE OR CAPTIONAL STYLE
by Linda Papanicolaou

One of the first things we learn in haiga is that it's bad form to have an image that illustrates the haiku, or a haiku that describes or captions the image. The poem shouldn't tell us what we can see for ourselves in the image. Yet, compositions in which both poem and subject address similar if not the same subject comprise the majority of modern English language haiga. What going on here?

Those of us who used to participate in Museki Abe's World Tempos Journal may recall that many of the haiku were basically descriptions of the photos (WTJ no longer exists but you may read an interview with Abe in the 2004 Simply Haiku. There was a special delight about it which lay in the novel pleasure of seeing a photograph posted by someone halfway around the world and responding to it with poetry. To be sure, WTJ was about photo-haiku rather than haiga, and photos link somewhat differently to haiku set beside them on the page rather than in the pictorial composition, but I don't think they're totally dissimilar. Both are about the relationships between images and texts.

When I was first learning about haiga, I found an article in Haigaonline (vol. II) by Jim Kacian. In it he categorized this kind of text/image relationship as "iterative", one in which the picture and poem reinforce each other through their identical subject matter. He did not proscribe it, but did point out that if the image is sufficiently "complete" in itself as an aesthetic statement, the poem is going to feel "tacked-on". Similarly, in the next year's Haigaonline (vol III) was an article by Susumu Takiguchi, who noted that image and haiku could share subject matter though it was frowned on in some circles in Japan. Subsequently I found a publication by Stephen Addiss and Fumiko Yamamoto in which shared subject matter was taken simply as one of the forms that haiga might take (Addiss and Yamamoto, Takebe Sōchō and the Haiku-painting tradition, Richmond VA 1995).

So where does the misperception come from that iterative or captional style is a fault? I'm not sure, but one can see a certain hardening of position in some of the statements made by journal editors, such as the introductions to the haiga sections in the old Simply Haiku, or in the instructions for submissions in other major haiga journals and websites. They often speak of "juxtaposition" and stipulate that the haiga's poem must not be merely descriptive of the image. Unfortunately some of the statements were also full of "musts" and "shoulds" regarding what haiga are and aren't. The result, I suspect, has been the widespread belief that haiga in which image and text share a subject matter are somehow less than those with broader shift or "scent linking". But even in journalistic writing, captions should do more than describe. A web page I found from the University of Kansas School of Journalism uses much the same language that we do in exclaiming that good text does not tell the reader what's obvious but enhances enhance the reader's experience and understanding.

Myself, I tend to use the terms "iterative", "captional" or "close linking" for this style of haiga, and I would very much like to see an end to the use of "caption ku" as a pejorative term because it obscures what the real issues are. Indeed there are captional haiga that for a variety of reasons do not work well, but as long as I've been editing Haigaonline now, I've seen many that do, and for a while now I've been thinking about an article for Haigaonline. Happily, this issue's Haiku this Haiga contest received two exemplary submissions in iterative or captional style by Pamela Babusci and Terri French, and they gave me the push I needed. The following is not intended to be a last word on the subject but rather some thoughts how this kind of haiga works and why.

First, a test case of my own : In this one I've interpreted the definition so narrowly that the poem includes nothing that's not also in Mary's painting:

yellow freesia
a small brown snail
inches out on a leaf

It has season (summer ); the imagery is economically presented so that lines 1 and 2 come together through the technique of association in line 3. In other words, it's a respectable shasei. But picture it placed as text within Mary's image. In any situation of word/image combination, haiga included, we first process the image, then the poem and thus informed return to the image. The problem with my haiku is not so much that it's "merely descriptive", telling us what to see in the painting. Rather, it's the situation described in Kacian's article: by the time we read the haiku we've already experienced Mary's painting in all its visual richness. There's nothing more that the haiku can add and moreover any potency it may have had as haiku is washed away by the painting.

By contrast, now read the two haiku that were submitted to the Haiku this Haiga contest, both of which depict the same subject matter as Mary's painting but retain their magic by also including imagery beyond the visual:

freesia wind
the snail
hesitates

Pamela Babusci

daybreak
the lily gilded
with snail slime

Terri L. French

Consider first Pamela's haiku. Stripped to visual essentials the painting has frozen a scene in time. The haiku reactivates it, bringing in scent, wind, motion. It depicts the momentary uncertainty of a snail that has stopped in its trail, head outstretched, eyestalks waving, as it senses the nearby flowers. When I read the poem, my response is yes, I have seen snails do this. I'm drawn deeper into the scene and return to the image with new eyes.

Through turn of phrase, literary reference (Shakespeare's King John) and humor, Terri's haiku depicts the image very differently. "Daybreak" is of course when snails are active, so line 1 begins with stating a time of day implicit in the painting. With line 2, the sunrise has enhanced the freesia's golden hue to the point of excess, and all this is suddenly subverted as line 3 points out to us that snails leave sticky trails. Has it ruined the lily's beauty? Does snail slime in the morning light have its own kind of beauty?

Unlike my test-case haiku, which offered little that could be taken back to the painting, Pamela's and Terri's draw me deeper into the scene and return me to the painting with new eyes. And as Jeanne Emrich wrote in her article in "white space" (Haigaonline issue 9), this back and forth relationship will continue as long as my gaze remains within the haiga.

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