The Third Thing: The Secret to Good Haiga

When I took up making haiga for the second time in 2008, I discovered there was a frightfully small amount of instruction on how to create them well. There was Jim Kacian’s Looking and Seeing: How Haiga Works and although this is a great article, it is quite academic and I found as a beginner, not very accessible. Most of the rest of what is available is much the same as that piece or simply not particularly helpful. When I was offered the chance to do these blog posts, I decided this was an opportunity to redress this problem.

Let’s start with what haiga is not. A haiga is not simply an illustrated poem. Good haiga does not just repeat the images presented in the haiku. A haiku about a snail should probably not have a picture of a snail in it.* Here is a not particularly great haiga I created for this post:Image

See how you do not receive anything new from the image, how it simply reiterates what is said?

The following is an example of an excellent photo haiga by Terri French:Image

French, Terri, first published on Daily Haiga February 22 2013.

This has what every great haiga needs; it has a “Third Thing”. The “Third Thing” is a term I coined for that mysterious element in good haiga that makes them great and surprising. If you think of haiku as two image poems (sometimes one), the accompanying image needs to supply a third (or second) thing, something either inferred or implied by the haiku or that reflects and expands on the mood of the piece. Terri is discussing her son leaving the nest. She has provided a seed pod dispersing its seeds on the wind as a visual metaphor for this. It is satisfying because it is not echoing what has been said in the haiku but enlarging on the theme, giving the reader something to mentally chew on. This is my second, much better version of my previous example:Image

Now this one isn’t nearly as clever as Terri’s haiga but see how the comparison between the sweep of a purple gown and the flowers makes you think? This haiga has the quality of the “Third Thing”. Both this and the previous haiga also do not close down the haiku but follow on and encourage more thought and examination.

I hope things are a little clearer now and maybe you took something away from this to enrich your own haiga making experience.

*I am saying probably because in the arts, there are no absolutes and good art is often what you can get away with rather than a replication of set rules.

Kacian, J, Looking and Seeing: How Haiga Works,  first delivered as a speech to The Haiku Society of American National Meeting, September 2002  Simply Haiku 2:5 (Autumn 2004); reprinted in The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku, Red Moon Press, 2004, pp. 126-153, available at


11 thoughts on “The Third Thing: The Secret to Good Haiga

  1. you’re making a very good point here, Violette, by stressing how haiku and image should complement/enlarge/kindle each other to create an impression that is bigger/larger than the two together.

    (I think I’ve called the image “the fourth line” and the counterpoint … but that of course only works if it’s a 3-line haiku 😉 )

  2. Johannes, I agree with this: “haiku and image should complement/enlarge/kindle each other to create an impression that is bigger/larger than the two together.” JB

    Violette, I disagree with this: “Good haiga does not just repeat the images presented in the haiku. A haiku about a snail should probably not have a picture of a snail in it” VJ

    Please see link above, to the work of haiku and haiga master, Kaji Aso. I’ve seen many, both traditional Japanese haiga and western expressions of haiga that ‘do’ take an element of the haiku and repeat it visually ‘to’ the expansion of the overall piece, some/many quite brilliantly so.

    I believe that the the assertion, re not repeating an element of the poem, is a ‘received idea’ originally based on taste and preference, re-packaged and represented until it emerged, in places, almost as objective imperative.

  3. V therein lies the potential pitfall, from my perspective, in looking for, as you say at the top:
    ” instruction on how to create them well.” It seems to be what so many do: I’m addressing my ‘general’ thought/questions here, not specifically to you. I sympathise with needing to know the nuts & bolts, how to use the technology (how do I do layers?) but after that I’m at a loss re ‘instruction’. I mean, why not simply engage with haiga, from the earliest to now, take them in, everything you like/don’t like/relate to or don’t. Some with thought, most by osmosis. Give it time to permeate the neurology, percolate, fuse with all other expressions of word and vision, let it play and settle. Go away. Come back. Let own haiga through.

    • Beginners need guidelines. Osmosis is a bit of a challenge to learn from. Not everyone is capable of learning in a rule free environment. I am not asking everyone to take up my “edicts”, just putting it out there.

  4. Pingback: Shadow Birds ~ Haiga for Ku On This KOT #009–2013 ~ Shadow Bells | A 19 Planets Art Blog 2010/2013

  5. Violette…thanks for this. There’s a lot to say about haiga…a lot to study to do it well. I still find studying the Japanese sumi-e helpful in regard to white space and placement of text something not mentioned enough. And that means learning about white space, the rule of thirds, and sometimes cropping to create white space. It begins when you start to paint, or photograph something….think haiga…think…where will I put the text? Move that lens if you have too. Often the poem looks as if its just been plopped in the only available space…instead of becoming part of the artwork..the image. Just a few thoughts…and like Sheila, I think if you have a photo of a snail, you can have the word ‘snail’ in your haiku….but it had best not describe your photo!! Bring something extraordinary and meaningful about a snail to the haiku. Don’t describe the photo or painting. Thanks for getting us all thinking about haiga, Violette.

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