Haiku and Photography

Arlington National CemeteryHaiku and Photography
By Rick Black

As a poet and photographer, I often am forced to choose between the two genres. If I’m going on a walk, I’ll say to myself: well, do you want to take pictures today or write haiku? Which shall it be? And the reason for my necessity to choose is the way in which I perceive and utilize each art form.

Let me explain. To take a photo, I place an instrument next to my eye or look through a viewfinder or at a screen. Next, I will try to frame my shot and focus on what I am trying to capture in the scene, whether that’s a frog in a pond, suckling baby pigs or gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery.

Baby PigsWhatever it might be, I want my photo to be an aesthetically pleasing image. I remain, throughout the entire process, on the outside looking in. I am not attempting to become a part of the scene or to understand what it means to be a frog in a pond or a baby pig; rather, I am attempting to capture beauty or harmony or create dissonance through an instrument that will enable others to see what I saw or act in response to the image.

In writing a haiku, though, the first difference is that I do not need any type of instrument or technology. A pencil and a small notebook suffice; or, if I don’t have either, I’ll put some lines to memory. Before I begin composing, though, I try to be at one with my subject, I try to dissolve my own being in the thing that’s being observed and imagine myself in its own place.

In an article about Basho’s conception of poetry and the creative process, Basho and the Poetics of “Haiku,” Makoto Ueda writes that Basho believed that poetry is a product of “close communion with nature” and that this “leads to a ‘transpersonal’ theory of poetry, since such a communion presupposes the dissolution of the poet’s ego.” Further on, Ueda quotes Doho, a disciple of Basho who discusses the master’s approach to how a haiku poet should compose haiku:Hiding Frog

…to submerge himself within a natural object, to perceive its delicate life and feel its feelings, out of which a poem forms itself. A poem may skillfully delineate an object; but, unless it embodies feelings which have naturally emerged out of the object, the poem will fall short of the true poetic sentiment, since it presents the object and the poet as two separate things.

Which, of course, is part of my dilemma when I go out for a walk: do I want to try to be a part of nature and write a haiku? Or, do I want to remain outside of the scene and try to “capture” a part of nature in a photograph, and share that with others? I suppose that I could take my walk twice, once as a haikuist and another time as a photographer, but by then the scene would have changed and the feeling disappeared.

How about you – what’s your own poetic process? Do you work like Basho suggests or do you have a different technique? Do you try to capture a scene in an objective way, distancing yourself from it like a camera? Has anyone else faced a similar dilemma or are you able to combine photography and haiku without any conflict?

Lastly, does anyone have a haiku for one of my photographs?


7 thoughts on “Haiku and Photography

  1. I would say I have various processes for writing haiku.

    Sometimes, inadvertedly, I become intimate with a moment, particularly with the subsongs of two birds, the European Robin, and the Common Blackbird (a true Thrush) on successive years. Sheer chance and timing and being in an incredibly quiet place both externally and internally.

    Just a quick attempt at producing a haikai verse for one of your photographs, and how many died at 19 during the Vietnam war(s) and other conflicts, and using the numbers on one stone.

    last one at 19
    my 61st birthday holding
    onto every fold


    • Bueatiful poem, Alan — thanks so much for sharing!

      It’s true, each situation and mood dictates a different approach to poem-writing. Sometimes I just want to jot something down quickly as an observer, other times to spend more time trying to be at one with a particular locale. Yet, still, I have trouble combining taking pix and writing haiku together. It’s almost like the right and left sides of my brain. Isn’t it wonderful, though, when you catch a bird song early in the morning and just stop to listen, not thinking about writing a poem or taking a photo or doing anything except listening?



  2. Hi Rick,

    I am a firm believer in serendipity. Apart from organised ginko I do not really go out to write haiku or take photographs. That said though, I am always taking mental notes, snapshots if you will, I do have a camera on my phone but seldom use that, usually because I forget about it 🙂 If a set of circumstances or a scene intrigues me and I think there may be a haiku in in I take mental notes and work on it when I get home. As a painter I have a visual memory and if I wish to compose haiga I tend to render a scene by drawing or painting something that will add an extra dimension, I try to avoid mere captions now, though I think we all have done this when first starting out.
    My pal Grum is a professional photographer and I have composed some haiga using his images, which i think are rather good. You can view them in Notes from the Gean No.3 December 2009 if you wish ( the one with the big H on the cover) http://www.geantreepress.com/Archives.html

    col 🙂

    • Thanks, Colin — I like your idea a lot of taking mental notes and working on a poem at home long after being out in the field. Or even jotting down notes and then revisiting the place in one’s imagination upon returning home or going to a cafe. Perhaps I’ll use it myself in the future.

      Nice haiga, too!


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