Linking and Leaping: A Haiga Primer

First written and posted, in a slightly different form, to the NaHaiWriMo page on Facebook, 4 April 2012, but otherwise not previously published. For more information on haiga, together with numerous examples featuring my poems, please visit the Haiga page.


Scented Breeze Haiga

The preceding haiga features a poem of mine, translated into Japanese, from HaigaOnline 12:1, June 2011 (an online journal edited by Linda Papanicolaou). The painting is by Mary B. Rodning, and the translation is by Hiromi Inoue. My poem in English is as follows:


scented breeze . . .

our conversation takes

an unexpected turn


Take a moment to think about how the poem and the image relate to each other, and how one also leaps away from the other. These relationships are central to the haiga art. Elsewhere I have offered basic definitions of haiku and related genres of poetry. One of these definitions is the following one for haiga, which I hope also applies to photo-haiga.


HAIGA is the art of combining brush painting, haiku, and calligraphy. A traditional haiga requires all three of these elements. Just as haiku succeeds by creating space and energy in the relationship of its two juxtaposed parts, haiga energizes viewers through the “leap” or even disjunction between the poem and the painting (the painting is typically not an illustration of the poem). Haiga also employs calligraphy to create a pleasing visual whole, whether the calligraphy is highly refined and formal or ordinary and home-spun. Modern haiga sometimes replaces one of the three requirements, such as by using a photograph instead of a painting (also known as photo-haiga, or shahai in Japanese), or by typesetting words on a computer instead of using calligraphy. Some purists do not consider these variations to be authentic haiga, but they are increasingly popular as computer technology evolves. While traditional haiga will continue to require brush painting, haiku, and calligraphy, artists and poets have explored many additional combinations with pleasing re­sults, such as using collage and other mixed-media presentations.


One key aspect of haiga is that the image is usually not an illustration of the poem, nor is the poem a caption for the image. There should be an artistic interplay between them, some sort of unexplained but intuitive leap. A number of the photo-haiga posted on Facebook and elsewhere online lack this important trait. If the image shows clouds in a sky, then don’t say “cloudy sky” in the poem. The context of the image already shows us that, therefore to say so causes you to miss an opportunity to say something else, offering a tangential hint that creates something larger than the sum of the haiga’s parts. The poem might name or mention some aspect of the image, but most of the poem, in general, should not do so. The haiga I’ve shared here is hopefully an example, where the poem and the image are at right-angles to each other, employing a “linking” technique also used in writing renku verses. Indeed, the poem should shift away, at the same time linking to and leaping away from the image it is paired with. The real poetry in haiga lies in the relationship between the image and the poem.