Haiku Applied

Lessons of haiku, and their applications to photography

M. H. Rubin
9 min readApr 28, 2022
Rubin, “Half Moon Bay” 2017

After decades of studying and shooting photographs, I found my favorites from history had certain hard-to-describe attributes in common. My own photography adapted that style. A few years ago I began investigating haiku and other Zen arts, and found the attributes, rules, and ambitions were shockingly aligned with what I had long enjoyed in great photographs.

At first, the only thing I knew about haiku was the whole 5–7–5 syllable thing — which ironically is not all that central to the form. Because it’s short and simple, haiku is introduced as easy poetry to little kids. But it’s neither simple nor easy. The more I learn, the more difficult and interesting it has become. And the more I find it a fantastic foundation for photography, which through that lens also becomes more difficult and interesting.

I teach workshops in this approach — as it’s great for beginners as well as experts — and it makes more sense for teaching photographic composition and the “decisive moment” than anything I’ve ever seen. It gets even more interesting if you extend from haiku to other (more visual) Zen arts — ikebana, kintsugi, enso, bonsai — and their underlying wabi-sabi philosophy — but I’ll skip all that here for brevity.

Rubin, “Santa Cruz” (2008)

So here, excerpted directly from books and articles on haiku, are principles that can apply to picture taking. If you swap the term “photography” for “haiku” you can read this as almost-direct guidance and insight.

Defocus. Remember, we’re really talking about photography here:

how admirable! | to see lightning and not think | life is fleeting

Real Images from Everyday Life

Poets … made use of images drawn from everyday life, expressed simply and often humorously.

This was the style adopted by Matsuo Basho, one of the greatest of haiku poets. (A)

*The haiku shown in this essay are all by Basho. (B)

cats making love — | when it’s over, hazy moonlight | in the bedroom

Haiku is the poetry of the real. That is, it is the poetry which seeks to convey as clearly as possible the actual events of an experience so that the reader may come to find the same experience in himself, and therefore share the insight which the experience prompted. (H)

Haiku is Democratic

[In early haiku]…along with verses composed by emperors and noblemen, there is the work of monks, of warriors, and even of common people. It seems that the writing of poetry was not the pastime of an exclusive few with special talent, nor was it confined to any particular class. (A)

Simple Themes

The lyricism…is simple and direct, and its themes — the beauty of nature, love and parting, wine and merrymaking, grief and sorrow over the transience of all things — have remained unchanged throughout Japan’s history. (A)

a field of cotton — | as if the moon | had flowered

Haiku generally are not about exotic locales and unusual circumstances: haiku are the records of revelations we have about our ordinary lives. (H)

One Poetic Image

Though a good haiku may contain more than one sentence, it always evokes only one poetic image. This image is essentially descriptive, and great clarity of vision is required of the poet in order to create it, so to speak, with only a few strokes of the brush. (A)

barn’s burnt down — | now I can see | the moon

Concise

The haiku is probably the shortest verse form found in either the East or the West. Most words in Japanese consist of more than one syllable, so the number of words in a haiku is remarkably small — from five to eight or nine words altogether.

Haiku are not rhymed; the only formal rule (which is sometimes violated) is the fixed number of syllables. (A)

when the winter chrysanthemums go | there’s nothing to write about | but radishes

Incorporate Time and Season

The insistence on time and place was crucial for writers of haiku. The seasonal reference was called a kigo and a haiku was thought to be incomplete without it. (B)

and —

Since about the 16th century, three conventions have become universally accepted; (1) the haiku describes a single state or event; (2) the time of the haiku is the present; and (3) the haiku refers to an image connected to one of the four seasons. (A)

Avoids Being Obvious

In haiku, then, there is an attempt to “say something without saying it.” That which remains unsaid tells us more than the words and yet is unclear without them. (A)

and —

The most important characteristic of haiku is how it conveys, through implication and suggestion, a moment of keen perception and perhaps insight into nature or human nature. Haiku does not state this insight, however, but implies it. In the last hundred years …implication has been achieved most successfully through the use of objective imagery. This means you avoid words that interpret what you experience, such as saying something is “beautiful” or “mysterious,” and stick to words that objectively convey the facts of what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Instead of writing about your reactions to stimuli, in a good haiku you write about those things that cause your reactions. This way your readers can experience the same feelings you felt, without your having to explain them. (D)

as for the hibiscus | on the roadside — | my horse ate it

Two Parts: One Big and One Small, Juxtaposed

A haiku also centers structurally on a pause or caesura (“kire” in Japanese). By juxtaposing two elements or parts, the two parts create a spark of energy, like the gap in a spark plug. The two elements of a good haiku may seem unrelated at first glance, but if the reader lingers on them sufficiently, he or she may notice a reverberation. When you realize the connection between the two parts (sometimes called an “internal comparison”), you have a “spark” of realization, an “aha” moment.

As a writer of haiku, it’s your job to allow the poem to have that spark — and not to spell it out for the reader. This is perhaps the most difficult thing to do with haiku, as well as its most important — yet often least understood — structural characteristic.

With a [break], you create energy through the juxtaposition between the two elements, which may be a background or context, juxtaposed with a foreground or focus. … Above all, a haiku mysteriously creates an emotional impression, a whole that is often much greater than the sum of its parts. (D)

felling a tree | and seeing the cut end — | tonight’s moon

This separation creates a space for the reader to inhabit. Over the years this space has been described in various ways, including metaphors such as the gap in a spark plug; but simply put, the cut separates the haiku into its two images or elements and asks readers to puzzle-out or intuit their relationship.

Surprisingly, many books and essays on haiku seem to gloss over the importance of the haiku’s two-part structure, or instead give it short shrift.

One book that gives good space to the topic is Jane Reichhold’s Writing and Enjoying Haiku. In it she states: “There needs to be a syntactical break separating the verse into two distinct divisions.” She labels these divisions the phrase and the fragment. She quotes Betty Drevniok (Aware—A Haiku Primer): “In haiku the SOMETHING and the SOMETHING ELSE are set down together in clearly stated images.” (E)

and

Each haiku should have an “Aha!” moment, usually in the third line. In humorous haiku, this moment is often the punchline of the joke. In others, it is a moment of discovery or understanding. (G)

the crane’s legs | have gotten shorter | in the spring rain

“How these images relate to one another is a matter of some delicacy. The relationship cannot be too obvious or the poem will be trite, but if it’s too distant the association of the images will appear forced or arbitrary.” (F)

midnight frost — | I’d borrow | the scarecrow’s shirt

Beyond Explaining

It may be possible to explain this relationship [between phrase and fragment], but explanation is the death of haiku: when it is necessary to move outside of the images at hand to understand what is going on in the poem, the moment is lost, and the haiku fails. It is essential that the images speak clearly for themselves, and not require this sort of intellective discursion to be understood. (H)

first day of spring — | I keep thinking about | the end of autumn

Creative Constraints: Doing A Lot with Little

Haiku asks the question: how much can one convey and how accurately and effectively can one convey it using only five syllables then seven, then five? It is a form of poetry that provides a rigid container of limitation, designed to be a reminder of how much can be said and done with very little.

One of the beautiful lessons of haiku is that limitation and challenge can be stimulating for creativity and that there is a reciprocal relationship between challenge and ingenuity. (c )

a bee | staggers out | of the peony

The Mystical “Haiku Moment”

Much has been said and written about the “haiku moment” — that it blurs the distinction between “subject” and “object,” “self” and “other”; that in it the perception of the essential and the accidental, of the beautiful and the ugly, disappears; that it reflects things as they are in themselves. It has further been asserted that in haiku, place and time are always here and now, and yet all places and all times, no place and no time.

Haiku poetry resounds with endless meaning just because it so often attains that perfect simplicity sought for in philosophy, religion, literature, and art. (A)

Misunderstood and Mis-taught

You may have noticed that thus far I’ve said almost nothing about form in haiku. That’s because form is not nearly as important as the other strategies I’ve covered. Form, in fact, is the most misunderstood aspect of haiku. Haiku is frequently mistaught in schools, and many textbooks and dictionary definitions are superficial and sometimes even misguided. (D)

This PDF introduction (below) to haiku, by Jim Kacian, one of the premier English-writing practitioners of the art, could easily be read as an intro to a classical kind of photography. Beyond what has been discussed here, it goes into additional nuances of haiku structure and content that continues to support being applied to photographic style. If this path interests you, a worthy read: https://thehaikufoundation.org/omeka/items/show/164

Exhibit A:

© Ansel Adams, “Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, From Lone Pine,” 1944; Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Exhibit B:

© George Tice, “Petit’s Mobil Station and Watertower, Cherry Hill, New Jersey” 1974

I encourage you to take one of my workshops through the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. There are periodic 3-week online programs (6 sessions), and this August there is an in-person 1-week intensive that should be fun for any creative amateur, maybe if you’ve plateaued, feel like you’re good at picture taking, but want to push yourself. Anyway, Thanks for listening.

REFERENCES

(A) Hoffmann, Y. Japanese Death Poems, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1986

(B) Hass, The Essential Haiku — Versions of Basho, Buson & Issa, The Ecco Press, 1994

(C ), Davis, J., The Seven Arts of Zen— Uplift, https://uplift.love/the-seven-arts-of-zen/

(D) Welch, M. “Becoming a Haiku Poet” — http://www.haikuworld.org/begin/mdwelch.apr2003.html, 2003

(E) Miller, P., Haiku Toolbox, https://poetrysociety.org.nz/affiliates/haiku-nz/haiku-poems-articles/archived-articles/haiku-toolbox-some-thoughts-on-cutting/, 2018

(F) Gurga, L. Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, Modern Haiku Press, 2003

(G) Bell, M. How to Write a Haiku Trio, https://penandthepad.com/write-haiku-trio-4810665.html

(H) Kacian, J. How to Haiku, Red Moon Press, (2006) https://thehaikufoundation.org/omeka/items/show/164

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M. H. Rubin

Living a creative life, a student of high magic, and hopefully growing wiser as I age. • Ex-Lucasfilm, Netflix, Adobe. • Here are my stories and photos.