/

Illuminating the interplay between Japanese poetry and pictures

by David Burleigh

This cleverly titled book combines two subjects, for the “art” that it describes is not just the art of haiku composition but that of the pictures that frequently accompany the poems, often by the same person. “If haiku is a worldwide phenomenon, haiga (haiku painting) is almost unknown,” says the author.

THE ART OF HAIKU: Its History Through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters, by Stephen Addiss. Shambhala, 2012, 338 pp., $24.95 (hardcover)

Stephen Addiss, who is a professor of art, is also a practitioner of traditional ink painting and a haiku poet. He has published a number of books about haiku, including several beautifully illustrated anthologies, besides scholarly work. He selects and translates the poems in these volumes himself, and there is a refreshing individuality about his choices. He knows what he is talking about in his chosen field.

Since “the origins of haiku can be seen as both part of a historical progression and as a revolution in aesthetics,” clearly the story begins a long way back. Some background is consequently filled in about early poetry, and formative influences from China, before we get to haiku. The 31-syllable poems known as waka represented the first true Japanese aesthetic, which was then diverted, sometimes humorously, into shorter 17-syllable verses.

A playful pictorial element is apparent even in the 15th century, in verses like the one about a blossom returning to the branch that turns into a butterfly, or another about adding a handle to the moon to make a fan. These are well known, and the book fully details the ways that they emerged, and helps us to understand, not only how illustrating poems became part of a general practice, but also how the content might be seen.

The hanging scroll with an ink-painting, sometimes colored in, or the poem-card with the poet’s own calligraphy, are familiar enough today, but what is less well known is the ways in which these intersect, and this is the real subject of the book, which includes illustrations and examples. By the time we come to the most important poet of all in the history of haiku, Matsuo Basho (1644-94), adding a sketch to the poet’s calligraphy had become quite customary.

In what ways the picture may enhance the poem we learn from the book’s examples and explanation. Whether the illustration deals directly with the subject of the poem or not, it undoubtedly adds to the effect. But precisely what effect is not a simple or straightforward matter.

On one hand, the written version may interact in subtle ways with the imagery of the poem, while on the other, the picture may be of something entirely different, with a meaning of its own. There is no single pattern.

Addiss makes illuminating observations on the balance of certain handwritten characters, and their likely significance, as well as offering suggestions about the meaning of unrelated images that have been juxtaposed with the content of the poem. Perhaps the most interesting poet that he deals with is Yosa Buson (1716-84), who not only led a Basho revival but was equally renowned as a poet and a painter. Unfortunately there is only one image from the wonderful picture-scrolls he made to illustrate Basho’s best-known poetic journal.

Much of this book consists of translated haiku, gathered thematically in groups, with suggestive comments. These examples provide a sense of the poetry, while the author leaves open such questions as whether the haiku of Buson are more “painterly” than those of other poets. There is a slight emphasis on Zen that is characteristic of the Western approach to haiku. There are also one or two slips: following up a reference on Buson, I found the right author and page number, but the wrong book-title. Basho, the subject of the longest chapter, is omitted from the index.

At the end of the book Addiss brings developments up to modern times, and indeed the subject of haiga is of growing interest since it has also been taken up overseas. In “Bending Reeds,” the 2012 anthology of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society (a traditional group active in California), a book which came to hand as I was reading this, there is a very clear statement of the way that pictures and poems “complement” each other, with fine examples, by Edward Grossmith.

An excellent and very informative guide, “The Art of Haiku” will do much to enhance the understanding of poets and artists, alerting those who are less familiar with Japanese tradition to multiple aspects of the interplay between poetry and pictures.

David Burleigh comes from the north of Ireland, teaches and writes, and has lived in Tokyo for more than 30 years.

  • Carmen Sterba

    It’s good to know that David Burleigh’s reviews on outstanding international haiku books can always be found in The Japan Times.