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What Is Haiga?

Haiga is a unique art form that blends traditional Japanese haiku poetry with delicate brushwork and painting. This harmonious fusion captures fleeting moments in nature and human emotion, inviting the viewer into a serene, contemplative space. Each haiga tells a story, where words and images dance together in silent eloquence. How might haiga enrich your appreciation of poetry and art?
Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins

Haiga is the centuries-old Japanese art form that combines traditional haiku poetry and illustration. Displayed in formal calligraphy with a complementary drawing in the same medium, or in a more modern font to accompany a photograph, haiga can be done in traditional or modernist ways. It can be painted on parchment and hung from the wall or assembled in Adobe&reg Photoshop&reg and lined up on a webpage.

The first appearance of illustrated haiku was in the work of Nonoguchi Ryūho in the 17th century. The haiku poet Matsuo Bashō, of the same era, is credited with popularizing the form, though. Some of the most prized early works were collaborations between the best haiku poets and the best illustrators, such as works produced by Bashō and his art teacher, Morikawa Kyoroku. Other early pioneers of the form are Yosa Buson, Sakaki Hyakusen and Takebe Socho.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Some works of haiga highlight the haiku aspect predominantly, such as that by Bashō, who wrote, "Ah, summer grasses! All that remains of the warriors' dreams." In other works, the artist is the more famous member of the collaboration, and the artwork would be given more prominence than the calligraphy. The very best is considered to be a marriage of the two elements, an understated expression of a complex idea.

As with any artform, the rules of haiga have been made to be broken, particularly with the way in which the haiku is formed. For instance, traditional haiku is meant to have 17 syllables, but much of the haiku found throughout history will have less or even more syllables. Also, haiku is meant to be constructed in three phrases or lines, but it may appear in haiga as just a single line across or down a page. Another rule of traditional haiga that is often broken is how the haiku used to center around themes tied to the natural world. In 2011, haiga artwork runs the gamut of human emotions.

The key is to contrast two subjects or themes into the body of a tightly packed haiku, then contrast that image with an illustration in the haiga that attempts to epitomize that juxtaposition of themes. Sometimes, the artist will take a picture he or she likes and attempt to write a haiku based on the feelings the image evokes. Other times, a haiku will be constructed, then an image will attempt to translate that haiku's essence without words. Very few artists through history have become renowned for doing both well.

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