Wednesday, January 9, 2013


I would have sworn I've written something on this before, but I can't find it.

By haiku here what I really mean is american haiku which is really Jack Kerouac. There's a strong connection to the traditional Japanese form, but it's not quite the same thing. These poems are short, usually 3 lines long, and the paint an intense picture. An important element is that syllable counting does not appear, so there's less fussing with exact word choice to make the counts work.

One of my favorites from Kerouac:

Drunk as a hoot owl
writing letters
by thunderstorm

Now, Kerouac was kind of an asshole, and he might be overrated as a writer, but he could write some haiku.

There are really two separate threads of resemblance between these poems and photographs.

The first thread is how they affect us. Well done, each one creates a strong visual impression (the photograph more literally, obviously). One could say something fatuous like "a good photograph is the visual realization of a haiku and vice versa," if one wanted to go down a slightly strange path. The successful visual creates a mood, a sense of place, or perhaps it invokes questions. Why is Jack drunk? To whom is he writing letters?

The second thread of similarity is in how they are made. Writing a longer poem, one might labor over it, changing a word here and there, adding a stanza, striking and replacing a poor line. This is rather like a painting. The piece is polished and filled in, details are tidied up or replaced. The piece exists for a long time before it arrives at a finished form. Contrariwise, a haiku is so short that an edit is really just another haiku. Kerouac's books of haiku make it clear that he wrote the same or similar haiku over and over, the labor was in writing a new one that was related to the previous one but -- sometimes -- better. Each tiny poem is written in a matter of moments, almost an instant in time.

In the same way a photographer takes a picture in an instant, but then takes another one, and another. The ideal image is approached as a series of steps, each step a complete image in its own right.


  1. Coincidentally, I just read "The Art of Photography" which makes the same connection between haiku and photography. The author (Bruce Barnbaum) went further and described both as "skeletons" which allow the reader or viewer to fill in the details, or to paint their own picture, from their own imagination. Did you read that book too, or did you make the same connection independently?

  2. I am old enough that I cannot say with certainty that I didn't read it ;) I might very well have, and lifted the idea from that very book! I can say that if I did, I have forgotten it entirely, because it feels like I made the idea up myself.

    Maybe it's just kind of an obvious idea, too?