Haiku and Image Juxtaposition


The haiku poem, when masterfully done, is considered by Eastern thinkers like Alan Watts as “the most sophisticated form of literature in the world.” Why? The poet is constantly paring down his thoughts to the fewest words, and yet must try to deliver a meaning often stretching beyond the mere ‘image’ the words present. And it must be done with everyday language as if spoken in a single breath.

If you look around your world, and pay attention, you will discover many things which are in a state of juxtaposition. To understand the meaning of this word is both simple and complex. In the everyday world juxtaposition means placing two different items side by side. Because we live in a dualistic world (good/bad, pretty/plain, high/low, black/white etc.) the simplest understanding is to see things in contrast as being juxtaposed. And somehow, because of our dualistic viewpoint, this placement feels right.

But juxtaposition, especially in the realm of creativity and making art, is often more subtle. And often this subtlety is best understood by some background in the literary tradition, an openness to connecting things which we sometimes don’t normally connect, and most particularly an intuitive awareness of some profound connectedness. This later understanding of juxtaposition as connectedness points to what Aldous Huxley called “The Perennial Philosophy.” It is all the esoteric, transcendent, mystical and ancient wisdom which resides in a world within you, and some would say it also comprises what is known as the Morphogenic Field, that band of invisible collective human consciousness enveloping the Earth. It is up to us, in this material world, to rise to the effort of discovering it. It has a long tradition both in the East and the West, and in art and literature. And there are numerous techniques which bring this understanding to life.

The emphasis here for now will be to examine techniques applicable to the creation of haiku poetry. Some haiku is simple and touches our humanity, some are infused with the Zen tradition and some are broadened by allusions to other literary or cultural references. Juxtaposition works in all of these. I will get to juxtaposition between haiku and photographs following this section on juxtapositions within haiku.

Juxtaposition Within Haiku

One example of haiku as our simple concerns:

How many threads
are left in our clothes
little moth

How many days
before we return
to an empty home

This pairing realizes its effect through the juxtaposition of time and space (“how long” and “home”) and through the juxtaposition of the poet and the moth. Time becomes unimportant because home is here, now, and space is irrelevant because in each moment I am at home.
I share my clothes with you little moth, and see my own physical comfort gradually disappear, but I find more comfort in your company. Because I am alone and away from an empty home, the significance of the moth’s steady company becomes more important, and my own destiny of loneliness becomes lessened because at this moment I am not lonely. Our destinies are co-mingled because my destiny to be alone needs company, and the moth’s destiny to stay alive needs my clothes. The gradually disappearing threads is a reminder that there is an inevitable end to our lives, and the moth’s life is naturally shorter than mine; I value its transient life all the more because it may be gone before mine, and leave me alone again. Thus to be at home is to be in the present moment; that is all we have and should find some solace in it.

An Example of a Haiku Infused with the Zen Tradition

Her footprints on the pool deck
in the sun and the rain

Here we have direct juxtaposition (sun/rain, pool/deck, footprints/no footprints) and implied juxtaposition (the poet/the lady friend, regarding their relationship). Her wet footprints coming out of the pool disappear just like she has, no matter whether it is sunny (a happy relationship) or raining (a stormy relationship). The sun dries up her wet footprints, and the rain washes away her footprints. Either way we are witness to the transience of modern relationships. The poet’s apparently unemotional statement implies a certain Zen attitude of non-attachment. He has transcended the duality inherent in the juxtapositions by taking a seemingly detached viewpoint. Yet this itself is juxtaposed with our insight that, in his dwelling upon her vanishing footprints, he is anything but objective. The pool as water is as the female element, and the deck being solid and supportive is more the male element. With the disappearing of the water (female) on the deck (male) we begin also to see the relationship evaporating, but not the poet’s memory of it. So the poet is torn between attachment and non-attachment just as the wet footprint on the deck is attached when wet, but not attached when evaporated or diluted.

Haiku with Literary or Cultural Allusions (References)

Cow bells plod
their weary homeward way
scarecrow waves its sleeves

The literary allusion in this case recalls Thomas Gray’s poem as noted below.


The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Gray’s famous poem evokes a meditation on death, and remembrance after death. The poem posits that the remembrance can be good and bad, and the narrator finds comfort in pondering the lives of the obscure every day folks buried in the churchyard. Gray muses about what happens after people die, and in the final stanzas of the poem, he admits his own fear of dying.

In our example above the allusion is obvious in the first two lines harkening back to the poem by the English poet Gray.
The scarecrow of course wards off crows; crows are harbingers of death. The cow bells tell the farmer the whereabouts of the cows. That they are coming home is a sign that they are alive. The description of “plodding” and “weary” is coming from the mind of the poet. The poet’s mind is dwelling maybe on his own mortality, the weariness of life, the holding off of death, and the ending of another day.

In our haiku, the juxtaposition between the cowbells and the scarecrow, between the sound of life and the warding off of death, occurs in the mind of the poet who is contemplating his own mortality. And this juxtaposition is given greater meaning and universality in the allusion to Gray’s contemplation on death.
A Few Notes on Traditional Juxtaposition in Haiku
Through various imaginings and techniques, a good haiku is so film-thin that the intellect has no need to slow the flow of the poem by trying to understand its meaning. It is the single experience that is important, like an intuition; rational analyses typically has no place. The haiku are merely words pointing the mind directly to the experience so that the reader can “get it.” A good haiku connects common details to a universal wholeness. And the techniques of juxtaposition often help achieve these aims.

Juxtapositioning of non-judgemental, non-argumentative, non-dictatorial and non-emotional facts in a haiku, or between a haiku and photograph, presents objects and subjects which are in themselves innocent of their relationships to each other. But the mind puts them together intuitively. This moves the reader’s mind from the particular to the universal, from rational to a transcendent state of awareness.

Common concepts of juxtaposition, in the context of linking techniques, are normally agreed upon to include the following:

Nioi – aroma or scent
Hibiki – echo
Omokage – countenance
Utsuri – colour
Kurai – rank

An example of the usage of Hibiki-zuke (or echo linking technique) occurs where the second poem echos the first:

Against the wooden floor
I threw a silver-glazed cup
Breaking it to pieces.

Look, now, the slender curve
Of your sword, half-drawn.

The effect of ambiguity in linking is important to the Japanese because it plays in the field of the right brain where more possibilities for emotion and interpretation offer themselves. As Konishi Jin’ichi in “Image and Ambiguity” Chapter 8, page 15 points out, “it is often impossible to identify the exact tenor of Japanese figurative language, what an image ‘really stands for.” The mute right hemisphere insists that the linguistic translation by the left does not adequately convey what it knows, and we are left quite literally to know in that episode things that cannot be known by words, as in fact we do all the time.” (cited in p.147 “Linked Japanese Verse” by Earl Miner.

What helps to bring your right mind to appreciation of haiku is an openness to life and the ability for playfulness. You can see where the right mind comes in. And it is in this frame that enlightenment is possible. This state of mind is called Mushin which means “no-mind.” Mushin is that state of simplicity, clarity and awareness where both the poet and her subject, and the juxtaposed elements within the haiku, are as one. These elements are implied as one; there is nothing to prove, explain or describe. For a successful shared experience, however, it is incumbent upon the reader and the poet to put some effort into the relationships. This is why a masterful little haiku is able to achieve so much with few words. You could say it is the epitome of universal interactivity. This is also why a good haiku should be read more than once. In fact, in many haiku poetry competitions, the poem is read twice. You roll it around in your psyche like a multi-flavoured lollypop in your mouth.

Let’s look at an example from Tossed Pebbles

Rain tapping
on the recital hall window
ah turns to snow

The juxtaposition here is between the rain and snow, the interior of the building and the outside natural world, and the sound of tapping with no sound or silence. The rain tapping also echos the conductor’s tapping on the lectern to gather the orchestra’s attention to begin the musical piece. This conscious organized act is counter to the sudden transformation of rain to the silence of the snow. Now the reader can take it from there to fill in that “ah” moment. This is part of the challenge and part of the fun of haiku. You could even add the effect of Nioi-Zuke, or link by scent where the rain becomes snow. The modern mind will use traditional haiku and Zen practices not so much as rules to follow, but as respectful appreciations, springboards, for boundless ideas and relationships. Bring them on…

Juxtaposing Image & Haiku
In early scrolls and paintings a haiku was often written in brushstrokes on the painting itself. These were called Haiga. In Tossed Pebbles and other works of mine I like to separate the haiku and image but position them side by side to gain enough distance that the reader provides the link between the two. The two form their oneness in the mind of the reader. Let’s have a look.

Between rest and flight
butterfly upon cherry blossom

As you can see, or not see, the juxtaposing of a butterfly (now vanished, as all things are momentary) with the cherry blossom (a symbol of the beauty and transience of life) only comes to life in the reader’s mind. The photo without the butterfly, in its link with the subject of the haiku, causes one to transfer the butterfly to the image, only to realize that that very thought itself is as transient as the butterfly and the cherry blossom. The act of balancing is itself what we do between the fleetingness of life and our desire to hold on to its beauty.

Beach fires smoke into the night
an ember pops in two
a single sound

In this photo-haiku the smoke of the beach fires drifts across the page into the glowing ember sky. Smoke too is suggestive of transience which gives the relationship of the couple something all the more to hang on to. And this is reflected in the ember’s warm glowing life, which suddenly mutates into two units, just as we move from being single into a relationship. Yet in that relationship there is a singularity, a life force that exists as a single entity in the coming together of the two. The single sound pops that knowledge in the reader’s mind so that the reader too combines with the poet in a single creative entity. Even the monochromatic colour scheme (which was exactly as photographed) reinforces the concept of two as one. It is all of these linkages which show the flavour and potential of layers of juxtaposition.

Essence and Dynamics of Linking

In this section I’d like to look more into the technical aspects of traditional Japanese linked verse. I’ll be particularly turning to Earl Miner’s Linked Japanese Verse and to Hiroak Sato’s One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku in English
Earl Miner, in his book on Japanese Linked Verse, says that the concept of the Void is crucial to the art of linked poetry (particularly the more elevated renga) without being didactic.

The concept of the Void sees existence derived from relation (or dependence and interdependence) – nothing in itself has substance. In Renga, connections is its poetry.
For example, Haze tells us of spring in the first stanza. Haze is the “essential character” of Spring. Subsequent stanzas tell us essentially of something that is added. Everything important must be essential “But what is essential at each stage is not substantial and acquires existence solely from complex relation.” (Miner, p.145).
Thus, in the “essence” you have the “dynamics” and vice versa.
Additionally, here “a given state is most like itself and most appealing when modified by something else.” (Miner p.146) For example, silence is more acute when interrupted by a single cry of a seabird. So, the poetic power is in the relationship between the essence (the silence of the locale) and the dynamics (the sudden piercing cry of the sea bird).

Some Japanese concepts regarding linking and the Void are noted by Miner:

Mujō – The idea that nothing remains as it is because of Śūnyatā (the Void, emptiness, openness), which holds that all existence is the same and lacks substance. This world is empty of self or anything pertaining to self. All is transient and impermanent. Thus the dynamics occur when one thing moves in or away from something else. It is about relationships active over a bed of impermanence and emptiness.

Mujōkan – Is a sense of evanescence and insubstantiality of things. Because all existence lacks substantial character, existence thus is only ‘relation.’ When we speak of relation or interdependence or transience we see in these the philosophical foundation of the literary technique of juxtaposition.

Soe-sōkan – Dependence and interdependence is existence. Renga (linked verse) shows how the void and mujō are taken as conditions of the world itself:

Wide fields settling with the frost
autumn has reached toward its end

the insects cry out
but without regard for such desires
the grasses wither

The relation of things in passing is important to linked verse.

In Hiroaki Sato’s One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku in English he recalls Yoshimoto who said “The linking is up to the writer’s attitude, and there shouldn’t be anything set about this.” I agree with this because, once a writer understands deeply these concepts, it is better to let the intuition of them in a personal and unique writing situation become the content of the poem. And intuition works better when it is not being constrained by self-imposed rules and judgements.

The techniques according to Sato are:
Hirazuke (strait linking). This is linking based upon such word pairs as birds-trees, bees-honey, boy-girl etc. So one poet would mention birds in her stanza and the next poet would discuss something about trees. Or a single poet could also use this technique between verses or within a haiku.

Yotsude (Two for two) is a combination of two items provoking a combination of two items as in East/West-Moon/Sun.

Keiki (Landscape) is a description of landscape followed by another one.

Kokoro-Zuke (linking “by heart”) is linking by association where you echo a sentiment within the preceding stanza’s observation.
For example:
I have a horse but I am going on foot.
Having seen at daybreak the snow that piled up during the night.

Kotoba-Zuke (linking by word) – There is Verbal association such as Splash-Waves or Switching which is going from one side to another.

There are more examples of these techniques. I’d get the book to see the full picture.