Word and Image on Paper or Silk

art of haiku

“If haiku is a worldwide phenomenon, haiga (haiku painting) is almost unknown. Yet the major masters all created haiga, as well as haiku calligraphy, and their words and images frequently add substantial meaning to each other.” — Stephen Addiss

Haiku can seem like simplicity itself — a three line poetic form, often in a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. But at the hands of a master, this simple form possesses a powerful emotional ambiguity, and almost always, a clear window on to the natural world. No wonder the Land Library’s haiku shelves are among our favorites!

Our latest arrival is Stephen Addiss’ The Art of Haiku: It’s History Through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters. This beautifully done book features hundreds of haiku by masters such as Basho, Buson, Issa, and Santoka — along with a real surprise: Addiss’ unique focus on the traditional art (haiga) that has always gone hand-in-hand with the spare words of haiku:

One reason that haiga have often been painted by Japanese poets is that the tools are the same as in writing — brush, ink, and paper or silk, with the occasional addition of colors. Poets with great talent in painting like Buson created haiga, but so did those with modest skills like Issa, and both their haiga are esteemed by viewers….Not only is the medium the same, but the aesthetics of haiku and haiga are also similar. Brevity, directness, naturalness, simplicity, and allowing the viewer to participate are the most important qualities.


Haiga by Issa. Stephen Addiss:”The most celebrated of Issa’s poems about a butterfly does not have a date, but certainly was composed during his mature years.

garden butterfly
as the baby crawls, it flies,
crawls closer, flies on

The scene of a baby trying in vain to reach the butterfly can be considered pure observation, but it can also have a Buddhist reading where we fail to grasp what we seek outside ourselves.
This poem became one of Issa’s favorite haiga themes….Interestingly, he did not depict either the baby or the butterfly, but rather sketched a picture of a small hut. This is a case of visually adding to the poem, rather than illustrating it, but we may still ask: Why the hut?”

Here’s a few more wonderful volumes from the Land Library’s shelves:

saigyozen wave
Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home, translated by Burton Watson, A Zen Wave: Basho’s Haiku and Zen by Robert Aitken

a little crab
crawling up my leg —
clear waters


mountain winds
come down to stroke
the young rice seedlings


And for even more books on haiku, here’s one of our earlier posts:

Haiku: a perfect nest for our thoughts?


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