Videohaiku, erasure haiku, and Samuel Pepys

This is one of my favorite gifts of the season: a new poetry film by the one and only Marc Neys, A.K.A. Swoon, that uses five of my erasure haiku derived from the online Diary of Samuel Pepys. (Be sure to hit HD and expand it to full screen.) Marc blogged some process notes:

The visual idea came from a prompt Jutta Pryor left at the ‘Pool’ FB group:

Is anyone interested in a 5-7-5 challenge? Based on the format of a HAIKU, but keeping it fun and experimental, let’s be all-inclusive.
5-7-5 syllable Word sequence or 5-7-5 second Sound sequence or 5-7-5 second Video sequence.

These short poems or haiku Dave created were the perfect match for 5-7-5 second video sequences.
I decided to create 5 short film compositions with the text on screen, applying that 5-7-5 rule.

First I picked out and re-edited a soundscape I made earlier.
After that I started searching for, filming and selecting suitable visuals to combine with the soundtrack and the poems.
Then came the fun part. Combining each line from the poems with suitable footage using that 5-7-5 rule.
Creating a relationship between image, sound, and text. Blending all ingredients in one cut.

I had fun with this one and am very pleased with how these 5 short visual haiku work.

(Read the rest.)

It’s interesting that Marc picked these poems to work with, since they do not follow a 5-7-5 syllable pattern (for reasons I’ll get into below). The idea of video haiku as films that in some way imitate or evoke the three-line pattern of most English-language haiku has roots in the mid-20th century experimental poetry films of Maya Deren and others, where the idea was for the film to become a poem, or at least be poem-like — to take lyrical poetry rather narrative fiction or nonfiction as its model. I first became aware of the text-free, 5-second/7-second/5-second sort of video haiku in 2011, when it was the focus of one of Vimeo’s weekend challenges. (They’ve had at least two more since.) And the French videopoets Katia Viscogliosi and Francis M., A.K.A. the Derviches Associés, whom I follow on Vimeo, have recently been making a number of wordless video haiku:

Seeking for poetry with eyes, these are haïkaï written with a camera, made of 3 shots : their length is always a multiple of 5, 7, 5. All you need is a loving eye…

Videohaiku merits a special mention in Tom Konyves’ Videopoetry: A Manifesto, where he defines it as follows:

The videohaiku (approx. 30 seconds) uses a few words of text attached to the shortest duration of images.

In the acknowledgements, Konyves credits Eric Cassar for its invention.

Jutta Pryor’s challenge to the POOL group, which galvanized Marc, leaves it open to the maker which materials to use—words, sound, or video. As she admited in a comment,

I’m not very knowledgeable about this form at all. I know there are strict parameters with HAIKU. Let’s keep it malleable so that we can explore and have fun.

Which is precisely the right approach to making any kind of art, I think, and sometimes the less one “knows,” the better. I failed to respond to Pryor’s invitation to comment because I am not terribly interested in perpetuating the idea that English haiku should follow a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. For one thing, 17 syllables are a bit too many most of the time; experts say it should be closer to 11. For another, syllable counting in English does not have the power of counting sounds (not quite what we think of as syllables) in Japanese, which is pitch accented. See Imaoka Keiko’s essay “Forms in English Haiku” and the National Haiku Writing Month post “Why ‘No 5-7-5’?” (which also has some links for further reading).

As Imaoka says, though,

5-7-5 English haiku as a derivative of Japanese haiku has its place in the world of poetry, just as 5-7-5 Chinese haiku is another such derivative, seemingly containing about three times as much information as a Japanese haiku.

It’s not what I’m personally interested in writing, but a hell of a lot of great things have been written in this form, even if it is ultimately based on folklore.

I do feel that the custom of arranging English-language haiku into three lines is pretty key to their effect on the reader. An equally important element, all too often neglected by beginners, is the division into two semantic elements of unequal length, usually corresponding to two different images or ideas, which for maximum effect should have some relationship but not too immediately obvious a one. That relationship may rise almost to the level of metaphor, but otherwise metaphor and simile should not be employed in haiku, I think. Traditional seasonal words (kigo) are not important to my practice, nor do I care if there’s any explicit mention of non-human nature; I do not see modern haiku as a wholly contained subset of nature poetry.

The interplay between the semantic division and the arrangement into three lines can have quite a powerful aesthetic effect — and has a lot to do with why I think Marc’s videopoeming of my erasure haiku works so well. The visual rewards of the haiku texts are mirrored and amplified by the tripartite footage, the stillness of the text counterpoised with the motion in each shot. In his essay, Imaoka calls special attention to the two-part division in written haiku:

A close observation of “free-form” English haiku reveals that they are composed of two major segments. The majority of them are divided after the first or the second line and the rest near the middle, and thus they are in accord with the underlying structures of the classic Japanese haiku.

In writing short English haiku, the decision as to where the division falls is based mainly on the dictates of English grammar and the poetic merits of given expressions. To limit short haiku to those that can be fitted into a rigid three-part structure is to severely limit the type of ideas that can be expressed in this style.

And in accordance with this last point, it’s worth noting another approach to videohaiku that I’ve favored in the past: one long shot, stationary or slowly moving, followed by the whole text. The idea with this style of presentation is to try to represent something of the stereotypical process of haiku composition, in which they arise full-blown from a kind of Zen-like, direct seeing. I’m not sure how often it actually happens this way, at least for writers in English, who have so many more grammatical constraints than Japanese haiku poets. But that’s the ideal.

Or one ideal, at any rate. As I’ve discovered with my Pepys erasure project, which has yielded more than 30 haiku so far, that “ah-ha moment” can arise just as easily from the contemplation of a text as from any other sort of meditative seeing. In fact, I find the additional constraints of this project actually help me compose what I’ve always thought of as a very difficult form to get right. (My constraints include such self-imposed rules as: the words of the erasure must be in the same order as in the source text, and words can’t combine letters from different words except in the case of a few, simple compound words such as into.) I am trying to get something poem-like from every single entry in the diary, which includes a number of one-sentence entries. This has really pushed me out of my comfort zone, to use a somewhat well-worn cliche, and has definitely helped me avoid the cardinal sins of beginner haiku: too much wordiness and overly obvious connections between the two parts.

The strange or unexpected word choices that often of necessity crop up in erasure poetry help greatly with defamiliarization, a fundamental attribute of poetic language in haiku as anywhere else. And the connections that happen between thoughts when we stop trying to impose our conscious designs are sometimes quite wonderful. Often in retrospect they seem like the most obvious choices, but it can take me hours to get there.

One of the basic challenges (and rewards) of erasure poetry is deriving something lyrical from something non-lyrical. The “ice” in Mr. Pepys’ office, for example, glitters in many of my erasure poems. For erasure haiku, in particular, it’s fun to work with a text and author so completely urban and way pre-Romantic, from a time when Japan had sealed itself off from the expanding European powers and was thus almost a complete unknown. Yet it was precisely this “world within walls,” as Donald Keene called it, that gave rise to haikai no renga and what we now call haiku. It was lighter in tone than the courtly renga and tanka verse that preceded it, and its primary audience and practitioners came from the newly burgeoning, urban merchant class.

The first haikujin were thus direct, if unknown, contemporaries of Samuel Pepys, came from a similar milieu, and enjoyed fairly equivalent levels of intellectual and aesthetic engagement. It’s easy to imagine Pepys hitting it off with someone like Ihara Saikaku. Instead of tea shops and geisha houses, Pepys hung out in coffee shops and pubs, but as the diary reveals, he was an assiduous student of the music of his day, playing a variety of instruments and singing art songs with friends. He obsessed over the theater, wrote critically of the different sermons he heard at church, and attended the first meetings of the Royal Society. I suppose it’s little more than a coincidence, but this parallel between the lifestyles and interests of Pepys and his Tokugawa contemporaries is something I enjoy thinking about. It makes the discovery/invention of haiku from the vivid language of his diary entries feel almost like a contribution to an alternate history: Pepys as a successor to Marco Polo, wandering the streets of 17th-century Edo.

UPDATE (28 December): Revisiting Cordite‘s “Haikunaut” issue from a few years back, I was struck by this passage in editor David Lanoue’s introduction:

Haiku is a posture, a way of seeing and being, a philosophy of life in which one dedicates one’s self to noticing, not ignoring; to being open, not closed; to discovering, not defining; to inviting meaning onto a page, never imposing it.

This sounds very similar to the posture of an erasure poet.

8 Replies to “Videohaiku, erasure haiku, and Samuel Pepys”

  1. Speaking of lifting a curtain, your thoughts on the haiku, erasure poetry, and Pepys are fun and informative, at least for me, who knew little about haiku before reading this post.

    And the video is delightful. To be so well read by someone so visually creative — that’s worth a thousand casual readers.

  2. Interesting thoughts on videohaiku, Dave. One line particularly stood out for me: “…another approach to videohaiku that I’ve favored in the past: one long shot, stationary or slowly moving, followed by the whole text.” This sounds very much like my take on Cassar’s method. Where can I find your examples of this ‘approach’?

    The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this”method” addresses a question about videopoetry’s strategies re: word-image relationships in the fact that the observation of the first segment – the division into two semantic elements of unequal length, usually corresponding to two different images or ideas, which for maximum effect should have some relationship but not too immediately obvious a one – is best achieved by the image, while the non-sequitur of the second segment is best expressed in words (the text in a videopoem).

    1. Hi Tom. Most of the videohaiku I’ve made using that approach I no longer much care for, but this one is at least well-shot and amusing. I wrote a bit about it here (where the haiku is, I’m afraid, not too good) and a poet friend, James Brush, followed my example here. I originally got the idea for that approach from this video, which I discovered in 2009. I think we’re probably all under the influence of haiga, where the haiku is most often a kind of distillation of the image, but sometimes a counterweight. (I blogged about one great example of the haiga genre in “Buson tells a fart joke.”) Your comment makes me think I should give this approach another go, applying more of what I’ve learned about videopoetry and haiku over the last few years.

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