Friday, May 31, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Arranged Marriage of Haiku and Cinema

The film-frame can never be an inflexible letter of the alphabet, but must always remain a multiple-meaning.  And it can be read only in juxtaposition, just as an ideogram acquires its specific significance, meaning, and even pronunciation only when combined with a separately indicated reading or tiny meaning – an indicator for the exact reading – placed alongside the basic hieroglyph…From our point of view, [haiku] are montage phrases. Shot lists.

-- Sergei Eisenstein, pioneering Soviet Russian film director and film theorist, often considered to be the "Father of Montage".

In his 1989 Tanner lecture, entitled "Poetry and Modernity," Octavio Paz ,winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature who wrote haiku, emphasized that in the early 20th century, the poets were influenced by the new forms of reproducing reality, and that the major attraction, especially for the poets, was photography in motion: the cinema. According to his study, Blaise Cendrars's “Prose of the Trans-Siberian” is the “first marriage of poetry and film.” And more importantly, Cendrars even employed some filmic/cinematographic techniques, such as montage and flashback, in his poetry to shatter “syntax and the linear and successive nature of traditional poetry.”

To the best of my knowledge, Jane Reichhold is the first haiku poet who wrote about and employed a filmic technique (zoom-in) in haiku writing 1. Below ia an excerpt from her article, “Haiku Techniques,” which was first published in Frogpond, 23:3 Autumn 2000 and on

The Technique of Narrowing Focus - This is a device the Japanese master, Buson used often because he, being an artist, was a very visual person. Basically what you do is to start with a wide-angle lens on the world in the first line, switch to a normal lens for the second line and zoom in for a close-up in the end. It sounds simple, but when done well it is very effective in bringing the reader’s attention down to one basic element or fact of the haiku.

the whole sky
in a wide field of flowers
one tulip

Inspired by Jane's writing, I wrote an essay, entitled “Haiku as Ideogrammatic Montage: A Linguistic-Cinematic Perspective,” (Haiku Reality, 5),  on Sergei Eisenstein’s view of haiku and his use of the haiku aesthetics to develop his theory of montages:

Below is a relevant excerpt:

Utilizing the fact that the human mind is highly capable of associating ideas or images in a way that the “senses overlap, subconsciously associating one with another to produce a unified effect,” 25 Eisenstein argues that film can communicate by a series of juxtaposed images that do not need a linear, narrative or consequential relationship between them. 26 In the mind of the viewer, shot A followed by shot B will create a new meaning C, one that is greater than the sum of its component parts, A and B. 27 For a cinema “seeking a maximum laconism for the visual representation of abstract concepts,” 28 the employment of montage as a collision of shots is a “means and method inevitable in any cinematographic exposition…the starting point for ‘intellectual cinema.’” 29

Furthermore, Eisenstein likens montage to haiku, “the most laconic form of poetry.” 30 He describes haiku as the “concentrated impressionist sketch,” 31 in which minute details are highlighted by using minimal language. In the following haiku written by Japanese haiku masters:

A lonely crow
On leafless bough,
One autumn eve.
-- Basho

What a resplendent moon!
It casts the shadow of pine boughs
Upon the mats.

-- Kikaku

An evening breeze blows.
The water ripples
Against the blue heron’s legs.

-- Buson

It is early dawn.
The castle is surrounded
By the cries of wild ducks

-- Kyoroku 32

Eisenstein thinks that haiku is “little more than hieroglyphs transposed into phrases,” 33 and that each of these haiku is made up of montage phrases or shot lists. 34 The “simple combination of two or three details of a material kind yields a perfectly finished representation of another kind – [the] psychological.” 35 For him, “haiku… act simultaneously as linguistic signifiers and denotative images of ‘natural’ things.” 36 Structurally and consequentially speaking, he considers haiku as an extension of the ideogrammatic structure characterizing the Chinese and Japanese writing systems. He believes that a Japanese haiku master’s juxtaposing two or three separate images to create a new meaning parallels his crashing two or three conflicting shots with each other to produce a new filmic essence. The juxtaposition of contrasting images in haiku (or the collision of conflicting shots in cinema) may single out, highlight, and purify a particular quality. Take Basho’s ever-famous frog haiku for example:

an old pond...
a frog leaps in,
the sound of water

His juxtaposition of two contrasting images of "an old pond" and " a frog leaping into the pond" makes a larger meditative, lonely silence “heard” through the opposition of the water sound. 37 More importantly, juxtaposed images of some haiku engage the reader in more than one sense, as can be seen in the following ones by Basho:

Their fragrance
Is whiter than peach blossoms
The daffodils

Over the even sea
The wild ducks' cry
Is faintly white

It is whiter
Than the rocks of Ishiyama
The autumn wind

Onions lie
Washed in white
How chilly it is 38

A color is employed to suggest the quality of scent, a crying sound, a tactile sensation, or a temperature. 39 As in the case of the Kabuki theatre, Eisenstein argues that the montage effect of haiku results in the experience of synaesthesia or multisensory experience. 40 This characteristic helps him to develop the key principles of audiovisual montage and color-sound montage. 41

It is through his intensive study of Japanese culture in general, and haiku along with Kabuki theatre in particular, and his engaging discussions with his contemporaries that Eisenstein develops a different conception of montage. It is one that is highly influenced by his fascination with the ideogrammatic structure embedded in haiku and Chinese and Japanese writing systems. What he finds so intriguing about haiku is “how it manages to present a conceptual image, or mise-en-scene effect without resorting to any direct copulative ‘is’ or word to link the series of disjunctive images.” 42 As Steve Odin emphasizes in his essay regarding the Influence of traditional Japanese aesthetics on Eisenstein’s film theory, “Eisenstein's incorporation of basic principles from traditional Japanese aesthetics into his universally acclaimed montage theory of film, together with his practical application of this theory as a film director in the making of Potemkin and other landmark motion pictures, ranks as one of the most significant twentieth-century achievements in East-West comparative aesthetics and philosophy of art.” 43 Moreover, many Japanese haiku poets and scholars have recently re-appropriated his ideas about montage to write or interpret haiku. Among them, Yamaguchi Seishi applies the concept of “nibutsu shogeki (collision of two objects),” 44 borrowed from Eisenstein's notion of montage, to haiku writing, and he believes that “haiku should focus on the interrelationship between different objects of nature, a relationship that must ‘leap beyond’ the predictable.’” 45 The famous Basho scholar, Haruo Shirane, also excels in applying the montage theory to interpret Basho’s “poetics of scent,” 46 claiming that “the notion of the montage can be helpful in analyzing the dynamics of linking.” 47 There is no doubt in my mind that Eisenstein’s montage theory has made and will continue to make a great contribution to reading, writing, and interpreting haiku and its related genres.


Below are three cinematic haiku that were published on NeverEnding Story. See my detailed analyses in their comment sections:

Spring evening --
the wheel of a troop carrier
crushes a lizard

-- Dimitar Anakiev

a poppy . . .
a field of poppies!
the hills blowing with poppies!

-- Michael McClintock

through the smoke
dark red lips
of a drag queen

-- Kirsten Cliff


In his essay, entitled "Matsuo Basho and The Poetics of Scent," Haruo Shirane writes about the comparisons between Basho's poetics of scent and the montage techniques employed in modern cinema:

Basho's poetics of scent and mutual reflection may be compared to the montage in modern cinema in which a succession of seemingly unrelated shots are closely linked by connotation or overtone. Sergei Eisenstein, a pioneer in film production and theory, once defined montage as "an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots" and that may result in "emotional dynamization."9 A montage equivalent of the meditative nioi link-nioi in the narrow sense-might be the scene of a young aristocratic lady strolling across a well-manicured garden followed by a shot of a swan gliding across the water, the subdued but elegant moods of the two gently intersecting. A hibiki montage, on the other hand, with its dramatic tension or emotional intensity, might be the cinematic juxtaposition of an explosion rocking a brick building and a sleepy-faced lion suddenly roaring. A cinematic utsuri ("transference") link could be a scene of a couple kissing followed by a shot of an avocado being peeled. The second scene, while unrelated to the first, is obviously "colored," given a definite sexual resonance. The sense of sexuality is transferred from one scene to the next. A kurai link might be the juxtaposition of a shot of a beggar on a city street with the shot of a dog emerging from a mud puddle. In the montage, the second shot deepens a particular emotional effect found in the first shot, or vice versa, the combination often creating Eisenstein's "emotional dynamization," an emotional reverberation that neither of the shots by itself could produce."10

9 Sergei Eisenstein, Film Forum Essays in Film Theory and Film Sense, trans. Jay Leyda, A Meridian Book (Cleveland/New York: The World Publishing Company, 1957), 49, 57.

10 Nose Tomoji, Renku no geijutsu no seikaku (Kadokawa shoten, 1970), 19-20.


  1. Below is excerpted from "Sculpting In Time" by Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet and Russian filmmaker, film theorist, theatre and opera director, and writer:

    PP. 66-7:
    Here I feel one more point needs clarification. If time appears in cinema in the form of fact, the fact is given in the form of simple, direct observation. The basic element of cinema, running through it to its tiniest cells, is observation.

    We all know the traditional genre of ancient Japanese poetry, the haikku. Eisenstein quoted some examples:

    Coldly shining moon;
    Near the ancient monastery
    A wolf is howling.

    Silent in the field
    A butterfly was flying
    Then it fell asleep.

    Eisenstein saw in these three line verses the model for how the
    combination of three separate elements creates something different in kind from any of them. Since this principle was already there in haikku, however, it is clearly not exclusive to cinema.

    What attracts me in haikku is its observation of life—pure,
    subtle, one with its subject; a kind of distillation.

    As it passes by
    The full moon barely touches
    Fishhooks in the waves.

    The dew has fallen,
    On all the spikes of blackthorn
    There hang little drops.

    This is pure observation. Its aptness and precision will make anyone, however crude his receptivity, feel the power of poetry and recognise—forgive the banality—the living image which the author has caught.

    And although I am very chary of making comparisons with other art forms, this particular example from poetry seems to me close to the truth of cinema, with the difference that prose and poetry use words by definition, while a film is born of direct observation of life; that, in my view, is the key to poetry in cinema. For the cinema image is essentially the observation of a phenomenon passing through time.

    ... to be continued

  2. pp. 106-7:

    The image as a precise observation of life takes us straight back to Japanese poetry.

    What captivates me here is the refusal even to hint at the kind of final image meaning that can be gradually deciphered like a charade. Haikku cultivates its images in such a way that they mean nothing beyond themselves, and at the same time express so much that it is not possible to catch their final meaning. The more closely the image corresponds to its function, the more impossible it is to constrict it within a clear intellectual formula. The reader of haikku has to be absorbed into it as into nature, to plunge in, lose himself in its depth, as in the cosmos where there is no bottom and no top.

    Look at these haikku by Basho:

    The old pond was still
    A frog jumped in the water
    And a splash was heard.


    Reeds cut for thatching
    The stumps now stand forgotten
    Sprinkled with soft snow.

    Or again:

    Why this lethargy?
    They could hardly wake me up.
    Spring rain pattering.

    How simply and accurately life is observed. What discipline of mind and nobility of imagination. The lines are beautiful, because the moment, plucked out and fixed, is one, and falls into infinity.

    The Japanese poets knew how to express their visions of reality in three lines of observation. They did not simply observe it, but with supernal calm sought its ageless meaning. And the more precise the observation, the nearer it comes to being unique, and so to being an image. As Dostoievsky said, with remarkable insight, 'Life is more fantastic than any fiction.'

    In cinema it is all the more the case that observation is the first principle of the image, which always has been inseparable from the photographic record. The film image is made incarnate, visible and four dimensional. But by no means every film shot can aspire to being an image of the world; as often as not it merely describes some specific aspect. Naturalistically recorded facts are in themselves utterly inadequate to the creation of the cinematic image. The image in cinema is based on the ability to present as an observation one's own perception of an object.


    pp. 111-2:

    The artistic image is unique and singular, whereas the phenomena of life may well be entirely banal. Again, haikku:

    No, not to my house.
    That one, pattering umbrella
    Went to my neighbour.

    In itself, a passer-by with an umbrella whom you have seen at some time in your life means nothing new; he is just one of the people hurrying along and keeping himself dry in the rain. But within the terms of the artistic image we have been considering, a moment of life, one and unique for the author, is recorded in a form that is perfect and simple. The three lines are sufficient to make us feel his mood: his loneliness, the grey, rainy weather outside the window, and the vain expectation that someone might by a miracle call into his solitary, god-forsaken dwelling. Situation and mood, meticulously recorded, achieve an amazingly wide, far-ranging expression.

  3. Terrific piece, thank you for posting -- SMA