Haiku: from classical Japanese poetry to 21st Century video re-invention

Haiku is a three-line poem. The first and third lines contain five syllables, and the second line contains seven syllables. The 5-7-5 structure of haiku eliminates, by virtue of its form, all words that are extraneous to the message of the poem.

Along with form, haiku is concerned with content as well. There is often an action – something very ordinary that might usually be taken for granted or overlooked. The action identifies the subject of the haiku. And the setting, or scene, often identifies the season. The third line provides a gentle twist on what the first two lines mean, and the reader’s assumptions are slightly up-ended.

In film and video, the basic ideas of haiku can be presented visually in 3 parts, rather than as three lines of text.

Use your imagination. Any topic is okay, although nature, the seasons, simple actions, and love are often themes in haiku. For example, the first couple clips could establish the season, or something observed, or a simple thought. The second part, or next few clips may represent another element in the scene – something that provides a possible storyline. The third an final part should in some way change the viewer’s assumptions about the relationship of the first & second parts.

Alternately, you could simply put together a narrative or a logical sequence in three parts. Use as many shots as you need/want for each of the three parts, but don’t use any extra shots – keep it simple, clean, and say as much as you can say with as little video as possible.

Read the poems below to see how the third line adds just one last bit of information that creates a more complete picture and sometimes changes the tone or expectation.

From the 17th-centruy poet Basho:

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

Autumn moonlight—
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.

Lightning flash—
what I thought were faces
are plumes of pampas grass.

From 19th Century poet Kobayashi Issa:

Everything I touch
with tenderness, alas,
pricks like a bramble.

And from the 19th-century poet and novelist Natsume Soseki:

The crow has flown away:
swaying in the evening sun,
a leafless tree.

Contemporary Haiku:

Whitecaps on the bay:
A broken signboard banging
In the April wind. – Richard Wright

A cricket disturbed
the sleeping child; on the porch
a man smoked and smiled.

November nightfall
the shadow of the headstone
longer than the grave  – Nick Avis

his side of it.
her side of it.
winter silence   – Lee Gurga

The idea is complexity within simplicity, philosophy or a sense of the spiritual within the ordinary. And it’s also about saying only as much as is necessary to convey that idea. Nothing extra.