Saturday, September 10, 2011

A visual haiku

This weekend I'm going to feature work by colleagues instead of my own. For today, I'd like to share the visual haiku of Minnesota artist Scott Helmes.

Helmes writes concrete or visual poetry, and has produced over a hundred three-line visual poems that he calls haiku. You can see samples of his visual haiku here in Poetry magazine, and here in a Flickr gallery (which also includes other visual poems that he doesn't consider haiku). This feature on the Minnesota website includes a statement by Helmes about his haiku as well as a short bio.

These visual haiku are quite a departure from what I've been writing on the blog here. Instead of close observation of the natural world, his poems are made from colorful scraps out of glossy magazines. Instead of season words, they have illegible, torn letters still struggling to get their messages across. But there's still something of the haiku spirit in them.

First of all they're carefully constructed from the humble materials of everyday life. Haiku masters from another time and place such as Basho and Issa are celebrated for making beautiful poetry out of the most common and vulgar things around them. Helmes makes beautiful visual poetry out of the most common and vulgar expressions of print culture around us.

Second, good haiku constantly butt up against the insufficiency of language. Words just cannot meaningfully capture the haiku moment. Helmes' visual haiku revel in that insufficiency. In an early entry on this blog I talked about the importance of ambiguity in haiku, and how difficult it is to create a sense of ambiguity in English-language haiku. Helmes' poems may go too far in the ambiguous direction for many readers, but for me they breathe new life into the idea of the haiku form. I "read" them with the same appreciation and wonder I feel when I study a scroll of Japanese calligraphy, unable to understand the language.

The two photos I've posted here are of a three-dimensional visual haiku by Helmes called "Haiku no. 7" -- the only 3-D one that I've seen so far. Instead of cut-out scraps of magazines this one is made from three pieces of Japanese mulberry paper, which contributes to a more traditional haiku feel. The pieces of paper are dyed with spots of gorgeously deep colors -- red, indigo, and yellow-gold. Their edges are fuzzy and textured from the torn fibers.

Like when two images in a haiku resonate together perfectly, I can't begin to explain why it works. It just does. I hope the photos do the piece some justice.

No comments:

Post a Comment