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New to Haiku: Imagery in Haiku with Joshua Gage

New to Haiku is pleased to share a recent talk given to the Ohio Haiku Facebook group by Joshua Gage, co-editor of Otoroshi Journal and the author of breaths and Origami Lilies.

When asked why he chose this topic, Josh explained, “I was trying to think about what would make a good primer to starting with haiku and poetry, and I knew that before we touched on form or similar, imagery had to come first.”

A transcript of the talk is posted below the video. Enjoy!


Imagery in Haiku

This is Josh. How’re you doing? I was asked to do a presentation on imagery in haiku, so that’s what we’re working on. All of the translations in this presentation are mine, unless I tell you otherwise. So, I’ve used a lot of translations and then I’ve also used some of my own poems just to give you an idea of how imagery works in haiku.

So, the things we’re going to talk about:

  • Imagery vs Abstraction
  • Types of Concrete Imagery
  • Examples of Imagery in Haiku
  • Synesthesia (that’s a fun one to say!) in Haiku
  • How to Use Abstraction in Haiku

And then I’ve also come up with a couple of writing exercises that I think might be helpful.

Imagery vs Abstraction

So, when we talk about imagery and abstraction, we’re really looking at things like concrete imagery or sensory imagery; you’ll hear people use those terms a lot in creative writing classes. So, imagery is any language that appeals to one of five senses (roughly). Those are the ones that beginners usually focus upon – the five senses. There are a couple more, like kinesthetic imagery and internal imagery, which we can discuss, but in haiku, you’re really looking at the imagery that appeals to the five senses.

They’re very specific. You want to hone in on very specific, very concrete language because there are limited interpretations. If I say, a Granny Smith apple, for example, that is a very limited color, very limited taste, very specific.

As opposed to abstraction, which is language based in emotions and various concepts: peace, truth, justice, love. You know, these big ideas. There are multiple – some might argue infinite – interpretations of those words and so that’s why we want to avoid those because the reader doesn’t have something to cling to. Ideally, when we talk about using imagery, we’re talking about giving the reader something that they can to cling to, that they can participate in, in the poem. And when a writer uses abstraction, it’s so vague and so broad that the reader isn’t able to participate fully.

Types of Imagery

The types of imagery that we’re going to focus on:

  • Visual imagery are images of sight.
  • Auditory imagery is imagery of sound.
  • Tactile imagery is imagery of touch.
  • Olfactory imagery is imagery of smell.
  • Gustatory imagery are images of tastes.

 Five senses. Five types of imagery.

You’ll also hear about organic imagery. Those are internal states: hunger, fatigue, internal pains, like from a surgery or something. That’s organic imagery.

And then kinesthetic imagery are images of movement or tension. So things that are moving or things that are coiled and ready to move. Those will happen in haiku but, primarily, we’re going to look at the first five.

Sensory Imagery

A couple examples. These are from the disciple of Basho – Kikaku. These are all my translations.

So, visual imagery:

evening sunset
a butterfly flutters

  • Kikaku

Very clearly, we can see the sunset. We know what colors we’re dealing with. We have the kigo of the butterfly; we know what season we’re in. We have the image of the butterfly. Everything here is very visual – very vibrant, very colorful.

And we go to auditory imagery:

the warbler
upside down
new year’s song

  • Kikaku

Again, very clear image with the bird. We know exactly what type of bird we’re dealing with here. We know the type of song. Again, so we have a very clear audible sensation or auditory sensation. And of course, Kikaku’s readers would have been very familiar – more than westerners – with the type of bird, with the type of song. They would have had a deep connection to that type of song.

Tactile imagery, imagery of touch:

being stabbed
in a dream was real!
the tracks of a flea

  • Kikaku

Again, tactile imagery – we know the itching sensation, the burning sensation of a flea. And again, we’re dealing with 17th century Japan here, so this would have been much more realistic that fleas would have been part of the daily life than they are for us westerners [today], but we understand that this is a tactile image. We know what a bug bite feels like, we know what the itching, the burning, of a bite like that feels like.

Olfactory imagery, images of scent:

side by side
with the shit collector’s cart!
mountain cherry blossoms

  • Kikaku

Obviously here, we have the smell of excrement, but we also have the smell of the cherry blossoms that’s implied. Clearly, Kikaku is juxtaposing the very base, banal, dirty sensation of the excrement in the cart – the manure and whatnot – with the beautiful and fleeting cherry blossoms. Very strong juxtaposition but very clearly olfactory imagery – as well as others, visual and whatnot – but very clearly, the smell here is being discussed. 

And then, gustatory imagery:

at a gate of grass
I gobble water pepper—
a firefly!

  • Kikaku

Water pepper is a very pungent weed. It would have been used in Japanese cooking, especially rural cooking, but it’s a very pungent, very, very spicy weed. So it’s something, that again, his readers would have been familiar with, whereas we as westerners may be a little removed from it. But again, very clearly a specific plant with a specific taste, so something that the readers can connect to.

Synesthesia in Haiku

So, when we talk about synesthesia – synesthesia comes from psychology. It’s a neurological condition where the stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway (for example, hearing) leads to automatic, involuntary responses in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. (I stole that [definition] from the Google.) It’s a psychological condition, it’s a neurological condition, where one can actually hear colors or smell music. And it’s rare, but it’s common enough that I’ve known a couple synesthetes in my life. I had one person that I went to high school with and he would go to the Cleveland orchestra concerts. He was a bassoon player (not in the orchestra but in our high school orchestra he was a bassoon player) but he would go to the orchestra concerts and he would talk about there wasn’t enough blue in their performance and that made sense to him. He could see the colors when the music was playing. He didn’t mean blue like blues – like the music style – he literally was seeing colors when the orchestra performed, and he felt that there should have been more blue in the composition. So, having discussions with him about music was very fascinating.

This can work in haiku. And when we talk about synesthesia in haiku, it’s where we take two very distinct types of imagery and juxtapose them against each other, trying to draw a connection for the reader. This is one way that juxtaposition works. It’s one way imagery works in haiku, and it creates this emotional sense in the reader that the individual images would not have ordinarily created. And it’s a very powerful tool, and one that a lot of authors use. So here’s an example of one of Kikaku’s poems.

Synesthesia in Haiku:

in the morning fog
one torii—
the sound of waves

  • Kikaku

Torii are the red gates that you’ll see outside of the Shinto shrines. They are two posts with the red bar across [the top] – vibrant, vibrant red. So we have this visual image of morning fog and this one, lone, red gate peeking out of the fog and then we also have the sound of waves. So, a clear visual image with a clear auditory image and this very evocative moment for the reader when those two images are combined. Each one works separately but when they’re brought together, that’s when the synesthesia is working, and that juxtaposition is working, and it’s very clear and vibrant in this haiku.

How to Use Abstraction in Haiku

 So, we talked a little bit about abstraction at the beginning, so I want to return to that because there are ways, I think, that a poet can use abstraction in haiku. It has to be done delicately, it can’t be done over the top, you have to find a balance, but I think it can be done.

So, when we talk about abstraction, again, we’re talking about sensations or experiences that have no sensory parallel – they are not connected to any of the five senses. These are ideas. These are concepts. These are big emotions. So when they’re used in haiku, you can juxtapose an abstraction, or the idea of an abstraction, against a very vibrant image. If you find that balance between the concrete and the abstract, you can create an evocative moment for the reader, but it has to be done carefully. It helps if the abstraction is phrased in such a way that there is an implied sensory image. I’ll give you an example of my own.

Abstraction in Haiku:

wilted poinsettia
trying to remember
when we last made love

  • Joshua Gage

So again, we have a very clear image here, a very clear kigo: wilted poinsettia. Clearly, end of winter. Poinsettias are associated with Christmas and winter and whatnot, so if it’s wilted we’re at the end of winter, probably February, maybe even early spring. Which, in Cleveland, of course, is what, May? Born on May 9, it has snowed at least four times on my birthday, so that’s where we’re at in Cleveland. But in other parts of the country, it would be different. So, we have this very clear, vibrant image. I think this was probably late February, early March, when I wrote this poem.

And then we have a very clear abstraction. It’s a memory. And it’s a memory of making love. Which again, while a physical action, and one could say it’s a kinesthetic image and there are all sorts of sensory images associated with, that phrase – making love, or made love – is abstract. There’s nothing the reader that can hold on to in that image, or in that phrase, I should say. There are images implied, but there’s no actual concrete image.

So, very clearly, this is juxtaposing the concrete with the abstract. I think it’s successful. It was published. But again, it’s one of those where there are images implied with the abstraction as well as a very clear concrete image and kigo in that opening line so I think that grounds the abstraction. This can be done to poetic effect, but again, finding that balance – the author has to find the balance.

Writing Practice

So, a couple ideas for writing practice. One, is to focus on kigo. Kigo, those seasonal words, excellent, excellent ways to start because those are usually very clear, concrete images. So, pick a season, any of the five seasons. Make a list of two or three images for every sense exclusive to that season. So, if we do winter, for example, two to three tastes associated with winter, two to three tactile things associated with winter, two to three smells, whatnot, all of these associated with winter. And then write a haiku based on a memory around each of one of those words or phrases that you’ve come up with. That will give you ten to fifteen haiku drafts that you can then tweak and hone and polish. They’re going to be desk-ku, in that they’re based on memory, but it’s a very effective way to practice using imagery and incorporating kigo into your haiku.

I also like image-gathering ginkos. A ginko is any walk taken or journey taken with the expressed purpose of writing haiku. So, we’ve done virtual ginko at some of our meetings that are really cool, and I’ve led a couple ginko in the Cleveland area. And once we get past the whole pandemic thing I’m certainly willing to do that again, or elsewhere in Ohio. Ohio is rich with natural parks and arboretums and botanical gardens, so I think ginko are really easy to do in the Ohio area. But, just take a walk. And make a list – again, focus on your five [senses] – make a list for every two or three [images] you experience and write a haiku based on those images.

And then the final – woo, we did origami for the slide transitions – the final writing practice, I think, is a free-write based on a strong sensation. I do this when I was teaching creative writing classes in grad school. I did this. Smells and tastes are great for this. I’d have the students close their eyes and inhale something that smells very powerful. Something like Tiger Balm, the ointment that’s got a very specific, medicinal smell. Perfumes are good. And then, of course, tastes. Something with a very specific and potent taste would be also very good. Free write on that sensation. No thought. Free writing – just churn pen to paper. Put the pen down and just write. Don’t think. Don’t even worry about grammar, punctuation, just write. You don’t have to worry about sentences. All you’re trying to do is get ideas from your head onto the paper. Put the free write away for awhile. Give it an hour. I always tell my students to give it, like, a day. But, you know, if you want, you just give it an hour or two. Come back to your free write and find the specific images in it and literally make a list: these are the visual images I’ve created, these are the tactile images I’ve created, so on, and so forth. Write haiku based on those images. Focus on those images and write haiku. And again, going back to the original sensation helps, or the narrative that the original sensation created, helps, but those images are based on very strong memories. And taste and smell are very, very good for unlocking memories. So, really honing in on those images and writing haiku about them, you’ll come up with some probably, very, very vibrant poems.

In Conclusion

So, that’s how imagery works, that’s how imagery works in haiku, and a couple of writing exercises. Obviously, if you have any questions, let me know. If something wasn’t clear, I’d be glad to talk about it in our [Ohio Haiku] Facebook group. But that’s how imagery works in haiku. Good luck!    

Joshua Gage is an ornery curmudgeon from Cleveland. His newest chapbook, Origami Lilies, is available on Poet’s Haven Press. He is a graduate of the Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Naropa University. He has a penchant for Pendleton shirts, Ethiopian coffee, and any poem strong enough to yank the breath out of his lungs.

Julie Bloss Kelsey is the current Secretary of The Haiku Foundation. She started writing haiku in 2009, after discovering science fiction haiku (scifaiku). She lives in Maryland with her husband and kids. Julie's first print poetry collection, Grasping the Fading Light: A Journey Through PTSD, won the 2021 Women’s International Haiku Contest from Sable Books. Her ebook of poetry, The Call of Wildflowers, is available for free online through Moth Orchid Press (formerly Title IX Press). Her most recent collection, After Curfew, is available from Cuttlefish Books. Connect with her on Instagram @julieblosskelsey.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Thanks Josh for this useful and enlightening talk on imagery in haiku. The examples given highlight the types of imagery well.

  2. Thanks for this Josh. Even those of us who’ve written haiku for years need reminded of the basics. Think I’ll go on a ginko today!

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