Haiku and Design

This natsume—a caddy for the finely ground powered green tea used at a tea ceremony—epitomises winter.  Natsume by Mr. Wakashima who lives and works in Wajima.
Understanding the code
Can any parallels be drawn between haiku poetry and decorative motifs?

Haiku have become quite well known beyond the borders of Japan, either in translation or written as an English language from of poetry.

Simply speaking haiku is based on a sequence of five-seven-five syllables of the Japanese language.  Although the subject matter is unlimited much of it comes from nature.  What all haiku poems do is to encapsulate a juxtaposition of time and/or events.  They may also deal with phenomena and common truths to form powerful imagined or remembered vignettes designed to awaken the emotions of the reader in an almost predetermined way.  That at least is my understanding of what haiku is.  But that is not all.

I see haiku as being written in a kind of code.  And, just like the dots and dashes of Morse, the code needs to be understood by both transmitter and receiver, or in the case of haiku by the writer and the reader to realise its full potential.  Some people will dispute this idea I feel sure but it works for me.

Let us say, for example, that a haiku is about a hot, humid evening just after the sun has gone down.  A small bat bursts from its day-time roost to be silhouetted agains the glowing limpid sky, still radiant with light and the colour of pale pink coral.  The setting is, of course, in Japan.  Having experienced many evenings like this I would find any haiku extolling such a moment especially touching.  The memory of such an evening as a total bodily experience—the temperature, the level of humidity, the smell on the warm air, the stillness, the colours and many other things—would all serve to enhance my understanding of the haiku.

Having lived in Japan, a haiku based on these conditions would seem very real and plausible.  But could it really strike a chord with someone living in a hot dry climate in the Middle East, for instance.  Reading such a haiku would no doubt resonate with them but surely there would always be something lacking—they would not have the benefit and pleasure of being fully acquainted with the circumstances or the intricacies of what is suggested and no experience of the real situation.

But the question is, could a piece of design or a decorative motif have a similar effect?  Is there a similar kind of message in code?

This natsume—a caddy for the finely ground powered green tea used at a tea ceremony—epitomises winter.  Despite being an abstract motif, the spiral represents wind—a rough one—and the graded, roughly rendered and restrained dull red spiral on a dark background stirs feelings of anxiety.  There is a feeling gloominess—a leaden sky, heavy with snow, like those that sweep in across the Japan Sea in winter to assail the Noto Peninsula where its creator, Mr. Wakashima lives and works.

For me, this decorative effect is as brief as a haiku and yet carries a powerful message, all be it in a kind of “code”.  But what would it mean to me if I had never lived in Japan, if I had never encountered such a day to tease and stimulate all my senses, and if I were not able to recall as a total bodily experience the reality of such and event?

So, if haiku can be seen as a code, why not decorative effects.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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