Menu ☰

Purple Mountains Majesty:

Poetry and Photography

by Neal Whitman, Poetry Prof

Recap: Shock and Awe

In my March 1 essay, I offered two types of juxtaposition in haiku: the oooh in which two images reverberate to create a feeling of shock and the aaah in which two images resonate to create a feeling of awe. On September 8, I was invited to make a presentation on this at the Pacific Rim Haiku Conference and, with the blessings of the family of Carolyn Talmadge, who passed away on May 30, read two of her haiku that had been published in the journal, Mariposa:


a cold wind
cuts through the gorge


Indian summer
the night pulse of cricket
lulls me to sleep

In my September 1 essay, I professed delight with the tool of juxtaposition in the hands of poets who know how to craft verse of any length: haiku, sonnets, epics, whatever! This month let’s add this arrow to the tanka poet’s quiver. For those of you new to tanka, it is a seven-line poem that, in the Japanese tradition, has a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable count. Just as 5-7-5 is no longer required of the three-line haiku, tanka poets today feel free to break this old rule, though many use a short-long-short-long-long format.

Keep in mind that tanka is not just a haiku with two additional lines. It is intended to be more personal than haiku and revealing the poet’s feelings is encouraged, which it is not in haiku. Still, both forms use the tool of juxaposition. Whereas a haiku poet uses it to set one image against a second image, the tanka poet can juxtapose a personal response in the last two lines against a concrete image in the first three lines. Keep in mind that there is much more to tanka than this and I need to ask the forgiveness of tanka poets for this formula that is too simple to represent the variety of approaches that encompass the tanka tradition. In fact, poets find many ways to connect the two parts of their tanka.

Joyce S. Green, In the Spring/Summer 2012 journal, Ribbons, praised James Chessing’s tanka because she was impressed with his juxtaposition of the stillness of man’s spirit and the stillness of snow:

the stillness inside
the stillness of snow
falling on snow
nothing left to try
but the letting go

At that Pacific Rim Haiku Conference where I presented my “oooh vs. aaah” paper, the editor of the tanka journal, red lights, encouraged me to submit tanka to her journal. Here is one I sent her:

wind-driven chaff
transforms my cracked patio
into a Greek mosaic
we gather in a circle
and recite the Psalms

My aim was to juxtapose (1) the concrete image of a cracked patio that, to me, looked like one of those old iconic portraits that grace the interiors of Byzantine churches and (2) the feeling of community wherever a group gathers to pray together. I do not know if this juxtaposition “sold” my tanka, but she did accept it for the February 2013 issue.

Two weeks after the Pacific Rim Conference my wife, Elaine, and I headed to San Francisco for what we call our annual “culture vulture” excursion. A highlight was an exhibit from the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography that came to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Naoya Hatakeyama: Natural Stories. This show brought together Naoya Hatakeyama’s photographs that offer his perspective on the relationship between nature and humanity. Art critic, Phillipe Forest, states in the museum’s guidebook:

His work captures scenes people do not often see, vast and at times awe-inspiring. This exhibition, which confronts not only the beauties of nature but also its sometime incongruous austerity, is an opportunity to consider how the natural and human worlds have both coexisted and been at odds.

Aha! Juxtapositon!

When I was preparing my Pacific Rim Haiku Conference presentation, a haiku-pal brought to my attention the notion that the Alps inspired British romantic poets who viewed the mountains as both beautiful and awesome, yet for the locals who lived under threat of storm and avalanche, the same mountains could create feelings of fear and terror. Likewise, in the guidebook, Forest noted that Hatakeyama’s esthetic was informed by the same contrast experienced at the dawn of Romanticism when the “overwhelming proportions” of towering mountains and raging rivers could be experienced as both sublime and terrible at the same time.

The signage in front of Hatakeyama’s series of photographs “Untitled (Another Mountain)” explained…

He photographed vista points designed to inspire and awe visitors with unimpeded views of the highest and most popular peaks. Hatakeyama noted, “No matter how packed with people, the high mountain scenery that can be seen from the observation deck has a kind of magic … it puts both mind and senses into trance.”

Oh ho! Juxtapostion!

To conclude what I profess:

• The syllable count does not make a poem.

• A camera is of little use to the untrained eye.

• One rule of poetry: two images that do and do not go together.

• One rule of photography: two subjects that cause the viewer’s eye to go back and forth.

The poem unread is unfinished.

The photograph not seen is undeveloped.

The poet points at shadows.

The photographer exposes light.

What both poetry and photography share?

The magic of juxtaposition.

Leave a Reply