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Sunday, March 09, 2014

Negative space in haiku: Writing Poetry: the haiku way

This is an ongoing post that regularly adds examples. 

The latest one is a two line haiku. Two-line poems can be called a 'duostich' pronounced duo-STICK

winter’s end

a wardrobe slaps closed

Alan Summers

Tinywords issue 21.1 March 2021

We quite literally have a 'third line' that is completely invisible!

Now I could have written it as a one line haiku:

winter’s end a wardrobe slaps closed

But that does not use the neat effects of "white space" and "negative space". It's okay as a one line haiku, isn't it? But does it have that extra 'frisson' that we look for in some of our haiku?


The experience called frisson (pronounced free-sawn), is a French term meaning “aesthetic chills,” and it can feel like waves of an unexpected tingling that we could recognise as "pleasure" running all over our skin.

What causes frisson? 

Musical passages that include unexpected harmonies, sudden changes in volume, or the moving entrance of a soloist are particularly common triggers for frisson because they violate listeners' expectations in a positive way ...

The opening line sets a context that Winter has indeed ended and it feels like a useful statement about the end of that particular season. It needs its own line. The next line is not an obvious continuation or conclusion to the first line. The second line (the last visible line) used both a noun that generally means someone's collection of clothes, as well as the type of furniture we use to 'hang' our coats, shirts etc...
a wardrobe slaps closed
But I also use the term 'wardrobe' not just as a vehicle to suggest a new priority of seasonal clothing, but to a very famous 'device' that enabled a number of youngsters to enter a magical kingdom called Narnia.
What is in the negative unsaid words and spaces? Perhaps it's your sense of adventure and imagination. I invite the reader to make their own private "last lines".

The haiku "winter wheat" is one I posted to the Australian Haiku Society Winter Solstice Haiga Kukai 2020: Seasonal Contest (July 6th 2020)

The photograph challenge and prompt was a Tasmania's Scarlet Robin, on a wooden support/fencing coated with snow, connected by wires, with what I recognised as a few wisps Winter Wheat in the blurry background! 

The idea for these photo prompts, I feel, is to match or pair the photo with a haiku so that very little is repeated, especially as the Scarlet Robin (the jpg is labelled Scarlet Robin, not Flame Robin), and the snow both dominate the photo, so there was no need to repeat the obvious. 

Scarlet Robin:

Winter Wheat:  Australia

Winter Wheat (USA, Europe etc...)

Now without seeing the photograph I guess it makes the haiku on its own contain an aspect of negative space! 

We have an opening line of 'winter wheat' setting an obvious seasonal setting, and simply a breeze that is rattling the wire, but no!  Actually the breeze is rattling "the wire act" so it's not the wire itself, but something else. I tend to think of small birds creating a balancing act, and often re-righting themselves in a cross wind.

We might not know what kind of bird, other than a small one, but we can always imagine, and create our own space to feature whichever bird we've seen in the past, even childhood, that created a 'wire act'. 

wake up call
the silver tones 
of its feathers

Alan Summers

where silence becomes song ed. Iliyana Stoyanova & David Bingham 
(pub. British Haiku Society 2019)

A case where a bird is suggested, but not placed directly into the poem, other than mentioning 'feathers'. Is the wake up call an alarm clock, or a bird (part of the dawn chorus)? Is there irony or poignancy  that the author is not in a place where birds sing, so they attribute feathers to the tone/tune/call of an alarm clock? By placing an amount of the black text of experience into 'white space' or 'white text' invisible to the eye, negative space is being created.

From this negative space practice various storylines can be generated by the reader, so they can add their own experiences, or observations. Perhaps a mechanical or electronic alarm call (or booked hotel phone alarm service) has woken the author up, and they are missing or imagining the sound of birdsong to get them through the wake up process and a difficult day ahead. 

How much 'black text' do we 'shift into white mode' that invisible text that we hope readers will pick up? We'll have to leave that to the readers, and rely on their sense of adventure and imagination.

dappled light the glint of gun

Alan Summers
Human/Kind Journal of Topical & Contemporary Japanese Short-forms & Art Issue 1.1 January 2019
More about one-line haiku:

Negative space is often about not putting in the word itself that the haiku, or longer poem, or advert etc... is about.

White space is the technique of not putting ALL of the information into the writing, and using space as a way to  suggest there is more to see, "look closer between the lines, and even between the words."

Negative space is often a vital part of advertisements and perhaps that fact that something is left out acts on us in a way that effects us on an everyday basis at home or outside. There's a famous advert about a paint company, and they heavily feature an Old English Sheepdog, and have done for a decade or longer. If I see an Old English Sheepdog in another advert, or on television, in a feature about dogs or in a drama, or while I'm shopping/browsing in a commercial area, I will think of that particular product, and may go further, and check out a hardware store! 

You may ask, how is that negative space? The dog is so closely linked to that product I don't even see the brand name all the time in an advert, even if it's there, the dog 'tells' me it's a particular brand of paint. Also, another advert uses a different kind of dog to advertise a household toiletry item, and I believe you can even buy a soft toy version of the dog from them now. Negative space can work a subliminal action on us beyond the showing of that advert on a screen or billboard etc...

Back to the one-line haiku (monoku) and how does all of that fit in?

I've seen enough war and weapons based movies (and serial drama series) now, to wonder if something glinting in the innocent daylight isn't the barrel of a gun, or the glass of an aiming scope. 

There is often something in the background, or just inside our peripheral vision. Most often it's an innocent everyday 'object' but the influence of movies and other forms of fictional drama have that 
unconscious or "peripheral" effect on many of us.

There is always, or at least almost always, something going on in the background, whether it's walking down the street, or sitting out in our backyard etc...

Another look at negative space and white space is in this feature, with brilliant photographic examples:

Positive Effect of Negative Space in Photography 
by Tara Hornor 
August 3, 2018.

We don't "always" have to fill in as much white space as possible, because that space left alone creates its own atmosphere of meaning

Sometimes too much wording, whether for a poem, a haiku, even an official report, does not require every word under the sun. Humans are often required to fill in "the blanks" on an everyday situation, whether a hint from a partner or child or a pet at home, or with friends, even a raised eyebrow, when we are out on a leisure or other recreational activity.

We can go beyond and/or behind 'the dappled light' which hopefully is a bird or dog rummaging.

Next is Mary Weiler's Persian Carpet haiku, after this image of a carpet.

Why does negative space work when perhaps we should fill in the gaps, every last one of them perhaps?

I am inspired by L'ombre d'une photographe/La sombra de un fotógrafo, which in English means “the shadow of a photographer” and that we sometimes have to be close to the action, but neither inside or part of that action, or visible. 

How to be detached from our poem, but attach meaning and emotion for the reader, placing a certain amount of information, and only have the poem in actual ‘type’ i.e. not all the words and phrases are visible, but nestling underneath for someone to unearth if they so choose to do so.

her Persian carpet
before mourners
disrupt the pattern

Mary Weiler
Austin, Texas
Second Place, The Peggy Willis Lyles Haiku Awards for 2018
Judge—Gary Hotham

The contest judge Gary Hotham touched on many things about all the haiku he read. He mentioned “always looking for fresh images” and of “haiku that have a new way of saying or observing or thinking about the world.” But that “in most cases the haiku will be using images that have been used many times”.

I really liked this from the judge:
“…looking for words that put me in the haiku—the moment or the state of being. Words that create something I can experience…” and “Pinch my mind awake.”

I immediately sat up at what Gary Hotham said because it’s difficult to do so with any poem that has much more paper territory to put more and more words down, but not so with a haiku. We have to think about being La sombra de un fotógrafo.

Gary also said:

“So do the words work. Is this the best way to arrange the words for the moment the writer is trying to bring the reader into. Do the words have the power. Word power is important for any poem but especially for the haiku since there are so few in the poem. That is a very challenging and exciting part of creating a haiku—using a few words to explore the wonders of earth and perhaps beyond to the far reaches of our universe.”

See what else he says:

I’ve said over the years that being a haiku writer should consider themselves as being at the Front, while society rages, and reporting back, with just enough space so that those of us who read their reports feel like witnesses. If too much space is filled in all we get is the author not the event.

Mary Weiler puts herself into the middle of the action, but you will only get the poem, and L'ombre d'une photographe, so it’s your poem if you want to invest as a reader. I know I want to be in that poem as it swirls around me like a scene from the Matrix:

Matrix 360 Rotation method:

Haiku are little tiny things using more ‘white space’ than words, but inside it’s full, if you step inside.

her Persian carpet
before mourners
disrupt the pattern

Mary Weiler

The first line  is self-explanatory, we know a woman owns one of those intricately patterned carpets. There’s a switch from the concrete image of a carpet, with a key word of ‘before’. How many ‘before’ experiences have we been involved in and what were their outcome?

The ‘before’ is the arrival and gathering of mourners that will forever change the pattern of the carpet in a metaphorical sense, and intensely literally for however long the drinks and finger food and guests remain either in the deceased person’s former home - with all that suggests - or a surviving family member’s home. 

We don’t know all the facts but some of us can fill them in, with our own experiences, whether positive, negative, or curiously neutral.

For more work by Mary Weiler:

Also see Alan Summers interview with the Sonic Boom magazine regarding white space: 

Negative space in haiku: 
is an article in progress for my book Writing Poetry: the haiku way.

Often when we talk to each other we don't feel the need to spell everything out; we have so many connections in common after all. It's partly the same with haiku, and carrying that over is an effective device. Alan Summers

"There is always the verbal equivalent of negative space in good haiku…"  Violette Rose-Jones

Essential components of haiku are literally what is not said in text, using a judicial amount of negative space, also known as whitespace, and MA (): a void in the poem that produces something in-between the two parts of a haiku; This is where, despite a lack of black (visible) text, this invisible section can add contexuality, sharpness, and tension to the poem as a whole. The core of many haiku is the dance with white space/whitespace, where it’s used parallel to the seen/visible text on the page. Utilising a number of techniques is no easy matter, and taking the eye off the ball has resulted in numerous message or statement epigrams, or flat missives:  Tonality is essential.

Here’s one from Jean Jorgensen from The Touch of a Moth: 35th Annual Haiku Canada Members' Anthology, page 115

he ties one hole
to another – fisherman
mending his nets

The Touch of a Moth: 35th Annual Haiku Canada Members' Anthology  The Touch of a Moth Edited by Claudia Coutu Radmore and Marco Fraticelli

Negative space needn't always be just the use of white space in breaking up the visible text.  It can be the way that a haiku uses its two parts to approach a subject by not directly mentioning it.

Haiku need not name the subject/topic directly. 

Stella Pierides has this to say about negative space in haiku:

My own favorite aspect of negative space is the 'hole' / empty space in the middle of the poem. Whatever form it takes, incl. punctuation and empty space(s), it gives the reader space through which to enter the poem and create meaning. You may be interested in Moore's and Hepworth's 'holes' in sculptures, also Fontana's 'holes', slashes' and 'gushes' in his paintings and sculpture (his Spatialism)

Although I think that all haiku utilizing a good enough cut would serve as examples, here are some of my haiku linked to themes of absence, cut, identity etc.
Stella Pierides

granny's cushion -
pulling the darkness out
pin by pin

Stella Pierides
In the Garden of Absence, Neusaess: Fruit Dove Press, 2012

between folding
and unfolding -
a dove

Stella Pierides
Publication credit: Bottle Rockets #26, February 2012

Is it a case of leaving something out, or not over-filling the small haiku?

Leaving things out 
is a potent device in haiku. 
Alan Summers

museum quarter
the midnight blue 
of geese

Alan Summers
Modern Haiku volume 48.3 Autumn 2017

the rain opening
                and closing its proboscis

Alan Summers
Blithe Spirit (Journal of the British Haiku Society) Vol. 27 no. 1 (February 2017) 
From the Strange Bed haibun

crowded train a dozen yellows crackle

[one line haiku aka monoku]

Alan Summers
Does Fish-God Know (Yet To Be Named Free Press 2012)

rush hour the train station cornea by cornea

[one line haiku aka monoku]

-Alan Summers

Second Prize
The Australian Haiku Society Spring Haiga Kukai: 
Non Seasonal category judged by Ron Moss

powdered snow –
a crow's eyes above
the no parking sign

Alan Summers
Joint Winner, Haiku International Association 10th Anniversary Haiku Contest (Japan, 1999)

fading photos 
a goldfinch tugs again 
at the spiderweb 

Alan Summers 
Blithe Spirit vol. 27 no. 2 May 2017

dark news 
the comfort 
of crows 

Alan Summers 
tinywords 15.1 (March 31st 2015) 

little fingers pulling
the wishbone

Alan Summers
brass bell: a haiku journal (April 2017)

homebound train 
I correct 
my wife's eyebrow

Alan Summers
low sky ed. Eric Burke
Right Hand Pointing Issue 107

those who stop —
ducks taking colour
from the river

Alan Summers
brass bell: a haiku journal curated by Zee Zahava (January 2017)

we shift and turn 
the migrating clocks 
fallen leaves 

Alan Summers
low sky ed. Eric Burke
Right Hand Pointing Issue 107

the buddleia
and the butterfly...
vanishing stars

Alan Summers
Presence #57

the darkness
seeps out of leaves
resting spiders

Alan Summers
NHK World's NHK Haiku Masters photo prompt (November 2016)

the crows changing
into their colours

Alan Summers 

house clearance
room by room by room
my mother disappears

Alan Summers
Award credits: Winner Touchstone Award
Published: Blithe Spirit 26.1 (March 2016) Journal of The British Haiku Society.

Recipient of a Touchstone Individual Poem Award for 2016

“When I read haiku, I’m looking for an unexpected view on the well-known. I’m curious to learn about an open secret (after Robert Spiess). 

I’m looking for a simple (but not banal) and lucid language that expresses something extraordinary within the ordinary, something which I never read before in that way as well as something that is of beauty beyond time. 

‘house clearance’ represents the pure power of haiku. 

Layers of meaning ascending from deeper layers of the mind (‘room by room by room’) in relation to existential truth (‘my mother disappears’). 

Perhaps one finds a human contradiction: memories can only get preserved vividly after “clearance.”

“An emotional and vivid image that brings sadness at first reading while effectively pointing out that taking away the physical doesn’t remove the memory.”

Panel of Judges: Gary Hotham, Ron Moss, Renee Owen, Michele Root-Bernstein, Dietmar Tauchner and Diane Wakoski

Ganesha's moon
the cabbie’s last customer
smells of mint tea

Alan Summers
brass bell: a haiku journal (November 2014); Miriam’s Well: Poetry, Land Art, and Beyond (Miriam Sagan's blog 2015

Forgotten rain
the wedding ring left
in a doll’s house

Alan Summers
Asahi Shimbun (Japan, 2014)

through the blizzard
particles of me

Alan Summers
Winner - The Haiku Calendar Competition 2011(Snapshot Press)

Alan Summers:
Should everything be spelt out and dictated to a reader, or should we delight that a reader will throw themselves into the poem so much they add whatever they consider to be missing information between the two parts of the tiny haiku poem?

I'm a haiku writer who feels honoured if a reader adds their own life experiences to a poem of mine, that maybe only shows half a story, in order for it to be completed by someone else.

Complementary to negative space is my white echoes and implication article where I talk about white paintings amongst other things: 

We had the honour and good fortune to interview Alan Summers, a Japan Times award- winning writer and one of my foremost mentors, who talks about his work, poetry, art, and most importantly, discusses the haikai forms and haiku in particular, the latter of which he dubs as “the stiletto of poetry”.
Shloka Shankar
(Poetry, Fiction & Art) Founder/Chief Editor
Sonic Boom Issue Seven December 2016

Sonic Boom editor: You speak extensively of white spaces in haiku and poetry. How does a poet welcome these vital elements into her/his consciousness? How does it seep into us? 

Alan Summers:
As a reader,  I have to say I am one who loves both types of haiku, the ones you get in an instant (yet still resonate); and ones that continue to make me grow as a reader. Writing is about growth, in my opinion, and a good many writers have readers (be it poetry; non-fiction; or fiction etc…) who want to grow alongside the writer. Discovery is a vital component in any discipline, and I am always thrilled when I discover something new, or something new about something familiar.

I like haiku poets who report back from the front line whether the news is good or devastating as it’s vital to make it available. If a writer fails to be a discoverer than I see the initial author (the poet) and the interpreters (readers) are both left out of the loop. There has to be a blank canvas, a large white space, and however gently we write around it, it’s forged as if blade-smiths in words, and none more-so than the incredibly brief utterance of a haiku: The stiletto of poetry.

I don’t think the reader will always pick up our intention, but sometimes that is really not an issue as long as they can run with their own interpretation(s). There has to be white space, like a mountain pass, so that the reader becomes their own intrepid explorer, drafting a map within their own individuality. White space isn’t just where there appears to be no words, it’s building a bridge to the reader. It’s the reader’s inner blank canvas that we want to connect, their own white space. As Ma can be called an experiential place, I see it as an attempt to connect with fellow humans, and although I am the original author, it’s reader by reader for me, it’s them that let’s the poem become a greater thing.

Travel writer Pico Iyer talks about taking time to explore meaning through stillness in his TED Talk The Art of Stillness, while Japanese architect Kengo Kuma puts it this way: “We are aiming to create an architecture of experience that dissolves the boundaries between the material and the immaterial.” 

That’s what white space is to me: Building bridges, invisible ones but nevertheless as strong as the physical manifestations across land masses. And there’s a place along that bridge that’s a viewing platform, where we all rest and repose. That word repose means two things to me, it’s both a state of restfulness, the opposite of restlessness, and it also means to drop our society-facing mask(s), to pull away from all of that, and to leave behind all those numerous poses associated with each public mask.

I hope each reader will always be that second verse to my poem:

Just like a character in a novel that takes charge, it’s not the author, but a haiku that takes charge, and the reader will run with that, we can trust them.  Welcome to the Front, nothing is easy or what it seems, and we don’t always know how it works, it’s just falling backwards with someone or something hopefully always there to catch us at that required moment. We are born as blank canvas, other than DNA that we carry as a conduit from a line of past generations.  Although we pick up life lessons, I feel we should continue to be as open, as that virgin canvas when we were so young.   

For me haiku are first and foremost ‘white paintings’ and I don’t just mean starting from a blank piece of paper or computer screen, but that the commenced and finished poem has to be like a White Painting such as those created by the artist Robert Rauschenberg: 

‘The White Paintings were airports for the lights, shadows, and particles…receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them.’
– John Cage about the painter Robert Rauschenberg (1961)

When composer John Cage first saw Rauschenberg’s White Paintings it inspired him to fully explore silence. He credited the White Paintings to leading to his famous piece 4’33’’, (four minutes and thirty-three seconds) where no sound is played by the performing musicians: It’s the (background) undertones of the musical piece that are supplied and accidentally performed by each audience member that comes to witness. It’s via shuffling in seats, sniffling, coughing, or cellphone texts or ringtones. Walter Hopps stated that John Cage said those White Paintings by Robert Rauschenberg were “landing strips for little motes that we don’t see…and for shadows.” That power of the White Paintings painted entirely in white, reflect the chance effects of changes in the light and shadows. I believe we are all made up of motes, ever changing but unique too, just particles in the wider universe.

through the blizzard
particles of me

Alan Summers
Winner, The Haiku Calendar Competition 2011 (Snapshot Press)
Publications credits: The Haiku Calendar 2012 (Snapshot Press); Cornell University, Mann Library virtual poet-in-residence (USA 2013); THF Per Diem Archive: April 2014, “Transcendence" 
Anthology credits: The Humours of Haiku ISBN 978-0-9565725-4-7 (Iron Press 2012); Faces and Place ed. Don Baird (The Little Buddha Press 2015); naad anunaad: an anthology of contemporary international haiku ed. Shloka Shankar, Sanjuktaa Asopa, Kala Ramesh (India, 2016)

I also see white space as that long time of doing and being nothing. 

There’s a spoof of W.H. Auden’s quote of “Poetry makes nothing happen” where the quote is turned on its head with: “Nothing makes poetry happen.” 

I am also a subscriber to what Maria Popova states: 
“Build pockets of stillness into your life. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.”

From the Sonic Boom INTERVIEW: