John Polozzolo and the Making of Haiga
by Jeanne Emrich
John Polozzolo is one of a growing number of poets in North
America today discovering the aesthetic appeal and creative potential
of the Japanese art form known as haiga
or haiku painting. Zolo, as he signs his paintings, brings
to the form a decidedly contemporary dynamism even as he continues
the painterly traditions of some of the earliest haiga masters
Haiga first appeared in 17th century Japan almost at the same
time as haiku (or hokku as
it was then called) and was used to decorate scrolls, screens,
fans, and even pottery. All the great haiku masters practiced
haiga, including Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), who established haiga
as a major art form, Yosa Buson (1716-1784), generally considered
to be the one to have brought the form to its height of expressiveness,
and Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), as well as a number of Zen masters.
Then, as now, there were both professional and amateur poet-painters
working with the form, and today the popularity of haiga in Japan
continues in spite of competition from western art trends.
Three elements traditionally
have defined the form: an ink brush painting, calligraphy, and
a haiku poem or poems. Most haiga are very sketch-like and painted
with a few quick and very expressive lines, minimal detail, and
plenty of empty space. As in haiku itself, there is a suggestive
interplay between images in the poem as well as between poem
and painting. Today, in North America, there is considerable
experimentation with the form, including the incorporation of
photography, computer graphics, and collage.
Zolo first began creating haiga in kindergarten with crayolas
on recycled paper "with wood chips floating in it."
Only years later when he read a book by Yasuichi Awakawa entitled
Zen Painting and saw the work of
Hakuin, Sengai, Fugai, Isshi, and others, did he realize he was
not alone in combining poetry and painting. During the course
of his career as an English teacher and later as the director
and president of an educational training company, he continued
his interest in poetry and painting, publishing haiku with the
early encouragement of editors Lorraine Harr, Dr. Eric Amann,
and Robert Spiess. He also explored an interest in pottery and
abstract painting, and his work has been exhibited in a number
The seventeen haiga presented here were painted on plain white
paper with regular watercolor paints. The handwriting, in English
cursive, was done with India ink. Some of Zolo's haiga, such
as, "In Cathedral Rays"
(11), began with the painting
first followed by the creation of an accompanying poem; but the
majority began with an already existing poem to which a painting
was added. The painting-first haiga are, according to Zolo, "of
a different order of haiga it seems to my observation. They tend
to be more didactic than poem-first haiga. Perhaps the poems
usually come first because I am so word-oriented. But sometimes
words disgust me, especially if they are wrapped in Angora sweaters.
Then I melt into the language of lines and colors."
Many of the haiga in this collection, such as "Drawing
My Heart" (6), "On the Big Oak Desk" (8),
and "A Forgotten One"
(12) include poems added with a
word-processor rather than in hand-writing. Zolo has said that
he relies on instinct as to whether he will use typography or
handwriting, but it appears that he prefers the word-processor.
"I like the formality added to some paintings by the mechanical
processes of the computer. Some of my paintings tend to be rather
wild, and the word processor adds an anchor to the art, lends
stability, almost like a chop mark ... and because I believe
the integration of this ancient art form and modem science can
be an art form unto itself. The placement, configuration, layout
and look of computerized print is dramatically different than
in haiga using calligraphy, and requires an entirely different
contemplation of the piece before the process goes on. And perhaps
because it's something the ancients never had a chance to try."
Still, when Zolo does choose to incorporate his own highly
expressive handwriting into his haiga, such as in "Together
Again" (14) and "The Way This Leaf Curls" (17), his work approaches the spirit
and mastery of the form exemplified by the Japanese masters themselves.
This is particularly evident in the harmonious combination of
visual elements in "The Way This
Leaf Curls" where the slanting verticals, the loops,
twists and turns of Zolo's calligraphy continue the dancing lines
that represent the grass and curling leaf in the painting. And,
in "Unshakable" (15),
the spontaneity inherent in both pen and brushwork perfectly
express the poet-painters surprise and amusement over the spider's
"yo-yo." We also see in these works the suggestive
technique used so skillfully by the Japanese masters where the
reader/viewer's imagination is called into play to complete the
poem or painting. In "The Way This Leaf Curls" for
example, we see only the grass and the leaf; it is the poem that
invites us to create with our "mind's eye" the perky
fellow who dug the hole. Neither do we "see" Zolo in
"Unshakable" holding the strand from which the tenacious
spider dangles, but he is most certainly there in our imagination
due to the suggestive interplay between poem and painting.
Just as Zolo continues the aesthetic traditions of the Japanese
haiga masters, he also is true to his roots in the visual arts
of the past century and, in particular, abstract expressionism.
The same flare for bold color and brushwork employed in his more
western paintings, including his "signature
painting" (0) shown here, he
brings to many of his haiga. This can be seen in some of his
more "painterly" haiga such as "In
Cathedral Rays" (11),
a loosely rendered watercolor in which strong diagonal brushstrokes
and paint splatter evoke a swarm of gnats in light filtering
through a woodland canopy. In his more minimalist abstract haiga,
such as "How Easily a Leaf'
(3) and "Winter's
Dusk Lingers" (5), the
painted images become even less representational. Only after
reading the poems, with all their inherent suggestiveness, do
we look back and "read" the blue slash and orange scrawl
as hill and leaf or the purple blobs as a dripping icicle. Just
as in traditional haiga, a synergy is set up between poem and
abstract painting and the same aesthetic psychology of stimulating
our imagination is at work. We are called to enter the haiga.
and complete it. And we delight in doing so.
This is Zolo's first public showing of haiga. It comes at
a time when haiga. is just coming of age in North America, and
no doubt John Polozzolo's dynamic style will play a part in the
form's growing popularity. For more information on haiga, visit
Online. Zolo's haiga, also will be on display at HAIGA Online
in the May, 2000 issue.
Jeanne Emrich is a poet and painter living
in Bloomington, Minnesota. She is the webmaster of HAIGA
Online - a Journal of Painting and Poetry and the author
Haiku Habit and Barely
Dawn (Lone Egret Press). You may e-mail Jeanne Emrich