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 of Japan.

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 of galleries.

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 HAIGA 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 of The Haiku Habit and Barely Dawn (Lone Egret Press). You may e-mail Jeanne Emrich at:

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