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Haiku Shows Its Human Face in Senryu and Nudes

State of the Arts


Published August 27, 2008 at 5:09 a.m.

Like copywriters, haiku poets know how to pack a punch with a few words. Marc Awodey, Burlington artist/poet and art critic for Seven Days, has considerable cred where this Japanese form is concerned: He won the head-to-head haiku championship in the 2000 National Poetry Slam. In a new book published by Burlington's Kasini House, Awodey explores a similar form called senryu, which uses its 17 syllables to sketch the human condition (whereas haiku focuses on nature). The poems are paired with a series of Awodey's crayon drawings of nudes - arranged by gallery owner Ric Kasini Kadour, who's also exhibiting the text and images through September.

In an introductory note, Awodey says the images aren't meant to illustrate the poems. Rather, "[T]he point of combining senryu and nudes is to suggest that poems must evolve from a state of psychological nudity." What do they reveal? In the book, Awodey mentions the "haiku concept of wabi-sabi," which he defines in an email as "quiet like melancholy, yet it comes from a place of contentment and acceptance rather than sadness or resignation . . . we see it in Edward Hopper, Emily Dickinson, Chet Baker - but there's no name for it in English."

That Zen quietude doesn't preclude a final ironic twist, as in this senryu:

the cat and i

chase our illusions

hers are bits of dust

mine are less clear

"i rattle cages," the poet laments in another specimen, "but so many are empty / it makes no difference."

While the poems are direct, succinct and self-deprecating, the drawings seem to catch their subjects obliquely, in the midst of doing something else. Many of the nudes are occupied with some sort of task; few face the viewer. Awodey says he likes to base his compositions on those of Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose "sequential nudes are of people in motion."

One of the cages Awodey rattles could be the traditional haiku/senryu form itself - he readily admits he doesn't cleave to the rigid 5-7-5-syllable pattern. But "I do stick to the 17-syllable convention of English haiku-esque verse," he says, "simply because to do otherwise is like what Robert Frost said about free verse: 'playing tennis without a net.'"