Chen-ou Liu, Canada

Haiku as Ideogrammatic Montage:
A Linguistic-Cinematic Perspective


The film-frame can never be an inflexible letter of the alphabet, but must always remain a multiple-meaning. And it can be read only in juxtaposition, just as an ideogram acquires its specific significance, meaning, and even pronunciation only when combined with a separately indicated reading or tiny meaning – an indicator for the exact reading – placed alongside the basic hieroglyph.

From our point of view, [haiku] are montage phrases. Shot lists.

-- Sergei Eisenstein

[What] fascinates Eisenstein about this form of ‘ideographic’ representation is the way in which both haiku and Chinese characters act simultaneously as linguistic signifiers and denotative images of “natural” things.

-- Ron S. Judy

In my essay1 on the first published haiku (modern name for hokku) in English, Ezra Pound's “Metro Haiku,” I stress that Pound “explicitly credits the technique of the Japanese hokku in helping him work out the solution to [his] ‘metro emotion'.”2 I also emphasize that read in the contexts of Pound’s struggle with a new kind of poetry, not just with one poem, and of the growing impacts of the Chinese language in general, and Chinese poetry in particular, upon his view of writing poetry, his metro poem is viewed, from outside the haiku community, as a haiku-like, yet a new kind of poem: the most influential imagist poem based on his ideogrammatic poetics, one that develops from Ernest Fenollosa's perception of the Chinese written language as a medium for poetry. He holds onto the flawed assumptions that Chinese characters are essentially ideographic and non-phonetic in nature, and that the sense of individual characters is visually generated by the juxtaposition of their graphic components.3 The famous example used by his mentor, Fenollosa, is the following:

人 見 馬 --> MAN SEES HORSE

“First stands the man on his two legs. Second, his eye moves through space; a bold figure represented by running legs under an eye, a modified picture of an eye, a modified picture of running legs, but unforgettable once you have seen it. Third stands the horse on his four legs ... Legs belong to all three characters; they all alive. The group holds something of the quality of a continuous moving picture.”4 Fenollosa claims, and Pound echoes him, that the Chinese ideogram presents a necessary relationship between its components. “Eye on legs” can only mean “see” because in “this process of compounding, two things added together do not produce a third thing but suggest some fundamental relation between them.”5

Influenced by the Japanese and Chinese poetic traditions and after six-year epic struggle with one poem that embodies his audacious proclamation of “Make it new!”, Pound wrote the following poem in a Japanese haiku style, successfully demonstrating his imagistic characteristics in two lines: precision of imagery, clear, sharp language, and experimenting with non-traditional poetic forms.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.

Like Pound who was enamored with the poetic aesthetics of China and Japan, Sergei Eisenstein, often hailed as the foremost film theory and director in the history of cinema6, had tried to develop his own brand of montage as an organic tool to design a new film language whose cinematographic principle operates according to those similar to Poundian ideogrammatic method. More importantly, in order to counter against the conception of montage as a means of linkage and transition, one that advocated by the “old, old school of film-making,”7 he appropriated and later expanded the notion of literary montage he found in Japanese haiku as his theoretical foundation of montage as collision and progression (or progression through collision). Due to the scope of this introductory essay and for Haijinx readers who are interested in haiku poetics, I shall explore Eisenstein’s view of haiku as ideogrammatic montage from a linguistic-cinematic perspective.

Read in the socio-historic-cultural contexts of his days, Eisenstein’s montage theory is an exemplary product of one’s striving for newness and engaging with other people’s ideas and cultural legacies from other parts of the world. During the tumultuous period from 1910s to 1930s, often viewed as the era of the Russian avant-garde,8 he constantly absorbed new ideas and engaged in heated debates on the nature of film art with his colleagues and friends. One of these lively discussions often was about the concept of the filmic shot and its relation with montage, which basically mean how shots communicate with one another in time.

According to Eisenstein, his opponents, such as Kuleshov and Pudovkin, insist that a shot is “a single piece of celluloid... in which there is, organized in some way, a piece of an event,”9 and that when “[cemented] together, these shots form montage.”10 That is to say that “[the] shot is an element of montage, and [montage] is an assembly of these shots.”11 For his opponents what counts most in film-making is that a succession of shots situates the viewer definitely in relation to the narrative content of the film. Therefore, the meaning of a film is created through the linkage of shots. This conception has since dominated most of the minds of film makers.

Eisenstein criticizes this flawed understanding of the filmic process as a whole, one that “derives only from the external indications of its flow (a piece cemented to another piece).”12 In his view, the approach of this kind overrules dialectical development of events and dooms one to mere evolutionary ‘perfecting’”13 and in the long run “such evolutionizing leads either through refinement to decadence, or, on the other hand, to a simple withering away due to stagnation the blood.”14 Today we can see his prophetic warnings are fulfilled in the both popular and professional perception of montage that is all about cutting and a quick succession of shots as exemplified in commercial advertisements, MTV, and most of the Hollywood-influenced movies.

For Eisenstein a film is not only for the viewer to watch, but also the food for thought. He envisions a new kind of cinema that can draw the viewer into an ongoing intellectual and psychological experience. Due to his intense study of the Japanese written language during 192015 and his long-time interest in Japanese culture and literature, he develops a different understanding of the shot and its relation to montage.

In his one of most famous film essays, “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram,” Eisenstein stresses that the Japanese written language is representational and made up of various hieroglyphs, and he states that the hieroglyph is “the naturalistic image of an object as portrayed by the skilful hand of Ts’ang Chieh 2650 years before our era.”16 More importantly, for him the “copulation (perhaps we had better say, the combination) of two hieroglyphs… is to be regarded not as their sum, but as their product, i.e., as a value of another dimension, another degree; each, separately, corresponds to an object, to a fact, but their combination corresponds to a concept. From separate hieroglyphs has been fused – the ideogram,”17 the picture of a concept. For example, the picture of a bird and a mouth signifies “to sing,” while the picture of a child and a mouth means “to scream.” A change in one object, from bird to child, creates not a slightly variant of the same concept, but a totally new one.18

Eisenstein’s understanding of the signifying function of ideogram is similar to that of Fenollosa and Pound, yet placing an emphasis on the consequence or product of the combination of two separate hieroglyphs. In this linguistic characteristic of the Japanese written language, he sees the basis for cinema dynamics: that is the principle behind the process of combining hieroglyphs into ideograms is applicable to the cinematographic method of montage he envisions -- “combining shots that are depictive, single in meaning, neural in content into intellectual contexts and series.”19 He regards film as “a kind of language and, in particular, as a kind of Imagistic picture writing composed of hieroglyphs,”20 and he goes further in claiming that “the film-frame can never be an inflexible letter of the alphabet, but must always remain a multiple-meaning ideogram. And it can be read only in juxtaposition, just as an ideogram acquires its specific significance, meaning, and even pronunciation only when combined with a separately indicated reading or tiny meaning – an indicator for the exact reading – placed alongside the basic hieroglyph.”21

Equipped with his inspired learning of the ideogrammatic nature of Chinese and Japanese written languages, Eisenstein adopts an organic view of the shot as a montage cell.22 “Just cells in their division form a phenomenon of another order, the organism or embryo, so, on the other side of the dialectical leap from the shot, there is montage.”23 For him, the individual ‘cells’ become a living cinematic whole through montage, the life principle giving meaning to raw shots.24 Confronting Pudovkin ’s view of montage as a linkage of shots, Eisenstein emphasizes that montage should be viewed as a collision of shots, a view “that from the collision of two given factors arises a concept,”25 and that among all of these collisions, the weakest one, in terms of impact, is “degraded to an even movement of both [shots] in the same direction… which would correspond with Pudovkin’s view.”26 According to Eisenstein, “linkage is merely a possible special case.”27

Utilizing the fact that the human mind is highly capable of associating ideas or images in a way that the “senses overlap, subconsciously associating one with another to produce a unified effect,”28 Eisenstein argues that film can communicate by a series of juxtaposed images that do not need a linear, narrative or consequential relationship between them.29 In the mind of the viewer, shot A followed by shot B will create a new meaning C, one that is greater than the sum of its component parts, A and B.30 For a cinema “seeking a maximum laconism for the visual representation of abstract concepts,”31 the employment of montage as a collision of shots is a “means and method inevitable in any cinematographic exposition…the starting point for ‘intellectual cinema.’”32

Furthermore, Eisenstein likens montage to haiku, “the most laconic form of poetry.”33 He describes haiku as the “concentrated impressionist sketch,”34 in which minute details are highlighted by using minimal language. In the following haiku written by Japanese haiku masters:

A lonely crow
On leafless bough,
One autumn eve.


What a resplendent moon!
It casts the shadow of pine boughs
Upon the mats.

-- Kikaku

An evening breeze blows.
The water ripples
Against the blue heron’s legs.

-- Buson

It is early dawn.
The castle is surrounded
By the cries of wild ducks

-- Kyoroku35

Eisenstein thinks that haiku is “little more than hieroglyphs transposed into phrases,”36 and that each of these haiku is made up of montage phrases or shot lists.37 The “simple combination of two or three details of a material kind yields a perfectly finished representation of another kind – [the] psychological.”38 For him, “haiku… act simultaneously as linguistic signifiers and denotative images of ‘natural’ things.”39 Structurally and consequentially speaking, he considers haiku as an extension of the ideogrammatic structure characterizing the Chinese and Japanese writing systems. He believes that a Japanese haiku master’s juxtaposing two or three separate images to create a new meaning parallels his crashing two or three conflicting shots with each other to produce a new filmic essence. The juxtaposition of contrasting images in haiku (or the collision of conflicting shots in cinema) may single out, highlight, and purify a particular quality. Take Basho’s ever-famous frog haiku for example:

an old pond...
a frog leaps in,
the sound of water

His juxtaposition of two contrasting images of "an old pond" and "a frog leaping into the pond" makes a larger meditative, lonely silence “heard” through the opposition of the water sound.40 More importantly, juxtaposed images of some haiku engage the reader in more than one sense, as can be seen in the following ones by Basho:

Their fragrance
Is whiter than peach blossoms
The daffodils

Over the even sea
The wild ducks' cry
Is faintly white

It is whiter
Than the rocks of Ishiyama
The autumn wind

Onions lie
Washed in white
How chilly it is41

A color is employed to suggest the quality of scent, a crying sound, a tactile sensation, or a temperature.42 As in the case of the Kabuki theatre, Eisenstein argue that the montage effect of haiku results in the experience of synaesthesia or multisensory experience.43 This characteristic helps him to develop the key principles of audiovisual montage and color-sound montage.44

It is through his intensive study of Japanese culture in general, and haiku along with Kabuki theatre in particular, and his engaging discussions with his contemporaries that Eisenstein develops a different conception of montage. It is one that is highly influenced by his fascination with the ideogrammatic structure embedded in haiku and Chinese and Japanese writing systems. What he finds so intriguing about haiku is “how it manages to present a conceptual image, or mise-en-scene effect without resorting to any direct copulative ‘is’ or word to link the series of disjunctive images.”45 As Steve Odin emphasizes in his essay regarding the Influence of traditional Japanese aesthetics on Eisenstein’s film theory, “Eisenstein's incorporation of basic principles from traditional Japanese aesthetics into his universally acclaimed montage theory of film, together with his practical application of this theory as a film director in the making of Potemkin and other landmark motion pictures, ranks as one of the most significant twentieth-century achievements in East-West comparative aesthetics and philosophy of art.”46 Moreover, many Japanese haiku poets and scholars have recently re-appropriated his ideas about montage to write or interpret haiku. Among them, Yamaguchi Seishi applies the concept of “nibutsu shogeki (collision of two objects),”47 borrowed from Eisenstein's notion of montage, to haiku writing, and he believes that “haiku should focus on the interrelationship between different objects of nature, a relationship that must ‘leap beyond’ the predictable.’”48 The famous Basho scholar, Haruo Shirane, also excels in applying the montage theory to interpret Basho’s “poetics of scent,”49 claiming that “the notion of the montage can be helpful in analyzing the dynamics of linking.”50 There is no doubt in my mind that Eisenstein’s montage theory has made and will continue to make a great contribution to reading, writing, and interpreting haiku and its related genres.




1 Chen-ou Liu, "Three Readings of Ezra Pound’s 'Metro Haiku,'” Magnapoets, Issue 5 (January, 2010), pp. 31-3. Read its full text at

2 William J. Higginson (with Penny Harter), The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku, New York : McGraw-Hill Book, 1989, p. 135.

3 Eliot Weinberger, ed., The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, New York : New Directions, 2003, pp. xviii-xxiii.

4 Ernest Fenollosa, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, ed. Ezra Pound, San Francisco: City Lights. 1936. pp. 8-9.

5 Ibid.

6 Ron S. Judy, “The Obtuse Ideogram: A Second Look at the Imagist ‘Third Term,’” Sun Yat-sen Journal of Humanities, 22 (Summer 2006), p. 77.

7 Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, ed. And trans., Jay Leyda, San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1977, p. 36.

8 Steve Odin, “The Influence of Traditional Japanese Aesthetics on the Film Theory of Sergei Eisenstein,” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Summer, 1989), p. 69.

9 Ibid., p. 36.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., p. 37.

14 Ibid.

15 A See Odin, p. 75.

16 Ibid., p.28.

17 Ibid., pp. 29-30.

18 J. Dudley Andrew, The major film theories: An Introduction, London: Oxford University Press, 1976, pp. 51-2.

19 See Eisenstein, p. 30.

20 See Odin, p. 78.

21 See Eisenstein, p. 65.

22 Ibid., p. 37.

23 Ibid.

24 See Andrew, p. 52-3.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid., p. 38.

27 Ibid.

28 Constantine Santas, Responding to Film: A Text Guide for Students of Cinema Art, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002, p. 60.

29 Richard Howells, Visual culture, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003, p. 242.

30 Ibid.

31 See Eisenstein, p. 30.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid., p. 31.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid., p. 30.

37 Ibid., p. 32.

38. Ibid.

39 See Judy, p. 78.

40 Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, Calif : Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 77.

41 Makoto Ueda, Literary and Art Theories in Japan, Cleveland: The Press of Western Reserve University, 1967, pp. 162-3.

42 See Odin, p. 80

43 Ibid., p. 79.

44 Ibid., pp 69-70.

45 See Judy, p. 78.

46 See Odin, p. 80.

47 See Shirane, p. 314.

48 Ibid., p. 114.

49 Haruo Shirane, “Matsuo Basho and The Poetics of Scent,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Jun., 1992), pp. 77-110. For further reading, see the section titled “From Words Links to Scent Links” in Chapter 4 of his book, Traces of Dreams.

50 See Shirane, Traces of Dreams, p. 97.