Three Swans: A Visual Haiku

I took this photo of three Trumpeter Swans on the shore of Lake Ontario about five years ago. The way it sets up, with the swans on either side looking in the same direction, and the one in the middle turned slightly away, reminds me of the structure of classical haiku. As you may know, this Japanese verse form consists of three lines. Usually, the first and the third line contain five syllables, and the second line seven. That’s not a big difference—seven syllables instead of five—but it’s enough to give each haiku a feeling of irregularity, of its rhythm being slightly off kilter, which is an aesthetic quality, I think, that the Japanese hold in special esteem.

So with the photo. Reading from left to right, the first and the third swan are looking in the same direction, with their heads held at the exact same angle. The one in the middle is the nonconformist. It has turned its head to the right—not by much—just enough so that its facial features and that magnificent beak have disappeared. We can’t see its eyes; we can’t pretend to know what it is thinking. All we see is the blank whiteness of the back of its head, with its impossibly long neck posed like a question mark between two periods. If all three swans were looking in the same direction, the photo would say nothing. With one of them turned away, it raises a question. The viewer starts to wonder, and that wonder can serve as a basis for contemplation.

In classical haiku, the type written by Basho, Issa, Buson and Shiki, each poem contained a season word, a word that alerted the reader to the haiku’s temporal placement in the unfolding year: spring, summer, autumn, or winter. The season for this photo is winter; it was taken in December. The water is that deep shade of blue that it acquires as it approaches the freezing point. A cold wind is blowing—you can see it has lifted a few feathers on the first two swans.

The swans themselves, three blocks of white marble, their necks like the strings of a lyre, are unperturbed. They may feel the bite of the wind, but it doesn’t bother them. They are ready for whatever winter brings. In the meantime, they stand together in the sunlight by a vast lake, two looking in the same direction, and one in another.

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