Site Contents
The Lessons
Basho's Spirit
Show Don't Tell


The Reference Section

Seasons and the season-word
Zen and Haiku
Thing, Moment, Spirit
The Two-Image Haiku
The Nature of English Haiku
Interviews with Haiku Masters


Part 2 - Seasons and the kigo, the season-word

In traditional haiku there is always some reference to a seasson. The Japanese have always been very aware of the changing seasons. Over the centuries many weather features, flowers, fruits, animals and customs have become specifically linked with one time of year or another. Even things that are present all the year or most of the year, like the moon and rain and frogs, represent, by poetic convention, one particular time (the moon, unless otherwise stated, always refers to the Harvest Moon in mid-September by Japanese convention).To mention one is to evoke all the associations of the season.
In English we do not have this tradition and people ofen fall back on direct references to "Autumn" or "Summer" etc. or to words like "snow," "cricket", "bonfire night", "Christmas." Because of this difficulty or lack, English speaking haiku writers often rely on relatively non-specific nature references which do not identify the month of the year precisely. The seasonal awareness of city-dwellers is anyway blunter than that of people from the country, and we are mostly city-dwellers.
Professor Hoshino of the Haiku Museum in Tokyo asked me what time of year was meant by the words "oyster", "mussel", and "sea-bass" in England. I could only tell him that oysters and mussels were September to April and sea-bass were commonest from April to September. In Japan, naming one of these creatures would bring to mind (to someone who knew the literary conventions) a particular week or month in the year and all the connotations of that specific time. Large dictionaries of season-words are published for poetry-readers in Japan, classifying all natural phenomena by association with the beginning of Spring, mid-Spring, late Spring, the end of Spring and so on.
The haiku poem seems to need some reference to anchor in it time and place. If it is at a particular point of a known cycle it gathers colour and mood – like a key signature in music - from its relative position. The words "dawn" or "evening" or "midday" or "old" or "teenage" or "tired" or "wide-awake" lend an emotional flavour that may be equivalent to what the season-word contributes in Japanese. Most English haiku writers are less attached to the necessity for a season-word than Japanese writers, and may very successfully "fix" their haiku in another cycle: the cycle of the day, or the life, perhaps, rather than the cycle of the seasons:

On the beach at dawn –
Last night’s heart
Washed clean away
(David Bell)

High tide
Over and over
The shifting shingle
(Brian Tasker)

But we must not abandon the idea of seasons. Certainly, in the Japanese tradition, the season-word (or kigo) is an essential element of the aesthetic. Miyamori writes: "The Japanese are passionate lovers of Nature. Every feature, every phase, every change of Nature in the four seasons powerfully excites their delicate aesthetic sense. Not to speak of cherry-blossom viewing picnics which are the custom among all people high and low, young and old, the Japanese often row out in pleasure boats on the sea or on a lake to enjoy the harvest moon; they often climb hills for views of the "silver world" of snow; they often visit rivers in darkness to contemplate fireflies; they often climb wooded mountains to delight in the rich brocade of frost-bitten maple leaves; they often listen with ecstasy to the songs of frogs, of which Ki no Tsurayuki, an ancient poet, says: - "the frog dwelling in the water – all living things sing songs." On autumn evenings singing-insects kept in cages are sold at street-stalls; and townsfolk listen to them in order to hear the "voices of autumn." And naturally enough, men of taste, particularly poets, while enjoying these scenes, compose verses on the spur of the moment." (An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern,1932).
What? Where? When?
Haiku are very specific. They should conjure up a scene clearly so that the reader knows the answer to the ‘what?’ and at least one of the other two questions above. Without these details it will not suggest a clear enough picture, or it will suggest a multiplicity of different pictures to different people. It will not work.
Try your haiku on other readers. It may be crystal clear to you but suggest quite other things to your readers! You may have to go back to the drawing board and tighten it up by the insertion of a season-word (or equivalent time-fixing word), and a location word, to make it more specific.
Sabi and Wabi
Sabi literally means ‘rust,’ and refers to things which show the marks of age (like an old pond, a gnarled tree etc.), with a sense of unpretentious stoic endurance, and even a sense of "cosmic, existential loneliness" which links with Buddhist preoccupations.
Wabi relates to simplicity, poverty. Again this has a philosphical dimension, and a Buddhist ideal, embraced by hermits and monks who renounce the things of the world and give themselves to the life of begging. Together, sabi and wabi represent aestheitc qualites much appreciated in Japan: the values that lead to a love of the simple, unpretentious, nonstandard, weatherworn and neglected rather than the new, the shiny, the regular, the glamourous or the sensational.
By Michael Gunton and George Marsh

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