Up with Season Words

First published in In Due Season: A Discussion of the Role of Kigo in English-Language Haiku, Supplement #1 of Acorn haiku journal, edited by A. C. Missias (Philadelphia: Redfox Press, 2000). The Bashō translation is from The Essential Haiku by Robert Hass. A new postscript appears at the end, exploring the role of allusion in traditional season words. See also Haiku . . . Under the Bedsheets: Juxtaposition and Seasonal Reference.       +


What do kigo (season words) have to do with haiku in English? I think the question has two main issues. First, how are Japanese kigo relevant in English-language haiku? Second, how can we adapt the concept and principles of season words into English—or should we?

        When Kodansha published William Higginson’s landmark books Haiku Seasons and Haiku World, I read and enjoyed them both thoroughly. These books, I’m sure we can agree, are Higginson’s answer to my two questions: that the use of season words is alive and well in Japanese and worldwide haiku, and that kigo have limitations in being blindly applied to other languages, cultures, and especially varying latitudes and climates, but that they can be valuable to incorporate and adapt into English-language haiku.

        One alternative is to abandon seasonal references altogether. I would suggest, however, that those haiku poets who might claim to be doing so are fooling themselves. It’s nearly impossible to write about nature without indicating the season sooner or later. If the poem gives any indication of the season, the poem can’t help but make use of a seasonal word, even if unintentionally. As Christian Wiman has said in Poetry magazine, “Nature poets can’t walk across the backyard without tripping over an epiphany.” So, too, of nature’s seasonal ebb and flow.

        On one extreme, then, we have poets (perhaps those more aligned with the traditional Japanese model) who think vigorously about kigo, thumb through a saijiki without fail, are sure to use only one kigo per poem, and may, at times, be inspired to write from a list of kigo rather than from direct experience. Such poems are likely in the extreme to be wooden, contrived, over-refined, and slavish to convention rather than intuited feeling.

        On the other extreme, some poets who claim to pay little or no attention to seasonal references may sometimes be closer to representing direct personal experience but may present conflicting seasons in the same poem (that may therefore lack authenticity), present two or more words indicating the same season in a single poem (that may be redundant), and may not take advantage of the “shorthand” that season words offer haiku writers in anchoring the poem in time. Such poems are likely in the extreme to be unrefined and undisciplined.

        As with most things in life, the key to successful haiku lies in finding a balance between extremes.



Here’s what I don’t like about kigo. Nearly every time the word is used or introduced in English, the speaker or writer explains that kigo means “season word.” English doesn’t have an equivalent word for haiku, so we all know and use the word haiku and only rarely have to explain it. The general public typically has at least some idea of what haiku is—but never kigo. It’s interesting to know the Japanese term for “season word,” but to avoid the problem of always having to explain what kigo is, I see no problem with using “season word” in English and avoiding the term kigo except when discussing the equivalent Japanese term. Simply put, the term kigo is jargon, whereas “season word” is not because it is intuitively understandable even by uninitiated poets. I see no reason to resort to Japanese when we have a perfectly good English term. By routinely deferring to Japanese terms when such terms have acceptable English equivalents, we dilute the value of our own language. In that context, our poems might also remain overly Japonesque—and perhaps fail to mature as independent poetry—unless we assert English-language terms where appropriate.

        A second thing I don’t like about kigo is that they include a number of phrases that may be perfectly normal in Japanese but often fail to be culturally relevant elsewhere. A quick scan of kigo lists published by the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society reveals such spring phrases as “departing spring” and “spring melancholy,” which are for the most part too abstract for my tastes—although one can argue that such phrases are at least still culturally applicable to our environment. The same list, however, also includes “Buddha’s Festival Day,” but how is that relevant in North America? Furthermore, even in Japan the seasonal allocation of events seems conflicting. For example, “July” is a summer kigo, yet the Tanabata festival, though in early July, is assigned to the autumn season [the Japanese kigo system is based largely on the lunar calendar, not the Western solar calendar, but even in Japan some allocations do not seem entirely logical]. That makes no sense to a Western understanding of the seasons; in this case it seems that the classification is more important than the actual time of the event. How can this be relevant to North American haiku? Higginson addresses some of these issues, as have other commentators, but the point remains that seasons are perceived differently in different parts of the world (to say nothing of their oppositeness in the Northern and Southern hemispheres and the subtlety of seasonal change along the equator), and that I see no reason to have to defer to the Japanese classification of season words as is the practice of some haiku poets.

        A third thing I don’t care for in kigo is the implied relegation of poems lacking season words to some sort of lesser status. I don’t agree that haiku without season words are lesser poems. I appreciate the fact that Higginson recognizes this problem by his inclusion of “all year” season words in Haiku World.

        Yet a fourth thing I don’t like about kigo is that they seem overly codified—or that the codification seems more important than the image or emotion embodied in the seasonal reference. I think kigo can become overly dominant or an inappropriate focus in themselves, rather than a means to creating well-crafted haiku. Of course, this is not a danger with kigo per se, but with how poets use them; but the problem remains and comes up all too frequently. One can collect and polish trowels and spades, or one can cultivate a bountiful garden. The best poets have lovely gardens.

        The problem with the codification of kigo is that they are codified relative to a certain place. In Japan, kigo are traditionally relative to Kyoto, so limits exist, even in Japan—writing cherry blossom poems in June in Hokkaido breaks the “rule” that spring is much earlier further south. Also, as Higginson indicates, Japanese seasons (in haiku terms, at least) are centered on the equinoxes and solstices; in the West, the seasons begin with these events. Consequently, our notion of seasons differs. Fundamentally, why should Japanese seasons, especially just Kyoto’s, apply to all English-language haiku, let alone in California, say, or even to specific parts of California? Or New Zealand? Or Malta? Higginson says that they shouldn’t—that we should recognize and honour regional season words. This makes the location of the poet or poem relevant in the poem, though, and such a fact may take the reader out of the poem and thus out of the experiential moment. For such an intuitive sort of poetry, I would say it’s more important to enjoy the music rather than worry while it’s playing whether it’s Baroque or Rococo. On the other hand, if the music hits false notes, then that can take the listener out of the experience also.

        So, how to find the balance? I’m not sure I have an answer, except to say that the degree to which each individual haiku writer adapts the use of seasonal references into his or her haiku is likely a reflection of the poet's personality, poetic spirit, or deference to Japanese models. One thing I like about season words (and I don’t mean just the names of the seasons, which are the cheapest sort of season word, but the names of things that have a clear seasonal connotation, such as “snow” for winter) is that, carefully used, they help define a haiku by giving it, as I said before, an anchor or “setting” in time—like a gold ring that cradles a diamond. Yet a person doesn’t have to be a gemologist to appreciate the diamond’s sparkle. And the reader doesn’t have to know that a word is a “season word” in order to benefit from its anchoring and mood-setting effects. That’s why I favour season words as a natural by-product within authentic haiku, and I’m less in favour of “kigo” as a codified process used to manufacture and manipulate cubic-zirconium haiku moments. That’s why I say “up with season words,” but (cautiously) “down with kigo.”

        For their part, at least some Japanese poets and scholars recognize the problems inherent in attempting to internationalize haiku and kigo in particular. Speaking in July 1999 in Tokyo at the First International Contemporary Haiku Symposium, sponsored by the Japan Foundation and Japan’s Modern Haiku Association, chief Japanese representative Ban’ya Natsuishi stated that “Traditional ‘season words,’ which are effective only within the framework of the natural environment and culture of the main islands of the Japanese archipelago, are merely local keywords.” He emphasized that “Contemporary haiku is not limited to the theme of nature as narrowly defined by ‘seasonal words’ which refer only to the ‘four seasons’ of Japan. By using ‘nonseasonal keywords,’ [haiku] has possibilities for expressing many natural phenomena outside the scope of Japan.” He also summarized the symposium’s conclusions, and its very first conclusion was not just that kigo are not essential to global haiku, but that even “season words” (a broader term) are not essential to global haiku. Seasonal references can have a positive effect in haiku, but I agree that they are not essential.

        There’s room for a variety of approaches in using season words, and I’m sure we can learn from one another. Readers as well as writers should be aware of various approaches to well-crafted haiku. For some, two season words will indicate poor craft. For others, a set Japanese seasonal phrase such as “cats in love” will feel contrived or falsely borrowed. By assessing what we like in reading haiku, we can see what makes us tick in writing these poems. At the very least, I agree with William Higginson’s comment in Haiku World: “Blinding oneself to the actual phenomena of a given place and time because of some loyalty to the saijiki will only interfere with both creating poems and appreciation of the phenomena themselves.” I think seasonal references do often improve a haiku, but aren’t essential. Ultimately, I agree with the “manifesto” of the First International Contemporary Haiku Symposium, in which the first of seven conclusions is, quite simply, that “‘Season words’ are not absolutely necessary for global haiku.” Whatever our preference regarding season words, each of us must find our own balance.



Here’s my approach to haiku and season words. For the most part my poems begin with experience. The names of the things that make up an experience grow into the phrases of a haiku. I try to see out of the corner of my eye to notice what else is happening at the same time as what I see right in front of me so I might juxtapose the two occurrences. If the poem makes some sort of seasonal indication, I let it do so (or not) of its own accord—in the same manner as I let the poem find its own organic internal form rather than conforming to an arbitrary external syllabic form. In crafting the poem after originally composing it, I may think about ways to compress it (without artificially dropping natural syntax) or to re-express it. I’ll think about the intuitive effect of the poem, and whether the image and moment are captured accurately. If I write


                clicking off the late movie . . .

                      the couch cushion



the season isn’t relevant and isn’t mentioned (some would say this poem therefore has to be classified as a senryu). It’s also an indoor poem, so including a seasonal reference might easily hit a false note. If I write


                spring breeze . . .

                the pull of her hand

                as we near the pet store


I’ll hope that the implication of puppies and kittens at the pet store and the person’s enthusiasm to visit the store match the feeling of youthfulness in the spring breeze, and that the entire image captures a moment of young love. Here the naming of the season hopefully makes the poem whole, completing the internal comparison I intend. In contrast, if I write


                an old woolen sweater

                      taken yarn by yarn

                            from the snowbank


I’ll trust the reader to realize that the focus is on an implied bird building a nest at the beginning of spring and that the sweater and snow are therefore subordinate and not conflicting season words (and here I am reminded of Bashō’s “first day of spring— / I keep thinking about / the end of autumn”). My three poems illustrate three ways of writing haiku (including senryu), and each way can work well. To my mind, seasonal references do anchor poems in time, and can be valuable elements in our haiku when we want them. But to me, the Japanese notion of kigo has limitations if borrowed wholesale into non-Japanese languages because it is too codified and often too far removed from other cultures to be entirely relevant. This is true for me, at least, in English-language haiku. My sense is that it is up to each poet to conscientiously adapt what’s valuable in seasonal references to his or her work if he or she wishes to do so, and for readers to recognize that there are as many valuable approaches to haiku as there are conscientious haiku poets. Fortunately, there’s room for everyone.



One aspect of kigo in Japan that this essay does not greatly emphasize is that season words serve as an allusion to other poems, particularly famous ones, that use the same season word. Thus the season word is not only an anchor in time, but an anchor in the literature, bringing to mind for the astute reader a variety of feelings, associations, poets, places, and other allusive qualities in association with other poems on the same seasonal subject. Season words put haiku in conversation with other haiku. This is one aspect of season words that has taken centuries to develop in Japanese. English is not inferior in this regard, however, as some observers have asserted. Rather, it is merely earlier in the process of creating its own associations and history. And as the world’s dominant language, with by far the world’s largest vocabulary, English would seem to have the potential, over time, to eclipse Japanese in the allusive qualities of its haiku—even if we will never see that in our own lifetimes.

        A ready example of the season word’s allusiveness already extant in English-language haiku is that one can hardly write a haiku about a lily without invoking Nicholas Virgilio’s famous “lily / out of the water / out of itself” poem. Every reader will have his or her own favourite poems that particular terms or entire haiku will bring to mind, and out of a growing web of such favourites will emerge an expanding canon for seasonal reference in English-language haiku. And of course we who write in English can already allude to haiku in Japanese, not just in terms of seasonal references but to famous nonseasonal subjects as well. It is unlikely for anyone reading an English-language haiku about a crow not to think of Bashō’s famous poem about the crow settling on a bare branch in the autumn dusk.

        Most likely we will not always know what we are missing in the overtones and allusions in some haiku in Japanese—perhaps most of them. We are told about these allusions (ah, footnotes!), and can read about these varied allusions, but that is not the same as feeling them intuitively as overtones and double meanings the way we would do in our own language and culture. But it also occurs to me that Japanese observers of English-language haku are not going to be fully aware of our cultural and literary allusions either, and thus might think our haiku inferior in ways that would not be either fair or accurate. Cultural allusions are alive and well in English-language haiku, and I’ve written about them at greater length in “A Sampling of Cultural Haiku.”

        What haiku poets can continue to think about in their haiku is how seasonal references bring to mind other poems written in English. Perhaps this is best left to chance rather than being forced, effect rather than cause, but I also see value in thinking about specific season words more deeply, especially regional ones, and being more sensitive to them—and perhaps even trying to write haiku using season words that one is less familiar with. Writing with any new season word can be ill-advised if one is manufacturing poems based on seasonal references that you have no genuine experience with or empathy for, but, if done conscientiously, perhaps it would be akin to taking a blank canvas to a gallery so you might practice copying a masterpiece. This includes masterpieces in English as well as in Japanese. The haiku canon has much to teach us.

        Over time, English-language haiku literature will gain ever more associations and context within its own literature rather than just Japanese. More and more classic haiku written in the West will become strongly associated with particular season words and nonseasonal topics. As is already the case to a great degree, but is bound to occur to an even greater degree, informed readers will know this canon of literature, and will leverage it in making allusions in writing their poems. The sky is wide open in this regard, because we can allude not only through season words, but also through numerous other topics relevant to Western culture. Thus English-language haiku will develop, even further, the shorthand of season words and the compression of evoking not only archetypes in time and human development, but the depth and breadth of its own literature.

—15 January 2012