The Haiku Seasons

First published in Woodnotes #29, Summer 1996, pages 49–50, as one of twenty-five mini-reviews I wrote for that issue. A “saijiki” is an almanac of words classified by season, with example poems and other information, used by haiku poets in writing their traditional haiku. Higginson’s book explores how a saijiki works, and was a prelude to Haiku World, his companion book that was the first-ever attempt to write an international saijiki in any language.

The Haiku Seasons: Poetry of the Natural World by William J. Higginson. Kodansha International, 1996. 172 pages, paperback, 5½ by 7¼ inches. $16.00 in bookstores. [Republished by Stone Bridge Press in 2008 for $16.95, with only minor changes.]

The very last paragraph of this long-awaited book declares that “Using a saijiki may be educational; it is always enjoyable.” One of Higginson’s tasks, it seems, has been to convince skeptics of that idea. Thoroughly researched and compelling, The Haiku Seasons begins by discussing the essence of haiku, meaning the translatable universal spirit that transcends Japan and its distinct culture—and seasons. Higginson also profiles the role of traditional seasons throughout the history of Japanese literature in linked verse, hokku, and haiku (and even senryu, which is not always seasonless), and culminates by proposing a haiku almanac, known as a saijiki, of truly international proportions. Higginson’s own such seasonal haiku anthology will follow from Kodansha this autumn (Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac). Meanwhile, the present book deserves a longer review than space allows here, but what I find most refreshing is an acceptance of the limitations of seasonal codification, a reasoned and successful attempt at “internationalizing” saijiki categories, and the affirmation of nonseasonal poems in an “all-year” category. Higginson takes an inclusive approach rather than exclusive, which seems in keeping with the nature of haiku as embracing all of life. As Higginson concludes, “a saijiki helps us know both ourselves and our place in the world.” I look forward to seeing the companion volume to this book, and expect that together they will increase the poetry community’s awareness of and respect for seasonal consciousness in all cultures, as well these landmark books should. Do yourself a favour and get a copy of this book. The historical and cultural context this book promotes can do much to make better poets out of American haiku writers. By understanding the seasons of nature and the rich history of Japanese seasonal consciousness we can indeed know ourselves and our haiku better.