milky way

by Jim Kacian


In August 1999 the First International Haiku Symposium was held in Tokyo. Over two hundred Japanese haijin, as well as representatives of English-, French- and German-speaking haiku poets attended. The event was occasioned by what was perceived to be, in Japan at any rate, a crisis in haiku, as well as the realization that haiku is now the most practiced form of literature in the world. The hope was that some consensus of what the haiku of the future may look like might be achieved. A further consideration for the Japanese was, what role would it be advantageous for them to take on in the burgeoning of the form far beyond the constraints of its cultural hegemony. These are not light questions: haiku is arguably Japan's foremost cultural export, and to watch it proliferate in foreign cultures without influencing its propagation is tantamount to letting it find its own course. This means having no influence on how it might grow in the future outside of the work of its individual poets as exemplars of excellence in the form—in short, an equal influence to the rest of the world.

Several issues were discussed, most notably what is essential to haiku as it is currently understood. While the usual and expected range of opinions on syllable counting and appropriate content was present, it is interesting to note that the element most vehemently attacked, and defended, was the issue of kigo. This is most fitting, I believe, since kigo are bound up with the very nature of what a haiku is in a way that no amount of counting ever could be: kigo carry the cargo of the cultural perception of Japan. It may be true that the rhythm of the speech of the Japanese is reflected in its poetic forms as well as advertising, sloganeering and much else, but kigo are an evocation of the way the Japanese people perceive their universe. It is no wonder they might be loathe to forego this understanding as the underpinning of the form they created. If they surrender this, what about the genre remains essentially Japanese?

Conferences rarely solve such matters, and it was no different here. Nevertheless, the fact that such issues were being discussed at all suggests an awareness that was not present in the international haiku community only a few years ago. What was assumed to be inviolate up until very recently has now come under questioning. This reflects, I believe, the fact that so many people are writing haiku today, in so many different places, with so many different needs and such different content to convey. And since haiku has become so international, it is fitting that these matters come under consideration, so that what is truly essential and universal in the form may be distinguished from what is simply local.

What I wish to discuss here are some alternatives to kigo, and what the implications of choosing such alternatives might be to the future of haiku.

There is no question that kigo have been indispensable in the development of the classical Japanese haiku. Further, they have supplied the most important structural element in a form where structure is most exposed. Kigo make it possible for poems to open outward, to call upon the broadest possible range of human experience within the context where this experience is encountered. Haiku as it has developed is inconceivable without the existence of a formal system of kigo to brace it up.

However, it is incontestable that the Japanese experience and expression of climatic, geological, astronomical, not to say personal, conditions cannot be universal, any more than the European or American experience may be. Since haiku aspires to international status, the element which permits them to open must not be limited to the truths and observations of a single culture, but must be amenable to a more universal inclusiveness. Further, it must remain open-ended, to permit growth from subsequent input from other cultures and experiences not yet attending haiku.

That said, I believe kigo will continue to matter in haiku in all cultures. They are the leavening which makes the dough of haiku rise. Nearly all people have had the experience of rain, of wind, of snow or drought, and nearly all have at least heard or seen pictures of tornado and flood. It is this shared experience which makes such elements work for so many people. What may not be so apparent is the value placed upon such elements in different cultures. The onset of rain means something completely different to people in India, in England, in the Pacific Northwest. Yet it would be reasonable to expect the poets of these regions to write their haiku based on such experiences in English. It seems unlikely that the same kigo would suffice for each of them.

Further, the diversity of climate within a large country, the United States for example, means that any meteorological or climatic event meant to speak for an entire culture would perforce occur at different times within the same culture—even if we grant that the culture is uniform within its geographical boundaries, which is patently not the case.

What we want, then, is a kigo not restricted in its meaning. Cherry blossoms, to use a well-worn example, will connote spring in the specific clime where the poet resides, even if it does not suggest March 15, say, in all cases. If we lose a bit of precision, we gain an inclusiveness. And most importantly, in this model poets take their cue from nature, rather than the other way around. A saijiki does not decide when cherry blossoms will appear, but merely records the previous experiences of close observers. Our own close observation may be added to the rest, often reinforcing what others have found, sometimes surprising us with an aberrant timing. In any case, the saijiki should be consulted to place the observations of the poet within a context, not to determine when an event, and a poem, ought to take place. And a saijiki is nothing more than a collection of kigo.

Kigo will continue to proliferate. There is not a fixed limit to the number of perceptions of life we might have. When there is a new perception or means of expression, it is not burdensome to add a new kigo to the list. At the same time, it is not important that kigo be presented in any fashion which intends to be exhaustive, as in, for example, a saijiki. The only people who might be concerned about the proliferation of kigo are saijiki editors and publishers.

* * *

The natural cycles and their poetic counterparts, kigo, will continue to be used in haiku for the foreseeable future, since they continue to offer so much structure and breadth to poems. But is it possible for other structural elements to be as useful to the poet as these have been? Or for the old elements to be used in new ways?

Any replacement for kigo must function in the same fashion as kigo, that is, must be omnipresent and yet particular, emotive and yet self-contained, suggestive and yet free, expansive and yet confinable; in short, a replacement for kigo must contain as much information and structure as kigo do. Or else, such a replacement must function in some completely different fashion. I do not mean to be simplistic here: what I am suggesting is that kigo are perfectly suited to the function they perform, and a replacement must replace it exactly or enlarge upon it, or else the whole notion must be reconsidered and an entirely different set of parameters chosen instead of those which have determined haiku to this point. It is debatable, of course, whether the products of such a choice will also be called haiku.

So let us, then, explore two paths: exact or enlarged replacement; and complete alternative.

The fact is, there would be no need to replace kigo with anything if it was truly inclusive. But it is not: there are hundreds of poems which look and function like haiku, indeed are haiku, which do not contain kigo. Sometimes these are shrugged off as "serious senryu" or “non-seasonal haiku," but this begs the question. How can a poem be a haiku if it doesn't include all the elements of haiku? Either we must conclude that it's not a haiku, or else our notion of what must be included in a haiku must be adjusted.

In truth, kigo are not exhaustive. They are not the only context in which we might experience what we call a “haiku moment.” And so haiku are written without kigo—but what do they contain?

What such poems contain may be called keywords. The keyword is a near kin to a season word. In fact, it may be a season word. But it may be other things as well.

The most useful way of thinking of the idea of keywords is not as a one-to-one replacement for kigo, but rather as an overarching system of correspondences available to the haiku poet which incorporates kigo within its bounds. Consider, for example

river divides the forest
into two nights

         Nikola Nilic

What we would have done in the past is to call this a non-seasonal haiku, or else assign it a season. It certainly could have been written in any season, and to place it in the “Winter” season, for example, would be arbitrary at best. This is the way we have worked within the mindset of kigo.

In the new way of reckoning, however, a kigo is not an assumed part of a haiku, but a keyword is. A word or phrase which opens up of the poem is employed, in this case “moonlight”. There are thousands of others, including all the known kigo. The poem, then, is a haiku employing a keyword, with a seasonal feeling (since it is a natural event being described) but not a definite seasonal attribution, or kigo. Kigo, then, operate as one large and important subset of all keywords, but are not the only words which a haiku may employ to the same effect.

Consider some poems from the international compendium Knots: The Anthology of Southeast European Haiku Poetry. While there is certainly plenty of “spring rain” and “autumn sky” as there ought to be, there are also poems such as these:

my best friend died –
some tiny grains of dust
on our chessboard

         Robert Bebek

deserted town –
hungry war victims
feed the pigeons

         Mile Stamenkovic

These poems choose obvious and important subjects for their haiku moments. They are closely observed, have a moment of insight, have an emotive core which touches the reader. Few people would argue that they are not some sort of haiku, even though they do not contain kigo. But clearly “dust” and “victims” work in an analogous way here, and are the pivot and purpose of the poetry. These are not non-seasonal anything. They are poems that work in the tradition of haiku which call upon a larger context than even kigo can supply for their impact. Recognizing and exploiting this is one of the chief characteristics of much of contemporary international, including Japanese, work. It seems somewhat beside the point to insist upon the one, when the other, more inclusive, covers the situation. There are many, many more such examples as these in Knots and in other contemporary books and journals of haiku.

Keywords, then, can replace the notion of kigo completely, and successfully, without radically altering the nature of haiku as we know it. And this is a successful, perhaps the only possible successful, means of doing so.

However, another alternative is also being tried, though perhaps less successfully to this point. Kigo attempt to embody an entire ethos within their structure, and so it would make sense that a replacement for kigo must substitute its own ethos for that of the natural cycle. And in fact there are many examples of such attempts: the internet is littered with them. They range from the ludicrous, as in spam-ku, to niche interests with vampire-ku and gothic-ku, to entire alternative worlds in sci-fi-ku, and many other subgenres as well.

These alternatives are not regarded very highly by the “serious” haiku community, and to the present I would say with good reason. Not much of the work which has been produced by these alternatives seems to be worthy of much attention. But I think it would be a mistake to disdain them altogether. It is not difficult to imagine that a truly powerful literary mind might indeed take up one of these spheres and make it his or her own, and in so doing utilize the resources available in such alternative universes, particularly in sci-fi-ku. If this seems a ridiculous argument, I suggest that it is no more farfetched than other artistic endeavors which have no necessary analog with the “real” world but contain their own internal logic and necessity, such as music or chess. While these disciplines may not appeal to all, those who do engage in them find them compellingly real, worthy of much study and endeavor, and consider the finest results beautiful and true and inevitable in the same way we might consider a poem to be.

* * *

In the next millennium, then, international haiku will have dispensed with the notion of kigo in favor of the more overarching concept of keyword. This process is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Through such a development haiku will continue to be grounded in a universal system of value which is communicable to its practitioners and readership; there will be a smooth transition since none of the “classics” of haiku need be thrown out due to the adoption of radically new values; and new work which speaks to a far larger and perhaps more contemporary audience will find acceptance within the canon of haiku because of the enlarged understanding of how such poems function. And it is possible that one of the niche forms of haiku will have become the personal provenance of a truly unique sensibility, which might further restructure the way we look at haiku. It will be interesting to watch these developments over the coming decades as our old haiku becomes new. And this is necessary, since an unchanging art is a moribund art. Haiku, beginning its new international life, is anything but.

Jim Kacian

First Published in In Due Season: Acorn Supplement #1 [2000]

Reprinted with permission from the author