milky way

by Alan Summers


Are kire and kigo the warp and weft of haiku?  Are they still the key ingredients in contemporary haiku?

At a time when haiku writers both inside and outside Japan are reconsidering kigo as a worthy and pertinent device for haiku in the 21st Century I wonder why it might be seen as cliché, or mistakenly relegated to an amusing, if not a perfunctory weather report. Am I missing out on something if I decide to include; exclude kigo; make attempts at kigo; or even make any seasonal reference in my haiku?

My main thrust is that there are still possibilities of kigo as a tool or device as a choice, to be equally considered, as valid, as any other technique of haiku.  As a growing school of thought appears to be developing the idea that kigo is obsolete, I’d like this once main defining aspect of haiku, and pre-haiku aka hokku, to be revisited.

But first I’d like to touch on kire, which is still considered, perhaps, as a defining characteristic of haiku practice, with some quotes from Ban’ya Natsuishi.

Kire – The first cut is the deepest

[When haiku needs] to overcome its shortness, a vital technique, kire (break) is used.

Contemporary haiku has teikei (fixed form) and jiyuritsu (free form). Here is one of the shortest jiyuritsu haiku:

Coughing, even:

Hosai Ozaki (1885-1926)

[This] jiyuritsu (free form) haiku consisting of "Coughing, even" (six syllables in the original Japanese) and "alone" (three syllables in the original), has kire (break), a shift in the content and rhythm between the two phrases. In only nine syllables of haiku, kire is the key that opens the reader's heart. [1]

Here we have an even shorter haiku:

陽へ病む by Ōhashi Raboku , 4 Japanese characters. [2]

Is kire (still) an important characteristic of English-language haiku composition?

In a forest of paper for the writer, the use of kire in a haiku, the famous poem with its extreme distillation, is perhaps, a useful method to incorporate: It makes the haiku poem both a miniature and expansive poem at the same time. Kire is a potent method of vitalising a short verse into a haiku: Looking at it in another way, an excellent poet is someone who can skilfully fold the kire inside the haiku.

Kire is both the catalyst and the glue to hold the other characteristics of haiku, and it makes it possible for recent contemporary haiku to express the leap in the poet's unique viewpoint and the shift in their poetic form. [3]

I’ve slightly adapted Ban’ya’s English-language version of the following haiku, but retained his use of a slash to indicate the kire:

Behind, a stillness /
my image cut from
a forest of paper

Kan'ichi Abe (1928-2009)

In the space of stillness behind the poet, what his poetic intuition caught was a forest of white thin paper. This leap in poetic intuition, from one moment to the other, lies in the shift occurring between the phrases. [4]

Now I’d like to talk a little about kigo.

Kigo: A tide of longing

“season is the soul of haiku”
William J. Higginson, The Haiku Seasons (p20)  [5]

"The Haiku Seasons presents the historical and modern Japanese usage of seasonal themes in poetry. It shows, as nothing else in the literature has done, the growing dialogue between poets in Japan and other countries…"
—Elizabeth Searle Lamb, retired editor, Frogpond, Haiku Society of America [5]

Dono kisetsu ga suki desu ka.

Which season do you like?

Kisetsu (season, seasonal aspect): The seasons. The seasonal aspect of the vocabulary (kigo) and subject matter (kidai) of traditional tanka, renga, and haiku; a deep feeling for the passage of time, as known through the objects and events of the seasonal cycle. [6]

Cloud kigo
a light rain patters across
your nightingale floors

Alan Summers [7]

"In search of the ultimate season word to associate with clouds, Alan Summers observes how “rain writes its own story across floorboards that sing like a bird.” David McMurray [7]

Do we as people, even if we are not Japanese, have an inbuilt awareness of seasonal beauty and changes, even if we feel outside nature when living in urban environments?  Many, if not most of us, live inside our ever grey concrete walls both at home and at work: Even when we go out for pleasure activities in-between home and work we are tempted to exist between work and home in yet more concrete enclaves. Are many of us, too many of us, walled out and away from the existence of nature?

comfort television
I don't move the vase
for the orange asters

Karen Hoy  [8]

Vertical axis is a topic for another article, but I’d just like to touch on this often vital or vitalising by-product or device utilising hidden and layered shorthand for other meanings, layering a haiku with more than just a mere surface meaning, and imagistic pairing.  Vertical axis shows we are part of the world, be it natural history or social/cultural history, with all its historic markers and literature.

Asters are reminiscent of the October 1918 Aster Revolution in Hungary led by socialist Count Mihály Károlyi, who founded the short-lived Hungarian Democratic Republic.  An aspect of people wanting and needing freedom. Asters are also commonly Autumn/Fall flowering plants.

Season words, and the Japanese kigo system, are not only derived from observations of nature, they can allude to a country’s historical, cultural and literary past. After all none of us live in isolation, no man is an island [9] from our environment, be it literary, or social, or through some aspect of nature.

Japanese kigo are a strong allusion device (there are others) and I worry that kigo is mistakenly seen as cliché and/or as a weather report thrown into the mix so that half the haiku is done already, when in actual fact they can contain cultural and emotional tones of extreme intensity within Japan; and surely at least a warmth of layered (ancestral) memories outside Japan?

Haiku of course has a long list of devices to consider for inclusion, despite its brevity, and all are worth considering. Shirane suggests several devices that can be used to increase depth in haiku. “Shirane's dismissal of the seasonal reference is convenient for the thesis of his paper, but does not seem to consider what is most distinctive in the haiku tradition: the kigo or seasonal references that characterize them. It is puzzling that the most obvious possibility for allusion is dismissed out-of-hand” Lee Gurga. [10]

I feel that non-Japanese haiku can achieve an aspect of kisetsu with seasonal words and phrases.   It’s an experiment worth considering, as any prolific writer of haiku does, after all, need to consider variety in their work, if they are thinking about bringing out a collection.  Dialogue is always healthy, and what better dialogue than to attempt to not only write haiku with kigo, but go back to basics as to why kigo are so effective in Japan?  Kigo was a technique independent of poetry, but proved so successful that it became a highly respected tool within haiku composition.

As poetry can often be strengthened with a sense of place, as well as time, then perhaps the kigo tradition of Japan should be looked at again for inclusion into haiku?

through the leaves
sound of its season

Alan Summers  [11]

Traditional Japanese haiku often expresses kisetsu and the kigo, a word or a phrase that points to a particular season, which can engineer a series of personal associations in the mind of certain readers.  With the age of the internet and information gleaned within seconds from a smartphone, tablet, iPad, or a laptop computer, no man need ever be an island, and we all share nature, be it a view of the sky, drifting clouds, experiencing rain, noticing the sun during the daylight and the moon at night, and sometimes a moon in daylight.

People will at least, on occasion, try to make sense of the world, and now even Smartphone apps have recognised this.  Apps are now available that help make sense of the stars, and it was a wonder, and wanting to understand the stars, that surely made us develop spoken and written language.  A poet has a wish to communicate, and now we can again point to the stars, but not just with our index fingers, if we choose, or with our modern quill pens, but with these smartphone apps (examples: BBC News - Smartphone apps that make sense of the stars, and New York Times: Watching Out for Falling Stars, With a Smartphone in Hand).

One of my many aims for a new project is to show that the practice of consideration of incorporating kigo into haiku can still be relevant in the 21st Century. The Kigo Lab Project does not seek to attempt to instil a kigo culture within international English-language haiku writing group of poets: It simply wishes to engage in the possibilities that an attempt at kigo may prove to be yet a potent device in an author’s armoury again.   One of its many purposes is that an author can consider including kigo in their variety of styles, whether for a collection-in-progress, or for competitions run by various organisations that prefer a seasonal aspect in haiku.

Its aims lie in the experiment of certain well-known words and phrases in the English language which have potential into being utilised, even eventually, however long-term, into evolving as a direct parallel to kigo.  This is very much a long-term project, but if never started, then how indeed can it ever succeed?  And if it fails, then a collection of potent words and phrases using and storing the power of the seasons and our world’s life cycle are accessible for inclusion into at least some haiku compositions. In fact David Cobb has already started with English Seasonal Images: An Almanac of Haiku Season Words Pertinent to England. [12]

early dark
the cathedral visible
only as windows

Karen Hoy [13]

Early dark suggests the winter months, where in some world regions, we may be aware of shortening days, but often it’s winter where the jolt from day to night is most noticed.  The allusion to stained glass windows is inferred, and there is a long history of stained glass windows being the poor man’s bible.

Another "poor man's Bible" is the cathedral, especially one of older days in Europe. Most of the "poor" were illiterate. So were quite a number of the rich, but they could hire people to read for them. The poor learned their Scripture in large part from the stained glass, statuary, and other art in the cathedrals. Similarly, the windows themselves were sometimes called "poor man's Bibles" for the same reason. [14]

Among the most innovative English designers [of stained glass art] were the Pre-Raphaelites: William Morris (1834–1898); and Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), whose work heralded Art Nouveau.

Easter Sunday
baby bumps
among the beer bellies

Karen Hoy [15]

Easter itself has a slew of cultural and religious connections too complex for the point of this particular article except to say briefly that Easter Sunday is seen as a resurrection day i.e. a resurrection Sunday, notably that of Jesus Christ.  Fertility, and the using of wine or beer, are closely associated with pre-Christian religions, and some later religions, and there is the wetting the baby’s head saying, taking its name from the Christian baptismal rite, and to do with new arrivals, as Jesus was once, with the visit of the Three Wise Men.

Yellow-rattle meadow -
a two-spot ladybird turns
my hand around

Alan Summers [16]

My connection with nature is strong, and never stronger than when I do my field trips, either with guides, or on my own.  Yellow-rattle meadows literally reek of Summer although they start in March and not cut down until late July. Yellow Rattle or Rhinanthus minor is a fascinating plant often used to reduce grass in meadows to help other plants, and a valuable and attractive wild flower in its own right and typical of traditional English hay meadows.

Old Man’s Beard a cyclist wobbles the length of it

Alan Summers [17]

Old Man’s Beard – Clematis vitalba also known as ‘traveller’s joy’ is extremely abundant in the South West of England where I live. It is the UK's only native Clematis. Commonly known as 'Old Man's Beard', and can be seen scrambling through hedgerows and trees along the roadside, and is especially obvious in the winter months.

The French name for old man’s beard is ‘herbe aux gueux’ – the beggar’s or rascal’s herb.   Beggars were said to use its acrid sap to irritate the skin to give it a sore and ulcerated look in order to induce sympathy in, and a donation from, passers by!

Folklore and Facts

Traveller's joy was associated with the Devil because it does his work for him by trailing into other plants to choke them. It is also connected with the Virgin Mary, and God, because of its white feathery look.

Flower Fairies of the Winter

Cicely Mary Barker (28 June 1895 – 16 February 1973) illustrator:

lime quarter
an ice cube collapses
over jazz

Alan Summers [18]

Another haiku that reeks of Summer through its combined use of the words lime, ice cube, and jazz.  Jazz alone, feels synonymous with Summer, just search for Jazz on a Summer’s day for instance.

the in-between season
I follow the Mogami River
by riceboat

Alan Summers  [19]

Maki Nishida, a colleague based in Japan, was able to inform me about the Samurai legends of Suma Temple during my stay in 2002 at Osaka and Kobe, before following in the footsteps of Basho with other haiku poets.  She concluded her tale that if you heard the tsukutsukubôshi cicadas in September there would be an in-between season.  As I was in the grounds of Sumadera in September, and heard them, that legend became a personal fact for me.

Toshugu shrine pines
I try to stay as still -
mist and dew

Alan Summers [20]

Dew is an autumn kigo. Although it’s Toshugu that is mentioned, I’m reminded of when Issa visited Mt. Haruna, and of his haikai verse that mention dew in regards to this brief transient life of our’s, and of the loss of his son

These haiku are just a few of the possibilities of using kigo, or some variation of seasonal reference, in haiku to showcase rich cultural associations, some of which may be lost to time. A kigo situated inside a haiku can act as a current anad ongoing eco-stamp in our changing weather patterns: It can be worthy as archival material for that fact alone.  It’s also the bonus of being a joyous type of poetry, or at the very least a useful form of eco-critical writing.


[1] Technique used in Modern Japanese Haiku: Vocabulary and Structure by Ban'ya Natsuishi: Japanese/English JAPANESE HAIKU 2001 (Modern Haiku Association, Tokyo, Japan, December 2000, ISBN 4-89709-336-8)
[2] Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era—Poetry, Drama, Criticism. (Note that there is another volume with the same title, only differing at the end, where “Fiction” replaces “Poetry, Drama, Criticism”; that other volume is over 1300 pages long, and is not for sale here.) New York: Henry Holt, 1984.Japanese poet Ōhashi Raboku (1890-1933) holds the record for the world's shortest poem with just four Japanese letters, this haiku: hi e yamu means "Sick with the sun" (translation: Donald Keene) oftten quoted as “I am sick with the sun.”—Keene’s tr., in which “I am” expresses ideas included in the original, but not its words).
[3] Paraphrased from: Technique used in Modern Japanese Haiku: Vocabulary and Structure by Ban'ya Natsuishi: Japanese/English JAPANESE HAIKU 2001 (Modern Haiku Association, Tokyo, Japan, December 2000, ISBN 4-89709-336-8)
[4] Technique used in Modern Japanese Haiku: Vocabulary and Structure by Ban'ya Natsuishi: Japanese/English JAPANESE HAIKU 2001 (Modern Haiku Association, Tokyo, Japan, December 2000, ISBN 4-89709-336-8)
[5] The Haiku Seasons, Poetry of the Natural World, William J. Higginson, Stone Bridge Press  ISBN: 978-1-933330-65-5
[6] William J. Higginson with Penny Harter, The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku, published by Kodansha International. Copyright (C) 1989 by William J. Higginson.
[7] Asahi Shimbun (Japan, 2013)
[8] Multiverses 1.1 (2012)
[9] No Man Is an Island from "Meditation XVII," by the English poet John Donne.
[10] Toward an Aesthetic for English-Language Haiku by Lee Gurga, Global Haiku Festival, Decatur, IL, April, 2000 re Haruo Shirane's Traces of Dreams (Stanford University Press (1998))
[11] Azami #38 (Japan 1996); BBC 1 - Regional arts feature, November 2003
[12] English Seasonal Images: An Almanac of Haiku Season Words Pertinent to England, by David Cobb. 2004. 120 pages. Modern Haiku Volume 36.1 Spring 2005, review by Charles Trumbull.
[13] Another Country, Haiku Poetry from Wales, Edited by Nigel Jenkins, Ken Jones and Lynne Rees (Gomer Press ISBN: 9781848513068)
[14] Walter P. Snyder, Ask the Pastor: Poor Man's Bible (1999)
[15] Multiverses 1.1 (2012)
[16] "Hermitage: A Haiku Journal" (editor Ion Codrescu 2005)
[17] a handful of stones e-zine (2011)
[18] Presence No.13  (2001); BBC 1 - Regional arts feature  (2003)
[19] There is a small gap between Summer and Autumn if the tsukutsukubôshi cicadas at Sumadera are heard to ‘sing’ (which I did)]
Publications credits: World Haiku Review Japan Article Vending machines and cicadas (2003); The In-Between Season (With Words Haiku Pamphlet Series 2012)

[20] Hermitage (2005); The In-Between Season (With Words Haiku Pamphlet Series 2012).

This article is a revised article originally published by Multiverses 1.1 (2012) now sadly defunct.

More than one fold in the paper©Alan Summers 2012-2013