Kigo – seasonal reference

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Kigo (“season word”) (plural kigo) is a word or phrase associated with a particular season, used in Japanese poetry. Kigo are used in the collaborative linked-verse forms renga and renku, as well as in haiku, to indicate the season referred to in the stanza. They are valuable in providing economy of expression and represent emotions associated with them.

Although the term kigo was coined as late as 1908, representation of and reference to the seasons has long been important in Japanese culture and poetry. The writing of renga dates to the middle of the Heian period (roughly AD 1000) and developed through the medieval era. By the 13th century there were very set rules for the writing of renga, and its formal structure specified that about half of the stanzas should include a reference to a specific season, depending upon their place in the poem. According to these rules, the hokku must include a reference to the season in which the renga was written (either is the 1st or 3rd line, for English purposes).

The association of kigo with a particular season may be obvious, though sometimes it is more subtle. Pumpkins (kabocha) are a winter squash associated with the autumn harvest. It may be less obvious why the moon (tsuki) is an autumn kigo, since it is visible year round. In autumn the days become shorter and the nights longer, yet they are still warm enough to stay outside, so one is more likely to notice the moon. Often the night sky will be free of clouds in autumn, with the moon visible. So, if the season is not directly stated (Summer, Winter, etc), then words relating to the seasons are used (pumpkins=Autumn, etc).

In Japan, poets often use a book called a saijiki, which lists kigo with example poems. An entry in a saijiki usually includes a description of the kigo itself, together with a list of similar or related words, and some examples of haiku that include that kigo. The saijiki are divided into the four seasons (and modern saijiki usually include a section for the New Year and another for seasonless (muki) words).

Some examples of Japanese summer kigo) are:

  • The Season: midsummer, dog days, etc
  • The Sky and Heavens: drought, rainbow, etc
  • Animals: mosquito, cuckoo, etc
  • Plants: sunflower, etc

Saijiki are cultural and specific to the Japanese spirit. In America, for instance, a rainbow can occur in Spring, Summer or Fall, so it’s not specifically a cultural symbol related to Summer. For English-language haiku, we don’t have to worry about the saijiki-specific wording. Instead, we can use (besides plainly stating the season) words that allude to the season we’re referencing (scorching can mean summer, icicles mean winter, etc). These are known as kidai.

This is fine for the English-language poet who views Haiku as simply another form of poetry, but for those who seek to write ‘pure haiku’ (say, in the style of Matsuo Bashō), the kigo must be further analyzed, for it has more meaning than simply referencing a season.

Let’s use the example of rain. As Poet Laureate of the United States Robert Hass explained: “In Japanese, there are many different words concerning rain which express delicate shades of the seasons, such as harusame (spring rain), samidare (early summer rain), and shigure (the drizzling late autumn/early winter rain). The English word rain, on the other hand, gives you the impression that it rains haphazardly in all seasons of the year. At first glance, it seems impossible for those who are used to that sort of rain to appreciate the subtleties in haiku. But, as we know, English is equipped to describe different kinds of rain (pour, drizzle, sluice, etc). It’s not that Japanese language has a greater accuracy but a greater stylization. Harusame is automatically tender, yūdachi (summer shower) is automatically sudden and refreshing, and so on. It seems likely that this aesthetic bears the traces of an earlier animism, where harusame, kirishigure, and yūdachi were thought of as nature spirits, particular beings. To some extent, in any case, the suggestive power of these short poems depends on this stylization.”

Another good example would be blossoms.  A blossom is a kigo for spring, but the type of blossom indicates when in spring. Plum blossoms for early spring, cherry for mid spring, and peach for the mellow late spring, to name a few. The Bush Warbler (jap: Uguisu) is a bird associated with spring and a spring kigo, as well. What’s interesting about the uguisu is that it’s cry has it’s own special term, specific to it and no other bird: Tani-watari. It means “the song of a bush warbler flying from valley to valley.” These subtleties add unspoken flavor to haiku in Japanese but can be easily lost in translation and understanding when ported over to English.

To write ‘pure haiku’, as I have come to call it, and not just English poetry in the haiku style, takes a lot more thought than many of us had originally considered. This means, for us purists, that we must take great care to use language, specific to English, that mirrors the Japanese understanding for haiku and not simply mimic the wording and style. A simple kigo example for English would be New Years Day. It’s a winter reference, being January 1st, and more importantly a mid-winter reference (at least in northeastern America) where Dec-Jan-Feb are usually the coldest months.

With that, I shall end this post and I hope that I have given you much food for thought.

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