begin haiku is a place to take apart what we know about haiku, examine it closely, and put it back together again.

Our featured article for May 2003 comes to us from Charles Trumbull . . .


by Charles Trumbull

Traditional Japanese haiku is defined by three aspects: units of 5, 7, and 5 Japanese sound syllables (the basic size and shape of the verse), the technique of cutting (an effective division of the haiku into two parts for the purpose of comparison or contrast), and season (a reference in the haiku to the season in which it was written). These correspond roughly to the haiku抯 form, mechanics, and subject matter. Despite many exceptions and periodic renunciations of the norms, the majority of Japanese haiku are still written in this way.

When haiku were first attempted in English, the poets began to adapt these basic Japanese definitions. The 5𤪛 syllabic form has subsequently been found to be uncomfortable for English, and the Japanese technique of cutting has slightly changed emphasis in the West into the juxtaposition of two concrete images. The aspect of season in English-language haiku, however, is still being vigorously debated.

Several arguments can be made in support of using season in English-language haiku. First, 揵ecause the Japanese do it is more than a trivial argument, because by using a seasonal reference, a poet automatically is writing within the haiku canon, and the verse ipso facto adheres to the great collection of world haiku. Second, we can use season words to the same ends as the Japanese; that is, to link our haiku to the cosmic cycle of seasons and of life. Third, and most usefully, season words function as a poetic device, a convenient and powerful form of allusion whereby a few well-chosen words stand for an entire congeries of associations and emotions. Thus, 揷herry blossoms for the haiku poet represents much more than an objective image of pink flowers: the phrase captures and symbolizes the essence of spring.

Arguments against using a season word in haiku are voiced by (a) people who find it too difficult or artistically limiting to do so, (b) those who resist the Japanese season-word system because they find it too highly formalized and inappropriate for English poetry, (c) iconoclasts who want haiku to be whatever they say it is, tradition be damned, or (d) poets who would really rather be writing senryu or zappai (verses in haiku form that, respectively, treat human nature or are intended as pure slapstick). But haiku is, after all, nature poetry.

For beginners the best guide to using the seasons in haiku is the work of experienced haiku poets such as will be found in the anthologies or journals listed elsewhere on this Web site. Another approach is to consult a structured list of season words (kiyose in Japanese) or a haiku almanac (saijiki, a kiyose with haiku added to demonstrate the proper use of season words [kigo]). A kiyose is available on line at shiki.toward.co.jp/kukai/kiyose-spring.html. William J. Higginson抯 Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac (Kodansha, 1996) is the best English-language saijiki and is notable because it purports to be international in scope. Also of interest is Jane Reichhold抯 A Dictionary of Haiku, Classified by Season Words with Traditional and Modern Methods (AHA Books, 1992), which is available on line at http://www.ahapoetry.com/aadoh/adofinde.htm. As we suggested above, using an established season word has the advantage of tying the new haiku to three centuries of haiku history. Here are two haiku, by the Japanese master Bash and by Texan Robert Gilliland, that are related across the centuries by the use of the well established season word 揳utumn dusk,

on a barren branch
a crow has settled
autumn dusk

Bash, written in 1680

autumn dusk
a strip of yellow crime scene tape
flutters in the wind

Robert Gilliland, The Heron抯 Nest II:2 (February 2000)

A third approach to using season words is to make up your own. There are many terms with strong seasonal associations that are not in the kiyose or saijiki. These may be national or even local words, terms such as "season opener," 揺lection day, 搒melt run, 搇awn party, graduation day, 揾unting license, or 揘ational Poetry Month. The poet should probably chose season words to be understood by as many people as possible, however. Pulaski Day in early March is a school holiday in Chicago but might draw a blank in non-Polish areas. Can you spot the non-traditional season words in the following haiku?

scent of pi駉n wood:
the farolitos flicker
in the mountain breeze

late to the office
my desk already piled high
with zucchini

In the Southwest farolitos梒andles placed in paper bags梐re festive decorations along paths, rooflines, and walls at Christmastime; 搝ucchini suggests late summer.

In his Haiku World and the companion volume, The Haiku Seasons, Higginson goes into great detail about the Japanese haiku calendar and pinpoints the precise place of each season word in it. For most haiku poets, however, the important thing is that each season word evoke the essence of the season for the maximum number of readers. Thus, it is less important to know whether 搒tart of autumn signifies September 21, as in the West, or early August, as in Japanese haiku (or February朚arch in the Southern Hemisphere) than that this is the time that the weather turns cool, leaves begin to change color ... and humans become aware again of the waning of the life cycle.

Many haiku poets keep personal diaries and write haiku on the basis of their observations. Journal entries might begin with a characterization of the surroundings such as 揷old, raw day 厰 or "threatening snow. These are great season words for a haiku! In fact, when I am trying to write a haiku I will often look around and ask myself, 搘hat is this day all about? An answer such as 搈ackerel sky, 搉ew moon, 搑obin song, or 揻rost on the lawn will often be enough for me to summon up a haiku. The seasonal reference must be an integral part of the haiku usually one of the two juxtaposed images - and it must resonate with the rest of the text. A season word should not simply be stuck onto a great image in order to give the verse a patina of seasonality. This is a cop-out and leads to what are pejoratively called 揹ate-stamp haiku, such as the following,

summer morning
the snail makes it across
the sidewalk

揝ummer morning adds nothing by way of depth or resonance to this haiku; it merely records the season and time of day.

Certainly haiku can be written without a seasonal reference, but such verses are usually less haiku-like (by definition!) and ultimately less satisfying than 搘ell-seasoned haiku. Some experts suggest that a verse need only contain a reference to nature to qualify as a haiku, but a nature word like 揻orest will be less evocative than a specific tree with implied seasonality, such as 揵irch or 搕amarack, or even a qualified forest, such as 搒pring forest or 搇eafless trees. Recently a group of haiku poets has called for deploying 搆eywords in place of season words. 揇ream, clock, or 搈other are touted as non-culture-bound concepts with universal appeal. This, however, seems to be an even less promising path of development for haiku than making do with nature words in place of season words. Reduced to basics, a keyword becomes merely the subject of the haiku.

To sum up, the seasonal aspect has always been of utmost importance in haiku, both Japanese and Western. Acquiring facility with season words will require discipline and study, but the poet抯 diligence will be amply rewarded.

Two of the haiku included were composed for the article, another (zucchini) is published. The Basho is a "retranslation" of several versions into a generic version of my own.

Charles Trumbull is the proprietor of Deep North Press and served as the editor of The Haiku Society of America Newsletter from 1996 to 2002. Active in haiku since 1991, he is currently an associate editor of Modern Haiku. He is a senior editor for Encyclopedia Brittanica in charge of yearbooks, including Year in Review 2002 and the new Encyclopaedia Brittannica Almanac.

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