Kigo: A Poetic Device in English Too

by Patricia J. Machmiller

The kigo is a poetic device developed in Eastern poetic forms, such as renga and haiku. The word, kigo, from the Japanese translates directly into English as “season word (or phrase)”. However, it operates in Japanese haiku as a poetic device. Symbolic of a season, it holds the power of allusion to literary, religious, and historical references.

In fact, there are some very knowledgeable people who say that kigo are so unique to the Japanese language and culture that to presume to speak of their usage in English is misleading, if not, totally erroneous. To quote Gary Snyder (2007):

I do not think we should even ‘think’ haiku in other [than Japanese] languages and cultures. We should think brief, or short, poems. They can be in the moment, be observant, be condensed and meaningful, detached or not, or have many other possible qualities . . . As I am trying to say, the haiku is a Japanese poetic form. It has elements that can indeed be developed in the poetries of other languages and cultures, but not by slavish imitation.

And in an on-line posting, Richard Gilbert (2010) writes:

English-language haiku is an altogether different beast from that of the Japanese tradition — most closely resembling gendai senryū, not haiku. The differences are numerous. Among the most important issues, English has no pre-existing kigo tradition; no “season-oriented literary cosmos”, a millennial tradition fundamental as a linguistic and cultural precursor to the genre.

And there are other voices echoing this sentiment and suggesting that perhaps because we do not have the “kigo culture”, we should refer to the words or phrases used in English-language haiku simply as seasonal elements or seasonal references.

A “kigo culture” must begin, it is said, with a saijiki, a dictionary or guide to kigo and their traditional usage within the haiku world. I am not one who believes that a saijiki is a “must-have” in order for a writer to harness the power of the kigo. Additionally, I do not believe that the Japanese have a lock on kigo and their definitions. I think that the properties that make kigo a poetic device are properties that are inherent in any language. For this reason I’ll use the term kigo in this essay (not season word or seasonal reference), as I intend to speak about the properties of words that make them a poetic device or a kigo.

The kigo, no matter where it occurs in the haiku — first line, last, middle — is the sounding board of the poem. Strings on an acoustic guitar without a sounding board would sound tinny and flat. There would be no amplification, no overtones, no lingering reverberations carrying the sound and the mood along, even after the song is over.

These same effects are provided by a kigo in a haiku giving an emotional resonance that lifts and propels an ordinary observation into a memorable experience that touches the heart. Without a kigo a haiku is just, as in Snyder’s words, a short poem, or Gilbert’s, a senryu. Words that can perform this function are kigo in any language. They are part of the culture whether they are documented in a saijiki or not.

Consider the English words and phrases: butterfly, apple, Day of the Dead, red leaves, sticky monkey flower, lupine, fawn, blizzard. Say these words, one at a time, slowly. These words enter our consciousness through our body, through touch, smell, sight, sound, or taste, not through our mind. They are visceral emissaries of the natural world. They are kigo. In a first reading of a haiku they operate on a literal level activating our senses. In addition to this immediate effect, they also feed our mind for they have acquired a rich history of references that on second and third readings are pulled into the poem, allusions to other haiku, to myths, to traditions, to history.

In the West can we ever say “apple” without having the shadow of Eve somewhere near? Or in America who does not feel the exhaustion of Robert Frost when after his abundant harvest, he exclaims, “But I am done with apple-picking now”.

Whether formally documented in a saijiki or not, this is how kigo operate in any language. They have properties that are inherent in language. For this reason, I encourage writers of haiku to study kigo in English in order to harness their power and give deeper, more resonant meaning to their haiku writing.

Two online sources to use as an educational resource are: The Yuki Teikei Haiku Society and Dr. Gabi Greve’s World Kigo Database. Another general reference book is Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac by William J. Higginson (1996). Natural history guides to your area of residence may also prove useful. I think you will find this exploration of the kigo will only add to the deepness and richness of your writing.


Gilbert, Richard. (2010). In a post to The Haiku Foundation.

Higginson, William J. (1996). Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac. New York: Kodansha International.

Homan, Anne M., Patrick Gallagher, and Patricia J. Machmiller (Eds). (2010). San Francisco Bay Area Nature Guide and Saijiki.

Snyder, Gary. (2007). News of the Day, News of the Moment: Gary Snyder talks with Udo Wenzel. Haiku Heute (Summer 2007).

Editor’s note: This article was first published in Wild Violets, the 2011 anthology of the Yukei Teikei (Young Leaves) Haiku Society.

Patricia J Machmiller began writing haiku in 1975 with Kiyoshi and Kiyoko Tokutomi, founders of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society. She served as the society’s president from 1978 to 1981. With Jerry Ball she writes a regular column of haiku commentary, “Dojins’ Corner”, for GEPPO, the newsletter of YTHS. Her book of haiku, Blush of Winter Moon, is published by Jacaranda Press. With Fay Aoyagi she has translated the haiku of Kiyoko Tokutomi, Kiyoko’s Sky (Brooks Books, 2002). She also translated with Tei Matsushita Scott, Autumn Loneliness: The Letters of Kiyoshi and Kiyoko Tokutomi, July-December, 1967 (Hardscratch press, 2009). She has two books of haiga, Mountain Trail: Following the Master and The Sweet Reverence of Little Birds, the latter in collaboration with the artist, Floy Zittin and the calligrapher, Martha Dahlen. Patricia is also a brush painter and printmaker; her artwork, some of which incorporates haiku, can be seen at her website.