More than one fold in the paper: Kire, kigo, and the vertical axis of meaning in haiku

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?

I propose that a haiku is often defined, in a variety of wording, as a short verse poem of about six seconds or less duration marked by the presence of a kigo and kire. There are a growing number of exceptions to the above description, mostly due, I believe, by influences from the West during, and post, Shiki’s lifetime. My main thrust is that there are the 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 As a growing school of thought appears to be developing the idea that kigo is obsolete, I’d like this once-defining aspect of haiku and, pre-haiku, of hokku to be revisited.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 at only 4 Japanese characters (translated at footnote 2):


– Ōhashi Raboku (1890-1933)

Not only is kire an important characteristic of haiku composition, but I wonder if it is the very technique that effectively allows the pre- and non-haiku custom of seasonal greetings, that were such an integral part of daily spoken and written Japanese, to truly make haiku come alive?

The use of kire in a haiku 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. 3

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. 4

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. 5

Kigo: A tide of longing

season is the soul of haiku : William J. Higginson 6

In the same volume (The Haiku Seasons) former Frogpond editor Elizabeth Searle Lamb has this to say about Higginson’s book: [It] 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

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. 7

cloud kigo
a light rain patters across
your nightingale floors

– Alan Summers 8

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. I like the idea of the cloud kigo’ – David McMurray. 9

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 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 10

Vertical axis is another 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-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 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 memories outside Japan?

Haiku 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 characterise them. It is puzzling that the most obvious possibility for allusion is dismissed out-of-hand – Lee Gurga. 11

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, especially 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 (plural and singular spelling) were 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 12

Each 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, as well as early evening, and occasionally as a day moon.

People will at least, on occasion, try to make sense of the world, and now even Smartphone apps have recognised this. Apps are 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.

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 poets; it simply wishes to engage in the possibilities that an attempt at kigo may yet prove to be a potent device in an author’s armoury. 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, even, however long-term, 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. 13

early dark
the cathedral visible
only as windows

– Karen Hoy 14

Early dark suggests the winter months, where in some parts of the world, 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”. Most “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 cathedrals and churches. 15

Easter Sunday
baby bumps
among the beer bellies

– Karen Hoy 16

Easter itself has a slew of cultural and religious connections too complex for the point of this particular essay except to say briefly that Easter Sunday is seen as a resurrection day, notably that of Jesus Christ. Fertility, and the use 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 the arrival of visitors to wish a new-born well, such as the Magi coming to Jesus.

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

– Alan Summers 17

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 are cut down in 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 18

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, it can be seen scrambling through hedgerows and trees along the roadside, and is especially obvious in the winter months. Read more here. 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! Read more here. 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.



[See Footnote 19 for exhibition details.]

Another haiku that reeks of summer through its combined use of the words lime, ice cube, and jazz. Jazz alone, feels synonymous with summer.

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

– Alan Summers 20

Maki Nishida, a colleague based in Japan, informed 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 included the 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 21

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

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, some that can act as a current ongoing eco-stamp in our changing weather patterns, and be worthy of archive for that fact alone, plus the bonus of being a joyous type of poetry at times, and at other times, a useful form of eco-critical writing.


1 Technique used in Modern Japanese Haiku: Vocabulary and Structure by Ban’ya Natsuishi, from Japanese Haiku 2001 (Modern Haiku Association, Tokyo, Japan, 2000).

2 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) or oft-quoted as “I am sick with the sun” – Keene’s translation, in which “I am” expresses ideas included in the original, but not its words. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era-Poetry, Drama, Criticism (Henry Holt, New York, 1984). Note that there is another volume with the same title, only differing at the end, where “Fiction” replaces “Poetry, Drama, Criticism”.

3 Technique used in Modern Japanese Haiku: Vocabulary and Structure by Ban’ya Natsuishi.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 The Haiku Seasons, Poetry of the Natural World, William J. Higginson (Kodansha International, 1996), p20.

7 William J. Higginson with Penny Harter, The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku (Kodansha International, 1989).

8 Asahi Shimbun (Japan, 2013).

9 Part correspondence, part quote from Asahi Shimbun. David McMurray writes a haiku column for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in Japan. He is Professor of Intercultural Studies at The International University of Kagoshima (Japan) where he lectures on international haiku. David McMurray judges haiku contests organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Asahi Culture Center, Matsuyama City, and Seinan Jo Gakuin University.

10 Multiverses 1.1 (2012).

11 Toward an Aesthetic for English-Language Haiku by Lee Gurga, Global Haiku Festival, Decatur, Illinois, USA, April 2000 re Haruo Shirane’s Traces of Dreams (Stanford University Press, 1998).

12 Azami #38 (Japan, 1996); Television credit: BBC 1 – Regional arts feature, November 2003; Anthology Credit: Haiku Friends Vol. 3 ed. Masaharu Hirata (Japan, 2009).

13 English Seasonal Images: An Almanac of Haiku Season Words Pertinent to England, by David Cobb (2004). Modern Haiku 36.1 Spring 2005, review by Charles Trumbull.

14 Another Country, Haiku Poetry from Wales edited by Nigel Jenkins, Ken Jones and Lynne Rees (Gomer Press, UK, 2011).

15 Walter P. Snyder, Ask the Pastor: Poor Man’s Bible (1999).

16 Multiverses 1.1 (2012).

17 Hermitage: A Haiku Journal (editor Ion Codrescu, 2005).

18 a handful of stones (February 1, 2011); A Blackbird Sings, a small stone anthology, ed. Fiona Robyn & Kaspalita Thompson (Woodsmoke Press, 2012).

19 Exhibition credits: Floating World Japanese Festival (joint exhibition with Trevor Haddrell, Bristol Floating Harbour, September 2003); East meets West (The Art Gym – Hengrove Community Arts College linocuts with Trevor Haddrell, November 2003); The Haiku Experience (Alan Summers & Karen Hoy, Totterdown Art Trail, Bristol, November 2003). Publication credits: Presence 13 (2001); tinywords (2004); See Haiku Here haiga (Japan, 2011); haijinx volume IV, issue 1 (2011); Seven By Twenty (Twitter magazine, 2010); Blogging Along Tobacco Road: Alan Summers – Three Questions (2010); Derbyshire Library Service Poem a Month (June 2011); THF Per Diem series Haiku of the Senses (March 2012); Multiverses 1.1 (2012); tempslibres – free times (French language Analysis of the Haiku structure feature 2013-03-1); Under the Basho Vol 1.1 Autumn 2013. Anthology credits: Haiku Friends vol. 1 ed. Masaharu Hirata (Osaka, Japan, 2003); City: Bristol Today in Poems and Pictures, Paralaia (2004) TV, newspaper, magazine and other media credits: BBC 1 – Regional arts feature (November 2003); Seven magazine feature: “Three lines of simple beauty” (2006); Bristol Evening Post article (2002); BroadcastLab, ArtsWork Bath Spa University (Haiku poet-in-residence 2006-2007); THFhaiku app for iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch (2011).

20 There is a small gap between summer and autumn if the tsukutsukubôshi cicadas at Sumadera are heard to sing. Publication credits: World Haiku Review Japan Article Vending Machines and Cicadas (2003); Travelogue on World Haiku Festival 2002 (Akita International Haiku Network, Part 1, 2010); haiku collection credit: The In-Between Season (With Words Haiku Pamphlet Series, 2012).

21 World Haiku Review Japan Article (as above); Hermitage (2005); Travelogue on World Haiku Festival 2002 (as above); Anthology credit: We Are All Japan (Karakia Press 2012); The In-Between Season (as above).

Editor’s note: This article appears here with the author’s permission. It was published in Under the Basho Vol. 1.1 Autumn 2013 and is a revision of an article originally published in the now-defunct Multiverses 1.1 (2012).

Alan Summers, a Japan Times award winning writer; author of forthcoming Writing Poetry: the haiku way, was featured by NHK World of Japan around London and Wiltshire. He now lives in the commuter town of Chippenham so he can be closer to London and certain other spots in southern England where he will start popping up as With Words goes on the road, as well as by sea, air, and rail. See Alan’s With Words website. Alan has previously been a co-editor at Bones journal for contemporary haiku. His book of modern haiku, Does Fish-God Know, was published in 2012.