Seasonality: English-Language Haiku in Search of its Vertical

By Charles Trumbull 1

Haruo Shirane 2 has recently examined Japanese haiku along two axes — the “horizontal”, representing that aspect of the poet’s consciousness that addresses the present and speaks to his contemporaries; and the “vertical”, the haiku poet’s link to a historical, cultural, and literary past. Successful haiku, Shirane argues, must work along both axes. Locating a verse in the cycle of seasons has always been an important aspect of the vertical for Japanese poets. Much like the 5–7–5 syllabic shell of the haiku, however, the elaborate seasonal understanding that developed in Japan exports badly to the West. If we Western haikuists cannot fully partake of the seasonal system, what can we do to include the important vertical element in our own haiku?

Seasonality is a crucial element in Japanese verse. It has been so ever since at least the time of the Kokinshū, the great imperial anthology published in 905 and the first to be organised according to seasons. A seasonal feeling (kidai) and season word (kigo) informed waka (or tanka), the traditional courtly verse form, but it took on an extraordinary role in linked verse (renga) and later, haikai.

On the root level kidai and kigo fix a haiku on the calendar, at a point more or less specific in the cycle of seasons—New Year’s Day, plum blossoms, the second-day moon, etc. “In the haiku world view … all people, things, and events can be fully appreciated and take on their proper meanings only in the context of temporal flow and the rhythms of nature.”3

On the second level each season word can be said to have its own immediately  associated cultural images, such that “New Year’s” will remind Japanese readers of family obligations traditional on that day and “plum blossoms” may conjure up memories of a single glorious plum tree blooming before the snow has gone or a plum orchard.

More important is the third level of seasonality. Over the years the kigo have been used and reused, and a great body of verses has accumulated for each. Common phrases have been used so routinely that they become conventional, almost clichés — e.g., aki no kaze (autumn wind) — and are available to be summoned up to serve as one whole phrase of a haiku. Moreover, certain outstanding verses are remembered collectively and individually and serve as inspiration for later poets. Japanese haiku poets rely on saijiki, published almanacs or collections by individuals of haiku arranged by seasonal topics and selected to illustrate the felicitous use of the themes. Traditionally haiku have been collected and classified in anthologies according to the four seasons (five with the inclusion of New Year’s), and within seasons under seven headings: season or climate, the heavens and the elements, geography, temples and shrines, human affairs, animals, and plants. If I want to read or write about daffodils, for example, I know to turn to the end of the “spring” section. One of the joys (and challenges) of haiku is finding a fresh interpretation for a kigo.

There is an even more refined, fourth level of seasonality in Japanese haiku, however. Based on and derived from the Japanese poetic canon, each season topic is held to have its own “essence” and both the kigo and the haiku as a whole must be consistent with that essence:

precise matching of scene and season is imperative if the seasonal theme is to be more than a mechanical convention.… In a poem where the seasonal theme fulfils its true evocative function, there must be reciprocity between the season which expands the scope of the haiku and creates the atmospheric background of associations for the specific scene, and the specific scene which points out a characteristic yet often forgotten aspect of the season and thus enriches our understanding of it. 4

Kigo are thus a special case of allusion—a readily available, easy-to-use channel into a millennium of Japanese poetical history. There are, of course, other forms of allusion available to the Japanese haiku poet. These include place names with historical-cultural significance, names of classical Chinese and Japanese poets and storytellers and allusions to their famous poems, subject matter reminiscent of important historical or literary themes, and even, in recent times, mentions of cultural icons imported from the West, such as Christmas, Mozart, or Picasso. Seasonality, however, is the most important device to realise Shirane’s “vertical” element in Japanese haiku.

The point here is that the seasonal word … anchors the poem in not only some aspect of nature but in the vertical axis, in a larger communal body of poetic and cultural associations. The seasonal word allows something that is small to gain a life of its own. The seasonal word … also links the poem to other poems. In fact, each Japanese haiku is in effect part of one gigantic, seasonal poem.5

It may not be too fanciful to visualise Japanese haiku poets reaching up to the Great Sphere of the Seasons where all foregoing haiku reside, reverently selecting and detaching a small piece with which to prime their own verse, then returning the kigo to its place in the heavens together with the new verse, thereby using the kigo, addressing their peers in a common language, fitting their verse into 1000-plus years of Japanese culture, and enriching the whole enterprise — all at the same time.

Some say seasonality is dear to the Japanese because that nation is so close to nature, but it seems equally likely that the advantages of a powerful allusion tool like seasonality were simply too great to be passed up. The Japanese may love nature, but theirs is a highly stylised version.

Like bonsai, seasonality in Japanese haiku has been twisted, snipped, and trained until it conforms to an idealised vision of nature. The high degree of orthodoxy in Japanese kigo derives from a number of factors, undoubtedly including the large number of verses composed on closely related topics, the emblematic nature of many seasonal expressions, the fact that little premium is placed on individuality or uniqueness of haiku composition in Japan, and the hierarchical nature of the Japanese master-disciple haiku system. Poets who used a kigo incorrectly, in a way that failed to capture the manifest essence of the season, would risk the rebuke of the haiku master.

This structure, so harmonious in Japan, translates badly into English. The  stylised seasonword system is closely bound to Japanese cultural history. This presents major problems when exporting haiku to other cultures.6 Almost since the beginnings of English-language haiku, poets have been aware of the allusive power of Japanese kigo and attempted to adopt them wholly or in part, or else adapt them to the new literary environment. Problems notwithstanding, of all the forms of allusion available, seasonality seems to be the most universal device and the one that has the best chance of crossing the cultural divide. The results, so far at least, have been inconclusive at best. We Western haiku poets are still far from erecting a satisfactory vertical axis for our work, seasonal or otherwise.

Most definitions of haiku in English mention the desirability of referring to the season, or at least nature, and hint at the importance of the vertical dimension of the haiku landscape. Kenneth Yasuda, one of the earliest American scholars of haiku, gives scant direction for the use of seasons in English-language haiku except by inference from his main subject, the Japanese haiku, but he certainly captures the nub of the problem: “When a season word is … fully realised, it is an aesthetic symbol of the sense of seasons, arising from the oneness of man and nature, and its function is to symbolise this union.”7 In the short coda to his History of Haiku entitled “World Haiku,” R. H. Blyth writes unhelpfully, “A season word is not necessary, nor even a season, but is greatly advantageous, as suggesting one quarter of the year in time.”8 In 1949, however, surely with an eye to the visibility of the New Trend haiku movement (see below), Blyth had written, “In recent times, with ideas of freedom and spontaneity, the conventionality and artificiality of the seasonal classification has become apparent, and poems are written nowadays without any season word: the season is not expressed or implied.”9

In the 1960s Harold G. Henderson noted, “As a general rule a classical Japanese haiku … contains at least some reference to nature (other than human nature)”10 but goes on to say that most Japanese haiku contain season words, which he defines and illustrates. Concerning haiku in English, Henderson seems to counsel use of season without slavish imitation of the Japanese form, concluding, “the vast majority of haiku in English, whatever their form, do treat nature, or some aspect of nature, as an integral part of the poem.”11 J. W. Hackett, in his “Suggestions for the Writing of English Haiku”, advised, “mention season when possible, as this adds dimension[s]”.12 As late as 1991, almost a quarter-century later, Jane Reichhold observed that “At this point in English haiku, very few writers understand the historical position of the kigo, and even less of that number make a regular use of it”. She related this situation to the lack of an English saijiki and offered her own solution, A Dictionary of Haiku, to fill the need — see below.13

William J. Higginson, perhaps the foremost student of seasons in world haiku, endorses the position of Blyth, Henderson, and Hackett that season is not an absolute necessity, even in Japanese haiku. In his The Haiku Seasons, he sums up a very instructive discussion of seasonality in non-Japanese haiku by saying, “[V]ery few Western haiku poets feel they must indicate the season in every haiku in order to make it a haiku”.14 Shirane expands this idea:

Maybe half of existing English-language haiku have seasonal words or some sense of the season, and even when the haiku do have a seasonal word they usually do not serve the function that they do in Japanese haiku. The reason for this is that the connotations of seasonal words differ greatly from region to region in North America, not to mention other parts of the world, and generally are not tied to specific literary or cultural associations that would be immediately recognised by the reader. In Japan, by contrast, for hundreds of years, the seasonal words have served as a crucial bridge between the poem and the tradition. English-language haiku therefore has to depend on other dimensions of haiku for its life.15

Thus, in our search for a way to use seasonality to give our haiku resonance and a vertical dimension, we have three options:

  • Keep a more or less Japanese kigo-like season word system for English-language haiku
  • Jettison the Japanese model entirely and find something else
  • Develop a new or modified understanding of the existing practice.

Various approaches have been tried, but none, so far, provide a totally satisfactory solution. In the remainder of this paper we will examine a number of possible solutions, each introduced with an intentionally exaggerated statement.

“Come hell or high water, we must try to understand Japanese seasonal associations and use them in our haiku.” This approach would have us Westerners trying to emulate the Japanese haikuists and find our place their cultural landscape. In his Modern Haiku paper Shirane expresses delight with a prizewinning haiku by Bernard Lionel Einbond that refers to a Japanese classic:

frog pond …
a leaf falls in
without a sound 16

“On the vertical axis,” Shirane writes, “it is an allusive variation, a haikai twist on Bashō’s famous frog poem, wittily replacing the frog with the leaf and the sound of the frog jumping in with no sound.”

We have to ask, however, if it is possible for Western poets “to go native,” simply to appropriate the Japanese kigo system wholesale and use it as the Japanese do? Can Americans ever understand what the grebes on Lake Biwa meant to Bashō or what went through Shiki’s mind as he gazed at Matsuyama Castle? Clearly, however, there is a limit to how far we can go with this sort of allusion. Which of us has not written a takeoff on this very Bashō haiku 17 or addressed a haiku to an insect as though it were the ghost of old Issa? A little of this goes a long way. The better question may be, how many American haiku poets know more than a handful of classic Japanese haiku well enough to use them to tap the “Japanese vertical”?

“Well, the kigo is essential to a haiku; in English we must retain as much as possible of the Japanese approach.” This viewpoint, too, is not common today, but it was the position of at least one influential editor, Jean Calkins, who in 1966 spelled out the editorial policy of the journal Haiku Highlights and Other Short Poems: “No poem will be considered a haiku unless it fills the vital principle of referring to a season of the year in some way, either directly or implied.”18 Such a conservative position ignores many fine haiku that are not seasonal. Non-seasonal haiku can be found among Japanese verses from the beginning — even Bashō wrote a few — and became quite numerous in the 20th century, when some of Shiki’s followers purposefully rejected season words as old-fashioned and artificial. Using Shirane’s estimate, half the English-language haiku of the past 35 years would not qualify.

“The solution to the kigo problem on a global scale or even within large countries is to develop a global saijiki.” This notion, which informs much of the recent work on saijiki in Japan and lies behind Higginson’s monumental project to compile an international poetry almanac, 19 sees certain aspects of nature and human existence as universal:

Haiku World shows how haiku and related poems written in all languages equally reflect the primary characteristics of the haikai genre. Arranging the poems by traditional topics allows each poem to join the global effort to see and appreciate the human and natural world, to become a part of the great chorus rather than remain isolated as a private solo. 20

The global saijiki promotes a certain “democracy” among cultures, suggesting that the ways “barley”, for example, is regarded in Japan, Croatia, England, Australia, and the US are equally worthwhile. This may or may not be acceptable, but rather than adding significantly to the vertical dimension of haikai, the global saijiki represents an expansion along the horizontal. To take one illustration, “camellia”, a kigo for all of spring, Higginson points out, is generally visualised as red in Japan and white in America,21 so from the outset there is a significant conceptual difference to contend with. To the Japanese, the blossoms symbolise sudden death, undoubtedly because they suddenly drop from the bush. Japanese haiku that use this kigo,tsubaki, usually mention its falling, for example:

camellia — as it
falls, showers.

Bashō 22

Fallen camellia flowers
Are turning
Back to earth.

Kyoshi 23

A camellia fallen —
out from dim shadows
a white butterfly.

Uchida Sonō 24

In the Western tradition, however, the camellia is a symbol of excellence and steadfastness. It expresses the sentiment, “I shall love you always!” and is considered a good luck gift to a man.25 If anything, in connection with “camellia” Westerners might think of the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils, La Dame aux Camélias, and the English-language play Camille and Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, La Traviata, which were based on it. Actually, most Western haiku on camellias have not availed themselves of either the traditional Japanese or Western associations but rather seem to portray “camellia-ness” in terms of the flower’s beauty, aroma, size, or showiness.

Blossoms —
the camellia bush
bends over from their weight

Helen K. Davie 26

stormy August —
the first camellia
faces the wall

Cyril Childs 27

the buddha
by camellias has
wide nostrils

ai li 28

There is little trace of the vertical here.

Even given the burgeoning global haiku movement sparked by the growth of haiku activity on the internet and with international haiku contacts on the rise — what Higginson terms a “potentially borderless haikai culture” — it may be difficult for readers and writers of haiku in various cultures to subscribe to a single global saijiki, although the exercise of seeing what kigo are considered significant for poets in other areas is sometimes useful and always fascinating.

“Okay, rather than development of a single, global saijiki, the solution to the kigo problem is a set of good local saijiki.” This is a common first response when an American haiku poet realises that “spring rain” means something quite different for a citizen of Seattle than a resident of Miami and that “crepe myrtle” may have no significance at all throughout most of our huge, climatically diverse North American continent. It may even be perplexing to discover that cherry blossoms bloom at different times even in different parts of Japan, so poets there have accepted the date of their appearance in Kyoto, the literary capital of Japan, as the convention.

Localised saijiki may increase the cultural depth of a haiku on a local level, but doesn’t the glory of the kigo system, after all, lie precisely in its universality? If one purpose of a saijiki is to show how various poets approach a seasonal essence, is it not un-saijiki-like to advocate a proliferation of saijiki that would serve to ossify divergent approaches and meanings? Taken to a logical extreme, won’t local saijiki become more and more esoteric, leading to personal catchwords and Aesopian language?

A study on the question of seasonal understanding in various geographical regions was conducted by James and Gayle Bull, editors of the first US haiku journal, American Haiku, in 1966. Some 118 haiku culled from early issues of the journal were sent to subscribers in six geographic areas of the US — Wisconsin, New York-New Jersey, Arkansas-Louisiana, Texas, northern California, and southern California — with the request that each verse be located on an elaborate chart that would help determine which haiku would be understood as seasonal by residents of the respondents’ home areas. One should remember that the survey was done almost 35 years ago, but still the results were astonishing:

[A] Wisconsin writer of seasonal haiku stands a 100% chance of being understood east of the Mississippi River, but only a 50% chance west. An Arkansas-Louisiana poet stands a 100% chance in his own area, a 33% chance in Wisconsin and Texas, and no chance whatsoever in the other three areas polled. The New York–New Jersey area reader stands a 40% chance of fully understanding a seasonal haiku written by a poet from northern California, and a northern California reader stands a 35% chance of fully understanding a seasonal haiku written by a poet from the New York–New Jersey area. 29

The pollsters offered a tentative conclusion:

as any kind of art must evoke emotion, and as emotion cannot be evoked but in terms of a work’s substance, and as haiku substance is not a little dependent upon natural phenomena and experience thereof, from a seasonal point of view the full emotional dimension of a given haiku is likely to be lost on a vast segment of the population. 30

A sensible compromise, of course, might be to augment the classical season-word list with local terms, and this is, in part, what Higginson has done in his International Haikai Saijiki. The Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, founded in California in 1975 by Kiyoshi and Kiyoko Tokutomi, also promotes the use of traditional season words but augments the list with words of local importance. Their autumn season words, for example, include “Rosh Hashanah,” “vineyard,” “corn,” and “butcher bird”. 31

“How about retaining the basic kigo concept but expanding beyond physical aspects of season to include moods?” In the early years of English-language haiku, Henderson tells us, Clement Hoyt and others recommended that seasonality could be suggested by the tone of the poem, and he cited a haiku by J. M. Dunsmore as suggestive of a bleak November nightfall: 32

Each fugitive wave
flings free, sprawls, sighs — is sucked back
to a restless grave.

The Bulls suggested three bases for seasonal references in haiku, Japanese or English, that correspond generally to our levels 2–4: “theme” (based on natural phenomena), “connotation” (based on human experience) and “mood” (based on aesthetic response). Of the last they write, “It reinforces the air, sometimes even produces the atmosphere of season”.33 Rebecca Rust wrote of using a word or phrase that evokes a mood associated primarily with a certain season, e.g., “forbidding sea”.34 In The Haiku Handbook Higginson flirted with this sort of thing too, asking his readers whether this poem by Hashimoto Takako (1899–1963), which uses the phrase “fresh-washed hair” — not a bona fide kigo:

fresh-washed hair
everywhere I go
making trickles

does not seem filled with spring sunlight. Jane Reichhold, while stoutly maintaining the importance of kigo, also sought to expand the set of “seasonal buzz words” (her term) by adding moods, a process that she explained in her A Dictionary of Haiku as follows:

By putting many haiku together by season, it was my intention to let the season mood of one poem resonate with the next one, causing them to have the same vibration indicative of that time of year without the over-use of the actual words spring, summer, fall and winter …

I felt that by making a list of essences or moods of the seasons which embody our emotional states relative to that time of year, haiku which do not blatantly state “spring” but which emote the airiness, gentleness, freedom of spring, could be given their rightful place. Many of the kigo for the season/climate category (such as “bright skies” or “south wind”) could more accurately fit into celestial phenomenon leaving a category free for emotional states, which to me, are as much a part of any season as a bird or flower. 35

Very subjective in nature, these purported “haiku season moods” presuppose a high level of agreement among poets as to what an individual mood represents and to which season it might be appropriate; the findings of the Bulls’ study do not inspire confidence that this can be accomplished easily. Moreover, as Higginson pointed out in his review of A Dictionary of Haiku, “Reichhold proposes her individual consciousness as the basis for a system where a time-tested, one might even say archetypal, collective consciousness is needed”. 36

“Season is not really necessary for Western haiku; any nature reference will do just fine.” As we saw above, Henderson and others speak of season and nature in the same breath and in an English haiku hey seem willing to settle for a nature word in lieu of an appropriate season reference. This leads in a false direction, however, because nature and season are not congruent. Seasonality is one aspect of nature, but nature includes much more besides. Simply advocating a nature reference may arise from a confusion of the subject of the haiku with the kigo. The subject of haiku is generally something in nature (which is not surprising since a haiku is essentially a nature poem!), while the role of the kigo is to provide setting or colour. Nature words (or moods) may have their own well-developed vertical axes, of course, but by and large — even less than season words — they do not. Thus, using nature references in place of season references simply expands the horizontal axis — the range of acceptable subjects for haiku — but does little to deepen their cultural resonance.

“The next step, then, is to give up kigo in favour of (or supplement them with) something more universal, such as ‘keywords’.” Until recently compilers of saijiki have coped with the existence of non-seasonal haiku by simply ignoring verses that inconveniently lack a kigo by which to classify them. In the early years of this century poets of the New Trend movement did away with season words, among other things, for their own poetic imperatives. In the past few years this home-grown rejection of the traditional Japanese seasonal system, together with a budding sense that it was hindering the coming together of a global haiku movement, has given impetus to the search for a universal alternative. The key player is Kaneko Tohta, a prominent haiku poet, editor of Kaitei haiku journal and the haiku column of the Asahi shinbun newspaper, and since 1983 president of the Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyokai — GHK). In 1989 Kaneko published his Gendai haiku saijiki (Modern Haiku Saijiki), which included a new wrinkle, apparently in part aimed at reconciling Japanese and Western approaches to the seasonal element. Dhugal Lindsay explains,

Kaneko Tohta believes that Westerners do not and will not accept kigo as being integral to haiku and that [another] kigo category should be stressed, zō [“Miscellany”]. They are not really season words at all, but rather everyday objects that contain associated meaning, more like a “theme” word. A common zō in Western haiku is “grave”; another is “clock”. 37

The Gendai haiku saijiki omitted “season” and “observances” from the seven traditional categories of words appropriate to each season and added two new ones, “people” and “culture and religion”. Higginson notes the historic roots of in traditional renga and especially the haiku of the New Trend movement. Of Kaneko he writes:

Tohta’s method of dealing with nonseasonal phenomena is very flexible, allowing for any additions that may be needed. It makes room for a great deal of material mainly  concerning humans, without denying the essential immersion of all phenomena in nature. 38

Kaneko was chairman of the Steering Committee for the First International Haiku Symposium in Tokyo in the summer of 1999. The keyword concept was propounded principally by delegate Natsuishi Ban’ya, Kaneko’s associate as executive director of the GHK; as well as editor of Gin-yu haiku magazine and professor in the faculty of law at Meiji University. Natsuishi goes a step further than Kaneko, however, relegating the traditional kigo system to a mere subset of keywords: “’Traditional ‘seasonal words’, which are effective only within the framework of the natural environment and culture of the main islands of the Japanese archipelago, are merely local keywords”.39 Natsuishi continues:

In Japan today, many haiku almanacs (saijiki) include a category of “non-seasonal keywords”. Some of these keywords refer to things in nature, such as “sea”, “rock”, “sky” and “mountain”; others to family, such as “mother”, “father” and “baby”; still others show parts of the human body, such as “head”, “hand”, “foot” and “chest”.  These new haiku almanacs also include examples of fine contemporary haiku in which such non-seasonal keywords are used. Contemporary haiku is not limited to the theme of nature as narrowly defined by “seasonal words” which refer only to the “four seasons” of Japan. By using “non-seasonal keywords”, it has possibilities for expressing many natural phenomena outside the scope of Japan, as well as both physical and psychological aspects of humanity, and sociological phenomena as we move into the 21st century.

The same sake was poured into new vessels in September 1999. A second international meeting, which included Kaneko as well as Arima Akito, leader of the Ten’i (Heaven’s Deed) haiku group and then Japanese minister of science and education, Ueda Makoto, professor emeritus of Stanford University, and others, produced the Matsuyama Declaration of September 12, 1999. Here keywords are pegged to individual cultures, and the idea that keywords are “symbols” is introduced:

Globally speaking, it is a “keyword that possesses a symbolic meaning unique to that particular culture.” Surely all cultures are certain to possess symbolic keywords that are unique to them, and which have been nurtured throughout their history. In this context, haiku can be described as being a universal poem whose essential part is expressed by “symbolism”.40

A view that is summarised later in the document:

In regard to the fixed-form and season words that have been considered the essence of haiku in the Japanese language, we think that, in the context of the universalisation of haiku, poets all over the world should work at finding the inner order of language and the application of keywords that possess symbolic meanings unique to their particular culture. We wish to openly welcome those poems from all over the world that possess the haiku spirit.41

In a sense we have come full circle: kigo are now being categorised as keywords applicable exclusively — or almost so — to Japanese haiku. In addition to their denotative meaning, keywords are also imbued with symbolic meanings! Kaneko and his colleagues seem to be granting non-Japanese haikuists a license to develop their own sets of national-symbolic keywords, which need not be transcultural but must somehow be grounded in the “haiku spirit,” whatever that may mean and whoever may be the judge.

“So the situation is hopeless; we Westerners must seek some type of allusion other than season to give our haiku a vertical dimension.” “Keywords” and “haiku moods” enrich the horizontal but do little for the vertical axis of haiku. Global saijiki diffuse the essence of seasonal understandings, while local saijiki may work against the broader appreciation of haiku. The kigo system is specific to Japanese culture. None provides Westerners the key to the vertical that we are seeking. If we take Natsuishi at his word, we Westerners do not need to worry about season words, much less the elaborate classical Japanese kidai/kigo system; Kaneko suggests that we look to our own culture(s) for symbols to use in our haiku.

Some haikuists have experimented with using Western cultural icons as referents, but such efforts are infrequent and rarely successful. Authors are often afraid to try such allusions, perhaps because literary allusion is not as well developed in the West as in Japan and Western countries — particularly America — are rarely culturally homogeneous compared to Japan. There is a tendency in America away from cultural fusion and toward fractionation: where we see a Christmas haiku, for example, we have been conditioned to look for haiku about Hanukah, Kwanzaa, and Eid el-Fitr as well. Moreover, cultural literacy in America is not widespread or probably deep enough for us to make use of our own vertical axis regularly and do it well. It is possible, however, and poets should explore these avenues more thoroughly. The following are a few examples in which authors’ allusions work well, where the Western cultural referents actually add resonance to the haiku (as well as the season references!)and strengthen the vertical.

after Bach
       the bare beauty
             of a winter branch

Geraldine Clinton Little 42

     depends on
           this hyacinth blooming

Ruby Spriggs 43

the Ides of March
plunging the kitchen knife
into an artichoke

Dhugal Lindsay 44

It is difficult not to conclude on a sombre note. Season clearly enriches haiku in any language, but it does not — cannot — inform non-Japanese haiku as it does Japanese. We Westerners will nonetheless continue to write haiku, probably half or more of them employing season words. We will do this because we have always done so, or because haiku originated in Japan and we feel we should approximate the way they do haiku, or because we have a vague feeling that haiku with kigo are as a rule better than those without. We will continue to seek deeper resonance for our verse by using kigo, keywords, moods, and whatever devices may be available. Perhaps ultimately we will come to recognise that Western haiku and Japanese haiku simply operate within different cultural geometries.


1 Published in A.C. Missias, ed., In Due Season: A Discussion of the Role of Kigo in English-language Haiku. Acorn Supplement #1 (spring 2000). Thanks to Lee Gurga, Joseph Kirschner, and A.C. Missias for reading the manuscript and offering suggestions for improvement. In some cases I have chosen to ignore their sensible advice, so all lapses of scholarship, judgment, and taste are mine alone.

2 Haruo Shirane, “Beyond the Haiku Moment: Bashō, Buson, and Modern Haiku Myths,” Modern Haiku 31:1 (winter-spring 2000). An earlier version of this paper was presented on 10 July 1999 at the Haiku North America Chicago 1999 conference in Evanston, Ill. The horizontal-vertical analysis is also discussed in Shirane’s pathbreaking Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999).

3 Kuriyama Shigehisa, “Haiku—On Writing Haiku in English,” in Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1983).

4 Ibid.

5 Shirane.

6 An extreme expression of this point appeared in a mean review of William Higginson’s The Haiku Seasons (see note 37) titled “World haiku revolution’s first charge fails” by Joel Friederich in Asahi Evening News, July 7, 1996. Friederich wrote that English haiku cannot be considered an art: “The body and soul of an art form is its closeness to origins, to the linguistic and cultural realities that gave birth to it”. Higginson responded in a letter printed in the same newspaper on July 30, 1996, that such view “certainly would have sounded strange to poets like William Shakespeare and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who may have tried to write sonnets”, and who would have been “by Mr Friederich’s criteria, automatically disqualified from producing any ‘art’ in an Italian mode”.

7  Kenneth Yasuda, The Japanese Haiku: Its Nature, History, and Possibilities in English, with Selected Examples (Rutland, Vt. and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1957).

8 R. H. Blyth, History of Haiku (Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1964).

9 R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume I—Eastern Culture (Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1949).

10 Harold G. Henderson, Haiku in English (Rutland, Vt., and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1967).

11 Ibid.

12 J. W. Hackett, Haiku Poetry, Volume One (Tokyo: Japan Publications, Inc., 1968).

13 Jane Reichhold, A Dictionary of Haiku (Gualala, Calif.: AHA Books, 1992).

14 William J. Higginson with Penny Harter, The Haiku Handbook (Tokyo, New York and London: Kodansha International, 1985).

15 Shirane.

16 Ibid.

17 Research to answer to this question might begin with Hiroaki Sato, One Hundred Frogs (New York: Weatherhill, 1995).

18 Editorial statement by Jean Calkins in Haiku Highlights and Other Short Poems, vol. II (May 1966), quoted in James Bull and Gayle Bull, “Season Reference in Japanese and American Haiku,” American Haiku, 5:1 (1967). Calkins went on to insist that poems in the haiku form that do not use season are senryu.

19 William J. Higginson, Haiku World; An International Poetry Almanac (Tokyo, New York and London: Kodansha International, 1996).

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 Translated by Lucien Stryk, verse #111 in his Of Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho (London: Penguin, 1985).

23 Translated by Susumu Takiguchi, in his Kyoshi: A Haiku Master (Bicester, England: Ami-Net International Press, 1997).

24 Translated by Uchida with the assistance of Tadashi Kondō and William J. Higginson, in Uchida Sonō, Simple Universe (Foster City, Calif.: Press Here, 1995).

25 Ernst and Johanna Lehner, Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees. (New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1960).

26 Dreams Wander; 1994 Haiku Society of America Members’ Anthology. Nina A. Wicker, Peggy Willis Lyles, and Kenneth C. Leibman, editors. (New York: Haiku Society of America, 1994).

27 New Zealand Haiku Anthology, edited by Cyril Childs. (Wellington: The New Zealand Poetry Society Inc., 1993).

28 Frogpond 21:2 (1998).

29 Bull and Bull, note 18. The cover letter to those polled as well as the 118 haiku are presented in American Haiku 6:2 (January 1968); the completed chart and the identities of the haiku authors is published in the final issue of the journal, 6:2 (May 1968).

30 Ibid.

31 Yuki Teikei Haiku Society. The San Francisco Bay Area Nature Guide and Saijiki, accessed  January 18, 2015.

32 Henderson, Haiku in English.

33 Bull and Bull.

34 Rebecca Rust, The Outside of a Haiku, Raleigh and Winston-Salem, N.C.: The North Carolina Haiku Society Press, 1984.

35 Reichhold.

36 William J. Higginson, “’A Dictionary of Haiku’?—A Saijiki?” Modern Haiku, 24: 3 (fall 1993). This use by Higginson of Jungian terminology raises the interesting idea that haiku poets might look to deep myths and folklore for a possible vertical axis for their work.

37 Dhugal Lindsay, “Season Words,” on his website, accessed November 16, 1999 but unavailable on January 18, 2015. The same quote can be found online, however, in Lindsay’s essay “Season Words”, Simply Haiku 2:6 (November–December 2004).

38 William J. Higginson, The Haiku Seasons (Tokyo, New York & London: Kodansha International, 1996).

39 Natsuishi Ban’ya, synopsis of his presentation at the First International Haiku Symposium, Tokyo, July 11, 1999; translated by Margaret Mitsutani (edited slightly for style).

40 Matsuyama Declaration of September 12, 1999, posted on the Shiki International Haiku Salon website, accessed November 25, 1999 but not available on January 18, 2015. The text was available, however, at this website.

41 Ibid.

42 Geraldine Clinton Little, Stilled Wind (Prescott, Ariz.: Bonsai Press, 1977); reprinted (as a winner in the Merit Book Award) in A Haiku Path: The Haiku Society of America 1968–1998, edited by the Haiku Society of America Twentieth Anniversary Book Committee (New York: Haiku Society of America, 1994).

43 Ruby Spriggs, Sunshadow, Moonshadow, Haiku (Sharbot Lake, Ont: Heron’s Cove Press, 1986) and anthologised in Bruce Ross, ed., Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku. (Rutland, Vt., and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1993).

44 Fuyoh 3:1995 (autumn).

Editor’s note: This essay, which originally appeared in Acorn – Supplement #1 (spring 2000) (see Footnote 1 for further details) appears here with the author’s permission.

Charles Trumbull trained as a specialist in the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and worked in jobs that had to do with American-Russian communication at the US National Academy of Sciences and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Inc. When the USSR disappeared, he became director of yearbooks at Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., in Chicago. Retiring in 2007, Charles now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

He got reacquainted with haiku in 1991, literally on a bet. Immediately bitten by the haiku bug, he has served as newsletter editor for the Haiku Society of America (1996-2002), HSA president (2004-2005), and HSA Historian (2010-present). He was a founder of Chi-ku, the Chicago-area haiku club, an organiser of Haiku North America/Chicago (1999) and the upcoming HNA Santa Fe (2017), and proprietor of Deep North Press, a publisher of haiku books with 14 titles in print. From 2006 to 2013 he was editor of Modern Haiku, the oldest haiku journal outside Japan. For several years he has been compiling the Haiku Database, which includes a computerised collection of published haiku in English, a bibliography of haiku titles (the book portion is available on The Haiku Foundation website), and other materials of use to haiku researchers.