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Friday, April 11, 2014

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

From Lacock, England©Alan Summers 2014

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 around 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.

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  As a growing school of thought appears to be developing the idea that kigo is obsolete, I’d like this once main defining aspect of haiku, and pre-haiku aka hokku to be revisited.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

— 尾崎放哉

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:


haiku by Ōhashi Raboku at 4 Japanese characters. [2]

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 itself come alive?

In a forest of paper for the writer, the use of kire in a haiku, the famous poem with its extreme distillation, 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]

Now I’d like to talk a little about kigo.

Lacock Village 3rd March 2014 crow twig carrying season©Alan Summers 2014

Kigo: A tide of longing

“season is the soul of haiku”
William J. Higginson, The Haiku Seasons (p20)  [6a] 

"The Haiku Seasons 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…"
—Elizabeth Searle Lamb, retired editor, Frogpond, Haiku Society of America [6b]

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 in-between home and work 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/Fall 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, no man is an island [11] 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 of course 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 characterize them. It is puzzling that the most obvious possibility for allusion is dismissed out-of-hand” Lee Gurga. [12]

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, 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  [13]

Autumn Leaves©Alan Summers 2013-2014

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 [13], 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 now 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 (BBC News - Smartphone apps that make sense of the stars, and New York Times: Watching Out for Falling Stars, With a Smartphone in Hand).

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 writing group of poets: it simply wishes to engage in the possibilities that an attempt at kigo may prove to be yet 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 into being utilised, even eventually, however long-term, into 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. [14] 

early dark
the cathedral visible
only as windows

Karen Hoy [15]

Early dark suggests the winter months, where in some world regions, 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.

Another "poor man's Bible" is the cathedral, especially one of older days in Europe. Most of the "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 the cathedrals. Similarly, the windows themselves were sometimes called "poor man's Bibles" for the same reason. [16]

Among the most innovative English designers [of stained glass art] were the Pre-Raphaelites: William Morris (1834–1898); and Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), whose work heralded Art Nouveau.

Easter Sunday
baby bumps
among the beer bellies

Karen Hoy [17]

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 i.e. a resurrection Sunday, notably that of Jesus Christ.  Fertility, and the using 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 to do with new arrivals, as Jesus was once, with the visit of the Three Wise Men.  

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

Alan Summers [18]

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 not cut down until 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    

[one line haiku]            

Alan Summers [19]

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', and can be seen scrambling through hedgerows and trees along the roadside, and is especially obvious in the winter months.  

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!

Folklore and Facts
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.

Flower Fairies of the Winter
Cicely Mary Barker (28 June 1895 – 16 February 1973) illustrator:


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  [21]

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 [22]

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 our’s, and of the loss of his son

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: Japanese/English JAPANESE HAIKU 2001 (Modern Haiku Association, Tokyo, Japan, December 2000, ISBN 4-89709-336-8)

[2] Japanese poet 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 tr., 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. (Note that there is another volume with the same title, only differing at the end, where “Fiction” replaces “Poetry, Drama, Criticism”; that other volume is over 1300 pages long, and is not for sale here.)New York: Henry Holt, 1984. Paperback, 6×9.25″ (15.5×23.5 mm), 685+xiv pp.

[3] Technique used in Modern Japanese Haiku: Vocabulary and Structure by Ban'ya Natsuishi: Japanese/English JAPANESE HAIKU 2001 (Modern Haiku Association, Tokyo, Japan, December 2000, ISBN 4-89709-336-8)
[4]  ibid
[5]  ibid

[6] The Haiku Seasons, Poetry of the Natural World, William J. Higginson, Stone Bridge Press  ISBN: 978-1-933330-65-5 
Web page:

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

[8] Asahi Shimbun (Japan, 2013)
[9] Part correspondence, part quote from Asahi Shimbun. 
David McMurray writes a haiku column for the Asahi Newspaper (Asahi Shimbun, 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 organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Asahi Culture Center, Matsuyama City, and Seinan Jo Gakuin University.

[10]  Multiverses 1.1 (2012)

[11] No Man Is an Island from "Meditation XVII," by the English poet John Donne.

[12] Toward an Aesthetic for English-Language Haiku by Lee Gurga, Global Haiku Festival, Decatur, IL, April, 2000 re Haruo Shirane's Traces of Dreams (Stanford University Press (1998))

[13] Publications credits: Azami #38 (Japan, 1996); Television credit: BBC 1 - Regional arts feature, November 2003; Anthology Credit: Haiku Friends Vol. 3  ed. Masaharu Hirata (Japan, 2009)

[14] English Seasonal Images: An Almanac of Haiku Season Words Pertinent to England, by David Cobb. 2004. 120 pages. Modern Haiku Volume 36.1 Spring 2005, review by Charles Trumbull.

[15] Another Country, Haiku Poetry from Wales Edited by Nigel Jenkins, Ken Jones and Lynne Rees (Gomer Press ISBN: 9781848513068)

[16] Walter P. Snyder, Ask the Pastor: Poor Man's Bible (1999)

[17] Multiverses 1.1 (2012)

[18] Hermitage: A Haiku Journal (editor Ion Codrescu 2005)

[19] Publications credit: a handful of stones (1st February 2011)
Anthology credit: A Blackbird Sings, a small stone anthology ISBN 978-0-9571584-2-9 ed.  Fiona Robyn & Kaspalita Thompson (Woodsmoke Press 2012)

[20] 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 No.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) 

[21]  There is a small gap between Summer and Autumn if the tsukutsukubôshi cicadas at Sumadera are heard to ‘sing’ (which I did)] Publications 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)

[22] World Haiku Review Japan Article - Vending machines and cicadas (March 2003); Hermitage (2005); Travelogue on World Haiku Festival 2002 Part 1 (Akita International Haiku Network 2010); Anthology Credit: We Are All Japan (Karakia Press  2012)  Haiku Collection: The In-Between Season (With Words Haiku Pamphlet Series 2012).

This article (pub. Under the Basho Vol. 1.1 Autumn 2013) is a revised article originally published by Multiverses 1.1 (2012) now sadly defunct.

The Poetry Society of New Zealand's haiku section have also published this piece:

Extra note:

The "act of Kigo" or at least our non-Japanese attempts to include a "seasonal note" in our haiku is a wonderful "extra treat" to include from time to time.


heatwave ripples
Large Earth Bumblebees
fanning the home

Alan Summers
Haiku Dialogue opposites hot/cold ed. kjmunro (August 2020)

Bombus terrestris, the buff-tailed bumblebee or large earth bumblebee:

seasonal note (kigo): early Summer – Northern Hemisphere

More than one fold in the paper©Alan Summers 2012-2020

If you are interested in pursuing haiku, whether as a first-timer, or someone familiar with haiku but want to push yourself just a bit further, we run regular group and one-to-one sessions:


1 comment:

martin1223 said...

exploding sunlight