What is a kigo?
A kigo (season word)(plural kigo) is a word or phrase associated with a particular season, used in Japanese poetry. Haiku poems, especially traditional or “pure” ones, also use season words or phrases. These words capture the setting and mood. Season words can be obvious or subtle, universal or culture-specific. In Japan, poets often use a book called a saijiki, which lists kigo with example poems.
In English-language haiku, we can simply state the season (winter, spring, summer, autumn) or use words that allude to the season (snow means winter, blossoms means spring, etc). For those who seek to write “pure haiku”, season words should be further analyzed, as they can house a deeper meaning than simply referencing a season.
Examples of haiku using obvious season words:
the pull of her hand
as we near the pet store
—Michael Dylan Welch
First published in Woodnotes 19, Winter 1993
walking the dogs
where they want to go
Honorable Mention, the Haiku Society of America Harold G. Henderson Haiku Contest, 2017
Judge’s comments: Summer is the season of relaxation. A holiday in summer is dialed back even further. Here the poet lets the dogs take the lead on an adventure. It’s the essence of a vacation from the self. Lighthearted humor works perfectly in this haiku.
I received it from the dog
and gave it to the cat
—Taneda Santōka (1882-1940)(translation by John Stevens)
Examples of haiku using subtle season words:
hides under her lovely shell
a pair of long wings
First published in Bug Haiku by Japan Publications, Inc., Tokyo, December 1968
between the reeds
a little girl again
tussen het riet
weer even dat kleine meisje
First published in Blithe Spirit, Volume 27, Number 4, November 2017 (Dutch trans. by Corine Timmer)
of each snowflake
Winning entry in the international section of the 22th Mainichi Haiku Contest, 2019
Judge’s comments: This haiku by Ms. Timmer of Portugal could well be described as an answer to these words from Jacottet. She was presumably diagnosed with cancer. Perhaps on her way home as the snow began to fall, she became aware of the weight in each and every fragile snowflake. There is a natural, graceful brilliance here first perceived in the midst of illness and a premonition of death. It is a truly poignant haiku. (Judged by Toru Haga)
I was never diagnosed with cancer but some of my family members have been. This is an example of how haiku interpretation can vary, especially when something has been left to the imagination (silent space). The poet didn’t specify she was diagnosed with cancer. This could be anyone’s cancer, not necessarily hers. It touches us all.
The first two lines of this haiku popped to mind instantaneously. In the third line I wanted something lightweight (add contrast, yin-yang) that can become heavy at the same time depict the cold and lifelessness of winter (death). Snowflakes fit that description. Though lightweight they can become a burden when they accumulate. Heavy snowfall changes the world as we know it—as does cancer. “Snowflakes” is a subtle yet profound and versatile season word. Snowflakes can also melt and become the water in a river.
perfuming the man
who broke its branch —
— Fukuda Chiyo-Ni (1701 – 1775) (translation by Jim kacian)
A little something extra: https://akitahaiku.com/2020/01/13/world-haiku-series-2019-26-haiku-by-corine-timmer/
Examples of season words: https://www.adianta.com/YTKigoList.html
In addition to the Kigo or season word, “pure” haiku also contain a Kireji or cutting word. Next time we will learn more about the pause/cut that divides traditional haiku into two parts (juxtaposition of two images or ideas).