I don’t think there’s anything essential about seasonal references in haiku, but I usually feel weird when I don’t use one, and that weird feeling bothered me for a long time. Was I secretly a haiku reactionary who was going to break out in 5/7/5 any day? Would I turn into one of those irritating people who berates other poets for using two season words in one haiku? Or start insisting that people whose middle line is shorter than the other two are doing it wrong? (Like, whatever, dude. Chill.)
I felt better when I realized that it didn’t bother me in the least whether other people used seasonal references. (Or did any of that other stuff.) I just wanted to use them myself. It was important to me, emotionally if not artistically. And it took a presentation at last summer’s Haiku North America to help me figure out why. The presenter was the calm, elegant, and utterly impressive Patricia Machmiller, who’s long been associated with the Yuki Teikei Society — in other words, to a quite “traditionalist” approach to haiku. But she’s anything but doctrinaire–she’s a wonderful poet with an amazing feeling for language and an empathetic and flexible attitude toward writing haiku–and in her discussion of kigo I heard expressed for the first time some of my own unspoken, maybe even unrealized feelings about the importance of season words.
For Patricia, and for me, it’s not about “following the rules” by rotely sticking one of these “magic words” into a poem. It’s about, according to Patricia, “bringing the large feeling of the season into the small poem.” It’s about “bringing in eternity.” The seasons are a cycle and their rhythms are familiar to us from early childhood. I find I experience nostalgia most powerfully during the change of the seasons–the first spring flowers, the first yellow leaves, the first snowfall conjure up images of all these events from all the different periods of my life, of the things I was doing then, the people I was with, maybe even the historical events that were occurring. (Who in the eastern half of the United States doesn’t remember that 9/11 was a perfect, bright, crisp, clear September day?) References to the seasons remind me that I’m part of history and part of the human race and part of nature. Patricia also quoted John Stevenson on this subject: “Kigo represent the community of the living and the dead.”
Mentioning a season, essentially, is a shortcut to emotional resonance that’s effective for just about everyone in the world, or at least everyone who shares similar seasonal experiences. In a typical English twelve-syllable haiku, it’s just good budgeting to devote a few of those syllables to conjuring up a season. No, it’s not necessary. There are other ways to bring in that same resonance. (I’d like to get around to talking about several more of them over the next few weeks.) But it’s simple and amazingly effective. And it makes me feel better. And I no longer feel bad about that.
the wind chimes
in the icicle
the cat takes advice
from the moon
With thanks to B.S. for the suggestion of subject matter.
(Whoa, dude. Do you know what your initials are?)