The Poet’s Almanac ❧ Earth

The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry
Week One: Earth

  • Looks like I’ve already fallen behind, but I have most of Sunday ahead of me. Let’s see what I can accomplish.

After the cycles of birth, lovemaking, age and death, the seasonal cycles of the earth are the great subjects of poetry. From the first songs to the modern era, no culture has so closely tied their poetry to the seasons as the Japanese. The development of seasonal references coincided with the beginnings of Japan’s own poetic tradition and the creation of the Tanka. The first references weren’t any more than might be found in the Western tradition, but the Japanese never consistently developed longer verse forms. There is no Japanese verse epic, for example. The closest the Japanese come to narrative verse is in the linkage of much shorter forms like the Tanka. The results can feel disjointed to a Western reader. Perhaps the most famous example of a narrative form by a Japanese poet is Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Interior 奥の細道. The narrative or travel diary, recounting Basho’s journey, by foot, to see some of Japan’s most famous landmarks, is actually prose interspersed by haiku, a genre that was known as haibun.

it hides in the moon—
the firefly

– Sano Ryota (Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems)

Writing in such short forms meant that there was little opportunity for scene painting. A Japanese poet simply didn’t have room to spare. So how does a poet evoke a sense of place while still allowing his or herself the space to poetize? The answer developed over hundreds of years. The quickest way to evoke a sense of place, a seasonal feeling, or mood (a poet’s intuitive relationship with the world) is to indicate one of the four seasons in which he or she was writing. All of us who live in the world’s temperate zones, grow up with strong seasonal associations and the Japanese learned to skilfully evoke those associations with a single word or image. The very first anthology to hint at the direction Japanese poets would take was compiled in the early 900’s (long before the development of haiku), called the Kokinshû. For the first time, Japanese readers found categories for the four seasons. Kenneth Yasuda, in his book The Japanese Haiku, writes that this early anthology “seems to recognise the importance of natural objects as subjects of poetry in the same way as love, or congratulatory, or elegiac poems were recognised”. Not only were the seasonal categories of poetry recognised but, more importantly, the Japanese began to develop the first inklings of Kigo. In other words, a reference to a plum tree became more than just the plum tree. The tree was also meant to evoke a connection with the wider setting of spring with all that season’s concurrent associations – but these were only the first inklings. Over the next several hundred years, the significance of a given image, like a reference to cherry blossoms, might be used without any seasonal resonance whatsoever.

Garden butterfly—
as the baby crawls, it flies

-Issa (Ib. p. 99)

A poetic form which was to exert decisive influence on the development of Kigo was the Renga, a form of linked poetry from which the haiku was to evolve. Renga were communal poems that honoured the hosts and celebrated the talents of the poets who participated. Because these renga were frequently published, attaching a particular date to the composition of the renga was considered essential. That task fell to the guest. His task was to write an initial hokku (which would later become the independent haiku) both honouring the host and indicating the date of the renga’s composition. By the end of the 14th century, the twentieth volume of the Tsukubashû (1356) contains only hokku, and though they’re not divided into seasons, all the hokku contain a seasonal reference. By the 15th century, the importance of kigo, as an art in and of itself, was systematically discussed by Sôgi (1421-1502) in his Azuma Mondô (1470). The tradition was now established. Sôgi was also among the first to compile a list (like a dictionary) of season words. His example was followed by Rippo in 1636, who compiled a listing of 650 seasonal references. By the 19th century, a compilation like the Haikai Saijiki (1803) contained 2600 items.

In truth, and with a little practice reading Haiku, a western reader can reliably discern a haiku’s season. Japan’s seasons aren’t so mysteriously different from our own that we can’t recognise the seasonal reference of blossoms or falling leaves.

The seasonal importance of haiku continues into the 21rst century. The modern, and western poet Lee Gurga, author of Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, considers the seasonal reference to be the soul of haiku. He writes:

Season is the soul of haiku, as simple as that. One can write fine short poems that do not have a seasonal element, but they will not offer the same gift that seasonal haiku do.

Many modern haiku poets would not consider a poem, otherwise identical to a haiku, a haiku without some kind of connection to the earth’s seasons.

after Christmas
a flock of sparrows
in the unsold trees

– Dee Evetts (Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, p. 25)

That’s all.
& Further Reading:

The Japanese Haiku: It’s Essential nature, History, and Possibilities, with Selected Examples
Haiku: A Poet’s Guide
The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku
Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems
Basho’s Narrow Road • Spring & Autumn Passages