More on the Bones of Haiku…New Haiku and Attempting Kigo.


(Watercolor, Jane Kohut-Bartels, “Hummers at the Trumpet Vine”

As I study these bones, I keep being drawn back to Robert Haas’s “The Essential  Haiku” (versions of Basho/Buson/Issa.   Haas puts forth these three as ‘types’ of poet: Basho as the ascetic and seeker, Buson the artist, Issa the humanist.   Perhaps their differences grow clearer as we read them, but right now it’s not too clear to me.

The insistence on time and place was crucial for writers of haiku.  Seasonal reference was called  kigo and a haiku was thought to be incomplete without it.  Kigo could be many things, and changed with the seasons.   A few examples: Mosquitoes were summer, cherry blossoms, rice seedlings spring, maple leaves stood in for fall and winter had numerous kigos like ‘north wind’, hoarfrost, smog (smoke over a village from hearth fires) fallen leaves, etc.  The kigo was of a natural observation of seasons.  Although this was codified, it also could be very individual in the work.

Quoting from Haas:  “These references were conventional and widely available. They were the first way readers of the poems had of locating themselves in the haiku.  Its traditional themes—deep autumn, a sudden summer shower, the images of rice seedlings and plum blossoms, of spring and summer migrants like the mountain cuckoo and the bush warbler, of the cormorant-fishermen in summer and the apprentices holiday in the spring—gave a powerful sense of the human place in the ritual and cyclical movements of the earth.”


“The first level of a haiku was in its location of nature, its second was always some implicit Buddhist reflection on nature.  One of the striking differences between Christian and Buddhist thought is that in the Christian sense of things, nature is fallen, and in the Buddhist sense it isn’t. At the core of Buddhist metaphysics are three ideas about natural things: that they are transient; that they are contingent; that they suffer.”

Better to sink down through the level of these poems to the particular level of human consciousness the poems reflect.  Or, in my case, attempt.

Lady Nyo

Under the eaves, chimes

Weave celestial music.

My man yawns then farts.

(Implied is strong winds, which could be spring or fall, or perhaps any season.  That the kigo isn’t determined or spelled out could also signal the death of this particular haiku.)

A dog comes snooping

Mother and father cardinals—

Intruder- Leave Now!

(this just happened last weekend where two baby cardinals were tipped from their nest and killed by my pointer pup.  The parents made quite a fuss.  So did I when I found the babies on the steps, dead. Cardinals breed in the spring, so the kigo is inferred here.)

Radishes are up!

From such tiny seed they grow.

Stomach rumbles.

Snow falls on meadows

Crows pick at last harvest seeds

Spring still far away

Cherry red toenails

Peek out from the warm blanket.

Deep snow cools ardor.

White makeup drips

The hard heat and mosquitos

Make maiko languid.

A swirl of blossoms

Caught in the water’s current

Begins the season.

Falls crispness compels

Apples to tumble from trees.

Worms make the journey.

I chase one red leaf

Across dry and brittle grass

Juice of summer gone.

The garden spiders

Fold their black spindly legs,

Die, all work now done.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2013

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4 Responses to “More on the Bones of Haiku…New Haiku and Attempting Kigo.”

  1. Caliban's Sister Says:

    Worms make the journey. Worms make the journey. Wonderful post, instructive, clear as sunlight, helpful to have your haiku illustrating the discussion of ‘bones.’ Folding legs for work is done.

    When I was fifteen, I wrote a small book of “haiku” for a creative writing class. I didn’t know any rules; I showed them to my mother. She looked surprised, said “you wrote these?” then said “hmmm.” and left the room. Below are two:

    I see you sitting by the drain
    Do you think I can’t see that far?
    I know it’s deep. Go ahead.
    Fall in.

    When the wind blows and the grass bends
    Can you see me waving?
    I stand on tiptoe but
    You never look.

    Even back then I was already formalizing how left alone my parents made me feel. I hope you are having a good week Jane. Will check my email.
    xoxox CS


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Oh! These are lovely, and emotionally connected as I think haiku should be. They are so much more than short nuggets of thoughts, perceptions. They show the internals of the process, and that has to be good.

    The first is pithy, but the second one is just beautiful….universal for so many of us…and I think this is a good example of haiku.

    There are so many ins and outs in haiku, and only with our own attempts (after reading and doing some study of the structure,) can we get past the bones and into the flesh of haiku.

    I think you have made great and early progress here. Some people are a natural with this form, and I think you definitely are. Read some of Issa’s haiku and you will really belly laugh, too!



  3. Cora Z. Conway Says:

    In American English, “haiku” is an umbrella term, including, but not limited to, poems more or less connected to the Japanese tradition. (As purists and practitioners, we may not like this, but that’s the way it is.) With “kigo,” my problem is not with the word, but with the referent.I ask whether “kigo,” when referring to, say, American haiku, means the same as it means when referring to Japanese haiku. My understanding is that the Japanese kigo has at least as much to do with culture—specifically, Japanese culture—as with nature. There is more to “cherry blossoms” in a Japanese haiku than in an American haiku. “moon” is one thing in a culture that has a tradition of autumnal moon-viewing, quite a different thing in a culture that has no such tradition. And the American ambivalence toward tradition per se complicates matters still further.B.NY.


  4. ladynyo Says:

    I agree…it is cultural. And if a poet/writer doesn’t study this particular culture, and understand the broader meanings of kigo, etc…they miss out. They diminish their poetry in what it could be.

    Lady Nyo…however, Japanese writers also have an ambivalence towards traditon, some of them, and you find it in the younger and newer poets.


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