The Kigo Tango

The Kigo Tango

 Posted by Susan Shand on January 3, 2013 at 12:40 PM Commentscomments (11)

To kigo or not to kigo, that is the question…

 

Despite what you will hear in some of the less salubrious bazaars around town, a kigo is not something which cannot be understood outside of westernised Taoist Mysticism. Nor is it something peculiarly Japanese which cannot translate to a western mind and should therefore be discarded completely. Yet neither is it something to slavishly follow without thought… but I will get to that bit in a minute…

 

The Japanese have made a science out of kigo. Every haiku teacher and renga sabaki worth their salt publishes their own list of ‘approved season words’ (along with a collection of their haiku) as the definitive saijiki for their school. It’s a nice little earner! Imagine, any student who turns up on your doorstep not only pays you for your teaching time but has to buy your books too. Excellent additional income stream!

 

Of course, over time in Japan the lack of real understanding of the power of kigo has at times resulted in a formalisation and stilting of their meaning. Standard texts have ignored the diversity of flora and fauna and their seasonal emergence between the cold northern and the warm southernmost climates of the Japanese islands. High culture Saijiki centred their seasonal changes on the high cultural capital and reflected the high culture bias which formalised kigo into something which only the high status haiku Masters had the power to define. This alongside a culture in which the glorification of a tamed ‘natural world’ had become so ingrained into the cultural life that it was indissoluble from Japanese identity.

 

Unfortunately, I believe that the very existence of the saijiki focuses the student poet’s mind into a book and to what someone else thinks; instead of directing their focus onto exploring the world around them and deciding what they think for themselves. Any attempt to work with kigo from existing Japanese saijiki translated into English, by anyone not actually Japanese, is fraught with cultural dissonance and conflict.

 

When I was first grappling with the concept I admit to being rather scathing about the whole thing. I was reduced to the giggles in writing something (I forget what it was exactly) which seemed to really need ‘soba noodles’ to pad out L2. I hadn’t the faintest idea what a soba noodle was and from my very English kitchen the ludicrousness of the situation really struck my wicked sense of humour. I embarked on a campaign of finding the most obscure culturally specific Japanese kigo to add to my haiku and renku verses. The more obscure the better. It was fun. I spent hours in Gabi Greves fascinating database researching kigo and Japanese culture and picking the bones out of her phenomenal lists of things. That was fun too. I’m a Sociologist, I’m fascinated by what people get up to. But the fact is that I am English and my feet are firmly planted here in my homeland. I laugh at the pretense in my own culture too; so laughing at myself pretending to be Japanese pretending to know what this kigo thing was and what soba noodles meant, was nothing out of the ordinary.

 

Luckily though, at that time I had to drive my daughter to school and back every day along the narrow and winding Cornish lanes to a little village on the edge of the moor. Every day was different. I drove through rain and fog, ice and snow, autumn and spring, and the summer where the bright colours and vibrancy of spring become bleached out into an exhausted wash of green. I began to notice the changes in the world around me. I watched the spring flowers bloom and rejoiced in the feeling of life in everything around me. I narrowly missed a huge white owl dropping from a branch across the road one dark winter evening. I watched a stoat cross a sheep path on the moor. I smelled the coconut of the gorse bloom and watched the oil haze rise from the bush in the heat of a summer day and heard the seed pods pop. I watched the blooming of the Blackthorn in every hedge along the way transform my journey. I began to be in touch with the seasons in a way that I never had before.

 

Then one winter, I was searching for an urban winter kigo to use in a renku verse and thinking about how city dwellers mark their seasonal changes, when it occurred to me that “tinsel” was a kigo! Well it is in England at least. Just the word “tinsel”, on its own, evokes all our cultural memories and stored information about the Christmas season. Images flood onto the mind’s TV screen and our mind helpfully provides all the references it can along with their associated sensations. In a poem as short as a haiku, any word which can convey that much information is worth its weight in gold!

 

So I imagine that whatever a soba noodle is, for many Japanese as a seasonal food it might be the same as strawberries or mince pies for the English. It evokes those memories which immediately situate the imagination into an identifiabe season along with all the associations which go with it. For me, Blackthorn blossom is forever emerging spring, strawberries in Wimbledon Week, and tinsel in the cold dark of an urban midwinter. A kigo is culturally and regionally specific and is a word which stimulates the mind into associative remembering. Simples!

 

There are, you will find around the bazaars, a lot of different ideas about what kigo is. You will see, sadly, a lot of fanciful nonsense born out of ignorance and wrapped up in mysticism to make it look difficult. This is designed to send you running to the wise feet of the mystic; who appears to really understand it – talks as though you should understand it – but who never quite explains it so that it makes sense. This is a hook for the unwary. It never will be adequately explained from that source because the fisherman takes his fish home for supper. A fish once hooked can only drive the hook deeper by chewing at it – but a fish once hooked always knows a hook when she sees one.

 

 

There is a huge debate about what is and isn’t legitimate as a kigo and how far into Japanese culture we should go in using them. You will find that in some renga/renku or haiku competitions you will be expected to work from an approved Japanese saijiki or word list in translation. At the other end of the scale there have been some interesting collaborative works which crossed continents and hemispheres and still worked with each poet’s local seasonal markers. Thanks to the World Kigo Database and the thriving international haikai community, there are established and growing kigo databases for many countries, regions, and languages.

 

 

Lists can be helpful, particularly if you are composing at speed for a renku or reading work from a different country or culture. However, I don’t think that there is any substitute for getting outside, watching the world turn around you, and pondering over what you think.

 

 

 

Susan

(stardate 20130103)

 

If you would like to comment or begin a debate on anything I have said here or on previous posts please feel free to reply directly to my posts here. You will find a *comment* button at the top of each post which will open a box for your response.

 

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11 thoughts on “The Kigo Tango

  1. Reply
    geaneditor 05:32 AM on January 04, 2013
    Yes Susan, your final paragraph sums it all up: haiku work best when they engage and resonate with the reader. There is nothing worse than reading a haiku by someone and thinking they just made that up so as to sound Japanese. Kigo does have a place but it must be relevant to the author and thus engage the reader. The old maxim: write about what you know still stands. Thanks for keepin’ it real!

  2. Joanne B Donald 05:56 AM on January 04, 2013
    Susan, I have to say that your blog posts have been some of the most informative and insightful information on Japanese formula poetry I have read. As I’m sure you are aware I am lucky to share my life with an extremely talented poet but haiku etc was a genre that I was given the bare bones of during my secondary school years & have only recently become further acquainted with. I really enjoy the way that you take your art & make it “edible” for us “students”,lol! I FINALLY get the kigo principal, so thank you very much, looking forward to the rest of your posts this month

  3. Brendan Slater 05:58 AM on January 04, 2013
    Some brilliant thoughts on the use of kigo. Susan, I agree western writers could be more imaginative by finding those kigo staring us in the face. I’d never thought of tinsel as a kigo, for instance, but it is a very strong one. You’ve inspired me to revisit kigo, as I’d pretty much forgotten about them, and rarely, consciously, use them.

  4. Susan Shand 09:34 AM on January 04, 2013
    Thanks Colin, Joanne, and Brendan. I was beginning to think that I was talking to myself! …not that I’m beyond talking to myself….

    Yes, keep it real, keep it simple – can’t go wrong with that maxim I find.

    manifest
    amongst the tinsel
    a spider

  5. geaneditor 05:02 AM on January 05, 2013
    I think the main thing with kigo is believability … tinsel is a great Christmas kigo. There is a kigo problem between cultures even in the western world though, for example, turkey is a big deal in the US for Thanksgiving yet it would be a Christmas kigo in the UK. Then we also have different hemispheres where the weather is hot at Christmas. Sajiki must and should be regional and used carefully and like Susan said they should not be a substitute for getting outside and observing your surroundings, and the subtleties of the changing seasons. Enjoy your soba noodles in season!

  6. Susan Shand 01:13 PM on January 05, 2013
    geaneditor says…
    I think the main thing with kigo is believability … tinsel is a great Christmas kigo. There is a kigo problem between cultures even in the western world though, for example, turkey is a big deal in the US for Thanksgiving yet it would be a Christmas kigo in the UK. Then we also have different hemispheres where the weather is hot at Christmas. Sajiki must and should be regional and used carefully and like Susan said they should not be a substitute for getting outside and observing your surroundings, and the subtleties of the changing seasons. Enjoy your soba noodles in season!

    I don’t think that GB and USA are the same culture though Colin. Even England and Scotland are different cultures in a lot of ways. There may be things we share common understandings about but there are equally a lot which we don’t – turkeys are a prime example.

  7. geaneditor 06:11 PM on January 05, 2013
    Ha! I never said they were the same culture.
    I was highlighting differences in “Western” culture.
    but then again have you ever watched Channel 5
    Susan Shand says…
    I don’t think that GB and USA are the same culture though Colin. Even England and Scotland are different cultures in a lot of ways. There may be things we share common understandings about but there are equally a lot which we don’t – turkeys are a prime example.

  8. Terri French 08:02 PM on January 05, 2013
    “Lists can be helpful, particularly if you are composing at speed for a renku or reading work from a different country or culture. However, I don’t think that there is any substitute for getting outside, watching the world turn around you, and pondering over what you think.”

    I couldn’t agree more, Susan!!

  9. Gabi Greve 02:36 AM on January 08, 2013
    I started learning Japanese kigo as a kind of vocabulary I needed to write haiku (at that time, in Japanese).
    Like any new language (I learned English and Japanese) there is a first long stretch to just memorize the vocabulary (and a bit of grammar), if you want to do it well later.
    This is the way I see kigo.
    Learn them on a lonely evening, use them when you are out there and you can make use of your increased vocabulary.
    .
    Anyway, we need more international saijiki, that is for sure.
    .
    Greetings from a German living in Japan since 1977.

  10. Susan Shand 08:15 AM on January 08, 2013
    Gabi Greve says…
    I started learning Japanese kigo as a kind of vocabulary I needed to write haiku (at that time, in Japanese).
    Like any new language (I learned English and Japanese) there is a first long stretch to just memorize the vocabulary (and a bit of grammar), if you want to do it well later.
    This is the way I see kigo.
    Learn them on a lonely evening, use them when you are out there and you can make use of your increased vocabulary.
    .
    Anyway, we need more international saijiki, that is for sure.
    .
    Greetings from a German living in Japan since 1977.

    Your work is much appreciated Gabi. Thank you for all your efforts.

  11. geaneditor 08:47 AM on January 08, 2013
    Hi Gabi
    I studied Gaelic at university and went on to do a Masters. I am well versed in the study of the poetry of another culture and while I appreciate your efforts I feel your database has no relevance to my writing. I go out and experience life and then I write short poems (dare I say haiku) about what I experience, whether that be by sight, hearing, any other sense, memory or imagination. What can a list of seasonal indicators from Japan (many of which are now hackneyed by over-use) do to make the poems of a Scottish guy relevant. Nothing! I say again, folk should aim for authenticity and write about what they know; and not imitate the Japanese classics. Did Basho not liken imitators to melons.

    Your greeting from your 35 years in Japan also seems to me like you are claiming some kind of authority because you live in Japan and have produced a list – if I had a mind to I could itemise classical Gaelic Bardic poetry and claim some authority over all who write in Gaelic today. We should all read the classics but we cannot write new and relevant poetry using the same vocabulary as those who have gone before and be forced to stick to a limited list of seasonal indicators. Quite frankly I’d rather transcribe the weather report.

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