|Posted by Susan Shand on January 3, 2013 at 12:40 PM||comments (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.
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.