Years ago, at a Poetry at Round Top workshop on Aimee Nezhukumatathil gave us Robert Hass’ definition of haiku: “A three-line, poem, with syllables of 5, 7, and 5, written in Japanese.” She emphasized, “in Japanese” with such gravity that the definition has stuck with me to this day. Obviously, as an American haiku practitioner, I don’t 100% agree with it. Yet the haiku is so embedded in Japanese history and culture that American haiku is not the same. I believe that all poetry forms are culturally malleable (the sonnet did well moving from Italy to England), yet some are more grounded in the place where they emerged. I am an American poet, and so I write American haiku.
This past December, my friend Jenny came over for tea. The conversation turned to haiku, and then we ended up talking about renga. I thought it would be fun for us to write our own; I selected the 20-link nijuin form, since it was just the two of us, and we were both new to writing linked verse. I pulled out my copy of Bruce Ross’ How to Haiku for quick guidance. Jenny was also new to the concept of kigo, so I grabbed my copy of William Higginson’s Haiku World off the shelf to show her the seasonal lists. I’d found a like-new copy at Half Price books a few months earlier, but hadn’t made time to give it my attention. Flipping through the entries, I got inspired. I decided to spend a year working through the saijiki. But I didn’t want to start on January 1st. I was in the home stretch of my third failed attempt at the Buson challenge (where you attempt to write 10 haiku a day for 100 days), and wanted to take a break. So I decided on the spring equinox as my starting date. Though I’m not a particularly spiritual person, I do love the sense of symbolism of the spring equinox as a new beginning.
One of the things I’ve learned as a teacher is that it doesn’t matter how often you present information to someone: it won’t sink in until they are ready to receive it. I’ve seen this play out time and again with students in my technical writing courses, and I mention it here to offer myself a sense of grace. Certainly I didn’t get much, if any, instruction on the lunar seasons when we composed our little three-line poems in elementary school classes. My haiku interest began to develop in 2015; I established a regular haiku practice in 2017; I became serious about deep haiku study during lockdown in 2020. I have every reason to believe that I must have crossed paths with a breakdown of the haiku seasons, which run on the lunar calendar, at some point in those years. Yet somehow, I didn’t figure out that haiku seasons and Gregorian seasons weren’t entirely compatible until January 2022. I know the information was there; I just wasn’t ready for it yet.
I realized that my plans for a haiku year weren’t going to start on the first day of haiku spring; they’d be starting in mid-spring according to the lunar calendar. By the time I realized this, the calendar year was already underway. It was too late to revise my plan and start on January 1st. As a perfectionist who likes to do everything right and have things just so, I was disappointed in myself regarding my lack of proper research and planning. In that time, I also encountered possibility that my focus on saijiki study wasn’t going to be fruitful as an American practitioner. In “Haiku Talk: From Basho to J. D. Salinger,” Sato Hirokai states,
[I] think creating what might be called a seasonal paradigm to the one that exists in Japan is going to be difficult for mainly two reasons that have nothing to do with the size of the country or climactic variations.“Haiku Talk,” p. 18
Rather, the differences are cultural. Sato goes on to say that,
One difficulty arises from the fact that Japan is culturally uni-centered whereas the United States is multicentered . . . This cultural uni-centralism has allowed the creation and maintenance of things like the seasonal paradigm—not a likely possibility in this country.“Haiku Talk,” p. 18
I’d heard other people write about the struggles of developing consistent seasonal words, but they had, as Sato noted, related their troubles back to the geographic diversity of the country—not an unreasonable complaint. I’m currently writing this on an April morning in Austin, Texas, which looks quite different from an April morning in Cleveland, Ohio, where I grew up. What Sato, argues, though, is that climate differences don’t matter as much; after all, Japan has its own differences as you traverse north to south, and between mountains and coast. Rather, it’s that Americans as a culture are so individualistic that the idea of developing a consistent seasonal framework is impossible.
Sato also points to the lack of a student-teacher relationship in haiku societies as a primary reason why a seasonal paradigm would never work:
American haiku writers also form groups or associations, but they do so mainly for the casual purpose of getting together with other people or having their pieces published. They do not do so to have one ‘teacher’ or ‘master’ and allow themselves to be guided and led by that person. Most American haiku writers would be shocked to learn that the primary task of the head of any haiku society in Japan . . . is to revise his or her students’ haiku at will, automatically, routinely. Americans are too independent to allow that kind of thing to happen.“Haiku Talk,” p. 19
His statement does reflect some of what I’ve witnessed: while there are some haiku mentorships out there, many of the haiku groups in the United States are more egalitarian in nature. There is one haiku practitioner I know of who offers yearlong haiku intensives as a teacher, but his programs range from $1,100 to $4,500 a year . . . out of range for many of the haiku practitioners I know.
Reading Sato in the COVID world, I agree that Americans, as a whole, are too individualistic. I’ve spent the past two years acutely aware of how rampant individualism has caused the death of 982,000 people (as of this writing), the suffering of thousands more, and has had an unfortunate ripple effect through the rest of the world. However, while American haiku practitioners are enmeshed in an individualist paradigm, I’ve also found them to be serious both about bringing the essential parts of Japanese haiku into American haiku, as well as revising their own poems. Yes, some people are resistant to feedback, but for the most part, I find haiku poets earnestly seek revision advice. Those who refuse any and all constructive criticism are in the minority. It’s true that most of the time, feedback is requested and offered in a more egalitarian way than a formal teacher/student relationship. Even when a more experienced poet gives feedback to a less experienced one, the interaction is less forma and hierarchical. In addition, I do often perceive a resistance to unsolicited feedback. I know many of my haiku peers who would be happy to have their haiku revised at will, but I know just as many who would be annoyed by unrequested revisions. We cannot completely replicate the structure of Japanese haiku societies, but I don’t think that’s the point. American haiku is simply not gong the same as Japanese haiku. What matters to me is the way in which I see American practitioners doing their best to bring the essence of haiku into the time and place in which they live.
Just as I cannot completely replicate the Japanese approach to haiku as an American, I cannot and should not get too hung up on seasonal designations. In his introduction to Haiku World, Higginson notes that that,
[I]t is important to remember that these traditional assignments are simply a convenient way to organize our observations of seasonal phenomena and poems about them. Astronomical seasons may stay the same, but perceived seasons can and do vary considerably from year to year, even in the same place.Haiku World, p. 28
Seasons have their characteristics, but they also have liminality. Spring may begin in February in the lunar calendar, but when I lived in Ohio, February definitely never felt spring-like (except for that one day of false spring you’d get somewhere in the last third of the month before being plunged back into the cold). Even March felt more like winter, and snow on my April birthday was rare, but not out of the question. Yet the last two weeks of May always felt like full-blown summer, to the point where being stuck in school another two weeks after Memorial Day felt cruel. For most of the time I lived in Texas, January felt like spring (though the past two Februaries have been heavy on the winter side). Meanwhile, in both states where I’ve lived, August never felt quite like fall (due to the heat), but also not quite like summer (due to the shortening days).
Higginson also reminds us that,
Blinding oneself to the actual phenomena of a given place and time because of some loyalty to the saijiki will only interfere both with creating poems and appreciation of the phenomena themselves.Haiku World, p. 28.
So far, I’ve found my saijiki study useful to my haiku practice; I also know that no collection can be definitive. In my haiku notebook, as well as in the pages of Haiku World, I’ve been making notes of other seasonal terms, both related to Texas and elsewhere, that are useful to have on my own personal list. A saijiki is a starting point; it is a mode of inspiration; it is a guide. It’s not the sole authority of your haiku practice. (Though perhaps that’s just my individualist American nature asserting itself.)
Ultimately, I am a poet focused on a form born from a culture that is not my own. I live according to one calendar, and write from a poetic tradition that uses another. But as I mentioned above, it’s not as though the seasons themselves are clearly-defined entities (especially in the current phase of climate change). What I can do is embrace the conflict. I did start my saijiki study on the spring equinox as originally planned, with the distinction between the calendars at the forefront of my awareness. Rather than limiting what I’ve been able to create, I’ve found that embracing the fact that I am simultaneously in two modes of spring, one Gregorian and one lunar, has created another liminal space: one where I have more room to observe the world as it exists right now, and to write to that current manifestation.
Of course, I’ve written nearly 2,000 words, and have yet to explain how my interest in saijiki study led to my desire to create a blog about food in haiku. My April 26th post will detail the inspiration to compile food-related haiku into a saijiki of its own, and to create a podcast around it. In the meantime, take the opportunity to consider how you relate to the seasons in your own haiku practice. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!
Higginson, William J. Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac. Tokyo: Kandasha International, 1996.
Ross, Bruce. How to Haiku: A Writer’s Guide to Haiku and Related Forms. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2002.
Sato, Hirokai. “Haiku Talk: From Basho to J.D. Salinger.” On Haiku. New York: New Directions Publishing, 2018. pp. 3-20.