In my earlier articles on haiku, I offered a brief explanation of what haiku is: "What is Haiku?", discussed some of the basics of haiku form: "Not Seventeen: More on Haiku", reviewed two tenants of good haiku in "More on Haiku: Anthropomorphism" and "More on Haiku: Suchness" and offered some brief reviews of some excellent haiku books: "More on Haiku: Books". While I briefly touched upon nature in What is Haiku, the subject bears further consideration.

Historically, nature has been a prime facet in classical Japanese haiku. Harold G. Henderson, in his Haiku in English outlined a set of rules for classical Japanese haiku. He states:

"As a general rule a classical Japanese haiku:

1.     consists of 17 Japanese syllables (5-7-5)

2.     contains at least some reference to nature (other than human nature)

3.     refers to a particular event (i.e., it is not a generalization)

4.     presents that event as happening now -- not in the past" (P14)

Henderson's rule number one was covered in some detail, and rules number three and four were briefly discussed in my previous articles. As detailed in the above, nature is an integral part of the vast majority of classical Japanese haiku. For most of these haiku, nature is presented in a seasonal context. As Bruce Ross discusses in his preface to Haiku Moment An Anthology of Contemporary American Haiku: "Perhaps the most significant element of haiku, aside from its allusive brevity, has been its identification with seasonal elements in nature."(P-xxvii) Basho' (1644-94) offers an excellent example:

on a withered brancha crow has settledautumn nightfall

With the "autumn nightfall" nature is presented here in a seasonal context. Often in Japanese haiku, the seasonal reference is not as direct. Many haiku contain kigo, or "season-words" which may only be connected with a season by convention. For example, in another of Basho's haiku:

a family -- allleaning on staves and white haired --visiting the graves

"visiting the graves" represents the kigo. In Japan, "visiting the graves" is traditionally associated with mid-summer. Japanese readers, familiar with the tradition, immediately recognize the season and through that reference, nature is introduced into the haiku for them. Over the centuries Japanese haiku artists have amassed a long list of kigo based upon a relatively common culture throughout their country.

English language haiku writers and more specifically American haiku writers do not have as rich and abundant list of kigo available to them. The United States is basically a mix many different cultures, with people coming from vastly diverse histories. This diversity makes the consideration of a list of "American" kigo or "English language" an impossibility. While such obvious items as a snowman in winter and a pumpkin for autumn exist, more subtle things and cultural events will be lost to many readers.

Over a country as large as the United States, some obvious seasonal reference can lose significance. The subtle nuance of a first snowfall is lost to native southerners whose only knowledge of snow is from an annual viewing of "White Christmas". The diverse geographic, climatic and cultural landscape of the United States will make the development of a set of "American" kigo relatively useless. Concurrently, the majority of American haiku you will see will contain more of the direct seasonal references, if a season is referenced at all.

Changes in the modern world are beginning to affect haiku, especially with regard to seasonal references and nature altogether. Bruce Ross, in his Haiku Moment explains: "The modern world, at least in the urban centers, has made it difficult to consistently maintain this sensitivity to nature and its cycles. (P-xxvii)" While Ross continues: "Yet contemporary English-language haiku poets nonetheless are determining the significance of nature and of man's relation to nature in their haiku. (P-xxvii)" there is an increasing acceptance to haiku with little or no reference to nature. A haiku such as:

a cat watches meacross the still pond,across our difference

written by Paul O. Williams, published in Haiku Moment adapts nature to a more urban setting, while Alan Pizzarelli's haiku from The haiku Anthology, edited by Cor van den Huevel, seems to abandon nature altogether:

game overall the empty seatsturn blue

In spite of this increasing acceptance, and in deference to classical Japanese haiku, the vast majority of haiku today still attempts to embrace nature through either seasonal reference or direct observation. A well crafted haiku without a seasonal reference will bear additional scrutiny since it does stretch the tenants of classical haiku, but if it is good enough, it can be recognized.

Haiku students, poets and scholars often seem to make too much of the tenants or rules of haiku, at times seeming to pick nits while reading and evaluating individual haiku. There is often tenacity in their attempts to explain what is good and bad about a particular haiku. This tenacity is based upon a deep concern for most haiku enthusiasts. As Bruce Ross bemoans in Haiku Moment : "One might, however, with trepidation, envision the failure of haiku in English as it grades finally into senryu, a Japanese poetic form similar in structure to haiku but emphasizing, usually in a humorous manner, human nature, rather than nature itself. (P-xxxii)" Nature should be recognized and appreciated in haiku today. I'll let you linger on these thoughts and close with a haiku written by Issa, one of the four pillars of Japanese haiku:

The spring daylingersin the pools.


  1. Haas, Robert ed., The Essential Haiku Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa The Ecco Press, Hopewell, New Jersey 1994.
  2. Henderson, Harold G., An Introduction to Haiku Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden City, New York 1959.
  3. Henderson, Harold G., Haiku in English Charles E. Tuttle Co.:Publishers, Tokyo, Japan 1967.
  4. Higginson, William J., The Haiku Handbook Kodansha International Ltd., Tokyo, Japan 1985.
  5. Ross, Bruce ed., Haiku Moment An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku Charles E. Tuttle Co., Tokyo, Japan 1993.
  6. van den Heuvel, Cor, The haiku Anthology Expanded Edition W.W. Norton & Company, New York, New York 1999
Pub: Jan 11 2021 08:16 UTC
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