Literary Shelf

The Thematic Content in Haiku

In a classic haiku we find the use of kigo, seasonal words like falling snow, leaves, cherry blossoms, cicada, jellyfish, mosquitos, cuckoo, lotus flower, orange blossoms, lily, sunflower etc. On the other hand, the modern day haiku completely ignores seasonal words. In the pre-Meiji era (before 1868), almost all haiku contained a kigo, but it may be added that Issa wrote about 109 haiku without season words. Basho rightly admitted that there is no subject whatsoever that is not fit for haiku. In the contemporary world haiku, several haiku poets including Ban’ya are less concerned about the use of kigo. The big controversy about the mandatory use of Japanese kigo is still unresolved. Richard Gilbert aware of this has emphasized that the English poets need English kigo; “From the perspective of the Anglo American genre, as with all unique cultural treasures, kigo may be an achievement witnessed, studied and admired, rather than possessed. It is also quite possible that poets and critics will proceed along an entirely different line. In fact, it seems unclear how to proceed regarding the birthing of a kigo culture in English. Likely, poets themselves will open us to new haiku vistas, yet there also exists a need for further understanding” (Kigo Versus Seasonal Reference in Haiku, Simply Haiku, Autumn 2005, vol 3 no 3).

Moreover, another significant thing is to remember that kigo represents Japanese traditon and culture. This will create more problems than solution to the pertinent question ‘What should be the haiku theme’? Here, it would be quite appropriate to remember Tsoubouchi’s definition  that kigo is “a distillation wrought by tradition”. The point is quite clear that tradition and culture of a specific country will guide us to adopt Japanese kigo in accordance with indigenous tradition and culture. Haiku poets should follow Basho’s dictum: 'Learn the rules; and then forget them.'

In fact, no universally accepted definition of haiku is possible. Max Verhhert experienced this problem while he invited several international haiku poets to send him their haiku definition in 30-40 words. Martin Lucas wrote to Max Max Verhert: . “Haiku is only defined by each haiku that is written, and, in a sense, each new haiku redefines haiku… Think of that: whenever you write a haiku you are actually redefining the genre!” (“THE ESSENCE OF HAIKU AS PERCEIVED BY WESTERN HAIJIN”, Modern Haiku, vol 38.2, Summer 2007). This makes it evident that there is no fixed way to determine haiku definition and its theme.

Another very important thing to remember behind this debate is the attitude of the surrealist and postmodern poets about haiku theme. John Holcombe in his interpretation of surrealism says: “The early- to mid-century movement in the arts known as Surrealism attempted to express the workings of the unconscious by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtaposition of content…How did the automatism work? Writers and artists gave up conscious control of their thoughts, and then put down — rapidly, without interrupting the stream of thought or vision — whatever came to mind.” This is precisely what Ban’ya in his famous collection Flying Pope is doing. Let me illustrate from Flying Pope 161 Haiku. The following haiku are some of the best written by Ban’ya, without the use of any seasonal word:

After his death
Still sick
The Flying Pope

In the palm of
The Flying Pope
A manhole

Flying pope
Even coughs

Ryne Inman aptly comments; “A strong proponent of the global nature of haiku, Natsuishi holds views that haiku's adaptation to different geographies and cultures will revise past traditions, but there are constants. Haiku is not about seasonal elements or nature anymore, but is about the similarities that we don't or can't notice. Dreams, death and other aspects of humanity are the new trademarks of haiku, and Natsuishi uses these almost 100% of the time.” No doubt, Ban’ya thinks and feels like a postmodern artist. Dreams call to dreams, and surreal images to images, and these links often seem stronger than the blind adherence to 5-7-5 and inclusion of kigo. The global issues rather than seasonal word are present as an essence in all his haiku collections. Several contemporary poets are writing haiku without including kigo. For example:

the sharp edges
of the new names

a letter from a prisoner–
the wide spaces
between words      -  Jim Kacian

It’ll be dark red
when this big stone
will cry

Unable to say “I love you”
my bare hands and feet
implore the mirror

The blue sky
so clear
its pain unlimited    - Sayumi Kamakura

cut! hack up!
the flight of butterfly…

no one can
subdue: the leap
in abyss!

The butterfly
Is late for
Its Death                 - Azsacra Zarathustra

In the above illustrations we notice that the poets have delineated the intense moods of their heart and imagination, and there is no seasonal word, a mandatory requirement in a Japanese classical haiku. Thus, it is quite clear that the theme of a contemporary haiku is guided by the personal feelings of the poet. Haiku can no more avoid the social problems faced by us during our sojourn on this planet. Ban’ya rightly reminds us that post September 11 we need a free perspective while writing haiku. Modern haiku poets with gentle strokes of irony  provide special charm to the haiku world. It has been wisely said: “Think of haiku as the vessel into which you pour your feelings.” A. C. Missias aptly remarks that modern haiku should not limit itself to the use of kigo: “ Most Western cultures do not have the wealth of seasonal references that are commonly recognizable in Japan, where every insect and animal is assigned a typical seasonal association. Thus, judgement of English-language haiku often makes allowance for other elements that may play a comparable role in setting context or evoking connotations” (Contemporary Haiku:  Origins and New Directions). The most significant thing which a haiku poet should never forget is to capture the “aha moment” which may provide “thoughts too deep for tears”.

LeRoy Gorman analyzed the possibilities of experimental, "postmodern" haiku (Randy Brooks, editor. Haiku Review '82).  It is now an accepted fact that the postmoderns reject the theme of grand natrrative, and celebrate “the absurd”. The poets like Ban’ya use parody, irony and playfulness with language to contradict the expected, and this makes them postmodern. If we study the classical haiku, we find that Issa’s emphasis on “reader response” is a postmodern quality. Haiku evolved in 17th century Japan out of earlier poetic forms. Masters such as Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), Yosa Buson (1716-1784) and Kobayashi Issa(1762-1826) made it a national Japanese practice."It's an art that depends on reader response," he said. "A haiku is never said to be born until a reader finishes it in their own imagination." This is without any doubt haiku's postmodern quality: The art isn't in the possession of the writer, but in the interaction of the writer and reader.

Thus, we find that while traditional Japanese haiku has focused on kigo, an increasingly large number of modern haiku poets, both in Japan and the West, consider a broader range of subject matter suitable, including urban contexts. While pre-modern haiku avoided certain topics such as sex and overt violence, contemporary haiku sometimes deal with such themes. In fact, the definitional boundaries of haiku have been enlarged and enriched by  including social themes in our postmodern age.

The contemporary situation of  haiku poems is that the haiku poets worldwide are writing haiku without using season words. This vast community of haiku poets interact and communicate  with each other   through national and regional societies and journals in Japan, India, Sweden, Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands), Slovenia, Serbia, Bulgaria,  Romania, and  Russia.  Some associations  like Haiku International Association, try to promote cultural exchanges between Japanese and foreign haiku lovers. Ban’ya Natsuishi made a very subtle and intuitive  remark about resolving the dispute of  necessary inclusion of kigo in haiku: “I believe that haiku poem can be written well without season words, written well I free form and not only in 5-7-5 syllables” (Speech Text for Lahti International Writers’ Reunion 2009).  Ban’ya Natsuishi’s above comment provides a plausible  key to unravel and cleanse a sort of  quagmire and doubts created by an almost unending controversy-mandatory use of kigo or season words in haiku. Jim Kacian also feels that contemporary haiku theme should not be enslaved to kigo: “However, it is incontestable that the Japanese experience and expression of climatic, geological, astronomical, not to say personal, conditions cannot be universal, any more than the European or American experience may be. Since haiku aspires to international status, the element which permits them to open must not be limited to the truths and observations of a single culture, but must be amenable to a more universal inclusiveness” (Beyond Kigo: Haiku in the Next Millennium, Haiku Moment).

More important than purist’s insistence on kigo use is the use of apt words which reveal “haiku moment” which caused the poet’s experience. The westerners will never accept kigo as being integral to haiku. Instead of season words, everyday objects are more important for them. Haiku has unlimited potential and its future is boundless if there is no rigid following of kigo and 5-7-5. Kigo is mandatory in a classical haiku, but not in contemporary writing. A season word may be used by a modern poet writing in English, if  it intensifies the “haiku moment”. Kigo should not be used by a contemporary poet as a mandatory requirement, because the haiku should reveal something humanly significant instead of just showing off with traditional season word.


More by :  Dr. Santosh Kumar

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