A Hundred Gourds 2:1 December 2012
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What Price Kigo? – seasonal reference in renku

by John E. Carley

The present article explores the uses to which seasonal reference may be put and the utility of the notion of kigo - a season word - by asking the question: what is the function of seasonal reference in renku?


The formalist answer is that the inclusion of an appropriate season word, at a preordained juncture, is a requirement. It ensures that a verse is correctly composed i.e. that it follows the rules. For those of us who like rules this is a sufficient explanation in itself, and one has only to examine a diagram of a Nijuin or read Prof. V. Stern’s description of a Kasen to know that there are enough rules to make the late Enver Hoxha spin with envy.

Unfortunately, if one actually reads Matsuo Basho two things become clear: one is that he tells us directly to learn the rules, then break them; the other, his gentle insistence that adherence to requirements of season, topic, structure, and tone guarantee absolutely nothing at all. Such considerations may be the starting point for a verse; they do not, and can never, constitute the verse itself.

In the Basho school therefore notions of simple 'correctness' are at best marginal, and at worst an impediment. If we wish to approach anything resembling fuga no makoto (poetry as truth and art) we will not do so with a mindset dominated by rules. In the main Basho did indeed adhere to contemporary conventions in respect of seasonal reference. But this was not due to lack of imagination or a subservient personality. And in his day there were fewer.


Renku is not thematic; it is quintessentially anti-thematic. The successive requirement to shift could hardly have it otherwise. Equally central to the genre are notions of totality and oneness-through-variety inherited from Shingon and Zen Buddhism. By this understanding the natural world is indivisible from the affairs of man.

An awareness of the seasons, and the way in which they inform the human condition, is therefore the very stuff of renku. All seasons. And all estates. A given seasonal requirement can function as a prompt to explore an aspect of the relationship between man and his environment. Taken together, the full span of seasons can better evoke the sum of life’s experience, one frequently serving as a mirror for the other.

A seasonal requirement is therefore not really a constraint. It is more of an invitation. It may nudge the recalcitrant contributor, but it compels no-one. And should any hint of conflict arise between convention and preferred direction we can always follow Basho’s example and mould the convention to fit. Or discard it.


Modern poets with an interest in haiku will be familiar with the theories of Masaoka Shiki, in particular with his resolve to be genuine in his writing. To this end Shiki advocated the technique of shasei (to sketch from life) which valued above all the depiction of lived experience over imagined circumstance – a lack of artificiality most readily found in relation to the natural world.

Shiki’s radical simplicity was a reaction to the excesses of a moribund literature crammed with formulaic replication and minute elaborations. By the dawn of the Meiji period haikai had indeed become a sad and corrupted spectacle. The common perception therefore is that natural simplicity is the new style of writing and rococo decoration the old. But in truth the notion of reference to the natural world as a foil to artificiality can be found as early as the 14th century treatises on courtly renga by Nijo Yoshimoto. Likewise with Basho: though his early writings belong to the fantastical Danrin school, his mature style of karumi (lightness) placed great emphasis on the simple depiction of things as they are.

The dichotomy between the natural and the artificial is one that has always been with us. And the argument has been made many times that seasonal reference may be used to ground a verse in reality. But it can also do much more. Or, depending on one’s point of view, less.


It is generally understood that Basho’s elevation of haikai no renga to the status of high art was achieved against a background of the progressive loosening of the strictures which had hitherto conditioned and constrained so much of linked verse. There have been few literary genres in the history of mankind as densely codified as medieval Japanese renga. In terms of structural requirement Basho’s approach represented a radical simplification.

It is less commonly remarked that a countervailing dynamic was underway in respect of seasonal reference, specifically in the compilation of lists of topics imbued with precise, and widely recognised, relevance to a particular time of year. This process had begun seriously with Sogi in the late 15th century but only started to gather pace in Basho’s day. Clearly sensing the direction of travel, he warned against becoming obsessive in such things. By 1800 the 1000 core seasonal terms Basho’s immediate disciples might have recognised had more than trebled to 3300. At last count a saijiki - a dedicated seasonal lexicon – might contain in excess of 15000 kigo (season words). That’s enough to write 813 Kasen without danger of repeating oneself. Or, for those serious about rules, one must write 813 Kasen before one is allowed to repeat oneself.

The term kigo is a relative neologism, and is not necessarily an advance on earlier usages which tended to centre on kisetsu – a ‘profound sense of the season’. When one talks of ‘season word’ the impression is too readily gained that simply by wielding this or that token an appropriate level of poetic insight has been evidenced. Add to this the seemingly endless desire to ascribe every word under the sun not just to a season, but to a particular part of a season, and we have the age old curse: the ticket-price of something mistaken for its worth.

But despite the excess and downright absurdity of many modern attitudes to seasonal rectitude some aspects of the development of seasonal topic (kidai) and their associated season words do bear serious consideration. Key to any understanding is the concept of hon’i (poetic essence) which describes the aggregation of values and associations which cluster around a reference to a particular bird, plant, agricultural activity, festival etc. These are the qualities which distinguish the iconic from the generic. When handled with care these overtones can add layers of resonance to a stanza which is otherwise too brief to permit explicit development and would be overpowered by comparative devices, compound metaphors and the like.

Some contemporary English-language critics term this type of transfer by association a ‘vertical axis’ and contrast it with the plain or primary meaning of a word which is its ‘horizontal axis’. In so far as a season word has tangible hon’i its use may therefore serve not only to ground a verse in the natural world, but also to enhance its range and evocative power through inter-textual and extra-textual reference.

But there is a problem: few things could be more culturally specific than the associations which give something iconic status. What is the Finn to make of ukai (cormorant fishing), given that there are no cormorant-fish in Finland? And does the mention of fireworks evoke Thanksgiving (USA) a Guy Fawkes night bonfire (UK) high summer (Japan) or Chinese New Year?

To a degree this dilemma existed in Sogi’s time too. Japan is a long chain of islands; cherry trees blossom in the south of Kyushu months before they do in the north of Hokkaido. But the centres of metropolitan power, Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo), are relatively central and relatively close to each other. From the earliest times therefore poets have tended to take their cue from those blessed with a foothold in the capital. Though there are faint stirrings of demand for regional saijiki, in renku as in haiku, the vast majority of contemporary Japanese make reference to a single corpus of seasonal reference.

Self Assertion

So ingrained is the habit of trading in fixed seasonal associations that it is not unusual to encounter commentators who genuinely believe that something in the national psyche makes the Japanese soul uniquely attuned to the relationship between man and creation. It is only logical therefore that all poets, of whatever nationality, should use the Japanese system of seasonal reference. It is the most extensive available, and must necessarily be superior in kind to those which might be elaborated by the more insensate.

The racial stereotyping evidenced by such attitudes is as gross as it is unintentional. Equally ghastly is the prospect of hordes of non-Japanese espousing a faux orientalism as flimsy as the gift shop Buddhism so beloved of those early devotees of the haiku moment. Literature is not a charade. The Oku no Hosomichi is neither Route 66 nor the Via Appia. Each has their seasons. And their poets.

Cohesion and Linkage

As has been remarked, while a number of words remain ‘all autumn’ or ‘all summer’ etc, the historic systemisation of seasonal reference has tended to assign more precise positions within a given season. We therefore encounter usurai (thin ice) as ‘early spring’; taue (rice planting) as ‘midsummer’; kuri (chestnuts) as ‘late autumn’ and so on. As with these examples such ascriptions are often entirely reasonable, though quite why watamushi (bed bugs) should not just be ‘winter’ but ‘early winter’ is something of a mystery. In my house we have them all year round.

The fashion for compact forms of renku has tended to obscure the fact that in longer sequences a designated season may span as many as five verses. The convention has always been that, although the seasons themselves will rarely appear in calendar order, the internal logic of a given seasonal run must be naturalistic.

One can be forgiven for suspecting that this is due to some obsessional rule of accuracy retrofitted to suit the subcategories of the dreaded saijiki but in truth it simply reflects the fact that renku abhors anything which halts its flow. In a tight group of verses time moves forwards. The Beaujolais Nouveau comes after the grape harvest, not before. The damp smell of burning leaves presages the end of autumn, not its beginning.

Particularly in longer forms of renku the unfolding of the timeframe can add an element of cohesion to a strand of verses. Even in the shortest forms, where adjacent verses share the same season the de facto association allows other elements in the verse greater scope to tighten or loosen the linkage at will.

But to link solely through shared season is poor writing. What is intended as a contextual element should not be elevated to the foreground. Not only is this pedestrian it is profoundly mistaken. If renku is not thematic, a season cannot be treated as a theme. In any event, a verse may reference the appropriate season with the precision of an atomic clock and still be in every way dreadful.


A further unfortunate corollary of the fashion for shorter sequences is the widespread belief that renku demands the headlong pursuit of variety at all cost. Nothing of any sort may be repeated in any fashion, for to do so would be to commit the chimeric crime of backlink.

With a fair wind, and a hefty dollop of luck, such a coarse understanding may prove sufficient for the composition of a Junicho. Apply it to anything more sophisticated than twelve verses though and the approach is plainly inadequate. The very structure of the Kasen makes it plain that fine renku relies more on re-contextualisation than on the search for absolute novelty.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the distribution of the seasonal passages, which appear in a loosely cyclical manner. As has been noted, the seasonal aspect is not the principal focus of a verse; the recurrence of a seasonal passage is therefore no more an inevitable reiteration of things past than are the events in the life of an individual or a nation. The seasons do indeed come round again. But history never truly repeats itself. A cycle does not oblige duplication.


Whilst longer renku allow for a degree of flexibility in the order and duration of seasonal passages, highly prominent verses such as autumn moon and spring blossom are awaited with expectation.

Working in combination with the folio divisions these relatively fixed positions function as staging posts in a poem’s development, helping to control the overall sense of shape, and functioning as way markers for the unfolding of the sequence. A seasonal reference may therefore both evoke the cyclical qualities of the cosmos whilst marking the linear evolution of the poem itself.

In sum

It is clear that the multiplex functions of seasonal reference cannot be reconciled with a contrived system of seasonal attributes. There are good reasons why there is not much dwile flonking in Basho. Not only is it invidious for a person to feel obliged to disregard their culture in favour of another’s, artistically it is a nonsense.

But it is also true that contrivance may exist within a particular cultural ambit. It is hard to resist the suspicion that the well grounded observations of the early Japanese masters in respect of seasonal reference have sadly met their reductio ad absurdum in the autistic excesses of the saijiki. Just because a word is touted as kigo does not mean that it has hon’i. And if something truly has hon’i there is little need for it to be anthologised in the first place.

Less certain is the question of whether renku can be successfully written without seasonal reference at all. Yoshimoto’s arguments remain hard to refute. But does this mean that the seasons themselves, and the verse positions derived from them, must be those of the temperate zone, and follow a designated pattern? Or does it mean that the Bengali poet may, and indeed should, cite the monsoon, as context, at will?

book coverJohn Carley is a mostly decrepit Englishman from the Pennine hill country of Lancashire. Fluent in a number of European languages he has also published literary translations from Urdu, Bangla, Sylhetti and, more recently, Japanese. His essays on linked verse technique have been published variously in French, German, Spanish, Bulgarian, Russian and Japanese. He is the author of the Renku Reckoner website.

‘What Price Kigo? – seasonal reference in renku’ © John E. Carley, 2012, was first published on the author's website, Renku Reckoner.


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