An Introduction to Haiku – Form & Structure: kireji & kigo

Cutting Words

Another structural feature of the haiku is the kireji, or “cutting word”. In Japanese, kireji is a word used as punctuation, often signifying a question or an emotional subtext. It also signifies a break or pause at the end of a line. In English, cutting words are generally replaced by punctuation like exclamation marks, question marks, and dashes, or less often, commas or ellipses, depending on how sharp a “cut” the author is aiming for. See this haiku by painter and poet Yosa Buson:

utter aloneness—
another great pleasure
in autumn twilight

—trans by Sam Hamill

Or sometimes there’s no punctuation at all, but more of an implied pause, as in this ku by lesser known poet Raizan:

for rice planting women
there’s nothing left unsoiled
but their song

—trans by Sam Hamill

Season-Words

In addition to these structural features, there’s another requirement for Haiku poetry: the kigo, or “season-word”, which is something in the haiku that locates the poem in a season of the year.

Kigo are what differentiates the haiku from other, similar forms of Japanese poetry (more on that next post). Kigo are triggers that set off a seasonal association in the mind of the reader, sometimes with complex cultural and historical overtones that are absent when transplanted into another language or culture. For instance, the autumn kigokinuta” is translated as “fulling blocks” and signifies the mallets used to pound fullers’ earth through cloth in a traditional dry cleaning process. “The sound of fulling blocks was typical of an autumn evening in old Japan“. Due to this layer of meaning, formal kigo are not always used in contemporary English language haiku; instead, region-specific words, phrases, or other seasonal indicators may appear.

Season words are metonymic or associative in all cultures—we each have our memories about the seasons and the activities performed within them. Inclusion of a kigo, or at the least a seasonal reference, is important to haiku not just for subtly but for richness. They give the verse a bank of memories, images, and associations to invoke in the reader without drowning the poem in words.

Here are two examples of kigo, both by  Kobayashi Issa, another haiku master:

bonfire—
a scarecrow also ends up
in evening’s smoke

— trans by David G. Lanoue

Here ‘scarecrow’ is the kigo, invoking autumn with clarity and simplicity. Next, a verse where the kigo is taken to represent late summer—bet you can guess which word it is:

little monk—
deep in his sleeve
singing, a cicada

— trans by David G. Lanoue

Of course, the world is a big place, and different countries have different weather, customs, and traditions, so kigo may not always be understood by every reader. For instance, if I were to use the word “June” in a verse, then readers in the Southern hemisphere might think, “Ah, this poem is set in winter!”—but June is obviously a summer month for different parts of the world.The problem is clear, not all kigo cannot exactly be universal.

Therefore, sometimes it might be better to choose a word or short phrase to hint at the season, or to just name it outright. Invoking features of nature works too—”summer grasses”, for instance. To read more on the problematic nature of kigo in modern English Language haiku , have a look at this brilliant article (and this one) by John Bird.

Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1828)

Next – a post on a couple of forms/movements closely related to haiku.

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