Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was
thunder I slide a kigo into the gun — Alan Summers, tinywords, Issue 20.2 (2020)
Marion Clarke unveils the cinematic:
A fine haiku from Alan Summers that comes with a soundtrack! We are presented with the rumble of thunder in the first line, that also conjures up an image of a threatening sky. Intriguingly, in line two we learn that the speaker is sliding a kigo — but what does this mean? Then we discover that it is being slid into a gun and imagine that action and hear the click of a gun being loaded. Thunder is a summer kigo, so we know the air is very close before a cloudburst and might imagine cool metal against a hot palm. And, who knows, perhaps a hint of gunpowder hangs in the air.
The action of sliding something as abstract as a “kigo” into the barrel of a gun is playful and immediately evokes memories of Spaghetti Westerns. I could picture a gunslinger loading his weapon on a dusty street, and perhaps even see the steely glint of light on metal as the thunderclap signals a sudden downpour, or a rain of bullets…or both.
On a second reading, I wondered if the gun has been loaded with a kigo of more favorable weather, such as “blue skies” or a “burning sun” that will blast away those threatening skies.
Peggy Bilbro reacts as a poet and a warrior:
Odd that Alan used the word slide because that is what my mind wants to do every time I read this poem. It wants to slide away from the gun, the bullet, and the sounds of war that all underlie the words. I try to concentrate on the distant thunder of an approaching storm, the observation of seasons and the idea of a poem as a weapon against the injustices of life, but am constantly pulled back to the chilling vision of impending war. It seems that Alan has caught the perfect balance that forces the reader to exist between the implicit and the explicit, wishes and facts, creation and destruction, poet and warrior. This is a poem that will stay with me for a very long time.
Alan Summers gives us in-depth background on his poem:
I’ve long been fascinated by the use of words or phrases that tightly pin down an aspect of a season (kigo) into a haikai verse (hokku, haiku etc.) as accomplished by Japanese poets. Of course, it may never be possible for those of us who do not come from Japan, but we are all governed by the seasons, even as they change in contemporary times.
This haiku runs through Masaoka Shiki’s three stages and hopefully out of the other side:
1. to copy reality as it is
2. to select carefully from experience (the next stage)
3. to include makoto, internal, psychological reality of what is truthful
Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature
Makoto Ueda (Stanford University Press 1983)
This haiku starts with a Japanese kigo (see more further below). The Japanese are trained at a very early stage in schools to always add a kigo in their haiku, and this is enforced whenever someone joins an expert’s school of haiku. I attempt, in my own way, to show how potent the use of these seasonal feelings can be. Originally the “seasonal feelings” were said or written, in Japan, in conversations as well as in types of postcards, during the pre-dominant agricultural era, and naturally found their way into haikai verses as “kisetsu no kotoba” (季節の言葉).
Kigo 季語 is a “word” (GO 語) indicating the season (KI 季) in which the haiku takes place. [T]he terms kigo and its partner term kidai are Post-Isolation Japan. After haiku became a fully independent genre, the term “kigo” was coined by Otsuzi Ōsuga (1881-1920) in 1908. “Kigo” is thus a new term for the modern genre approach of “haiku.” So, when we are looking historically at hokku or other haikai verses stemming from the renga tradition, it seems best to use the term “kidai,” although that term was coined in 1907 by Hekigotō Kawahigashi.
Itō, Yūki. The Heart in Season: Sampling the Gendai Haiku Non-season Muki Saijiki
(preface in Simply Haiku vol 4 no 3, 2006)
‘Otsuji’s Collected Essays on Haiku Theory’ (Otsuji Hairon Shu) ed. Yoshida Toyo (Tokyo, 1947)
Let’s look at a pre-haiku era poet (before 1896), the much loved Issa:
romaji: shoojiki ni tsuyu kaminari no hitotsu kana
(Kobayashi Issa 1763–1828)
English translation (version by Alan Summers):
a roll of thunder
to be accurate, declares
the rainy season
The hokku is from the sixth month (July) of 1820, and Issa is living in his hometown. This is the 135th day after the beginning of lunar spring, the formal first day of the rainy season: A calendar date vitally important for farmers as they begin planting rice paddies, even if the rain doesn’t fall. In the hokku, there is thunder on a humid start to the official rainy season. Most villagers wish the clouds would stop making sounds and start raining. Issa expresses their anxiety and then seems happy that one roll of thunder on this day is accompanied by actual rain. The rainy season begins, and the chances of a drought, and a disastrous rice crop, have gone in that one roll of thunder.
Paraphrased from the thunder topic in haikai literature by Dr. Gabi Greve, World Kigo Database, Daruma Museum, Japan (September 2006)
“…I do not believe that the Japanese have a lock on kigo…”
Patricia J. Machmiller, “Kigo: A Poetic Device in English Too”
Wild Violets, Yuki Teikei Haiku Society Members’ Anthology 2011
ed. Jerry Ball and J. Zimmerman ISBN 978-0-9745404-9-8
We as a society often use terminology that usually belongs to weaponry without even realizing this. Here, in my haiku, it’s a deliberate use of a device humanity has been using since 1364 A.D. The advent of advanced automatic handguns came about in 1892, four years before Masaoka Shiki (正岡 子規, 1867–1902) took the little-known and rarely used term “haiku” for his revamped idea of hokku, combining Japanese seasonal feelings; the kire device of making a haiku of two halves comes around as a verse larger than the sum of its parts; and Western en plein air painting techniques.
To sum up, for the moment, I find the insertion of something seasonal (natural history and/or poetic) as something very powerful, that should always be an option in our armory.
As this week’s winner, Peggy gets to choose next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.
Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!
The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy.
open page shadow of the poem leans forward — Karen DiNobile, Frogpond, volume 36:1 (2013)