Kigo and Form

The YTHS Season Word List can be found here. The two essays below by founder Kiyoko Tokutomi and past-President Patrick Gallagher provide context and purpose to the List.

The World of Kigo

by Kiyoko Tokutomi

If you can envision the world of the kigo and expand it by adding your own [associations] when reading other haiku, you will discover that, indeed, seventeen syllables will allow you to experience the many deep feelings and impressions hidden within the words . . . . A haiku composed by a person who lives on the East Coast can be appreciated by a reader on the West Coast if the reader can envision the season through the kigo.

Basho and many other haiku poets discovered that three parts to each haiku was plenty to express their feelings and impressions. These three parts are always intertwined and will often reflect upon each other. As the haiku developed in the 5-7-5 form, one of these parts was given to the kigo. I like to describe the kigo as the window of the haiku. When you look from the street at a house, you can only see what is in front of the wall, but when you walk up to the house and peer through the window you can see what is hidden behind those walls. The kigo gives you an inside look at the haiku’s world and its life. Other people have said that the kigo is the heart of haiku. I think if there is no heart, there is no life. This is how we Japanese haiku poets feel about the kigo.

When Kiyoshi and I formed the first English[-language] Haiku Group in San Jose in 1975, the first lesson we taught was about kigo. Because you want to guide the reader to grasp a specific feeling or impression, there should be only one kigo in a haiku. If there are more than one kigo in a haiku, the feelings you wish to convey become obscured or unclear. And with only 5-7-5 syllables to work with, you will be wasting much of the valuable space within the haiku. This “kigo-window” works the best if it stays clear. It takes a lot of practice and polishing to achieve this goal.

Kiyoshi once said to me, “I am sure that haiku will be loved by English-speaking people.” I believed in this foresight and have seen the enthusiasm and love for haiku grow during the many years that I have been involved with the [Yuki Teikei] Haiku Society. I know that all of you have a high regard and love for renku or for composing haiku. If this were not true, you would probably be at the beach!

Since [haiku] is the way that you have chosen to express your feelings, learn to guide your reader to the window and let them gaze into the world and life of your haiku through the use of kigo. Let the kigo [allow in] . . . the light that shines [into] . . . your heart [as it] . . . expresses itself through your haiku.

[This speech was given at the annual Yuki Teikei Haiku Society Retreat, at Asilomar State Beach and Resort, Pacific Grove, CA, on September 10, 1993.]

One View of the Value of Traditional Haiku

by Patrick Gallagher

The founding principle of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society is that tradition is to be honored in writing haiku. On the occasion of the Society’s 25th Anniversary it is fitting to say a few words about this approach.

Discussions over the years as well as reflection based on experience and reading have convinced me that there are a number of advantages to the use of tradition in haiku. One advantage of following tradition in haiku comes strongly to mind when I encounter “haiku” that quote signs or bumper stickers, Spam “haiku”, or pet “haiku” which well-meaning but clueless friends cannot resist passing on to me. Following traditional haiku practice would eliminate these and other aberrant “haiku”.

It’s fair to say that all haiku traditions are not equal in leading writers away from “haiku” of the types I have cited. For instance, it seems easy for doggerel writers to achieve three lines of the 5-7-5 syllable form. In these cases adherence to the tradition of using season words or allusions to traditional culture would cure them of their misery and ours.

Another advantage of the use of traditional haiku form is that it allows haiku-writers to take their place in the world of poetry along with the writers of other named forms, such as the sonnet. The observance of the traditional form of haiku or other poetry could avoid an unfortunate trend, the proliferation of problematic “short poetry.” In my opinion this amorphous poetry with no traditional form for guidance too often lapses into incoherence, aphorism, or closed-ended humor.

In addition to the avoidance of error by following tradition in writing haiku, there is a decided positive artistic advantage. Haiku is an extreme example of “compression of language and expansion of meaning,” as Tom Stoppard defines poetry1, and it provides no space for description or interpretation. Haruo Shirane indicates that the brevity of haiku leads to a handicap for the poet in incorporating high value in a poem2. This difficulty can be overcome if the haiku contains language that resonates within the reader. Such resonance is provided by the use of season words and cultural allusion, when deeply felt and comprehended by the poet and reader.

The high value set on tradition by the Yuki Teikei Society may lead to a misunderstanding. It might appear that the Society is satisfied when a haiku shows traditional form and use of a season word, and no other attribute. This would be a case of judgment by veritas3, a term denoting the truth of a work of art as judged by standards as to what is or is not proper. On the contrary, I have found the Society places its highest admiration on poems that display alethia3, which denotes the truth in a work of art shaped by freedom. Alethia in part at least corresponds to the revelation, the unconcealment of what is already present but not before noticed, that occurs in the best haiku. From the work of the Society’s poets and others that follow tradition in writing haiku, it is clear that the artistic truths of veritas and alethia can exist together. Achieving this synthesis will continue to be the goal sought by the Society’s poets in the years ahead.


1. T. Stoppard, “Pragmatic Theater,” New York Review.

2. Haruo Shirane, “Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson, and Modern Haiku Myths,” Modern Haiku XXXI No. 1 (Winter-Spring 2000): 48–63.

3. M. Heidigger’s terms discussed in H. Rapaport, Is There Truth in Art? (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1997)

From Young Leaves: An Old Way Of Seeing New, The 25th Anniversary Special Edition of Haiku Journal, Ed. Patricia J. Machmiller and June Hopper Hymas.

Copyright 2000

*** For more on the traditional proper use of kigo, see When the Moon Can Stand Alone: Single Kigo and the Tokutomi Contest on this site.

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