Haiku 2020

Spring Begins

where the river goes
first day of spring

   —John Wills

spring again
at the bottom of one pot
shards of another

   —Robert Gilliland

snow in the hollows
the white-winged raven
half-rolls into spring

   —John Barlow

spring again—
the river rushing
past a snag

   —Peggy Willis Lyles

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Q. In traditional haiku terms, when (in the Northern Hemisphere) does “spring” (haru) actually begin?

A. Midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox (approx. February 4)
B. On March 1
C. On the spring equinox (approx. March 20)

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125 mailing list members answered this question between 21–24 January 2020. The answers were given as follows:

A. Midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox (approx. February 4) (49%)
B. On March 1 (15%)
C. On the spring equinox (approx. March 20) (36%)

Selected at random from all correct responses, the winner of the copy of a haiku book or haiku calendar of their choice from the press, plus one free entry (of up to 4 haiku) to The Haiku Calendar Competition is Claire Knight. Congratulations Claire!

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The correct answer is
A: Midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox (approx. February 4)

An explanatory essay follows, preceded by some of the comments received, presented anonymously. As will be seen, some of these are wholly correct, others less so, but all valuably inform the discussion. Thank you wholeheartedly to everyone who got involved.

There seems to be considerable enthusiasm for “Haiku 2020” to become a regular feature, and while “regular” might be beyond me, I will do my best to repeat it!

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Magic and Myth: Comments

“What a wonderful idea! Hope this catches on. ”

“Love the haiku!”

“An intriguing question”

“Answer is A, according to Japanese saijiki. :-)”

“Thanks so much for emphasising this point and I loved the haiku examples given.”

“I knew the answer because my birthday is at the start of Winter on the Winter Solstice”

“Very fun question. My answer is B (the meterological start of spring). Though honestly, my real answer is none of the above, or “it depends.” Depends on where one lives. Here in No. Calif. we start seeing signs of spring as early as Feb., with buds on trees and flowers. Sometimes (but not always). Okay, most of the time. Thanks for getting us engaged”

“In North America Spring is felt as beginning more on March 21st”

“Spring arrives according to A. February 4 through about May 5 centering on vernal equinox.”

“That’s a trick question. For those people living in the northern hemisphere the answer is C. In Japan they consider all of March as part of spring and since you specified haru you are pushing the answer to B.”

“According to Higginson and Kondo, “In traditional temperate zone four-season calendars East and West, the equinoxes and solstices are the mid-points of the seasons. Thus, roughly, Early Spring = Feb or Aug”. Therefore, I’m going with answer A.”

“C) in the USA”

“This is fun!”

“Nice haiku too!”

“Great idea!”

“It’s fun participating in such encouraging activities. I would love to participate in the next contest again. Would it be possible to get to know the contest schedule/calendar for the year 2020?!”

“I liked your quiz. That would be the first 20 people to google the question. Anyway, it’s March 20!”

“The meteorological and particularly astronomical beginnings of seasons are ingrained in western minds. However, it only takes to pay attention to notice subtle changes announcing the arrival of a new season, and these actually occur (or did before humans managed to mess up the climate) around the traditional starts of seasons.”

“Thank you for sharing those lovely haiku. I hope it will be a regular feature. It seems that there is more than one answer to our spring question. I’m not sure which you one you are after so here are both of them. The Astronomical calender has 20th March, 2020 as The first day of spring. The Meteorological calender has 1st March, 2020 as The first day of spring.”

“A is the answer.”

“I think it should be C!”

“What a fun way to reach out and engage the Snapshot Press readership! I especially enjoyed the poems”

“I’ve found that newer haiku poets that didn’t “grow up” on Blyth, Yasuda, Henderson, Higginson, Spiess, et al. often don’t even consider season or seasonality. Some even go so far as to consider those of us who do as elitists and fuddy-duddies.”

“Thanks for the fun, and adding some poetry to my inbox!”

“The answer is A. However, in SD this sounds like a joke.”

“Spring begins on the Equinox, March 19th”

“C! Spring starts March 21, my grandmother’s birthday. It is way too snowy here in Feb. and March to start it any earlier.”

“This is fun. Beautiful haiku btw.”

“I’ve always thought of spring in terms of the equinox and the weather in Pennsylvania. But have I composed “spring” poems before that date? Of course!”

“Thank you for this!”

“I love your calendar – for the quality of the haiku, of course; but also because it champions and celebrates seasonality in haiku.”

“I like ‘snow in the hollows’: the ‘half-rolls’ provides that element of magic. I am puzzled by the others.”

“Also, thank you for the haiku, they gladdened my heart.”

If the concept of the equinoxes and solstices occurring at the mid-points of the haiku seasons really does not sit well with you, try including named seasons in haiku only when the traditional, meteorological, and astronomical seasons overlap. This is in the six-and-a-half weeks or so after each equinox and solstice. You can then be sure that all other poets and readers will make associations with your personal sense of that season. Otherwise, any reader versed in traditional haiku seasonality will consider your haiku to be set in the traditional reckoning of the season.

This final comment deserves quoting at length:

“The answer to the question, as posed in your qualifier, is A. I recall us having this discussion during the course of putting together earthshine. In addition to my own experience of the seasons, wherever I am, I think in terms of the ‘traditional haiku seasons’ offering a commonality, or culture, within which to communicate. Nietzsche wrote: “Every culture that has lost myth has lost, by the same token, its natural healthy creativity. Only a horizon ringed about with myths can unify a culture.” I believe—and practice, for the most part—that English language haiku can evolve without destroying the fundamental “myths” of Japanese haiku: season words and seasonal references. Of course there is variation from one continent to another, season-wise, and even nuance among certain micro-climates within a single region (crazily so here in San Francisco). Does that mean we should simply give up and forget about our deep communion with nature—at the heart of which is the season, now? I'm not suggesting that the fact that spring is beginning now is less important to the poet (and the reader) than a number on a calendar. Far from it. The flow of traditional haiku seasons offers a guide, a roughed-out template based on centuries of aesthetic perception that is more or less applicable today, and seems to be evolving (in fits and starts) on a worldwide scale. As we learn to internalize these seasons, we see their effect upon the observable world, as well as our inner worlds. Sure, take delight in noticing, and being able to convey the many exceptions to the rule. Your haiku, for example, disregards the venerable dictum that one haiku should not contain two kigo. Here we have snow and spring. The “raven/half-rolls” (supreme nuance), not only echoing the little pockets of snow left in the hollows, but seemingly advancing spring’s progress. There’s more to this subject that I could comment on, but suffice: the haiku poet’s horizon is ringed with myths—spring, summer, autumn and winter, and as many subtle gradations, and overlaps as their senses can detect as being significant, as being poetry.”
   —Chuck Brickley

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Why the answer is “A”, or

Spring Begins: On Seasonality in English-Language Haiku

For almost as long as I have been editing The Haiku Calendar, I have been consciously working towards a book on haiku seasonality, and its implications on, and practical application in, English-language haiku. In asking this impromptu question of mailing list members, I didn’t anticipate that the responses — by dint of their generous spontaneity, variety and number — would constitute significant research for that project.

It is now almost quarter of a century since I began to realize that many of my own haiku, and many of those I had read by established haiku poets, paid scant regard to seasonality, and particularly to traditional haiku seasonality. The issue was not down to the existence of truly seasonless (muki) haiku, which, at their best, made, and continue to make, a worthy contribution to the continuum of the haiku spectrum. And neither was it down to the existence of staid seasonal haiku, although many seemed to add little or nothing to the existing conversation. Rather, it seemed to be down to either a lack of appreciation or understanding, as evidenced in my own early haiku. Or even, in some cases, wilful disregard. Unwittingly or otherwise, poets were contributing to a steady erosion of this fundamental aspect of haiku.

The reasons are, of course, manifold, and the responses to this impromptu question clearly point to why seasonality isn’t always appreciated or valued in broader considerations of English-language haiku. Yet I remain absolutely convinced that traditional haiku seasonality can, and should, be a valuable aspect of, and asset to, English-language haiku, underpinning our experiential realities and our varied collective and individual senses of season. And I believe that, given due care, any issues regarding the implementation of seasonality are surmountable, without compromise to the immediacy and spontaneity of our haiku.

Of course, this will only come with a sea change of awareness among poets, and editors. None of us is wrong in our assertion that, in the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, spring begins on March 1 (B in our quiz), or on the vernal equinox (C in our quiz). (Or even, as one person put it, on “D. March 3 (Edward Thomas’s birthday.)” There’s always one, though it’s usually me.) We have often been taught as much as children, and both B and C are correct considerations from perspectives beyond haiku.

March 1 (B in our quiz) is the beginning of meteorological spring (or meteorological autumn in the Southern Hemisphere). The meteorological seasons, based on temperature, each neatly align to three months of the Gregorian calendar — summer being the warmest three months and winter the coldest. As with other established seasonal reckonings, the beginnings of the meteorological seasons do not vary from year to year or place to place depending on local climate or weather conditions. A weather presenter will announce March 1 as being the first day of meteorological spring regardless of whether the forecast is snow or bright sunshine. And that intuitive sense of spring beginning, and all that means to us as human beings, may be conveyed by those words regardless.

The spring, or vernal, equinox (C in our quiz), marks the beginning of astronomical spring. The astronomical seasons, which begin on the equinoxes and solstices, represent the most common (but far from only) cultural understanding of seasonal alignment in several English-speaking countries. The actual date of each equinox and solstice can vary from calendar year to calendar year, but determined adjustments by mathematicians (working on Pope Gregory XIII’s calendar reform) in the 16th century ensured that the spring equinox never occurs more than a day either way from March 20 (at least at the Vatican).

The traditional haiku seasons, however, begin midway between the equinoxes and solstices. So, in traditional haiku terms, spring begins around February 4, midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox (A in our quiz).

Or put more simply, the equinoxes and solstices occur at the mid-points of the haiku seasons.

This solar reckoning, determined by duration of daylight — with summer being the season of most daylight, and winter the season of least—is based on Japan’s historic adaptation of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, and closely aligns with the traditional seasonal reckonings of many cultures. Midsummer, the period surrounding the summer solstice, really does occur in the middle of summer. Midwinter in the middle of winter.

As such, the traditional haiku seasons begin almost four weeks before the meteorological seasons, and about six-and-a-half weeks before the astronomical seasons. It can therefore be difficult for some poets to associate certain phenomena with early spring, as they will likely have encountered them in what their cultural consciousness pre-determines to be winter.

These understandings are essential for an appreciation of traditional haiku seasonality. Many natural phenomena traditionally associated with early spring in haiku have long been and gone by the time the astronomical system trips past its own early period. Pussy willow, snowdrops, and crocuses have a clear place in the seasonal cycle. This is not between late March and late April, but in the early spring of the traditional seasons. And when we know this, and take note of the world around us and its cycle of phenomena, the alignment of many of the traditional season words — and why they are not always applicable to the astronomical seasons, and vice versa — starts to make sense.

Of course, the exact timings of natural phenomena will vary from year to year and place to place, depending on latitude, elevation, topography, and a myriad of other factors that contribute to local climate and weather conditions. Yet whether we live in the Deep South of the United States or the North of England we can both respect traditional haiku seasonality and carefully weave variations into our haiku if they are important to us. Seasonality, on an immediate, experiential level, is rooted in perception. For some people this might occur through phenological observation, for others, through cultural association, and we will each notice our own indicators as the seasons change. Arguably, this “sense of season” is far more important in our haiku than any proscriptive following of perceived rules, but it would also undermine its own purpose should it not respect and acknowledge what has gone before. If the haiku at the top of this page resonate it is not only because they are in tune with nature and the world around us, not only because they point to a specific time of year, but because they are in tune with the universality of our human condition. They take an ecological approach that appreciates and spontaneously conveys a prevernal transition from a hibernal winter state to a vernal state, during which the birds begin to sing and the hardiest flowers start to bloom. And they do so within the framework of the traditional haiku seasons, exploring a seasonal topic (kidai) in their individual and collective ways.

If our seasonal references are to be fully appreciated, we have to be singing from the same hymn sheet. As I noted in Wing Beats (pp. 214–235), a split approach to our considerations of which periods of time constitute a season, especially if determined arbitrarily by individual poets, would undermine the whole purpose of seasonality in haiku. Yet as the results of this exercise prove, our senses of what constitutes a season are determined by both individual and cultural factors, and differ from person to person. So what one poet means by “early spring” can be completely different to what another poet or reader might mean. Except it needn’t be.

Save by a few individuals on whose shoulders we might one day hope to stand, the significance of traditional haiku seasonality has long been overlooked and misunderstood in English-language haiku. Yet the traditional haiku seasons provide a structure that, even with climate change, is both relevant today and echoes through time: to our ancestors’ understanding of seasonal variations, and to poets’ close observation of the world around them. It is a structure that, if respected, can both underpin our haiku and open them up to deeper engagement and appreciation. Anyone can draw notes on musical staves without knowing their meaning. Yet knowing their meaning — and knowing how they will be interpreted by others — can result in the harmonious expression and appreciation of emotion through the sharing of form, mood, melody and rhythm. And as notes are to music, words are to haiku. Every word counts, every season word counts, and it is up to us, as haiku poets, to use them carefully.

brown hares jink
across a haze of frost

—John Barlow

Publication credits

“going” and “snow in the hollows” are from Where the River Goes: The Nature Tradition in English-Language Haiku;
“spring again” (Gilliland) is from The Haiku Calendar 2020 and forthcoming in creeksong;
“spring again” (Lyles) is from Modern Haiku 39.2 and forthcoming in Where Rain Would Stay;
“winterspring” is from Modern Haiku 50.2.

John Barlow is the editor of The Haiku Calendar, which has appeared annually since the 2000 edition. His books include The New Haiku (ed. with Martin Lucas), Waiting for the Seventh Wave, and Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku (with Matthew Paul). His haiku and tanka have received more than 150 awards, while works he has edited have been honoured by the Haiku Society of America, the Poetry Society of America, and The Haiku Foundation.

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