Summer Haiku

Summer Haiku June 23, 2017

A Summer Marsh in Maryland, Photo by Allison Ehrman
A Summer Marsh in Maryland, Photo by Allison Ehrman

One would be hard pressed to find a culture that embeds the turn of the seasons into its art and media so often as that of Japan, even in modern creations. Whether we’re enjoying an ancient silk painting or the latest Anime (animation), the scene almost always provides multiple clues to the time of year in which it is taking place. Snow indicates winter, falling cherry blossoms hint of spring, and watermelons or the sound of cicadas instantly let us know that we’re viewing a summer event.

This is one of the reasons that as an earth-centered pagan I adore haiku, the art of boiling down meaning and imagery into three concentrated lines of text. Not only are seasons an integral part of haiku, but Japanese culture has developed a set of commonly understood keywords or phrases that denote certain times of the year for use in their poetry. These words are called kigo and are collected in reference books called saijiki.

The benefit of kigo in the art of haiku is that the poet can paint an image of the season for readers without having to waste tightly controlled space with the actual name of the season. This avoids repetition and enhances imagery. To a reader who understands these cultural references, it more fully builds out the setting in which the poem is taking place, including thoughts of weather, temperature, and surrounding plant and animal life. Many examples of kigo are very familiar to those of us living in the west:


Bird songs
Cherry blossoms


Lotus blossoms


Autumn foliage


Hot foods and soups
Fallen or dry leaves

If you were to make a list of your own kigo, what words would you associate with each season? What images and feelings do they invoke? This is a fun activity for any pagan.

Can you tell which season the following haiku masters were describing? Take your time and read these slowly. Then close your eyes and put yourself into the setting provided by these artists. What story is being told? Examine the moods and memories that well up inside of you as you do so. This is the way to appreciate fine haiku.

Matsuo Basho

A bee
staggers out
of the peony.

The old pond –
frog jumps in,
sound of water.

A snowy morning –
by myself,
chewing on dried salmon.

Yosa Buson

The old man
cutting barley–
bent like a sickle.

Before the white chrysanthemum
the scissors hesitate
a moment.

Calligraphy of geese
against the sky–
the moon seals it.

Kobayashi Issa

Under the evening moon
the snail
is stripped to the waist.

The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children.

Don’t know about the people,
but all the scarecrows
are crooked.

I’d like to conclude by sharing some summer haikus by my favorite master, Kobayashi Issa. I love how he manages not only to encapsulate a seasonal setting within three short lines of poetry, but to also infuse them with powerful humanity and humor. I encourage you to enjoy more of his work throughout the year, and perhaps to try your hand at creating your own beautiful and moving haiku as you turn the wheel of the year.

Three raindrops
a greeting card from heaven…
midsummer heat.

The man pulling radishes
pointed my way
with a radish.

Summer night–
even the stars
are whispering to each other.

Cool breeze,
in a grass-blade.

With my father
I would watch dawn
over green fields.

Not knowing
it’s a tub they’re in,
the fish cooling at the gate.

Step by step
up a summer mountain –
suddenly: the sea.

Children imitating cormorants
are even more wonderful
than cormorants.

Blossoms at night,
and the faces of people
moved by music.

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