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Volume 36.1
Spring 2005

book review:

English Seasonal Images: An Almanac of Haiku Season Words Pertinent to England
by David Cobb


reviewed by Charles Trumbull

English Seasonal Images: An Almanac of Haiku Season Words Pertinent to England, by David Cobb. 2004. 120 pages. Typescript on A4 paper, spiral-bound. $30.00 (in bills only) ppd printed matter rate from the author at Sinodun Shalford, Braintree, Essex CM7 5HN, U.K. or <dcobb@cosi.fsnet.co.uk>.

What follows is not really a review, for what I have in front of me is not really a book—yet. It is, however, an bellwether development for Western haiku. Cobb’s project not only makes an important contribution to haiku stud-ies but addresses some key issues of English-language haiku composition. His thoughtful attention to detail and delightful writing style are extras.
English Seasonal Images is an English saijiki—almanac—in the full sense of the word: it comprises a structured list of season words that have poetical associations as well as haiku that illustrate how these words are used (many so-called saijiki are really kiyose, or lists of season words without the sample haiku). Cobb’s many glosses of the terms are indispensible. The collection is organized traditionally, by season, but with a new wrinkle: instead of the Japanese fifth season, “New Year’s,” Cobb has “winter—post-Christmas” (listed first among the seasons) and “winter—pre-Christmas” (last). Within seasons, the words are traditionally arrayed, by topic: “The season,” “The heavens,” “The earth,” “Human life,” “Observances,” “Animal,” “Vegetable,” and—another wrinkle—a new catchall category called “Mineral,” which grandly embraces “things” that are neither animal nor vegetable. The 14-page “Calendar of Topics” is followed by 76 pages of Almanac and Ex-amples. Clearly Cobb compiled the Calendar independently and probably before he populated the Almanac with examples. In fact a large number of Cobb’s topics are as yet undocumented with haiku, which makes it clear that this is a work in progress. (Other English-language season-word collections typically fit the topics to the haiku at hand, a problematical practice.) Cobb’s haiku examples are all from poets living in England (only), who are identified by county of residence.

Cobb’s project also performs an important service by showing how season words can link contemporary haiku to English literary and cutural traditions. In some cases, it even seems that he is helping conserve endangered aspects of English lore. Two examples of Cobb’s explanations illustrate these points:

mist and fog [autumn; the season] Thanks to Keats’s Ode to Autumn (season of mists …) many will associate mist and fog with autumn, but it isn’t conclusively so unless something else in the context assists.… (63)

bowls, bowling green [summer; human life] Surely the epitome of leisure and taking one’s time and ease, as exemplified by the favourite English myth that Sir Francis Drake would not cut short his game of bowls to tackle the Armada. (50)

Cobb wrestles with the issue of “all-season words” and “no-season words,” and concludes only that in a haiku almanac the former are more easily dealt with than the latter. In some instances he frees up words that are seasonal in the Japanese understanding—“fog” and “duck” are two examples—reasoning, “There are numerous phenomena (particularly of weather, which in England is so unpredictable and liable to happen almost any time of year, even snow in midsummer!) which we may call ‘all-season’” (78). It is refreshing for us English-language poets to be thus liberated from the shackles of Japanese kigo, but by opening a door in this direction we may be inviting parochialism into our haiku language. On this issue, William J. Higginson, in his Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac (Kodansha International, 1996) generally comes down of the side of retaining the Japanese understanding of sea-sonal topics and words for Western haiku (see, for example, his discussion of the fine points of “haze,” “mist,” and “fog” on pages 190–95).

The poverty of the “keyword” concept that seems to be gaining currency in certain quarters is not ignored by Cobb:

It’s tempting to take advantage of the dispensation permitting the use of “key-words” or phrases with “no-seasonal reference” as a replacement for strict kigo, but so far the rationale that underpins “keywords” is little understood (if at all) in the West and I’m not sure it isn’t an abdication of responsibility, a sop to the “unready.” Also, once the almanac is opened to “keywords”—as we can see from this present compilation—so many phrases lay claim to inclusion that one runs the risk of vapid proliferation. (99)

Indeed, but Cobb himself is sometimes seduced by the keyword sirens. It is diffcult to imagine how concepts such as “sleep,” “television,” or “shadow,” which are not even proper images, can contribute much to an almanac of seasonal understandings.

Cobb’s own vastly understated conclusion may be a fitting wrapup to the present nonreview:

But perhaps, after all, this project’s only value will be, not for English readers of English haiku, but for distant readers, mainly in America and Japan, who want a slightly clearer understanding of the things our haiku are talking about.





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