In publications, it’s common to see haiku poems organized in four sections named after the four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. But in some traditional Japanese haiku books, you’ll sometimes find a fifth section, or fifth “season”, dedicated to the New Year. It’s because “The New Year is a season by itself”, wrote R.H. Blyth in Haiku.
Blyth explains that New Year used to be celebrated in the spring:
“When the lunar calendar was in vogue, January the First was what is now about the beginning of February. Plum was blooming in sheltered places, and the spirit of spring was already in the air.” (R.H. Blyth, Haiku)
That’s why in the New Year section, you’ll often find spring haiku like this one:
Even my shadow
Is safe and sound and in the best of health,
This first morning of spring.
Issa (Tr. R.H. Blyth)
Spring turns to Winter
In 1873, after Japan moved to the Gregorian calendar, New Year’s Day was celebrated on January 1st.
The Fifth Season
Some western translators who were accustomed to four seasons – spring, summer, autumn, winter – weren’t sure how deal with the New Year section in haiku books.
Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, by R.H. Blyth. The New Year has its own section. (Hokuseido Press)
Some editors kept a separate section for New Year – sometimes referred to as “The Fifth Season” (although it’s technically the first) – which was often placed before the spring section.
Other editors integrated the New Year’s haiku in the spring section so they could stick to the four seasons known in the Western world. Therefore, New Year’s haiku would be found at the beginning of the spring section, with the spring haiku.
So, if you are looking for New Year’s haiku in an anthology or a saijiki, look at the table of contents for a separate New Year section, or browse the beginning of the spring section.
In R.H. Blyth’s Haiku, The New Year is a separate section that appears in Volume 2: Spring, before the Spring haiku section.
When Roger Munier (Haiku, Editions Fayard, 1979) translated a selection of haiku from R.H. Blyth’s book in French, he integrated the New Year haiku with the spring section.
There might be two explanations for this:
- he thought there weren’t enough New Year haiku to create a separate section for them (he translated 10 New Year poems, or 4 pages, while R.H. Blyth had about 50 haiku with commentaries displayed over 20 pages), or
- he didn’t want to confuse the public or write a long explanation about why New Year haiku have their own section.
So, similar content, but two ways to deal with the Fifth Season.
What would you do if you were in this situation? Would you keep The Fifth Season?