Links To The Past - An Article about Shiki
Like every dedicated student of haiku, I've read of the life and the poems of Masaoka Shiki. Unlike my studies of the other masters, I never "fell in love" with his work and never understood the importance he has been given in Japanese literature.
There was great admiration for the man, who, ill as he was with spinal tuberculosis, managed to write as many haiku and tanka as he did. That he also wrote for a daily newspaper and edited the haiku magazine, Hototogisu, had students and judged contests while confined to his bed makes one think maybe he deserves all the honor he receives.
Still it has bothered me that I could never admire his poems. I know his followers have written reams of praise for his poem:
I'm sure there are at least
fourteen or fifteen stalks
(trs. Donald Keene)
But frankly, it does not impress me. The one haiku of his that does stick in my mind is:
old garden — she empties
the hot-water bottle
under the moon
(trs. Janine Beichman)
Because there is some connection between the bright puddle of round water and a full moon one is able to retain a visual impression. If the poem is not supreme, or totally original, at least it proved to me to be memorable. The only explanation one could find was that when someone writes over 18,000 haiku, the odds are that at least a few will be great.
Another problem with Shiki was because he had declared, at the turn of this century, that haikai no renga was not literature or art. His statement was taken as gospel law by the writers so that renga writing stopped except for a very tiny group of the literati. The question was: what made him make such a sweeping statement and why did nearly everyone follow his decree?
Involvement with the Shiki International Haiku Salon on the Internet, brought more aspects of Shiki's influence to my attention. One is his theory of haiku called shasei (copying life or poem sketch). I knew what the term meant but I began to wonder how Shiki came to this concept, why he liked it and advocated it.
Sure enough. Ask a question and the answer appears. Out of boredom one hot summer day, I took down from the shelf Donald Keene's book, Dawn to the West. I had forgotten how much I appreciated his clear-eyed view of Shiki. It seemed I was getting closer to understanding Shiki by reading Keene's statement, "His [Shiki's] best haiku are given their particular coloration by his samurai stoicism and his suffering. Few are truly memorable, but he stands nevertheless at the head of the twentieth-century revival of the haiku."
Okay. But what was there about this man that made people listen to him and follow his opinion? In 1893 Shiki wrote a series of articles for the newspaper, Nippon(where he was employed)titled Dassai Shooku Haiwa (Talks on Haiku from the Otter's Study,) in which he made bold aggressive statements which were very unlike the genteel way writers wrote.
This was on the eve of the second centennial of Basho's death with many festivities planned. In contrast to all the praise from everyone else, Shiki writes that Basho's hokku were "doggerel", that only about 50 of them are truly good and of those, only eleven were true literature. That got everyone's attention.
Then Shiki continued to explain why Buson, who had been praised more for his paintings than his writings, was the greater hokku writer. Then he renamed the genre from hokku to haiku because he stated that hokku was literature but that haikai no renga was not. Going even further, using mathematical examples, Shiki "proved" that all the haiku that could be written were done because there were no more combinations of the words possible!
To quote Donald Keene again. "... Shiki was especially irritated by any display of ingenuity." This attitude was amplified in another series of articles Shiki wrote in 1898, when his attention shifted from haiku to tanka. Titled, Utayomi nu atauru Sho [Letters to the Tanka Poets],the first essay stated Shiki's opinion that the last great tanka were written in the 13th century! Whereas earlier he had praised the tanka in the Kokinshu, he now wrote that they seemed to him "to consist exclusively of bad puns and toying with words." In a flip-flop he praised the Manyoshu as having the greatest Japanese tanka.
Perhaps it was true that since the merchant class had taken over the writing of tanka and haiku, punning and word-play had slipped to a level lower than the one maintained by the nobility in whose hands tanka had largely remained over the centuries. It is easy to imagine that the down-side of the maekuzuki (the linking contests held in bars)was to award writers for the mere cleverness and to develop a taste for the sarcasm of the senryu.
Shiki, who desperately wanted to be a scholar, had to distance himself from any "common" aspect of the poetry genres. Coming from a disfranchised samurai family he was not nobility, so he scrambled not to sink into the part of any "lower" level of society. By harshly denouncing this aspect of the current poetry scene, he was able to set himself up as a dictator of taste. For this, he developed his theory of shisei in which poems had no linkage. They were simply sketches or snapshots of a moment directly stated.
This explains why Shiki found no pleasure in renga. He detested linkage! He was not a word-smith. He was not a person who worked well in collaborative situations. He was rebelling against the current poetry fashions. From this he took it upon himself to declare the genre dead. And just look what writers in English have done with it! Perhaps, if he had not killed renga in Japan, there would not have been the freedom we have had in re-establishing renga in English.
This was not the first time that metaphor and word association had been rejected. Basho himself set up his school of poetry in opposition to the Teimon school which he felt had let this poetic device degenerate into commonness and puns. This is not to say these aspects of poetry are bad or useless. This is only the natural ebb and flow of poetry styles. When one aspect is made popular and many are following the same goal, it is refreshing to find a poet who does or advocates just the opposite.
The difference between Basho and Shiki is: Basho's admiration for the old tanka in the Manyoshu was so compelling that many of his better haiku are little more truncated rewrites of tanka written a thousand years before. Basho continued to use metaphor and linkage because he was first and foremost a renga writer and teacher. As a poet from training and spirit, linkage was deeply ingrained in his inner work methods. Thus, even his "less good" poems often retained a semblance of linkage. Basho even made the statement (we are told), "That if I do not read the old tanka masters daily, my mouth fills with thorns."
Because Shiki rejected the little haikai writing training he had, and insisted on his own idea of dismissing linkage and metaphor, his poems (in contrast to his literary criticism) are not highly valued. Even R.H. Blyth disapproved of Shiki according to Janine Beichman's statement in Masaoka Shiki. Out of Shiki's lack of training in literature (he studied philosophy at the University) and because he wrote hokku as an avocation, he never understood the facility of writing the unspeakable or the deeper aims of poetry. As a writer and a person, Shiki stayed on the surface of things. This characteristic was certainly an outgrowth of the man himself, but was surely amplified by the fact that much of his writing was done under the influence of morphine which he took for the pain of suppurating sores from his illness.
He became known for his theories on tanka writing before he had even read or studied tanka literature. Only after his essays on the subject, did he immerse himself in reading the classics (and changed his mind on their worth) did he then, in his last bed-ridden years, concentrate on writing tanka.
So you see how great was the influence of this one man living on the island of Shikoku in the castle town of Matsuyama. Here was someone who as a youth refused to study, who hated his samurai up-bringing, hid from his grandfather's Confucian teachings and had just failed his examinations at the University of Tokyo. He had tried to write a novel and failed at that, too. Yet his words were accepted and followed by a large number of writers. One possible conclusion is that Shiki spoke out the thoughts many others where having and thus, it became easy for them to follow him. If there is another explanation, it would be good to have it.
It is interesting to follow the history of haiku a bit further than Shiki. When Shiki was still living he picked his literary heirs — Kawahigashi Hekigoto (1873 - 1937) and Takahama Kyoshi (1874 - 1959). These two men lived together, drank together and whored together. The split between them occurred when Hekigoto spent a month in the hospital with small pox, came out and found out Kyoshi had absconded with his girlfriend and married her.
By the time of Shiki's death, the haiku magazine, Hototogisu, had already drifted away from haiku alone and had become a general literary magazine. Still Hekigoto, as editor, was considered "the god of haiku" and he traveled about the country "teaching" that haiku could depict the vulgar and could accept subject matter not fit for other genres. He totally rejected the form; making his haiku any length with irregular line breaks. In time, Hekigoto's avant-garde haiku became more baffling and seemed to be banal.
Other poets began to write articles saying, "Hekigoto, having valiantly forged ahead on his own road, had come finally to destroy the road before him." The magazine came into financial difficulties as it lost subscribers by the score. Then, Kyoshi, who had abandoned haiku writing through his break with Hekigoto, returned to the scene in 1910, and took over the reins of Hototogisu. He insisted on simplicity, season words, a connection between man and nature, and the use of literary associations with an object.
Kyoshi's most famous statement was, "The haiku, as I understand it, is a kind of classical literary art. To call it such is not to denigrate it as being stale; a classical literary art is a special one composed under certain long-established rules. The poet who stands within the discipline is free to work as unconstrainedly as he pleases. What are the conventions of haiku? The main ones are the interest in seasonal topics, the limitation to seventeen syllables, and the poetic tone."
Kyoshi had returned to the sense of haikai that had existed before Shiki's revolution. It was Kyoshi who insisted that a haiku that ignored the seasons or dwelt on human affairs to the exclusion of nature could not be called a haiku. His conservatism alienated many poets, but he attracted an enormous following for his theories and his magazine — Hototogisu. Under his leadership, the haiku remained as it had been while the tanka of the 30s and 40s became an organ of nationalistic slogans, and other poets copied French and German poetry shamelessly. Even drama and novels were diluted with the mimicry of foreign influence but Kyoshi kept the haiku on a single and conservative track.
But this was not the end of the story. Hekigoto continued to be an influence in the haiku scene. He split away from Kyoshi and established his New Tendency School. Then Ogiwara Seisensui (1884 - 1976) split away from Hekigoto to start his magazine Soun [Layers of Clouds] which, in 1914, officially ended the use of season words. He believed a haiku "should be all dynamite." No extra syllables. But those words were of a new importance. Instead of linkage by idea or associations, Seisensui advocated linkage by sounds. At first this was very refreshing and musical, but as the poets continued their experiments, the poems became unreadable, non-sensical and untranslatable.
Though Seisensui had only a small following, two of his disciples became famous — Ozaki Hosai (1885 - 1926) and Taneda Santoka (1882 - 1940). Just recently Hiroaki Sato translated Hosai's poems in the book, Under the Big Sky I Wear No Hat, published by Stone Bridge Press. John Stevens had translated Santoka's poems in the book, Mountain Tasting: Zen Haiku by Santoka Taneda, published by Weatherhill in 1980.
The more one reads of the splits and the various haiku schools in Japan, their differences and the waning and waxing of various aspects of the genre, the more the reader gains faith that no matter what we foreigners do to and with the form, it will survive to carry the inspirations and aspirations of an even wider number of persons. One theorist cannot kill the form and just one poet can breath new life into this smallest of poetry forms.
Beichman, Janine. Masaoka Shiki. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1982.
Hosai, Ozaki. Translated by Hiroaki Sato. Under the Big Sky I Wear No Hat. Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 1995.
Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1984.
Santoka, Taneda. Translated by John Stevens. Mountain Tasting: Zen Haiku of Santoka Taneda. Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1980.