by Janice M Bostok
A pure black
butterfly frisks keri
Shiki was born on 14th October 1867, in Matsuyama, Japan. His gô, or pen name Shiki, which means a small cuckoo-like bird, came about after he spat blood for a week in May 1889. It is said the bird, in order to attain the fine tone in its voice must keep singing until it spits blood. For most of his adult life Shiki suffered from tuberculosis. He died on the 19th September 1902. His father was a Samurai and his maternal grandfather a Confucian scholar. He began writing Chinese verse at the age of eleven. His earliest existing tanka was written at the age of fifteen. He began studying at university but left without graduating. For a time he was a war correspondent in China. Shiki is considered to be the last of the traditional haiku masters and the first of the modern ones. Although he advocated reform most of his poems are written in the traditional form. It is his method and content for which he is remembered.
Into the ashes
it fell and got smudged;
new calendar kana
He formed a group and had a number of disciples who followed him in his desire for reform. Some of those who came after him were the free metre poets, Kyoshi, Hekigodo, Ippikiro and Meisetsu. The free metre poets tended to lengthen haiku and dismiss the seventeen Japanese syllable count. Makoto Ueda says if we are to think of the three lined haiku as a triangle shape, the free metre form of the New Trend Haiku could be considered as a rectangle.
It is thought that the haiku had been perfected in the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was thought to have reached its heights. However, when the Emperor Meiji began to reign the people’s circumstances began to change. Haiku became of interest only to a smaller and smaller group of educated individuals and were mostly incomprehensible to the average Japanese person. A failure to adjust the haiku to the people produced a feeling of disinterest and resentment.
Shiki’s reform was to bring back to the haiku a naturalness which had been lost in the over-use of classical literary references.
The outdoor stall
has a huge umbrella ya
Twilight icy rain
The method Shiki proposed to rejuvenate the haiku was Shasei, or ‘sketch from life’. This idea was similar to the painting movement which was popular in Europe at the time. For the first time artists went outside and sketched from real life, from nature, capturing the light and movement as it was at that moment. Previously the classic painter had only painted within the studio, using models and artificial backdrops. The thought was to move from pure vision to pure painting – the view from an open window. The result was to return to vision a kind of virginity. It severed the moorings which tied nature to intellectualisation.
A restless stir through the herd
Although Shiki thought haiku should be an experience he also thought it may become commonplace and trite if merely expressing self. He thought a poem that was an observation of life was always fresh and while many lives may be the same, people who could express themselves individually, would be different in their approach.
The hokku or starting verse of the haikai-no-renga had previously been established as a separate poem, standing alone. However, it took someone of Shiki’s reputation to ‘re-invent’ it, or to complete the process which had begun one hundred years earlier, by renaming the hokku the ‘haiku’.*
Shiki believed that the language of haiku should be objective. Placing the author’s subjective feelings in the poem restricted the readers from experiencing the poem in their own way. He also believed that haiku should be written from real experiences and not from the imagination.
stepped from behind the pine tree.
In the past classic, traditional Japanese haiku contained literary references which were selected for the purpose, not because the author was experiencing and writing his poem in that particular moment. In English translation this may not be clearly seen from the western point of view. But the approach to writing haiku had changed, had become natural.
It is thought that Shiki single-handedly saved the haiku from oblivion in the onslaught of western free verse in the nineteenth century. So popular had the freedom from form, and the western expression of emotional content become in Japan, it was considered the Japanese forms would become extinct.
Shiki decreed that haikai-no-renga was not literature, and by his time it was in decline. By declaring it to be dead he actually kept it alive.
In ricefield mud
wild geese footprints
Like many reformists, Shiki mellowed in his reform. Whether he simply saw that it wasn’t as successful as he previously thought it would be, or that as he came closer to death he wanted the familiarity and comfort of convention. Whichever it was, he became less radical in his own writing than some might have wanted him to be.
As the artist Maxime DuChamp says, one must belong to one’s age, no matter what.
*Haiku was a term which could be used for short verse but rarely had been up till that time. Any stanza of a haikai-no-renga which became an independent poem could be called haiku.
CUTTING WORDS (written punctuation): KA Indicates a question; RAMU Indicates probability; SHI Is used to end a clause; TSU Indicates present tense; YA Means a turning from one subject to another; KERI Is a definite break or finish; KANA Indicates wonder at the scene or event.
William J. Higginson. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. McGraw-Hill, New York. 1985.
Makoto Ueda. Modern Japanese Tanka. Columbia, New York, 1996.
Haiku by the Upasaka Shiki. Peonies Kana, Translated and edited by Harold J. Isaacson. Allen and Unwin. London. 1973
René Hughe. Impressionism. Réalités Press, Italy, 1977.
First published Yellow Moon 13 2003 pp 33-34 Copyright Janice M Bostok © 2003 sumi-e Shiki’s persimmon copyright Janice M Bostok © 2005 This article is one of a series of four and was first published in Yellow Moon 13 2003 pp. 33-34