14 or 15 Combs

The following commentary is from a book review by William J. Higginson of Shiki Haikusphere (Matsuyama, Japan: Prinart / Okada Printing Co., 2007), an anthology celebrating the first ten years of the Shiki list (see its old website), an innovative and influential online haiku discussion list that debuted in July of 1994. I was an active participant on this list, and was one of ten poets invited to contribute to the anthology (see my ten poems from the book, with Japanese translations by Kimiyo Tanaka). Higginson’s full review is available on his blog, Wordfield’s Haikai Pub. As Higginson notes in the comments on his blog post, “the overall effect of the list . . . was to bring real haiku and the discussion of real haiku into the Internet age.” The following selection from Higginson’s review focuses on the first of my ten poems to be included in the anthology. I had written the poem on 24 April 2003, and its first publication was in Shiki Haikusphere (not on the Shiki list). At the end of this commentary are two photos that show the appearance of a cockscomb plant, the subject of the poem discussed here, followed by an excerpt from Donald Keene’s biography of Shiki that explores the same poem, plus commentary by Adam L. Kern from his translations of Japanese haiku. One aspect of Shiki’s controversial poem is how the uncertain number nevertheless represents thriving abundance and even flamboyance, in contrast to the devastation of Shiki’s illness while bedridden with tuberculosis, unable to see his garden, or at most catching a glimpse. The third postscript presents thoughts in this vein by Natalie Goldberg.       +       +

by William J. Higginson

Beyond the Preface, the book Shiki Haikusphere has as its main contents ten haiku each by ten poets who have been involved in one or another of the Shiki lists throughout the first decade of their existence. These are, in order as they appear in the book, Roberta Beary, Yu Chang, Earl Keener, Dhugal Lindsay, Paul David Mena, Paul Miller, A. C. Missias, Jane Reichhold, Timothy Russell, and Michael Dylan Welch—all names I imagine many readers of this blog will find familiar. The poems are presented in their original English and in Japanese translations, the latter by Shiki Team member Kimiyo Tanaka. . . .

        [T]here’s one [poem] that catches my eye in particular, and brings a smile. I don’t know how long ago this was written; perhaps it was in an early post on the Shiki list:

                disinfectant jar—

                there must be 14 or 15

                barber’s combs

                殺菌壺 / 床屋の櫛 / 十四五本もありぬべし

                Michael Dylan Welch

Play this against one of Shiki’s most famous verses, which I’ll translate in parallel with Michael’s poem (though that’s not the order of the original):


                keitō no jūshi-go hon mo arinu beshi

                there must be 14 or 15


                (Original order: of cocks-combs / fourteen or fifteen [stalks or blooms] / there must be)

Note how the third line of Kim’s Japanese translation of Michael’s poem (just above his name) exactly quotes the latter two-thirds of Shiki’s original cocks-comb poem.

        While Michael’s poem is a refreshing, humorous take on Shiki’s verse, the reference to the latter also brings to mind the fact that Shiki, at that point in his life, was bedridden, and perhaps could not see the contents of his small garden well enough to distinguish such a number. Shiki’s verse, in turn, reminds me of William Carlos Williams’s poem, later called “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which opens “So much depends / upon” and so on. The one anecdote I know about that [poem] tells how it was written about a young patient of Dr. Williams’s, who, bedridden, could only see that scene from her bedroom window.

        In contrast with this, Michael is out and about, taking in the world inside a barber shop. The number, of course, is no accident, and may or may not represent a reasonable approximation of the number of combs he saw. But by bringing together a barber shop—the former home of Western medicine—and Shiki’s slightly vague number of cocks-combs, Michael raises the infinite wonder of life, even against illness and dying, just as Williams in his poem did. The impertinent combs, of whatever variety, trumpet our will to see, even on the edge of the abyss.

        Too much freight for one small, grinning parody? I don’t think so. Michael knows North American poetry, probably as well as I do, especially that of the so-called Imagists and other masters of the early 20th-century short poem. So, even if he did not intend to reach all the way over to Williams through Shiki, consciously, I’m willing to bet somewhere inside he knew what he was doing. And even if not, as I’ve said before, the language knows more than we do.

These photos, which I took near Hase-dera Temple, Japan on 25 November 2013, show Emiko Miyashita with a cockscomb plant. The bright flower at the top is about eight to ten inches tall. Imagine fourteen or fifteen of these dramatic flowers just out of view beyond your sickbed.

Donald Keene Analysis

The following excerpt from Donald Keene’s The Winter Sun Shines In: A Life of Masaoka Shiki (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pages 115–116, provides some enlightening observations about Shiki’s famous cockscomb poem. See my review of Keene’s biography.

One celebrated example of Shiki’s [rare] ambiguity occurs in a haiku written in 1902, toward the end of his life. It is in the shasei mode and seems to offer no problems of interpretation.

                keitō no Cockscomb—

                jūshigo hon mo There must surely be

                arinu beshi Fourteen or fifteen stalks

The question here is not the meaning but what makes the seventeen syllables a poem. On the surface it seems no more than a casual observation. Unless the reader knows the circumstances of its composition [what I often refer to as the haiku’s “fourth line,” or the effect of knowing the author’s biography and other information from the name of the poet after the poem—see “Knowing the Poet”], it lacks emotional content; but if he is aware the Shiki was close to death, it is not difficult to visualize Shiki gazing from his window at the plants growing in his garden and guessing (because he cannot leave his bed) the number of stalks. This still does not necessarily make it an interesting poem. The reader will either find the poem a failure or suspect that something else, an ambiguity, is behind a seemingly placid observation.

        At the time it was composed, the poets closest to Shiki did not consider this an important haiku. Neither Takahama Kyoshi nor Kawahigashi Hekigotō included it in the collections they made of Shiki’s best haiku. Another critic defied anyone to state what difference it would make if “seven or eight stalks” were substituted for “fourteen or fifteen stalks.” However, the critic Yamamoto Kenkichi (1907–1988), the most passionate admirer of this haiku, insisted on the importance of the sound of the words and argued that anyone who argues exclusively on the meaning does not understand poetry. He also claimed, “It was a tremendous assertion for the poet to have said, ‘There must surely be fourteen or fifteen stalks of cockscombs.’ When we read this poem we cannot imagine it was possible for there to be more or fewer cockscomb than fourteen or fifteen.” [A footnote cites “Yamamoto Kenkichi, Gendai haiku (Tokyo: Kadokawa shoten, 1965), 26.”] Above all, Yamamoto contrasted the vitality of the flowers with the immobility of the dying Shiki. [A footnote here says “For translations from Yamamoto’s writings, together with her own analysis of the haiku, see Beichman, Masaoka Shiki, 64–65.”]

        Konishi Jin’ichi (1915–2007), a great scholar of Japanese literature who was particularly devoted to haiku, after giving a brief history of the ups and downs of the reputation of this haiku, ended with the comment, “Strange to say, the various authorities who have praised this haiku in the highest terms have never attempted to explain what makes this a superior haiku. Probably the superiority results from something like religious inspiration; it is not criticism that can be traced back to literary experience.” [A footnote here cites “Konishi, Haiku no sekai, 266.”]

        It can hardly be doubted that the admiration expressed for this and others of Shiki’s haiku may be based not so much on literary principles as on affection for the man and faith in the sincerity of his utterances; but Shiki did not teach his pupils to be absolutely sincere in their expression of emotions or, conversely, to be interestingly ambiguous; he taught them instead to describe nature truthfully.

Adam L. Kern Commentary

The following excerpt is from Adam L. Kern’s The Penguin Book of Haiku (United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 2018), page 324. Kern translates Shiki’s poem as “cockscombs: / up to fourteen . . . fifteen / stalks, even” (keitō no jūshigohon mo arinubeshi).

One of the poet’s best-known if most controversial verses, written, according to its headnote, while gazing upon his garden. A keitō is a plumed cockscomb (Celosia argentea), whose vibrant red flowers, resembling the crest of an actual cock, are associated with autumn (when in point of fact they bloom from late summer through late autumn). Although some critics have condemned this verse as little more than straightforward description deploying conspicuously unconventional numbers (fourteen and fifteen) in a strained effort to appear uncontrived, others have hailed it as a masterpiece for the pathos beneath its unemotional objective surface. Since cockscomb stalks grow in clusters, adding to the impression of their robustness, they are hard to count precisely, especially from a distance. Even if  Shiki guessed well, however, that would be no consolation for the fact that the cockscomb is highly resilient to disease—unlike the frail poet, whose tuberculosis that would kill him within a few years was already advanced enough to prevent Shiki from simply walking out into his garden and counting the stalks for himself.

Natalie Goldberg Variations

The following excerpt is from Natalie Goldberg’s memoir about haiku, Three Simple Lines (Novato, Calfironia: New World Library, 2021), page 59. Goldberg presents Janine Beichman’s translation (“Cockscombs / must be 14 / or 15”) from her Shiki biography, and then offers these comments.

I learned that cockscombs are those ruffled, velvety, convoluted flowers that grow in bunches and look like flames—or like compacted, crested, plume-like heads. They can be yellow, orange, or hot-red. I like to think Shiki’s were red—the color of lust, desire, blood. Close-up, the flower looks like brains. So full of life in the middle of summer, those cockscombs are contemplated by this very sick man, everything aching. Vital flowers next to his diminishing body. One is growing; one is wasting away. But even in his suffering, he is able to ponder the cockscombs—how many, fourteen or fifteen? He accepts ambiguity, a high mark for haiku. He accepts the mind of uncertainty and expresses it, making this haiku modern: conversational, banal, unassuming, mortal, almost like a whisper.