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.
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.