Touching the Moon: Twenty-Four Shikishi

First published in Frogpond 41:1, Winter 2018, pages 75–86, in celebration of the Haiku Society of America’s fiftieth anniversary. A PDF version of this essay is also available on the Haiku Society of America website. These shikishi were also exhibited at the California State Library in Sacramento, California, from December 2017 to April 2018 (see photo below). Also see the September 1978 exhibit photos.

         come outside!

         we can almost touch

         the spring moon

                —Teijo Nakamura

On September 17, 1978, for the tenth anniversary of the Haiku Society of America, the society’s annual meeting in New York City was a particularly special occasion. It included a visit by a distinguished haiku scholar and a notable poet from Japan, and the donation of twenty-four shikishi, or poem cards, to the society. The society’s twentieth anniversary book, A Haiku Path, portrays the event as follows (163):

For the annual meeting of 1978, the critic Kenkichi Yamamoto and the haiku poet Sumio Mori were invited by the HSA to come from Japan to speak on haiku. Held on September 17 at Japan House in New York City, this historic occasion was opened by HSA President Cor van den Heuvel welcoming the distinguished speakers and thanking those who had helped make the event possible, especially the co-sponsor, Japan Society, HSA vice president Yasko Karaki, Kazuo Sato of Tokyo’s Museum of Haiku Literature, and Japan Air Lines. [See 1978 exhibit photos.] A short address by Yukio Sugano, representing the Consul General of Japan, stressed the universality of haiku and the value of the HSA’s efforts on its behalf. Yasko Karaki introduced the two speakers. Takako Lento interpreted for them as they gave their talks.

Kenkichi Yamamoto (1907–1988) is described in A Haiku Path as being “the most influential haiku critic and commentator in modern times” (163). Sumio Mori (1919–2010) was editor of the haiku journal Kanrai (Cold Thunder) from 1957 to 1971, and was one of Japan’s leading haiku poets. The talks given by these two poets and scholars appeared in Frogpond 1:4, 1978, and in A Haiku Path (pages 163 to 173).

        As is common among the Japanese, the two visitors came with a generous gift, as described in A Haiku Path (174):

Messrs. Yamamoto and Mori brought with them a set of twenty-four haiku written on shikishi by contemporary Japanese haiku poets as a gift from the Museum of Haiku Literature in Tokyo to the Haiku Society of America. A shikishi is a more or less square decorative paperboard and is commonly used by the haiku poet to write his haiku for presentation or display. The twenty-four shikishi were displayed at Japan House during the HSA annual meeting.

Those in the audience each received a copy of Haiku Selected for Shikishi, with one-line translations of the twenty-four haiku by Hiroaki Sato. The booklet was published by Ikuta Press in Kobe, Japan, in an edition of 500 copies, which were also given to current and future HSA members until they ran out. The following poets were represented by the shikishi (names given here in Japanese order, surname first):

        Over the years, the shikishi were displayed occasionally at HSA meetings, and were featured at the Dalton School in New York City at the 2003 Haiku North America conference. In 2006, the HSA deeded the shikishi to the American Haiku Archives, where they joined the rest of the HSA’s official archives at the California State Library in Sacramento. At about this time, William J. Higginson estimated the value of these shikishi at between $100,000 and $120,000, based on the typical rate at which original shikishi by these famous poets would sell individually. In the decade since then, their value has gone much higher. As a set, their value is now perhaps as much as $500,000, but as a gift their value is priceless.

        On September 26, 1998, HSA president Kristen Deming wrote to Dr. Kevin Starr, California State Librarian. She said “Thank you for your letter of congratulations on the Haiku Society of America’s 30th Anniversary. . . . You can rightly be proud of the Library’s haiku collection, surely the richest and most inclusive in the country.” She also said that the society “has an important collection of haiku shikishi (original calligraphy on special paper display cards) by some of Japan’s most famous haiku poets, which we would like to send to the Archives in the future. Perhaps someday you would like to exhibit them at the Library along with translations and some information about the poets.”

        Kristen Deming’s desire is now reality. In December of 2017, and until the end of April 2018, the California State Library is exhibiting the Haiku Society of America’s twenty-four shikishi [promotional image here and exhibit photo below] with new translations by Michael Dylan Welch and Emiko Miyashita. This exhibit helps to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Haiku Society of America in 2018, as do the twenty-four shikishi haiku translations presented here, along with the shikishi images.

         The calligraphy of the twenty-four shikishi contributors varies from simple and utilitarian to flamboyant and decorative. Each poet created his or her shikishi by hand, including brush paintings as well as the calligraphy. These shikishi have importance beyond their significance as artwork, however. In describing this exhibit for publicity purposes, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and current California state poet laureate Dana Gioia said the following:

The great haiku tradition of Japan has been part of California poetry since the beginning when Yone Noguchi arrived here over a century ago to introduce the form into English. The haiku tradition was carried on by Japanese Americans who practiced this exquisite art even in the grimness of World War II internment camps. Today haiku is a central poetic form in English-language literature. The public presentation of these twenty-four haiku on shikishi poem cards has a special resonance for California. They deepen our historic cultural link with Japan and recall our diverse past. There is no way to understand our poetry without recognizing the haiku.

        These shikishi also resonate with importance for the entire United States and beyond. In Japan, the moon is revered as one of haiku’s most important kigo, or season words. Through haiku, Japan has shown the moon to the world in a new way. And through the efforts of countless poets, translators, and scholars, the world can now see haiku. The poems in these shikishi represent not just their authors but also the light of the haiku moon as a gift to the world. As with Teijo Nakamura’s poem included among these shikishi, we are perpetually invited to come outside to celebrate the moon. We trust that these shikishi created by twenty-four of Japan’s leading poets of the twentieth century will continue to inspire all ages of haiku writers in the United States and beyond for many years. The Haiku Society of America and the American Haiku Archives extend much gratitude to the Museum of Haiku Literature in Tokyo and to all the contributing poets for their lasting generosity.

Twenty-four shikishi on exhibit at the California State Library in Sacramento, California, December 2017 to April 2018. Supplementary materials included explanations of haiku, short biographies of many of the poets, and displays of haiku books from the American Haiku Archives collection.

Twenty-Four Shikishi

Translations by Michael Dylan Welch and Emiko Miyashita

Names are given in the Japanese order, surname first. Image scans courtesy of the American Haiku Archives, California State Library, Sacramento, California.

赤尾 兜子

Akao Tōshi, 1925–1981


sasanami no kuni no doburoku yoiyasushi

raw sake

from Lake Biwa’s shore—

soon makes me drunk

阿波野 青畝

Awano Seiho, 1899–1992


kyō no tsuki nagai susuki o ike ni keri

harvest moon

I have arranged

silver grasses

安住 敦

Azumi Atsushi, 1907–1988


ranpu uru hitotsu ranpu o kiri ni tomoshi

lamp seller—

one of his lamps

lighting the fog

平畑 静塔

Hirahata Seitō, 1905–1997


hi o takite utsukushiku tatsu izumiban

building a bonfire

the keeper of the well

stands beautifully

星野 立子

Hoshino Tatsuko, 1903–1984


akatsuki wa yoi yori sabishi kanetataki

the dimness of dawn

is lonelier than dusk—

a handbell cricket

細見 綾子

Hosomi Ayako, 1907–1997


fudangi de fudan no kokoro momo no hana

in everyday clothes

and everyday mind—

peach blossoms

飯田 龍太

Iida Ryūta, 1920–2007


nemuru yaya mizu akete iru bara no gotoshi

like a cut rose

drawing up water

sleeping newborn

石原 八束

Ishihara Yatsuka, 1919–1998


genbakuchi ko ga kagerō ni kieyukeri

A-bomb site—

a child disappears

into the heat shimmer

金子 兜太

Kaneko Tohta, 1919–2018


ume saite niwajū ni aozame ga kiteiru

plums in bloom

all over the garden

blue sharks

加藤 楸邨

Katō Shūson, 1905–1993


genbakuzuchū kuchi aku ware mo kuchi aku kan

an open mouth

in the A-bomb picture—mine too


皆吉 爽雨

Minayoshi Sōu, 1902–1983


harusame no kumo yori shika ya mikasayama

a deer out of the clouds

of spring rain . . .

Mount Mikasa

水原 秋櫻子

Mizuhara Shūōshi, 1892–1981


tsuki idete bara no tasogare nao tsuzuku

emerging moon—

twilight lingers

in the roses

森 澄雄

Mori Sumio, 1919–2010


furidashi te yuki furishikiru yamatsubaki

snow falling

and still falling

mountain camellia

永田 耕衣

Nagata Kōi, 1900–1997


yume no yo ni negi wo tsukurite sabishisa yo

in this world of dreams

I grow leeks—

such loneliness

中村 草田男

Nakamura Kusatao, 1901–1983


banryoku no naka ya ako no ha haesomuru

leaves all green—

my baby’s first tooth

begins to cut

中村 汀女

Nakamura Teijo, 1900–1988


to nimo de yo fururubakari ni haru no tsuki

come outside!

we can almost touch

the spring moon

野沢 節子

Nozawa Setsuko, 1920–1995


shunchū no yubi todomare ba koto mo yamu

spring afternoon—

when my fingers stop

the koto, too, dies away

大野 林火

Ōno Rinka, 1904–1982


nemuri temo tabi no hanabi no mune ni hiraku

even while I dream

fireworks from my travels

burst in my chest

沢木 欣一

Sawaki Kin’ichi, 1919–2001


tō futatsu keitō karete tatsu gotoshi

like cockscombs

withering and standing still

two towers

鷹羽 狩行

Takaha Shugyō, 1930–                         +


matenrō yori shinryoku ga paseri hodo

from a skyscraper

fresh green trees

look like parsley

高柳 重信

Takayanagi Shigenobu, 1923–1983


oki ni chichi ari hi ni ichido oki ni hi wa ochi

father at sea—

once a day the sun sets

into the sea

富安 風生

Tomiyasu Fūsei, 1885–1979


hatsufuji no ōkikarikeru migiwa kana

Fuji viewed at New Year

from the water’s edge

so grand

山口 誓子

Yamaguchi Seishi, 1901–1994


umi ni dete kogarashi kaeru tokoro nashi

gone out to sea

autumn’s withering wind

has nowhere to return

山口 青邨

Yamaguchi Seison, 1892–1988


hina no kuchi beni nururu mama ikuyo heshi

lips of the empress doll

glisten with rouge

through how many generations?