The Winter Sun Shines In: A Life of Masaoka Shiki, by Donald Keene
Columbia University Press, 61 West 62nd Street, New York, NY 10023, USA
2013, hardback, 248 pages, 5.75 x 8.5 inches, US$35.00 / UK£24.00, ISBN 13: 978-0-231-16488-7
“The scent of plum blossoms and the clouds of cherry blossoms still delight the Japanese, today as in the Heian period, and many thousands, if not millions, of Japanese travel long distances to see the red autumn leaves; but poets hardly mention them any longer, preferring to compose haiku or tanka to describe the experience of living in a modern world. This was Shiki’s achievement.”
—Donald Keene, The Winter Sun Shines In
We who write haiku have all heard how Shiki died young of tuberculosis, and how he was bedridden and in great pain for the last years of his life. But no book I’ve read before about Shiki and his haiku revolution makes the poet’s pain as real, intense, and extensive as does Donald Keene’s new Shiki biography, The Winter Sun Shines In: A Life of Masaoka Shiki (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013). The book takes as its primary source Shiki zenshū, the complete collection of Shiki’s writings, in twenty-five volumes. Keene’s book tells of Shiki’s life, including his samurai ancestry, his birth and early years in Matsuyama, his being banned from public speaking at his high school because of political activism, his university days and an original desire to be a philosopher, his brief sojourn to China as a war correspondent, his friendship with Natsume Sōseki, the start of the Hototogisu haiku journal, and the critical writing that brought him quick fame in haiku circles. More importantly, the book covers Shiki’s reformation of haiku and tanka, and his explorations of fiction, haibun, Noh plays, shintaishi (longer poems, often Western in style), and kanshin (poems in Chinese). And of course, it covers in detail his essays and critical writing, which is what really set him apart.
As the narrative unfolds, readers are shown an ambitious young man who takes unconventional steps through education, changes his mind frequently, to the point of contradicting himself, and is often short-tempered and coldhearted, especially during his invalid years. We come to know that Shiki had no romantic interests, despite visiting Tokyo’s pleasure quarters. Keene explains that “The closest Shiki came to feeling love may have been with nature, the subject of much of his poetry” (37). Instead of committing to another person, Shiki seemed committed solely to poetry—although at first unsure of that direction. But eventually Shiki took an unspoken vow to poetry, and this vow manifested itself in an extraordinarily prolific career over a short period of time, nearly all of his poems and essays written despite intense pain and debilitation. Keene’s book is liberally sprinkled with sample poems, cleanly translated, but what makes them shine is understanding them in context—what was happening in Shiki’s life at each moment. What Keene writes of Shiki’s tanka is equally applicable to his haiku: “Their striking feature, the one the reader is most likely to remember, is their background: the terrible illness that confined Shiki to a sickroom and kept him from nature, the object of his worship” (135).
Of course, the major event that happened in Shiki’s lifetime was the Meiji Restoration, which not only reestablished the emperor after centuries of shogunate rule, but also welcomed swift modernization when Western influence was finally allowed—after centuries of isolation. Shiki’s Western-influenced haiku revolution has given rise to the notion of a pre-Shiki aesthetic for haiku, but as Keene emphasizes with this book, perhaps there would be no haiku at all today were it not for Shiki. In Shiki’s time, much of the Japanese nation seemed drunk on Western influence, and soaked in all manner of Western arts, literature, clothing, trade practices, and even baseball, which Shiki loved. These influences helped to prompt Shiki to initiate his reform of haiku, and then tanka. Central to his haiku reform, as we know, was the concept of shasei, or sketching from life. What some of us may not have known was the source of this concept. It came from Nakamura Fusetsu, a painter friend of Shiki’s who had studied Western painting and concluded that art should “faithfully reflect whatever it portrays” (2–3), which Shiki applied to haiku. This approach helped other haiku poets get away from hackneyed traditional subjects, like cherry blossoms, to write instead of a broader range of modern, everyday subjects. This change of focus had the effect of energizing haiku in Japan. Keene’s book devotes an entire chapter to shasei, which he says, “describes not the poet’s emotions on observing a certain scene, nor the memories the scene brings back, but what he has just observed” (97). Elsewhere, Shiki writes about objectivity, saying “If you see a flower and think it is beautiful, this is a quite normal and widespread reaction, so all you have to say is that you see a flower; it is not necessary to mention it is beautiful” (113). In 1921, this perspective would find a Western echo in T. S. Eliot’s notion of the “objective correlative,” which asserts that objective, external facts perceived through the senses will immediately evoke internal feeling. This is a fact of language that poets should trust, as with shasei, in writing poems with clear images—and it’s worth noting that Shiki was there before Eliot.
The book tells us of Shiki’s many disciples, of Shiki’s disappointment that Takahama Kyoshi would not be his successor, and of the poet’s desire to explore a variety of literary forms. We also learn of the low state of Japanese literature at the time, providing fertile ground for Shiki’s reforms, and how deeply Shiki studied haiku of the past, even going as far as trying to classify all haiku written in the past—every last one of them (haiku poets were obviously just as obsessive then as they can be today). Shiki broke with Kyoshi, in fact, because Kyoshi would not commit himself to the same level of intense study of haiku that Shiki maintained. Instead, Kyoshi chose to focus primarily on the art of writing haiku, not the study of it.
Shiki, of course, did both, and this intensity was no doubt why he was often short-tempered even with his mother and sister who looked after him for years when he became bedridden. This intensity, too, is surely what enabled him to continue writing, even extensively, while in excruciating pain from his illness.
Ultimately, as Keene concludes, “Shiki’s importance can be measured in terms of the extraordinary popularity that haiku has enjoyed ever since he began his work” (201). Indeed, Keene emphasizes, Shiki “changed the nature of haiku and tanka” (201), and brought them into the modern world.