Shiki’s Winter

The following review first appeared in A Hundred Gourds 4:1, December 2014. It was originally written in December of 2013.
See also
“Questioning Haiku: A Shiki Manifesto” and “A Lull in Shiki’s Winter.” See a video celebrating the life of Donald Keene.

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.

Some miscellaneous notes from Keene’s book:

    1. Shiki experimented with Western-style rhyme in his longer poems. Keene says, “His experiments were not successful if only because rhyme is so easy in Japanese as to be hardly noticeable” (7; all words in Japanese end with a vowel or the “n” sound).Keene quotes the following poem, “As I eat a persimmon / The temple bell tolls at / Hōryūji” (8). Keene says that a prefatory note explains that it was “composed at a teahouse near Hōryū-ji [Keene is inconsistent with hyphenation], the oldest and most impressive temple in Nara” (8). He adds, though, that “it is probable that the last line was originally Tōdai-ji, another great temple in Nara,” and asks, “why should he have changed Tōdai-ji to Hōryū-ji?” (8). He explains that it was most likely because of the sound—not of the poem but of the bell itself. On a recent trip to Japan (during which I read Keene’s book), I had the privilege of standing under the huge Tōdai-ji bell, and cannot imagine that the Hōryū-ji bell could possibly have “a far deeper, prolonged resonance than Tōdai-ji,” but there you go. More significant, perhaps, is the point that Shiki had no reservations about changing the “facts” for poetic effect. [My photo here, taken 25 November 2013 in Nara, shows Emiko Miyashita under the Tōdai-ji bell.]Speaking of sound, Shiki advised his students on many aspects of haiku composition, but did not discuss sound. Keene says, “to this day most haiku poets, unlike tanka poets, remain indifferent to sound” (9). This seems like a sweeping generalization to me, and I’ve found many poems, Shiki’s included, where the sounds, in Japanese, are clearly part of their appeal. Nevertheless, no evidence exists that Shiki ever discussed sound in haiku. Perhaps this was because haiku was primarily a written art, not a spoken one.

    2. Shiki learned English in school. In 1892, when the poet was 25, he seems to have been the first person to translate Bashō’s furuike ya into English. Keene reports that the following translation was part of an essay about Bashō, in English, in which Shiki says “If the rule is the best is the simplest holds good in rhetoric, our Japanese [hokku] must be the best of literature” and “We shall try to translate some of [Bashō’s] poems . . . to show the Japanese rhetoric” (32). Here is Shiki’s English translation: “The old mere! / A frog jumping in, / The sound of water.” This translation is listed first among the 135 versions in Hiroaki Sato’s One Hundred Frogs (New York: Weatherhill, 1995).

    3. In the year 1893, in which he turned 26, Shiki composed more than 4,000 haiku, “the most of any year of his life” (94). If we do the math, this averages out to almost eleven haiku per day—an astonishing number, especially when sustained at that rate for an entire year. How many Western haiku poets have ever written at such a rate? I think only of Richard Wright, who wrote about 4,000 haiku in the last eighteen months of his life.

    4. Keene notes, in passing, that when Bashō used the word “furuike” in his old pond poem, the term “may have been invented by Bashō” (99).

    5. The text of Shiki’s first prose contribution to Hototogisu magazine begins with “If anyone should ask me of what use haikai was, I would have to answer that it serves no use whatever” (110). This brings to mind, of course, Bashō’s statement that “My art is like a fireplace in summer and a fan in winter.” Shiki’s claim also brings to mind the title of the Shiki Musuem’s book about Shiki: If Someone Asks . . . Masaoka Shiki’s Life and Haiku (Matsuyama, Japan: Matsuyama Municipal Shiki-Kinen Musuem, 2001). This book takes its title not from Shiki’s prose but from the poem “if someone asks / say I’m still alive / autumn wind” (60). Does haiku really serve no use whatsoever? While Shiki remained alive, despite his descent from the winds of autumn into the winter of tuberculosis, haiku unquestionably sustained him.

    6. In today’s context of the influence of avant-garde gendai haiku, I find the following observation by Keene to be refreshing: “Shiki was fully aware that ingenuity, when divorced from feeling, quickly becomes tedious if not irritating” (111).

    7. Speaking of intelligibility, Keene writes that “One problem of composing haiku . . . was whether or not a haiku had to be readily intelligible. He [Shiki] advocated clarity of expression (inshō meiryō), but a haiku by Shiki, even one that seems no more than a sketch from life (shasei) expressed in simple language, may prove difficult for the reader to understand, especially if he has no previous training in haiku and knows little about the poet’s life at the time he composed the haiku” (114). This comment suggests the value of what I refer to as haiku’s “fourth line”—the name of the poet after the haiku, which provides biography, geography, gender, and other contextual information for those who know the poet. Keene also observes, in commenting about Shiki’s famous “fourteen or fifteen cockscombs” poem, that “Unless the reader knows the circumstances of its composition [written while Shiki was bedridden and in constant pain], it lacks emotional content” (115). Shiki’s haiku reeks of duende.

    8. The following quotations, presented with minimal commentary, may be of particular interest to haiku poets:

      • “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” (116).

      • “Shiki, irritated by the smugness of the tanka poets, had resorted to mathematics to prove that sooner or later all possible combinations of thirty-one syllables would be exhausted. It would become impossible to compose an original poem” (126) And regarding haiku: “He had become convinced that a time was coming when all possible haiku would have been composed” (143). Keene then quotes Shiki in an essay about the future of haiku and the poet’s wish to broaden its subject matter to embrace the modern world: “It is true that individual poets bear the guilt for the monotony of the poems composed in recent times, but the narrowness of the scope of the tanka or haiku is surely also a factor” (143).

      • “Although most poets considered the haiku and tanka so dissimilar that no one could successfully write both, Shiki as far back as 1894 had stated that there was no basic difference between the two. He wrote, ‘Waka and haiku are the closest forms of literature. One could go so far as to say that apart from the difference in the number of syllables there is absolutely no basic difference between them’” (135–136). Shiki, of course, wrote both haiku and tanka extensively, and reformed both.

      • When asked to comment on Bashō’s renpai (linked verse in the haikai tradition), Shiki replied, “The hokku is literature. Renpai is not literature and for this reason need not be discussed” (141). Keene adds: “Shiki’s contempt for linked verse succeeded in killing it as a medium for serious poetry, though it had flourished since the sixteenth century” (142).

      • “Shiki was great because he appeared at a time when the haiku was threatened with extinction. . . . Shiki created a new kind of haiku that excited his generation and by making haiku respond to the new [Western-influenced] culture preserved it as a major element of modern Japanese literature. If Shiki had not composed his haiku and written his critical essays, the tanka and the haiku might, like the renga, have ceased to be living poetic forms and become no more than playthings of antiquarians” (199–200).

If Keene’s biography has any shortcomings, they exist perhaps only because of my unfulfilled personal desires. For example, I wish the book had explored Shiki’s invention of the term “haiku” in place of “hokku.” Keene mentions this invention only in passing, in a footnote, but does say the term “was almost universally adopted” (211). One may ache to understand why. I also wish the book had addressed Shiki’s relationship to or opinion of Issa, or lack thereof. Issa is not mentioned once, and one footnote says “Shiki never considered any other haiku poet to rank with Bashō and Buson” (213). Maybe that’s the answer. On the other hand, it’s important to note that even Buson’s haiku was largely forgotten until Shiki praised him extensively, finding in his work the objectivity of his shasei approach to haiku. Keene also refers to Shiki’s discussion of “numerous examples of haiku, composed by quite different poets, that were almost identical in theme and imagery” (222). Because of my interest in what I call “déjà-ku,” or haiku that bring to mind other poems, I would have been interested in reading more about this. Furthermore, I wish Keene had presented Shiki’s famous “two autumns” poem, and told the story of how Shiki wrote it for his famous novelist friend, Natsume Sōseki. This information, and any new insights I suspect Keene could have provided, would have helped to quell the misattribution of the poem to Buson, a problem begun by R. H. Blyth and perpetuated by Harold Henderson, Robert Hass, and other subsequent translators. Perhaps other readers will have pet subjects they also wish the book had addressed.

Some additional points about Keene’s book are that it contains extensive notes, running to twenty-nine pages, often with interesting contexts and asides, sixteen pages of photographs (including nine of Shiki, of more than thirty known to exist) and samples of Shiki’s artwork (including a self-portrait that also appears on the book’s cover), a four-page bibliography, and an extensive index. The book is a fine companion to Janine Beichman’s previous Shiki biography of 1982 (Beichman provides a back-cover blurb for Keene’s book, saying it is meticulously researched and has “a wonderful blend of brio and depth”). Indeed, Donald Keene’s The Winter Sun Shines In: A Life of Masaoka Shiki is a useful and readable book that everyone interested in haiku should read. As Keene says in his introduction, “one can say that no haiku poet is without debt to Shiki” (4). Haiku poets owe it to themselves to read this book to understand why.