Masaoka Shiki on Beauty and Pain
By Ken Blacklock
Ken Blacklock is a musician and Japanese translator.
He currently resides in Sausalito, California.
Shiki (1867-1902) is frequently mentioned along with Matsuo
Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa as one of the four
greatest haiku poets of Japan. Besides his haiku, Shiki is also
known for his tanka (a 31 syllable Japanese poetic form), literary
criticism, and diaries. Much of Shiki’s work was originally
published as newspaper articles during his lifetime. Shiki caught
tuberculosis at an early age and died a few weeks before his
thirty-fifth birthday, after years of pain and suffering. He
was completely bedridden for the last five years of his life.
Nevertheless, he was quite prolific, producing over ten thousand
haiku, over two thousand tanka, and numerous other works, all
of which amount to twenty-two volumes in the modern Japanese
editions of his complete works.
from a low-ranking samurai family in an era when the samurai
all political power and fixed-sources of
income. Shiki’s father died when he was five, so he was
raised by his mother and educated by his grandfather in the Confucian
classics. Shiki received an exceptional literary education, yet
grew up in poverty.
Shiki’s major contribution to Japanese literature was
his insistence that haiku and tanka were valid literary forms
and that the future of Japanese literature depended on their
preservation. This may seem obvious in this age in which haiku
has become well known worldwide and has even become something
of an international poetic form. Yet, in Shiki’s time,
many young Japanese poets were patterning their poetry after
Western models because they had more or less accepted the judgement
of Western literary critics that haiku and tanka were too short
and too trite to be considered literature. Also, the writing
of haiku and tanka in Japan had degenerated into a kind of parlor
game that followed many strict rules. In this context, Shiki
argued that haiku poets should throw out the rules, eliminate
triteness, and take a good look at what the great poets Basho
and Buson had tried to do with the form. Furthermore, Shiki declared
that haiku was literature, and that it was is one of the great
native forms in which Japanese poets could find their voice.
Shiki’s tanka reform was along the same lines. One interesting
point is that haiku and tanka were considered so different in
Shiki’s time that it was unheard of for a single poet to
write in both forms. Shiki changed this as well. He saw that
each form had its uses, and felt that a good poet could use either
Shiki’s literary aesthetic can be summarized in the term,
shasei, which means, “sketch from life.” Shiki borrowed
this concept from Western painters who took their subject matter
from real life as opposed to some imaginary subject worthy of
artistic depiction. Here is an example of how this aesthetic
applied to haiku composition. Traditional haiku poets often started
with a theme, which might have been given to them by a teacher
or another poet. They then tried to imagine various situations
that fit this theme and wrote haiku based on these imaginary
creations. Shiki’s approach was quite different. Shiki
told poets to look around and observe carefully. Then, write
a poem that describes what you see. Shiki said, “The materials
for poetry are around you in abundance.”
One of my
favorite illustrations of Shiki’s shasei aesthetic
is the following haiku:
on the table.
This poem is reminiscent of a still life painting. What does
it mean? Does it capture an instance of beauty? Is it effective?
The total lack of subjectivity is startling. Where is the poet
in this poem? One might argue that a child could have written
it, but does that make it any less of a poem?
aspect of Shiki’s life is that despite
his many years of suffering and pain, he never sought solace
in religion. Up to the moment of his death Shiki was a lover
of beauty. He sought beauty, and the expression of beauty in
spite of the pain of his illness, yet he never developed a mystical
attitude towards beauty. He never seriously turned to religion,
or even philosophy, in search of an answer to the puzzle of his
afflictions. To the end of his life, Shiki painted, wrote in
his personal diary, published regular entries in a poetic diary,
and wrote haiku and tanka. Much of Shiki’s writing from
his sickbed is tied very closely to his immediate surroundings.
This is where the power of the shasei aesthetic is revealed.
Shiki sees poetry where any ordinary person would have just seen
a dreary, depressing existence. Of course, unlike the haiku above,
the subject is very much a part of these works. How could it
be otherwise? Shiki attempted to enter into and understand his
environment through observation, not just based on his imagination.
some selections from one of Shiki’s great poetic
diaries, A Drop of Ink, written in 1901, the year before he died.
April 15: There are ten goldfish in a glass bowl on the table.
I watch them intently from my sickbed as I struggle with my pain.
I feel the pain and I see the beauty.
May 11: I
placed a small amount of poison near my pillow as a test. Let’s
see whether or not I take it.
May 17: When I cannot bear the incessant pain, I think of some
China pinks [dianthus chinensis] I saw growing in a nursery in
Azuma-mura fourteen or fifteen years ago.
Shiki often playfully reflected on death. Here is a haiku he
wrote in 1897:
You should say,
I was a haiku lover,
who ate persimmons.
This is an
example of the “sketch from life” in
its most subjective aspect. The poet looks at himself and describes
what he sees. Perhaps Shiki’s great poetic discovery was
that sometimes the simplest observations are the most profound.
Shiki in English
Janine. Masaoka Shiki. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1986.
overview of Shiki’s life and work. Includes
numerous translations of Shiki’s haiku and tanka as well
as excerpts from his diaries and critical works.
Goldstein, Sanford and Shinoda, Seishi. Songs from a Bamboo
Village: Selected Tanka from Takenosato Uta by Shika Masaoka.
Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company,
1998. Translations of 298 of Shiki’s tanka along with
a comprehensive introduction and detailed notes on each poem.
Sato, Hiroaki and Watson, Burton. From the Country of Eight
Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1986. This large anthology of Japanese poetry
includes translations of thirty-nine haiku and fifteen tanka
Watson, Burton, translator. Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. A small, but exceptionally
well translated anthology of Shiki’s poetry. Includes haiku,
tanka, and kanshi (Chinese style poems).