Haiku, the short Japanese poem now proliferating overseas, scarcely needs an introduction anymore. Its three great pillars, widely read even in translation, are the poets Matsuo Basho (1641-1694), its first creator, then Yosa Buson (1716-1784) and Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), who renewed it.
By the mid-19th century, it was a dying form, and it might have vanished if not for the efforts of one man, Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), the subject of this new biography by Donald Keene.
Born in the provincial capital of Matsuyama, on the cusp of the new Meiji Era, Shiki died a full decade before its close, yet his work exerted great influence throughout the century that followed.
Even today, as Keene remarks, “one can say that no haiku poet is without a debt to Shiki.” His achievement is the more remarkable in that he was born into a family of modest education, the son of an impoverished samurai who died of drink when he was only six.
Today in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, there is a large museum to Shiki, and the city is considered virtually the capital of modern haiku. How did this happen?
As a young man of the modern age, Shiki longed to go to Tokyo and study, eventually gaining his family’s consent. Once there, he made friends quickly in the student dormitory and explored what the city had to offer. Most importantly he studied, and though he may have briefly enjoyed the pleasure quarters, no romantic interest has ever been discovered.
Instead what Shiki took to heart was literature and writing. Gradually, after experimenting with Chinese-style poetry and fiction, he settled to his real life’s work, haiku. Keene says there is some mystery about exactly why he took on the enormous task of classifying haiku, but this was where he made his greatest mark, and even now the entire extent of what he achieved has not been fully realized. The multi-volume collected edition of his works is still not well ordered, as Keene once or twice observes, yet the influence remains pervasive.
The appeal of this account of Shiki’s life is the detail that it provides about both his writings and his friendships. His diaries and letters are often quoted, and these help to create a rounded portrait of the man. One of his best-known literary friendships was with the novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), who spent some time in England.
Keene makes the differences between them clear from their exchanges: “Soseki was solitary … Shiki was gregarious.”
Eager to taste fully the exciting age, Shiki not only read voraciously, but also wanted to experience everything new, while still concerned about the loss of traditional literary culture. Though his life was one of suffering, he did not allow this to diminish his ambition.
He was also fortunate in being granted a forum for his views in a newspaper column that ran daily until his early death. It was there that he put forth his frequently provocative views on reforming haiku.
If the definition of a critic is one who conducts his education in public, then Shiki had the full attention of his readers. It was primarily he who brought the poet Buson out of obscurity and recast his reputation for the modern age.
Shiki lived only to the age of 35. His sometimes contradictory ideas might have taken a different form had he lived much longer. Nevertheless, he fundamentally reshaped the way that haiku was perceived, and even provided a new word for it.
The word “haiku,” so well known today, was made current by Shiki, displacing other more antiquated terms for this short poem.
Keene allows himself some personal opinions in this meticulous and masterly account, and expresses particular admiration for Shiki’s pioneering essay on Basho in English, written in 1892. This well-written piece also contains the first translation of Basho’s iconic verse about the frog jumping into a pond. It is an excellent rendering, hardly bettered since.
The moment that Shiki translated Basho into English showed the possibility of the transmission of haiku to other languages. The urge to do so was reinforced by his renewal of the form in Japanese. The journal that he started still runs today, and all the debates in Japan about the modern form have their beginnings in his commentary and thought, spread by his disciples. That such power could emanate, in its later stages, from the sickbed of a dying man is truly astonishing.
The outline of Shiki’s life has been drawn before, but never so fully. Keene courteously refers to earlier studies and translations by Janine Beichman and Burton Watson that are still in print. His work supplements what they have done, but does not supplant it. It is in the expanded detail that this biography excels and, like all the best scholarly volumes, even the notes are worth perusal.
David Burleigh comes from the north of Ireland, teaches and writes, and has lived in Tokyo for more than 30 years.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5