Likely Stories: Masaoka Shiki: Selected poems by Masaoka Shik

Apr 26, 2018

Collection of haiku by one of the four great masters of the genre.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Masaoka Shiki is one of the four greatest masters of haiku.  I have long been a fan of Basho, the second of the four masters.  Masaoka was born in Matsuyama, Iyo Province in 1867.  His father died when he was about 5 years old.  He entered a University Prep School in 1884, and 5 years later, he developed tuberculosis.  In 1891, he began work on Classified Collection of Haiku.  In 1892 he withdrew from school and became the haiku editor of Nippon and began his quest to organize poetry.  In 1895, his illness worsened, and he went to stay with Natsume Sōseki, a Japanese writer I greatly admire.  He died at home on September 19th, 1902.

The slim and exquisite volume includes an interesting introduction by Burton Watson, one of the world’s best translators of Chinese and Japanese.  He writes, “Japanese knowledge of Western literature was extremely limited” (1).  After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, “some Japanese writers began trying their hand at the new forms” 91).  “Some went so far as to opine that traditional Japanese literary forms […] were now obsolete and before long would pass out of existence” (1).  Masaoka also experimented with these new forms, but he was determined to devote “most of his creative energy to reinvigorating the native haiku and tank forms” (1).  It is believed he wrote over 2,000 poems in his brief life.  I have selected a number of my favorites for your reading pleasure.

These first are from the summer of 1891.  “Hydrangea -- / and rain beating down / on the crumbled wall” (17).  “In cleft on cleft,  / on rock face after rock face -- / wild azaleas” (17).  Summer 1892: “Slipping out / the back way, / cooling off by the river” (18).  “From the firefly / in my hands, / cold light” (18).  Autumn 1892: “Singing somewhere / back of the shoe closet -- / a katydid” (19).  New year’s 1893: “Deep in the mountains -- / New year’s decorations on the gate / of a house where no one calls” (21).  Winter 1893: “Lonely sound -- / simmering in the fire pit, / wood chips with snow on them” (21).

These poems are deceptively simple, but the sounds, the images, they carry bring to mind images of our own experiences.  These thoughtful little nuggets of a brilliant mind, give us plenty to muse over on any day of the year. 

Here are some pieces from later in his career.  Summer 1895: “My summer jacket / wants to get rid of me / and fly away” (37).  “I toss in two coins, / borrow the temple porch / to cool off on” (37).  Winter 1895: “Buddhas -- / a thousand years’ grime on them / and no one wipes it off” (44).  “Sawing hunks of charcoal, / my little sister’s hands / are all black!” (45).  Autumn 1899: “With the help of a cane / I actually stood up -- / bush clover blossoms” (75).  “Winter moon – / above the bare trees / the morning star” (77).  New year’s 1900: “Blank sheets stitched together -- / my poetry notebook // for the year ahead” (79).  Autumn 1902: “A purple so deep / it’s almost black – the grapes” (89).  This is the last of the haiku poems Watson lists.

I could re do this list with dozens of poems every bit as beautiful, stirring, and emotional as these.  Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems are a wonderful way to while away the hours with a cup of tea reflecting on the images and the words.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!