Review: Masaoka Shiki – Selected Poems

Matsuō Bashō? What a hack.

… said, pretty much no-one, ever. In fact, Masaoka Shiki (1967 -1902) is the only person I can think of, who is known for having criticised Bashō’s haiku.

Maybe this is one of the reasons I’m keen on Shiki? It’s not that I’m anti-Bashō (I’m not!) but I do have a pretty strong anti-authoritarian streak in me and I’ve always been interested in writers and thinkers who go against the consensus.

Masaoka Shiki – Selected Poems translated by Burton Watson is a beautiful book containing 144 of Shiki’s haiku translated into plain, economical English.

Slipping out

the back way,

cooling off by the river

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

Cool summer darkness –

laughing voices

on the far side of the river

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

I don’t think there’s a single word in all of the translations that feels unnecessary, or a single phrase that draws undue attention to itself.

For me, who go,

for you who stay behind –

two autumns

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

Another reason that Shiki is interesting is that he was writing at a time when there was a large amount of cross-pollination between Western culture and the art and poetry of Japan. In the introduction to Masaoka Shiki – Selected Poems Watson writes:

Borrowing from the vocabulary of Western painting, he (Shiki) adopted the term shasei, or “sketch from life,” to describe the technique that underlies much of his own poetry and prose. The writer was to carry out minute observation of the scenes around him and to compose works based on what he saw there, conjuring up the mood or emotional tenor he desired through apt manipulation of the images found in real life.

Lonely sound –

simmering in the firepit,

wood chips with snow on them

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

From the rear window

in the falling snow

a woman’s face looks out

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

Shiki was diagnosed with tuberculosis at a very young age and spent the last few years of his short life bedridden. In life, Shiki was said to be irascible, at least once his illness really took hold, but his haiku are a model of restraint and objectivity.

Through the glass door

the winter sun shines in –

sickroom

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

References:

Masaoka Shiki – Selected Poems, Burton Watson (Trans.), Columbia University Press, 1997.