Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)

Life and haiku became fairly artificial in nineteenth century Japan. It was hard for a brilliant and restless young man like Shiki to find anything in which to believe. Everything rang false. In his poems we feel the deep awareness of a poet preoccupied with hypocrisy. Chronologically Issa should come before Shiki here. I switched them because I want to use Issa as a haiku coda.

I fully appreciate Shiki’s skepticism. I was certainly in that place as a young man, but for me the cynicism morphed into a spiritual attitude which is closer to Issa’s —a viewpoint which continues to be very real and alive for me. Even so, I value Shiki’s essential contribution to haiku and to my own world view.

Shiki was something of an iconoclast. When still a young poet he attacked the cult of Basho. He demanded a hard rationalism. Yet, it was not a comfort to him.

In the autumn wind
I find no gods
and no Buddhas.

He gave voice to the concerns facing humanity in a rapidly changing world. It is neither old nor new, real nor unreal. Many paths present themselves. Decisions are not easy.

In the moonlight
the wild geese fly low
over the railroad tracks.

Not all that is new lives, and not all that is old is dead.

In a forgotten pot
a flower blooms –
Spring day!

Shiki was a sharp critic of those who attempted to reduce haiku and life to rules and prizes. His main advice was to forget the rules and be natural.

The skylark school
and the frog school –
argue over singing.

Shiki died from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-five. He had great pain and spent much of his last years in bed. Life had a bitter-sweet quality for this poet.

People go home
after the fireworks.
How dark it is!

The light in the next room
also goes out:
the night is cold!!