Masaoka Shiki (1867 – 1902) translated by Donald Keene in his biography The Winter Sun Shines In,
“The influence of Shiki’s haiku and haiku criticism was immense and long lasting.”
The absence, in both Japan and the West, of any substantial knowledge of the humanity in Basho’s poetry, as well as in his personality, occurs because scholars and translators of Japanese literature have followed the misdirection of Shiki whose obsession with haiku and neglect of renku allowed the major part of Basho
poetry, the most life-affirming poems in world literature, to become, in the words of Donald Keene, “no more than playthings of antiquarians.”
It may be too late to do anything, however in this article I try to undo the damage Shiki did to our cultural heritage by misdirecting us away from Basho’s works on humanity.
Basho grew up with his mother, father (until age 12), older brother, and four sisters, one older and three younger. In his poetry, essays, and letters he expresses warm feelings toward them and his close friends – Ensui, Doho, Kyorai, Sora, Sampu, Kyokusui, Uko, and Chiegetsu. In his famous travel journal A Narrow Path in the Heartlands, Basho expresses his ideal for humanity:
On the other hand, Shiki’s alcoholic father died when he was five, he grew up with his strict Confucian mother and one sister, started coughing blood when he was 18, took to his sickbed at 28, and died
at 35. In his youth he had some experience of people, mostly men, but in final seven years of his life, tuberculosis of the spine kept him almost entirely on his bed, his mother and sister nursing him. Able
to move only his arm and hand, he wrote lying supine with them holding the paper board above him.
In those seven years of Shiki dying, they had to change his cloths and wash him day after day, while doing the rest of the housework, and holding the board above him, yet Shiki constantly criticized them in his diary (which he wrote on the board they held).
He was hateful to men as well. According to one poet,
he would stare at a visitor’s face and tell stories that consisted for the most part of hateful personal attacks on other people, accounts of their blunders… far from sympathizing with such people, sensei seemed to derive the greatest pleasure from sneering at them.
Basho’s profound concern for family members, his many close friends, and his profound attention to women and children, reveal knowledge of humanity unavailable to Shiki deprived of most human contact.
And yet Shiki condemned Basho’s “withdrawal from normal human concerns.”
Only someone who knows nothing of Basho’s letters could say such a thing – yet we see this idea occurring in current scholars and translators who say Basho was
“impersonal, detached, and objective” –
“at times, cold-hearted, inhuman.” –
“spent much of his time in a state of perpetual despondency.”
“The finest of Basho’s poems seem to be devoid of ordinary human emotion.”
“Basho takes detachment from human emotion to the point of complete dehumanization not only in his poetry and literary theory but also in his own life.”
The people who said the above know absolutely nothing of Basho renku or tanka, nothing of his letters or spoken word. Basho, throughout most of his 30 years of poetry, writes mostly positive and life-affirming messages, many of these focusing on women and children, but since the vast majority of these are renku, Shiki knew nothing about them and would have us know nothing. In reality, Shiki was the one dehumanized by the circumstances of his life and his own rejection of human contact. Contrary to what Shiki says,
Basho is the most humane, and the most feminine poet in all of world literature – which can only be realized if you explore his linked verse.
Women who sing in chorus may appreciate this single stanza by Basho praising the solidarity of women, although Shiki would detest it:
Shiki’s criticism, at times marked by intemperate condemnation of what he disliked, was the weapon with which he demolished the prevalent worship of the poetry of the past. He demanded the creation of a new poetry that embodied the poet’s experiences and perceptions and was not simply a restatement of well known ‘poetic’ themes
The "new poetry" Shiki sought for was shasei, to “sketch from life,” which, for Shiki, meant objectively portraying only what was before his eyes without any sense of inner meaning. (The exceptions to this were Shiki's poems on his sickness and dying; these poems had an "inner meaning" which was horrible.) Here is a sketch by Shiki:
While Shiki was brushing his teeth, a draft has scattered a bit of his tooth powder. As Keene remarks, the verse “startles by the ordinariness of its subject” – “tooth powder” marks this as a poem of the Meiji era. This “insistence on modernity” resembles much modern art which is no more than an exercise in pointlessness – the existential truth of pointlessness.
Shiki claimed that Basho merely restated well know themes, however in his letters and spoken word Basho repeatedly demanded the creation of a new poetry that embodied the poet’s experiences and perceptions;
Basho, on the other hand, sketched both physical reality and the “essential nature” (hon-i) of things. Basho sought for both objective reality and inner truth.
They are probably not married with a license; the man is just taking her along with him. We imagine his lack of concern for how she feels, along with her constant anxiety over her husband’s occupation. The verse is a 'sketch' of the oppression of women: just a few words and much blank space for us to fill in from our own imagination. The depth of Basho's perception is hidden within the words.
Shiki criticized this search for the hidden and spiritual as “religion” rather than “literature.” He thought, in the words of Haruo Shirane, haiku should “deal with momentary images rather than concerns or issues.” Shiki would not approve of my seeing in Basho poetry anthropology or sociology.
Shiki condemned renku because, as he saw it, a following verse could not be “sketched from nature”;
each poet was required to draw his subject from the previous stanza written by someone else. The
group had to cooperate, limiting each poet’s individual freedom of expression. Shiki did not get along well with people unless they followed him and accepted his ill-tempered tirades -- so cooperative
poetry was not the form for him.
Oddly enough, an ideal expression of shasei may be the first stanza of this renku pair, both stanzas by Basho, written in succession.
Not every haiku must be exactly as seen – as many of Basho’s verses were not – however sketching from reality is one way he recommends. His following stanza then portrays not one child turning seven, but all children turning seven, the essential nature of human development at age seven. For Basho to see that children’s facial features transform at age seven, changing from a baby face to the “clear” features of a child, then to write a poem about this phenomenon, he must have watched the faces of many children,
especially his three younger sisters. This is not something only Basho saw. Many students of child development note the onset of a new stage at age seven.
The two stanzas together say that conceiving a haiku, should occur naturally, organically, as one’s face develops. Shiki ignored all renku so he certainly knew not this stanza-pair, and if he had known it, he would not have approved, because he thought poetry should portray “momentary images” not insights or profound truths.
Basho’s haiku number about 1000; his renku stanzas 1700 – so out a total 2700 verses, 37% were haiku, and 63% renku. Basho said:
Basho recognized that his haiku were nothing special, but renku was where he met the divine kamisama. Shiki exhaustingly studied Basho’s haiku, but all he studied of Basho was his haiku, and he seems not to have noticed the ones about humanity. Shiki never knew that Basho wrote tanka, and so he misses out on the glories of the humanity in the few tanka Basho did write. When “a questioner asks Shiki why he devoted no attention to Basho’s renku. Shiki’s reply was brief:
Shiki had no knowledge of, and refused to discuss, the main part of Basho’s poetry, the poems of Basho’s unique genius:
Shiki closed his mind to the verses Basho considered his “bone marrow,” rejecting them with obstinacy and close-minded fervor. His “refusal to discuss renku” took hold of the Japanese literary mind by the year 1900, and when Westerners began translating haiku in the 1950s that misdirection was well-entrenched, and so they followed it. Even scholars who knew nothing of Shiki followed Japanese scholars who did know Shiki,and so automatically they neglected renku. Today, an extremely narrow selection of Basho renku appears in a few scholarly books and sites. Outside my works, the major part of Basho’s poetry is known only to a few obscure renku scholars.
The Western reader accustomed to a wide array of different sorts of literature may wonder how Shiki was able to dismiss renku from literature – even though renku had been popular literature for several
centuries until the Japanese accepted Shiki’s rejection. Keene says,
When with the Meiji Restoration, the isolation of 250 years ended, foreigners and their literature freely entered Japan. In the excitement of the discovery of a rich and exciting world, traditional Japanese poetry was all but forgotten.
All three forms of traditional Japanese poetry – tanka, the hokku, and the renku – were dying out when Shiki came onto the scene at the birth of the Meiji Era. Through tremendous effort in his short life, Shiki saved the hokku (which he renamed haiku) and the tanka, while allowing the renku to die out. Because Shiki refused to know renku, the world knows no renku, and is deprived of the humanity in a stanza-pair such as this:
Day and night dreams
Father died in war when I was small, and I have grown up under the weight of that grief. Now, finally reaching the prime of youthful vigor, I look back over those years of dreams awake and asleep
constantly reverting to that one moment on a battlefield I have never seen in reality. Exploring the link between the two stanzas, we find Basho’s genius.
Certainly the most astonishing of Basho's linked verses are the ones that exalt women and girls:
Editorial consultant Ceci Miller notes "the primordial power of the feminine emanating from Basho's poetry,"
although nobody knows about his "reverence for women" because most of these poemms are not haiku:
She emerges from the fertile mud to nourish her child from her breasts. This young peasant woman’s entire body is soiled and roughened by everyday exposure to dirt and mud full of night soil, with only hard mineral-laden water for washing. Still, she tries to keep her face clean and pretty, for baby to behold. As the tiny
mouth sucks her nipple, she gazes into the eyes and forehead, searching to see the dreams within.
Has any other male poet produced so exquisitely feminine a poem? Feminine in concern for facial beauty and cleanliness, the femininity of women at work, women with breasts, women nourishing life, and women’s hopes for children’s future, all wrapped up in five short lines. Every word of this would be altogether unacceptable to Shiki who had no positive feelings at all for women. Keene tells us that Shiki, in his youth, went to prostitutes for sex – but never to the same prostitute twice, for if he did so, he would get to know the woman, and this he could not stand. Basho studies women through poetry; Shiki never does this.
Furthermore, Shiki rejected renku because it lacks literary unity. A novel has “literary unity” when every incident fits in with the whole story. In renku themes and subjects, places and time, are constantly changing from one stanza to the next. Every scene appears for one or two stanzas, then disappears, as in a montage.
Stanzas A and B are connected, and B and C are connected; occasionally we see continuity from A to C, but always A and D are different in every way conceivable. Shiki assumes that we consider an entire renku sequence from start to finish – and, I agree, the lack of “literary unity” makes this very difficult.
I, however, focus on stanza-pairs – and sometimes trios, or occasionally quartets and quintets, but usually pairs – in which the following stanza fulfills the previous stanza. When we focus our attention on the link between the two stanzas. we have “literary unity” and Shiki’s criticism does not apply.
From the poor struggling woman in the first stanza, Basho adds her daughter at age seven – throughout world cultures, seen as the beginning of moral understanding and wisdom – playing the Japanese harp.
Do you see the link? Imagine the pride the poor mother feels hearing her daughter produce such beauty,
the Hope for a better future rising on the lovely notes from her seven-year old fingers on the harp.
Yet Shiki, who never even knew of this verse, says it is not literature and "need not be discussed.”
R.H. Blyth compares a Basho haiku on “play women” – i.e. brothel prostitutes -- with one by Shiki on a play quarters. In his travel journal A Narrow Path in the Heartlands, Basho describes hearing two young women from a brothel in Niigata on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Ise Shrine. Before going to sleep, through
the wall of his inn, he heard them tell the misery of being sex slaves. Basho’s haiku draws meaning from the humanity in the prose that precedes it:
In the sadness of autumn, tiny purple petals of bush clover form in countless multitudes on the bush, live out their brief lives, then scatter to the ground. The two women have walked many miles to get to this inn. The day-long exertion and anxiety comes to rest in the haiku. All are sleeping peacefully under the moon shining on the roof of the inn. Fast asleep—alive without consciousness – they seem to exist on a separate plane, closer to the divine. The moonlight shining on the roof makes the inn a sort of shrine, and the
bush-clover decorates this holy place. Under that roof are two courageous women, asleep with the kamisama. Keene says, “Basho has glorified both (women and bush clover) and lifted them out of this world into the world of poetry.” Such “glorification” is subjective, spiritual, and female-positive, so
unacceptable to Shiki. He wrote this haiku:
This is what Shiki actually saw: cotton flowers near a small walled enclosure which contains just a few brothels to serve the filthy men who work on boats; R.H Blyth asks, “This is a picture of life, but
has it any life in it, any depth? -- the question we must ask of all haiku sketches. Shiki wanted nothing to do with “depth” or “symbolic truth.” Still, we wonder if he saw the connection between the balls of white cotton growing inside their buds and the women enclosed by the walls around this small pleasure quarters. Is that too subjective and female-centered for Shiki?
Compare this renku stanza pair on cotton flowers; Basho wrote the second stanza:
Mother gives birth, to her son a second time, now to form his own life and family – or maybe Mama’s boy is escaping from her domineering influence as the whole area of white cotton balls escapes from their buds.
The link from mother and son to cotton budding is subjective, sociological, and psychological, so Shiki would have rejected it, but through subjectivity Basho portrays human life and living energy.
We compare Shiki's poem on red tooth powder with a a Basho renku on the color red:
Izen followed by Basho
I have discussed how R.H. Blyth recogized that Shiki's verse goes nowhere, except into pointlessness.
Cockscomb often grows in Japanese gardens, its flower in autumn shaped like’s a rooster’s headpiece.
The red is so deep and vivid that every eye is drawn to the flowers. Placing them in the front of the garden makes them all the more in-your-face red. Basho takes that redness of a flower, and jumps to humanity. Red, the color of passion, suggests the turmoil in the heart of a daughter. He creates that emotional turmoil, then also a compassionate and understanding mother to calm down her daughter. This commentary from the Complete Anthology of Japanese Literature, is altogether suitable for a modern parenting magazine.
“The daughter broods over thoughts of love, upset to hysteria. We imagine her shaking all over.
Her mother – or someone like a mother –manages to say the right words in the right tone to soothe and settle her down.”
Basho writes of humanity – and yet Keene tells us that Shiki wrote that
“Basho’s preference for writing poetry about nature rather than human beings had led him to display more interest in religion than in literature. His withdrawal from normal human concerns constituted cowardice."
What Shiki calls “religion” are actually insights into human nature and universal Truth which Shiki had no interest in. How strange! Shiki actually thought he wrote about humanity but Basho did not. So far in this article, we have passed through eleven Basho verses replete with humanity, with images of actual people, and two haiku by Shiki which are scenes related to humanity with no individual human portraits. In Basho4Humanity are several hundred sketches of humanity, however most of these are renku, so Shiki refused to learn anything about them.
Shiki also refused to learn anything about women, or anything from women, and rarely portrayed them in his haiku. Basho, on the other hand learned all he could from women – maybe especially from his mother and four sisters – and portrayed them in 245 verses (see Women in Basho):
Only a man as sick and bitter as Shiki could write this haiku
In contrast is this haiku written by Basho at the end of summer, 1693, when in a one-month long depression he closed his gate to all visitors and refused to go outside:
Both Basho’s and Shki’s haiku deal with death and decay in water, yet Shiki overwhelms us with death and decay, just as his life was taken over by negativity -- while the smaller more manageable death and decay in Basho’s verse is the product of a brief depression in his life. For most of his life, Basho preferred positive and life-affirming messages. His follower Shado wrote:
Focus on garbage, and verse is heavy, even gross. Maggots! Yuck! Now, focus on sunlight and the affection of mother providing for her babies, and it is altogether Light and life-affirming.
So Basho is saying that interpretation of a haiku can be subjective; a single haiku can be depressing or inspirational, depending on how we see it. Basho favored the inspirational:
but Shiki never noticed this because he was so wrapped up in his own sickness and misery.
Keene quotes one of Shiki’s followers: “Masaoka’s obstinacy was enough to make one angry.” Yet the obstinate and dogmatic judgments of this mentally and physically sick man took hold through the Japanese literary world. Keene says, “The influence of Shiki’s haiku and haiku criticism was immense and
long lasting.” Even those who know nothing of Shiki follow scholars who follow Shiki’s demand that renga “need not be discussed” so renka (in the words of Keene) “ceased to be a living poetic form
and became no more than playthings of antiquarians.” “A few scholars and poets today attempt to continue the renga tradition, more as a game than as poetry.” (225). Very few people, in Japan or
the West, know a few Basho renku, and everyone else knows none, so the earliest and most numerous, diverse, and insightful word-portraits of women and children in world literature lie unknown in obscure Japanese anthologies.
How long will we allow Shiki’s obstinate and bad-tempered judgments to deprive our culture of the vast storehouse of positive life-affirming Basho poetry, these magnificent resources for human
self-understanding? Or maybe you will do something to help Basho’s works on humanity escape from the swamp of Shiki’s ignorance.