Selected Haiku: Masaoka Shiki

I’ve long been an admirer of good Haiku, as opposed to much of what passes for Haiku. So, it was a no-brainer for me to order the recently published A House By Itself: Selected Haiku: Masaoka Shikafter reading that Shiki’s ideas have dominated modern haiku since his death. My experience with Haiku has generally been limited to the Classical masters, so I was eager to see how modern Haiku differs from classical haiku.

The opening essay, which takes up nearly a third of the book, certainly gave me a better understanding of Haiku than I’ve had in the past. I was surprised to read that Shiki’s “great contribution to haiku was sharei, or ‘sketching from life,” this in contradistinction to the prevalent subjective, imaginative, even fanciful approach to composition.” This came as a bit of shock to me as I’ll have to admit that I always assumed this was true of Classical haiku. I always thought that a particular scene directly inspired the haiku. For Shiki, “Most important was fidelity of the poet to Nature, i.e., reality. To be shunned was empty imagination divorced from observable reality.”

Later Masaoka introduced the concept of “selective realism” where the poet’s individual taste/creativity determines what part of the scene is described. He continued to refine his concept with the introduction of “makoto, or ‘poetic truthfulness.’” “The poet is to experience his inner life as simply and sincerely as he is to observe nature…” Finally, I find his attempt to fuse poetry and painting particularly appealing.

I only wish more of his haiku had been included in the collection. There’s only about a hundred of them included in the collection, but since I liked so many of them I’m assuming that the translators, John Brandi and Noriko Kawasaki Martines, picked what they considered the best poems for this selection.

It seems remarkable that I can so clearly relate to an author who wrote nearly a hundred and fifty years ago. I can easily imagine that he was hiking Sunrise on Mt. Rainier when he wrote:

After the fog clears
ten steps away

This haiku summarizes my frustration trying to capture the ocean in a photograph.

Oceans and mountains
way beyond
seventeen syllables.

These leaves
how they hold on
to the passing autumn.

Could easily have been written in my backyard where these maple leaves are still hanging on.