The Poet with the Bleeding Throat

Vol 1-3, November 2001

 WHC Shiki Celebrations: Essay

Centenary of the Death of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)

 The poet with a bleeding throat
Judit Vihar

Nan to iu
tori ka shiranedo
ume no eda 

I do not know
What bird it was,
But the spray of plum-bossom!


In this haiku, Shiki expresses himself to us, in a simple and sincere voice, as though talking with the reader in private. By using the language of everyday life he raises it to a literary rank.  We use the expression “Nan to iu” (I do not know) several times a day, by the poet it is enhanced with the picture of a bird sitting on a plum tree. Shiki died a hundred years ago, but he is still as intelligible as he used to be. His tanka and haiku are gleaming brightly, without fading through the passage of time.

Masaoka Shiki’s literary carrier burst into literature when the majority of authors were copying limitlessly the European and American literature of the Meiji restoration period. His poetical style was the shasei, meaning “drawing from life”. Using this informal, spoken language, he dared to enounce the importance of going back to the traditional roots of Japanese poetry, calling it a source in the process of defining modern Japanese modes of expression.

When he said the above, the 31 – syllable tanka had been forgotten for ages, and the 17 – syllable haiku had grown formulaic, lifeless and dull, due to the countless laws  over the years. Shiki’s work is considered to be revolutionary not only in the Japanese but in world poetry as well: through him these moribund classic genres had been revived.

But who was Masaoka Shiki, whose real name is Masaoka Tsunenori? The poet, born in 1967 in Matsuyama city, was faced with poverty during his early years. His father was a retainer of Matsuyama Feudal Domain and died at the young age of 40 when Shiki was only six. He had to cope with indigence alone, with his mother and two brothers. He decided to become a litterateur at the age of eight and was only twelve when he started composing classical poems in Chinese.

Matsuyama, the ancient name Iyo, lies on the wonderful island of Shikoku. It is covered by prolific plants, with it’s inhabitants being wild birds and expelled monks who live their life freely in the heart of the woods and it’s ample mountains. The landscape blooms in its natural beauty making home for trees you cannot discover anywhere else. This enchanting place sets the scene of The Silent Cry a novel by Kenzaburo Oe, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, released in 1967. Not only did Oe write about this wonderful land, but Natsume Soseki`s famous fiction, the Botchan (1906), takes place here as well. Natsume Soseki was a close friend of Masaoka Shiki. Soseki taught in the Junior High School of the town and he modeled his characters on the teachers he worked with there.  I had the opportunity to translate both novels into Hungarian and in the course of my work I had the feeling that this land was the birthplace of free and lofty thoughts. From old times many of the greatest names in literature lived in Matsuyama. Therefore, Matsuyama is named for “Town of Haiku”.

When Shiki was 16, he went to Tokyo to study literature at the best university in the country. He was admitted in 1890, but suddenly became ill at the age of 23. He was diagnosed with lung disease. That night he wrote the following haiku:

It seems to me as if
A little cuckoo could have come flying
To aim at deutzia flowers

A little cuckoo, hototogisu in Japanese, was said to spit blood when chirping – a synonym of tuberculosis. Since his diagnosis, he used his pen name, Shiki. Shiki is another name for hototogisu, meaning “little cuckoo”. It was because of the calligraphy characters of shiki that he included one character in his name, Tsunenori”. From the time the poet is aware of his close inevitable death, tuberculosis was the engine that drove him to work as effectively and as much as he could. It is widely known that tuberculosis is an illness which makes patients more and more sensible and passionate over time. They felt a need to make the best of the remaining time, and therefore, burn the candle at both ends. This was very much true for Shiki. In his short life – not more than 36 years – he wrote about eighteen thousand haiku. Along with his other poems and numerous studies, they were published in twenty-two volumes. He tried, with great success, to write compositions in almost every poetic genre. His drawings are also remarkable. While travelling in the country, he made records in his travel diary. Moreover, he had enormous literature-organizing competence as well. As a university student, Masaoka was a haiku editor of the popular newspaper Nippon. In 1895 during the Shino/Japanese War, the poet worked in China as a war correspondent, but he quickly returned due to exasperating health problems. In 1897, Kyukodo Yanagira founded the literary journal Hototogisu, where Shiki and his disciples published the haiku of the Haiku Association.

Despite his rejection of formulas and stereotypes of the traditional haiku, he considered as his main goal, the re-evaluation and reform of classic Japanese poetical genres. Shiki asserted that going back to the roots is necessary, as an example, the poetic anthology Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves by Manyoshu from the Nara -era (710-794) must serve, not the Collection of Ancient and New Japanese Poetry by Kokinwakashu from the Heian-era (794-1186). It is Shiki, who first stated that tanka and haiku derive from the same stem. We have used the word, haiku, from 1900 due to his activity. The poet wrote numerous essays about the haiku, the most significant of which is probably the Basho zatsudan – Conversation about Basho. This work was devoted to the 200th year anniversary of the death of the great haiku master. Acknowledging his immense talent, Shiki,  questioned the acceptance of the poetic works of the grand classical poet, from only an authoritarian basis without criticism. He regarded only one fifth of Basho’s numerous works of real value. This study helped him to convince more and more people to agree with the idea that haiku needed to be reformed. If we compare Basho’s famous haiku with the one Shiki wrote while reworking it, we will immediately understand the situation:


Summer grasses
all that remains
of soldier’s dreams                       


The pear blossoming . . .
after the battle this
ruined house

While Basho, the first of the four famous haiku masters, sings about the glory of the heroes slain in the war, the last traditional haiku poet, Shiki, says that the war is not at all glorious; all that remains after a horrible destruction are scattered ruins. These words of his are still topical issues today. Where is the patheticness of those old times?! According to Shiki, objective tone is much more important, as it better suits the 20th and, supposedly 21st century. Instead of Basho, his models are the two other great haiku composers of everyday life, namely, Buson and Issa (who resembles Saint Franz of Assisi).

Images of modern life and vocabulary appear in Shiki’s haiku. For instance, we meet a puffing train in the following haiku:

The train passes;
how the smoke
swirls round the young leaves

In Basho’s haiku, we read that the world is eternal. Shiki talks about constant change and motion:

In the evening breeze,
the white roses
all move.

Let us compare the original Japanese haiku with its German, Hungarian and Russian translations.

yuukaze ya shirobara no hana mina ugoku
Ó esti szellő!

a sok fehér rózsaszál

mind-mind hajladoz.  

Im Abendwinde

die weissen Rosenblünten

erbebten alle.  

Сумрачный ветер

бушует, качаются

белые розы

In haiku like in this one, the punch line is always the last. We can see the image before us: the evening breeze blows the white roses. Then stands the conclusion, mina ugoku – the precise meaning of which is, “all move“, in English. The order follows in the German and Hungarian versions as well. The Russian translator changed the order of the last lines. As a result, the white roses become the punch line, thus, the original meaning of the poem is lost. Consequently, it can be seen that when translating haiku, the lines are not always interchangeable.

Finally, I present one more haiku from the pen of Shiki in five languages, including the original. The features of the simple objects in our everyday life can be highlighted not only by motion but through contrasting them with each other. This technique of contrast also characterizes Shiki’s haiku:

A single red berry
has fallen
on the frost in the garden
Akaki mi
hitotsu koborenu
                                                                        shimono niwa.



Mi fönség
a kert fehér fagyalján
piros gyümölcs ég.

Wie doch voll Unschuld
das kleine Gras den Tau tr
im Rot der Frühe!

Смотри, красная
смородина упала
на белый иней!

The haiku is based on the sensation of the contrasts of white and red, cold and hot. The Hungarian translator, 20th century impressionist poet Kosztolányi, even gives a title to it: Contrast. The English, Hungarian and Russian translations follow the original contrasting, while the German translation describes a winter scene in the first two lines, with the red berry appearing only in the third line.

The haiku of Shiki, the poet with a bleeding throat, fell on good ground. Owing to Shiki’s work in poetry reform, in August 2000, the participants of WHC’s World Haiku Festival (London/Oxford) could exchange their haiku in this modern spirit, through the guidance of Susumu Takiguchi. There, in an old English castle in Oxford, this international association held a discussion about the future of haiku in the 21st Century. As Susumu Takiguchi wrote about it: “World Haiku Festival 2000 has helped to open haiku to wider circles of the population, to all corners of the world and into the exciting future.”

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