Shiki and Spring

There are two ways of looking at Masaoka Shiki, the fellow who nearly destroyed hokku through his revisionism.

Historically speaking, Shiki is the originator of the “haiku” as the term is understood today.  All modern writers of haiku, no matter how radical and strange, can be traced back to the revisionist changes begun by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.  Modern hokku alone does not trace its lineage through Shiki.

Practically speaking, however — speaking about what Shiki actually wrote as opposed to his terminology and theory — Shiki can be considered the last major writer of old hokku.  Why?  Because in form and structure, Shiki’s verses often still qualify as hokku.  They are seasonal and they follow — broadly — the usual conventions of the hokku.  It is true that Shiki’s subject matter sometimes severely strained or tore the envelope (setting the stage for all the non-Nature related haiku to come), but many of his verses are quite acceptable as hokku, though they are sometimes merely illustrative, often shallow, and occasionally just odd reflections of a physically and spiritually ill individual.

It is important to note that Shiki, though radical in his time, was really surprisingly conservative in his verse.  He kept the seasonal connection and generally the connection with Nature.  He was not even remotely as different as modern writers of western haiku.  Shiki’s chief influence (and negative influence) was not so much in his verses as in the theory and terminology he attached to them.  He was a kind of propagandist of haiku, and as a propagandist he was quite successful, as the history of the haiku movement shows.  But this influence was not in getting others to follow his style, which remained in general that of the old hokku; it was, rather, in introducing the presumed right of the individual to change the hokku however one wished and to call it whatever one wished, and the baneful result of that is easily seen today in the fragmentation, confusion, chaos, and continual change and bickering that characterize the modern haiku movement.

Shiki wrote:

Daibutsu no    utsura-utsura to    haruhi kana
Great-Buddha  ‘s  dozing-dozing  with spring-day kana

The Great Buddha
Dozing and dozing;
The spring day.

R. H. Blyth actually improves the verse in his translation:

The Great Buddha,
Dozing, dozing,
All the spring day.

The improvement is in the addition of the word “all,” emphasizing the length of the day, the passage of uneventful time.

The Great Buddha is a very large outdoor image of the Buddha, actually not sleeping at all, but in meditation.  Shiki, however, being an agnostic, just sees a large figure with eyes closed and motionless, and he thinks of it as drowsily dozing away on a peaceful spring day.

We can analyze the structure like this:

Setting:  the spring day
Subject:  the Great Buddha
Action:  dozing, dozing.

Blyth’s punctuation is a bit unconventional.  In modern hokku we would likely present it like this:

The Great Buddha,
Dozing and dozing
All the spring day.

That is fully acceptable as a hokku.  The only difference is that understood as a haiku, one could not use it as the first of a series of linked verses; as a hokku, one can use it either alone or in a linked verse series.  Hokku, then, is still a part of haikai, the term used by Bashō and all the others for their wider practice in which hokku were written.  Haiku, in contrast,  has not been a part of haikai since Shiki.  Hokku is also haikai; haiku is not.

It is worth nothing that Blyth’s improvement of the verse makes it better when considered a hokku, because the uneventful length and peace of the spring day are reflected in the immobility and apparent ongoing drowsiness of the image.  Remember that hokku do not use metaphors — they instead use elements that reflect one another.

One of the best old hokku on the beginning of spring is this, by Issa:

kado-gado no   geta no doro yori  haru tachinu
gate-gate   ‘s     geta ‘s   mud  from  spring  rises

Geta are the traditional wooden clogs worn in old Japan, platforms for the feet, each set on two vertical wooden cleats that kept the foot well above the mud.

The verse makes more sense if we anglicize and westernize it, and take it as an American verse written in a place that gets cold winters:

At every door,
Spring begins with the mud
On the shoes.

This verse then becomes very meaningful.  It tells us the days of winter frost are over, that the surface of the ground has melted, and with it comes the mud that sticks to shoes.  Outside every door muddy shoes have been left as the wearers went inside.  The muddy shoes are spring; spring is the muddy shoes at each door.  That is the hokku way to understand the verse.

We see something similar in a verse by Rankō, which I will again westernize:

Dusting themselves in the dirt;
The spring day.

This may not mean much to someone raised in a city, but every country person will know that chickens fluff themselves up and dig themselves into the ground, “dusting themselves” as farm people say.  It is just something chickens do.  One can often see birds doing the same thing.

But the point of the verse is that the dirt is dry enough for chickens to do this, meaning the rains have ended, the warmth of spring has come and has dried the soil, and the chickens hurry to dust themselves in the fine, dry powder.  That is a manifestation of spring as sure as Issa’s mud on the shoes, though of course considerably later in the season.


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