Many people think of Masaoka Shiki as a writer of haiku, but much of what Shiki wrote was simply hokku under a different and now very misleading name.
Because they were generally still hokku in form and content, Shiki’s verses were not at all like much of the modern haiku one finds on the Internet. They even retained the season words that were essential to traditional Japanese hokku.
Shiki, however, was very influenced by the concept of Western “open air” painting — making a quick sketch out in the fields or forests — that had become so popular in the Europe and America in the 19th century. That accounts for why Shiki’s verses often are like illustrations, like woodcut scenes from Nature and life in general.
Shiki was very good at writing such “block print” verses, which are pleasant in their own way, even though they may lack the depth of earlier hokku.
Here is one of my favorite autumn verses by Shiki:
Aki ie no to ni neru inu ga yanagi chiru
Empty house ‘s door at sleeping dog ga willows fall/scatter
A dog asleep
At the door of the empty house;
Falling willow leaves.
Autumn is the time when the active energy — Yang — of life diminishes. It is the time when the great dying in Nature begins, when the energy of life begins returning to the root in preparation for winter.
If we look at Shiki’s verse, that decline of active energy is present in its three elements:
1. In the sleeping (inactive) dog;
2. In the emptiness of the house;
3. In the falling of the willow leaves.
So we can see that this verse is very much in keeping with the character of autumn. But keep in mind that none of these things are symbols or metaphors. We just feel these connections because of the layers of associations such things have for us.
There is a kind of overall loneliness in the verse, which again is in harmony with autumn. Where have the people gone who once lived in the house? Was the sleeping dog abandoned when they left, or is he a wandering stray who has found a place to sleep where no one will chase him away? We are not told what the past was, which makes us just focus on what is before us, yet leaving us with the underlying feeling of something left unspoken.
In Nature, autumn is the waning of the year;
In human life, autumn is our years of growing old after middle age.
In the daily cycle, autumn is the late afternoon and early evening.
I always see this verse of Shiki as happening n the golden light of a late autumn afternoon, with everything quiet and drowsy, and the yellow willow leaves slowly scattering through the air. This is the peaceful pause before the cold and hardness of winter.
But in learning hokku we do not let sleeping dogs lie. Instead we take an old hokku and we play with it, trying different options and possibilities and substitutions. That is a very good way to learn how to write new hokku.
For example, we could make this change:
A cat asleep
On the porch of the empty house;
A broken doll
In the window of the empty house;
The autumn evening.
There are many, many possibilities, and of course much of what we come up with in this practice exercise may not be as good as the original model, but that does not matter. The point is that we are learning how to form hokku, and also learning to see what is effective and what is not. Now and then we may hit upon something that works very well. And of course, very importantly, we are seeing how changing the elements in a hokku also changes the relationship among them, and how by doing so we alter the whole effect of the verse.
Shiki wrote another autumn “empty house” verse that is not nearly as good:
Asagao no chi wo haiwataru aki ya kana
Morning-glory ‘s earth wo rambling empty house kana
A morning glory
Rambling over the ground;
The empty house.
One reason this verse is less interesting is that it tells us everything. What you see is what you get. There is no sense of anything deeper, of anything left unspoken.
In the “sleeping dog” verse, by contrast, we feel that there is much we are not told. Where did the dog come from? What will become of him? And because of the dog, we wonder what happened to the people who lived there that caused them to abandon the house. Not knowing all of that gives the verse a kind of latent energy. But we do not feel nearly so invested in the “morning glory” verse. It is just an untended garden plant wandering across the unkempt ground around a vacant house in autumn. In that sense, it is far more “just a picture” than the “sleeping dog” verse. There is no significant latent energy in it.
That missing sense of unspoken depth makes all the difference between a hokku that is just “flat” and a hokku that holds our interest. Shiki often fell into the kind of verse that is just a lifeless photograph, but in the “sleeping dog” verse, he succeeded in writing something that affects us more deeply. That underlying feeling of something left unsaid, combined with the overall harmony and unity of the verse, helps to express quite well the character of autumn.