Thursday, December 4, 2008

Shiki and Camille Paglia Meet on a Bleak December Morning

Cover by Wayne Hogan

Over the last few weeks, I've been reading a wide variety of material, including a biography of Basho, Mary Oliver's Dream Work, and Sharon Olds' new book, One Secret Thing.

It has been a true lyrical cornucopia. Both the Oliver and Olds books are very good, indeed. I added the Oliver book to the list of Near Perfect Books of Poetry, which I never do lightly, at least when it comes to my own nominations. In some ways, the Olds' volume is the more powerful, but it lacks the overall consistency of Oliver's. One Secret Thing builds momentum to a very powerful set of poems about the passing of her mother that will stand with her finest work, no mean feat.

I'm about three quarters of the way through Matsuo Basho: The Master Haiku Poet by Makoto Ueda and it strikes a fine balance of biography and critical overview. I'll be getting back to it in depth in a future post.

Most problematic of all, however, was the gathering of Shiki poems. There is not much out there, folks, and what is out there is decidedly underwhelming. I have often wondered why Robert Haas' The Essential Haiku only included works by Basho, Issa, and Buson. I'm beginning to think I know why.

I'm at a loss to explain the paucity of translations of Shiki's work. He was steeped in and revered the Japanese cultural tradition. Something about his work must be less "universal" than Basho, Issa, and Buson. He was technically proficient, his poems seeming to be very painterly, very imagistic. I'm speculating here, at best; I've not seen much that engages these points but, suffice it to say, that I'm weaving together threads in an attempt to get a better picture. Somewhere I read that he was prolific (tens of thousands of poems) in his short life, yet he seems to have the least amount of works translated into English (and it seems, with exception of two or 3 volumes, to be the same two dozen poems or so translated over and over) of the big four haikuists.

So, to remedy this paucity of work, I decided to take a look around my fairly sizable collection of haiku anthologies and see what was what. A few I consulted had Shiki by yielded nothing new. Today I'm going to concentrate on three of the dozen or so I perused.

The first I looked at was the Dover The Classic Tradition of Haiku edited Fabuion Bowers. I'm a big fan of this modest little volume, primarily because Bowers culled his selections from multiple translators, including Burton Watson, Harold Henderson, Hiroaki Sato, Lafcadio Hearn, Makoto Ueda, R. H. Blyth, Sanford Goldstein, and William Higginson, among others. This volume contains 21 Shiki poems, of which I marked 4 as noteworthy. Of the four, three were new to me and one is probably for Shiki nearly as famous as the frog/water poem is for Basho:

I've turned my back
On Buddha
How cool the moon!
Translated by Alex Kerr

Men are disgusting.
They argue over
The price of orchids.
Translated by Alex Kerr

Tell them
I was a persimmon eater
who liked haiku
Translated by Alex Kerr

the moonflower's face
the snake gourd's fart
Translated by Janine Beichman

The Kerr translation of the classic Shiki poem written as he contemplated his own demise is not as good as others I've read (i.e. "Remember me / as a persimmon eater / who loved haiku"). The other three are quite good; all four inject an element of the personal into the work that makes them all the more universal, an irony that would not be lost on William Faulkner.

The next collection I looked at was Classic Haiku: The Greatest Japanese Poetry From Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki and Their Followers, edited by Tom Lowenstein. There are 38 poems by Shiki in this collection and I marked 5 for further review.

Wind in summer:
and all my unlined writing
paper's blowing off my desk.

This year I fell ill when
the peonies were in flower,
and got better with the chrysanthemums.

How cool it has become!
I've completely forgotten
that I'd planned to steal some melons.

A flash of lightning.
Between trees in the forest
I caught a glimpse of water.

How lonely I felt
on a cold, cold night
when I killed that spider.

I was familiar with all 5 of these haiku from different translations, yet something about these grabbed me. I don't remember any mention of stealing in previous versions of "How cool it has become" but I may just be mistaking it for one of Basho's melon poems.

The third book I looked at was Harold G. Henderson's An Introduction to Haiku, which contains a whole chapter, with appended poems, on Shiki. Henderson provides a biographical context for the poetry and gives an overall assessment of the work. There are a total of 44 haiku, of which I marked a dismal 3 as worth another look-see:

To ears
--defiled by sermons-
----a cuckoo.

Haiku! Reading through
--three thousand, I have here
----persimmons - two!

The Moor

Spring moor:
---for what do people go, for what
------do they return?

Two of these three were unfamiliar to me and that was pleasing. Yet overall from the 3 volumes it is really a minimal number of haiku: 12 poems out of 99. Still there are 12 poems I'm happy to be more familiar with now. I have some more anthologies to go through here, including the 4 volume R. H. Blyth classic work on haiku, so perhaps I'll have more to add in the future. The University of Virginia website contains over 80 of Janine Beichman's translations of Shiki's haiku and tankas. I hope to go through these sometime soon also. If you'd like to take a look at how technical translation can get and how many different translations of one single haiku there might be, check out "Of Persimmons and Bells," which analyzes Shiki's most famous poem from here till next Thursday (or the Thursday after). The poem is one of those that resonates with significance in Japanese culture and for the Japanophile but doesn't quite do it for a novice like myself. Frankly, all in all the analysis enters deeper waters than I dare tread.

Speaking of deep and fascinating waters, check out Camille Paglia's "Final Cut: the Selection Process for Break, Blow, Burn," in which she explains how she picked the poems for her popular book on great work. As always with Paglia, she manages to simultaneously trash people while praising them (and, of course, just plain trashes others). You get all of her bias and prejudice and yet she brings the big guns to the table and cannot be easily ignored. She has far too much to teach. I've read Break, Blow Burn (subtitled: "Camille Paglia Read Forty-Three of the Worlds Best Poems") and I'm happy that I did.

Regular readers of Lilliput Review and this blog are familiar with Dennis Maloney, who has co-edited with Robert Alexander a new volume on prose poetry, entitled The House of Your Dream: an International Collection of Prose Poetry. Here's a partial list of contributors that is quite formidable, indeed.

Well, because of last week's holiday, there was no regular archival Thursday posting featuring samplings of a back issue of Lillie (you may have noticed, however, I've been posting daily for about a month or so, a little experiment to see how close to the edge I can get - I'm not sure how long this will continue, but Thursday will remain the regular weekly day for a generally long, leisurely post with poems, with news of interest and glib non sequitars popping up in between). This week's back issue is #64 from December 1994, with a delightful cover by Wayne Hogan, pictured above. Enjoy.


Van Gogh

We, sane as sympathy,
integrate, liberate,
allocate and war.
In madman's color, you
may have changed the world
the only way it can be.
Betty Davis

Having a Cigarette with Frank O'Hara After Lunch

High above the Times Square of a young boy,
a billboard blows smoke through a
shared memory, where it settles,
lightly, scenting this page.
K. Shabee

Calculated Risk

Some poems never get written:
living them through was enough.
Kate Stewart

Open Mike

Lyric charlatans offer poetic
rhapsodies to their friends,
pat their hands together
and laugh with nervous
relief when a heckler
guilty of profane
candor, is flung
out the door
to complete his
poem in the street
William Harris III


When I was far from you,
only one bird
flew across the mountainside,
skimming above trees and fog.
A crow,
its cry like a dropped rag.
One crow.
It was enough.
James Owens

The Meeting

Meeting you
on a crowded city street
after twenty years,
your face is almost unchanged,
blue eyes
still direct,
an easy smile,
deeper voice;
your slow compromise
with laughter.
William Beyer


The small flock of bones in my hand
have settled to sleep on your breast,
chirping together as they sink back
through the hours of this long day,
back to the darkness around us and in us.
James Owens

night invocation

your tongue is a nightgown.
dress me in it, o blessed raven,
as i prepare for bed.
brush out my hair
with the strong ribs
of your feathers.
lend your words to me
that i may know what i hear
once sleep has come.
jen besemer


Woven around itself,
the unpruned tendriled
tangle of split stems
the skeletal trellis
which long ago
gave up
stilting this vine
that flowers
on old wood.
Janet Bernichon

Sappho to Erinna

Come. It's morning.
Let me brush the stars
from your hair.
Noelle Kocot



Greg said...

great post about Shiki! i like that Dover edition too... aside from the great price ($1) it's enlightening to see various different translations right next to each other.

Ed Baker said...

Beichman's (bio of) Masaoka Shiki will shed much light on why Shiki was/is neglected.

Buson was (largely) ignored until Shiki and hsi followers "entered the scene"

Shiki was even today a pretty 'anti-establishment 'dude'

the second (2002) edition of Beichman's bio has many photos of Shiki... I have (read) both the 202 edition and the 1982 edition but only the firsts chapters of each... lots of Shiki piece (haiku and tanka) included..

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Greg, glad you liked it - you can't beat the Dover for a buck ...

Ed, thanks for all the notes - I've just now put the 2002 Beichman on interlibrary loan as our library system doesn't have it. So, you have provided fodder for a future Shiki post, though I don't know if by now I've put most folks to sleep or not. Also discovered that besides there being a formidable amount of Shiki in the 4 volume Blyth, there is even more in the two volume History of Haiku by Blyth, so I will probably do an all Blyth, all Shiki, all the time, post sometime also. The later is going to take some time to go through. Blyth has some interesting things to say, I began reading him last night.


Ed Baker said...

here is 1982 (1986) edition

and here the 2002 edition:

prices have lept
far beyond frog
far beyond moon

so much for our "mass" ('democratic' /'free-market' greedy kultsure, eh)

hey "we" just bailed out CITI Bank last week this week 9with the money) Citi bought CHEVY CHASE BANK!

go figure..

Charles Gramlich said...

It seems in some ways that his poetry is more religious, or perhaps with a slight bias against religion. Maybe that is why it hasn't become so popular?

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Thanks for pointing "the way" as always ...

Charles... you've hit it, he was anti-religious ... more about this in next week's Shiki/R. H. Blyth post.