I have been reading about Shiki and the technique of shasei. It’s a technique that I am very fond of and I wanted to explore it, understand it better.  All the articles or books I quote will be in the show notes on the website, so if you fancy some reading you can find the links there.

There is no guest haiku this week. Next time I will make up for it as I am doing a breakfast special. I have a number of submissions for this but I am happy to have more, so if you have haiku or more probably senryu on the topic of breakfast send them in to me and tell me a little bit about yourself. You will find the contact address on the website poetrypea.com.

Shiki is credited with developing the idea of shasei. He was working at the turn of the twentieth century when changes were happening within the cultural scene of Japan. I don’t know much about Japanese history but I understand that at this time Japan was opening itself up to the world. Japanese culture was cross fertilising with western culture and this coupled with his education and continuing interest in philosphy, influenced Shiki. (1)

He “felt that by creating the new genre of haiku, with shasei techniques, it might give the little Japanese poem a few more decades of life.”

Why? Because he was worried that given the restriction of what we in the west call syllables in haiku, that there would shortly come a time when all possible combinations of words would have been achieved.

What is shasei?

It’s writing poetry as a “sketch from life”, “writing exactly what you see so the reader could also experience the scene and understand what had moved you.” (2). Remembering that what you write is supposed to trigger resonance that is, meaning, in your reader, based on his or her experience. (3)

I’ll tackle resonance, or meaning, in another podcast.

Having started to compose haiku using shasei, Shiki became aware of the limitations of sticking strictly to this technique. He found that in doing so, in not allowing for creativity the resulting poem could be a little, “so what!”

He saw that strict adherence to shasei was really for beginners. He suggested that there was a developmental process for haiku poets who started using this technique

Step 1: Writing haiku as a sketch from life
Step 2: Selective realism for the more advanced
Step 3: Poetic truth for the master haijin

or as Ueda (4) puts it most succinctly:
to copy reality as it is
to select carefully from experience (the next stage)
to include makoto, internal, psychological reality of what is truthful (the third development)

Here is an example by Shiki himself which is quoted by Ashley Capes in his article “An introduction to advanced Haiku” (5)

spring day
a long line of footprints
on the sandy beach
—translated by Yuzuru Miura

Some people may think “so what!” However, I think there are layers in this haiku. Firstly, there is the vision of a sandy beach on a spring day, which certainly resonates with me. The image of the footprint is iconic, don’t you think? Here we have a long line of footprints, which begs a couple of questions, where are the owners of said footprints and as they are not mentioned, have they departed the beach? Next we have an element of time, a long line of footprints. To me it speaks of a lone journey across the sand.

Let’s look at the stages of development. We know what a sketch from life is, but what of the other two stages.

Selective realism: The way I would explain it is that as we develop as haiku writers, we discover what naturally draws us within an environment. In this stage we go to that thing, we frame it, a bit like looking at it through a camera lens. The part we have chosen to focus on is a complete picture, it comes to life for us, it tells us a story of its own. If we just told that story we would still be in the first stage, the sketch stage, but now we have advanced a little. We tell the story using our aesthetics and with a view that is personal to us. We add subjectivity. If we think of it as taking a photo, “there are clear elements of subjectivity in that the photographer aims his or her camera here rather than there, at this height or angle rather than some other way, at a certain time of day, and perhaps at a certain moment of action. This is how haiku, even the seemingly “objective” or “shasei” poems, can become subjective” (6) We play with the scene. We can even change the facts of the sketch and use a little poetic licence.

for example:

a mouse
darts across the path—
fallen leaves

I have a mouse that lives somewhere near the compost heap in my garden. Often when I am on my knees weeding or digging, it rushes along the wall at the back of the flower bed, frightening the life out of me. When I wrote the haiku I preferred to have it dart across the garden path, rather than the little path it has worn along the flowerbed. It just felt better to me.

Is it so what? That depends on who is reading it and what shared experience we have.  I hope the reader realises it is set in the autumn and they can see the little mouse and hear the rustling of the leaves as it rushes along. Does it need more meaning? That’s a topic for a future podcast.

The next stage is Poetic truth or Makoto. I’m nowhere near this advanced yet.

This is how Ueda describes it:

Makoto . . . is shasei directed toward internal reality. It is based on the same principle of direct observation, except that the project to be observed is the poet’s own self. The poet is to experience his inner life as simply and sincerely as he is to observe nature, and he is to describe the experience in words as simple and direct as the ancient poets—so simple and direct that they seem ordinary (1)

Shasei has had it’s critics. Jim Kacian and Scott Metz to name but two. Metz going as far as saying: “the essential lifeblood of the haiku tradition has never had anything to do with realism. . . .” and that, in fact, interpreting and composing haiku in this way “is basically a modern view of haiku.”.” (1)

Professor Tsubouchi Nenten, Emeritus Professor, Kyoto University of Education, and Professor, Bukkyo University proposes that in the view of some haiku writing societies one of the reasons that Shiki is not highly regarded is that he did not lead a long life, living as he did from 1867 to 1902. Perhaps he was not able to adequately expand on his theories during this time. Prof. Nenten gives us another suggestion as to why Shiki’s reputation could be handicapped; his method of composition. Apparently he would gather friends around, light an incense stick and the group would then compose haiku until the stick went out. In a sense this was a method of composition which was regarded as playful, not serious enough. Prof Nenten advances a theory that rather than being a trivial method of composition this method was extremely intense which helps to bring out the subconscious and may take the haiku to a higher plane. (7)

Was his theory directly responsible for the success of haiku from the 20th century onwards? Did his idea of sketching from life, allowing descriptions of subjects not previously covered within the haiku genre come at just the right time to interest western writers and expand the knowledge and practice of haiku? Let me know what you think.

What do I have to offer you this week?

As I said earlier, I was on holiday last week. I went to the Bernese Mountains, to the Lauterbrunnen valley, which, call me biased if you will, I think is the most breathtaking valley in the world. Incidentally, this valley with its 72 waterfalls, was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Rivendell and I think you can hear the Elves whispering when you are walking around the tree line.

It snowed, of course it did, but that was ok. Snow in the mountains is appropriate and anyway at this time of year it melts fairly quickly.

So my stage one maybe just creeping into stage two haiku:

lilac buds
under a blanket
the mountains

I wrote this to be interpreted in a couple of ways. If you know about gardening in the mountains, the less hardy plants are wrapped in hessian or something similar to keep them warm enough to live through the winter. Last weekend, I unwrapped my lilac, to find it budding. Of course, my lilac is in the shadow of the mountains. The other interpretation, if I am writing a sketch, I was focused on my lilac tree, above it, a fog was covering the valley like a blanket, only the lower cliff edges could be seen.

Next time  I will be featuring a number of emerging and more practiced haiku writers and our topic will be breakfast. I do have submissions, but there is always room for more so if you fancy joining in with this topic, please go the the submissions area of  www.poetrypea.com and send your breakfast haiku to me. Final deadline now – April 22nd

Before I go I must say thanks to Alan Summers, Richard Gilbert and Michael Smeer for all their help and suggestions for my reading this week.

Thanks for joining me today and I look forward to your company again on April the 23rd, St Georges day. Til then, keep writing!

1: Charles Trumbull Masaoka Shiki and the origins of Shasei
2: Masaoka Shiki, If Someone Asks . . .: Masaoka Shiki’s Life and Haiku, trans. Shiki-Kinen Museum English Volunteers (Matsuyama, Japan: Matsuyama Municipal Shiki-kinen Museum, 2001)
3:Charles Trumbull Meaning in haiku
4: Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature by Makoto Ueda (Stanford University Press; 1 edition 1983)  if you would like to know a little bit more about Ueda start here 
5:Ashley Capes An Introduction to Advanced Haiku https://www.scribophile.com/academy/an-introduction-to-advanced-haiku
6: Graceguts: Approaching infinity, an interview with Michael Dylan Welch
7:Professor Tsubouchi Nenten


Week 21: Shasei, a sketch from life

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