Saturday, February 25, 2012

Review: Masaoka Shiki Selected Poems, by Burton Watson

This is a really beautiful little book. The translator, Burton Watson, has done a wonderful job rendering the Japanese poetry of Masaoka Shiki (1867 - 1902) into English. Primarily working with Shiki's haiku - there are over 140 in this collection - Watson has seemingly transcend the problems of translating such an idiosyncratic art form into English. Shiki's poetry breaths on every page, lighting up the mind of its reader, leaving a genuine feeling of nowness. Take a look at the following examples to see what this reviewer means:

"Sudden downpour - 
and all these maids
hauling out storm shutters"
(Masaoka Shiki Collected Poems, p.26)
"Stone Buddha standing there - 
fallen leaves settled
in his hands"
(Ibid. p.31)
"Fluttering, fluttering,
butterflies yellow
over the water"
(Ibid. p.35)
It's as if we are with Shiki as he watches the rain and the maids' efforts to put the shutters in place. Perhaps he is watching them in the safety of a dry abode, but the reader can almost feel drenched as if caught in the rain also. In a quieter moment, we can reflect with Shiki as he notices the leaves in the palm of the Buddha statue, contemplating the fleeting nature of this existence. The third example is perhaps the most engaging of the three, however, as it really inspires the image of those butterflies flitting to and fro above the water. How delightful!

Returning to Burton Watson's efforts, we might take a moment or two to consider the Introduction. Despite being all-to-brief, it gives us a glimpse of Shiki's life and art. Shiki suffered severe illness in his short time on earth, and this is referenced in his haiku frequently, but even here Watson brings our attention to the poet's delicate grasp of life's beauty, stained as it is with the colours of suffering. And, although the poems stand up on their own with perfect poise, the insights that Watson flavors them with adds to their impact, allowing the reader to evaluate their impressive qualities all the more.

"The curious interrelations or seeming interrelatedness of phenomena is often a key element in his work, assign the famous poem:
I eat a persimmon
and a bell starts booming - 
Buddhism is a religion profoundly concerned with causes and conditions, and the poem is set at one of the oldest and most venerable of the country's Buddhist temples, Horyu-ji in Nara. Is Shiki telling us that there is some arcane connection between the eating of the permission and the sounding of the bell?"
(Ibid. p.8)
Buddhism is an important, or perhaps crucial, aspect to Shiki's poetry. For, as Watson notes above, it is through his Buddhist understanding of the world that much of Shiki's poetic work was shaped. With the Dharma to guide him, it's possible that much of his poetry would not have had the profoundly meditative quality that it undoubtably possesses. Moreover, there are more philosophical Buddhist ideas that come through in Shiki's haiku that give them a depth that is amazing for an art form so very brief.

Shiki did not only quite haiku, however, although this is what he is widely renowned for. For, despite being a reviver of haiku when they had fallen far from the heights of Matsuo Basho (1644 - 1694), and the man that gave them their modern name haiku, Shiki wrote much more besides. He was an essayist and reporter for the Japanese newspaper Nippon, and he also composed two other forms of poetry: tanka (somewhat longer equivalents of haiku), and kanshi (poetry written in Chinese rather than his native Japanese). For the purposes of this review, a few tanka should suffice:

"Orange tree by the window
where I lie sick - 
its blossoms open and scatter,
its fruits appear,
and still I lie here sick"
(Ibid. p.95)

"Red shoots of roses
reaching out two feet -
their thorns are soft 
in the falling 
spring rain"
(Ibid. p.103)

Burton Watson has given us a wonderful work. It is full of Shiki's sensitive reflections on life, illness, and beauty, despite its relative brevity at 126 pages. And, for those of us that are Buddhist lovers of poetry, it does so in a way that's in tune with the Dharma, whilst still portraying Shiki's experiences with a lightness of touch that would appeal to someone who knows nothing of the Buddha's teachings. Moreover, the insights that these poems contain hint at a deeper reality lying beneath the surface of our every day experiences, one that we come closer to with each syllable. This book will be frequently referred to by this reviewer in the years to come, and it comes highly recommended. Thank you, Masaoka Shiki; thank you, Burton Watson!

The above book is published by Columbia University Press, and is available from their website at: 

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