Matsuyama, Japan: Prinart, 2007.
With thanks to the Shiki Team.
This is a perfect-bound book of some 68 pages, approx. 18 x 25.5 cm (7 x 10″), with color cover and inside black and white images by Masahiko Fujita. The book is fully bilingual, Japanese and English, except for the title and table of contents, which are solely in English.
In the Preface by Shiki Team member Manabu Sumioka, we find a brief introduction to the Shiki Team’s work, which first became public in July 0f 1994–a time when few people had even heard of the Internet. This was the beginning of “the Shiki List”, one of the first places online where haiku received serious attention as an art form, not some sort of joke in 5-7-5. This was an electronic mail list where people shared haiku and commentary on haiku, worldwide, in English. The archived messages were (and are) public, and Google searches on things related to haiku still often turn up links to those early e-mail messages. As Mr. Sumioka points out, not only was the Shiki List innovative for its day, but it may be taken as an early manifestation of the “Interactive Web” or “Web 2.0” so much discussed today, these thirteen years later. The “Shiki Haikusphere” of the book’s title is also the name of the group’s current web site, which acts today as a gateway to information on haiku and to participation in the ongoing NOBO e-list, successor to that original list, as well as full archives of previous recensions of that original Shiki List. (There were actually four different lists, several of them operating concurrently for a time.)
Beyond the Preface, the book Shiki Haikusphere has as its main contents ten haiku each by ten poets who have been involved in one or another of the Shiki lists throughout the first decade of their existence. These are, in order as they appear in the book, Roberta Beary, Yu Chang, Earl Keener, Dhugal Lindsay, Paul David Mena, Paul Miller, A. C. Missias, Jane Reichhold, Timothy Russell, and Michael Dylan Welch–all names I imagine many readers of this blog will find familiar. The poems are presented in their original English and in Japanese translations, the latter by Shiki Team member Kimiyo Tanaka, except for those by Dhugal Lindsay, who wrote both the English and Japanese versions of his own haiku. Here are a couple of poems, chosen almost at random (Japanese text will appear as ???? on computers not set up to read it):
a saltshaker becomes
the white queen
(みぞれ降る / 食塩入れは / チェスの白女王)
living by the sea
I cannot grow old or
wish for paradise
(海辺に暮らす / 老いゆくことも / 極楽を望むこともな)
And then, there’s one that catches my eye in particular, and brings a smile. I don’t know how long ago this was written, perhaps it was in an early post on the Shiki list:
there must be 14 or 15
(殺菌壺 / 床屋の櫛/ 十四五本もありぬべし)
Michael Dylan Welch
Play this against one of Shiki’s most famous verses, which I’ll translate in parallel with Michael’s poem (though that’s not the order of the original):
keitô no jûshi-go hon mo arinu beshi
there must be 14 or 15
(Original order: of cocks-combs / fourteen or fifteen [stalks or blooms] / there must be)
Note how the third line of Kim’s Japanese translation of Michael’s poem (just above his name) exactly quotes the latter two-thirds of Shiki’s original cocks-comb poem.
While Michael’s poem is a refreshing, humorous take on Shiki’s verse, the reference to the latter also brings to mind the fact that Shiki, at that point in his life, was bedridden, and perhaps could not see the contents of his small garden well enough to distinguish such a number. Shiki’s verse, in turn, reminds me of William Carlos Williams’s poem, later called “The Red Wheelbarrow”, which opens “So much depends / upon /” and so on. The one anecdote I know about that one tells how it was written about a young patient of Dr. Williams’s, who, bedridden, could only see that scene from her bedroom window.
In contrast with this, Michael is out and about, taking in the world inside a barber shop. The number, of course, is no accident, and may or may not represent a reasonable approximation of the number of combs he saw. But by bringing together a barber shop–the former home of Western medicine–and Shiki’s slightly vague number of cocks-combs, Michael raises the infinite wonder of life, even against illness and dying, just as Williams in his poem did. The impertinent combs, of whatever variety, trumpet our will to see, even on the edge of the abyss.
Too much freight for one small, grinning parody? I don’t think so. Michael knows North American poetry, probably as well as I do, especially that of the so-called Imagists and other masters of the early 20th century short poem. So, even if he did not intend to reach all the way over to Williams through Shiki, consciously, I’m willing to bet somewhere inside he knew what he was doing. And even if not, as I’ve said before, the language knows more than we do.
Speaking of younger poets, Shiki Haikusphere continues with some valuable essays on things haiku. First, Shiki Team member Kimiyo Tanaka writes “Fukio’s Haiku–The Road Home”, an engaging essay on a very promising haiku poet from Shiki’s home province who died even younger than Shiki, at 26. Four of Fukio’s haiku are presented and discussed, and I think will convince most readers that, though we have been deprived of a possibly major haiku figure with his early death, we still benefit from the poems he did write during his brief life.
The next essay, by team member Hiromi Maya, connects three elements in the world of haiku, “Bashô ~ Shiki ~ The Shiki Internet Haiku Salon . . . ’94”. Quoting two of Basho’s poems from his last year, and one of Shiki’s written 200 years later, Hiromi notes that the team started the Shiki Internet Haiku Salon 100 years later still. He draws a parallel between Shiki’s masterless attitude, in which he treated his haiku colleagues as peers, with the open sharing and conversations about haiku that characterized–and still characterize–the forums created by the team.
Finally, team member Takeshi Wada reports on some Shiki Team members’ “Participation in HNA (Haiku North America), 2005” in Port Townsend, “about 100km north of Seattle, Washington from the 21st tp 25th of September.” He writes of the team members’ prior contact with writers across the globe, the team members’ presentations and positive reception at HNA, and their hopes for the future of the Shiki Haikusphere web site.
So, congratulations to the Shiki Team! These folks have made a wonderful contribution to global haiku, pushing themselves to do so in a foreign language (English). The effects of their work will never be fully known, but from this book it is evident that they have assisted many poets to become better poets than they might otherwise have, giving them a community to work in and a forum in which to test their work and their understanding. The poets named at the beginning of this review clearly benefitted from their involvement in the Shiki List(s), and we have benefitted too, as I look at their names and consider what I know of each one’s contributions to our “haikusphere” over the past decade and more. Like the Shiki Team itself, each has not only grown as a poet, but has given the rest of us their time and energy through organizations, web sites, publications, and many other ways. As the old saying goes, the apple does not fall far from the tree.
A Haiku Pub toast to the Shiki Team!
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