* Masaoka Shiki & life sketches

along this darkling

country road

comes the lonely voice

of a coachman

every so often urging his

horse on


The above lyric poem is by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), one of the innovators of the modern tanka form *.  Tanka is a Japanese poetic form that differs from haiku in that there is room for the poet.  Haiku traditionally is an image, a moment, a flicker that triggers realization.  With tanka, the poet can present an image as well as turn it a bit.  Tanka means little song, so you could say the poet in a tanka is allowed to sing.

What moves me about the poem above is how it evokes a sense of loneliness and perseverance.  I mean, there are nights where all I have in me to keep me going is the need to keep going.  I read these lines and am taken not only to that country road but to all the roads I’ve been on in the dark.

Shiki had friends who were painters who introduced to him the idea of shasei, which means a sketch from life.  Shiki took this idea and applied it to his tanka, producing ‘life sketches’ whose images embodied the poet’s inner life.

Here’s another, written while bedridden:

no visitors have come

and spring, it’s passing:

on the surface of the pond

these yellow yamabuki petals

fallen, gathered together

– You almost get the sense of a person watching each petal fall as he waits for visitors.


Since learning of Shiki I have myself tried my hand at life sketches.  I find the form pushing me to really see the world around me and what it means.  The idea has furthered my conversation with words and led me to a poetry more my own.  When I sit down to write each day, I delight in taking in details, turning them over, letting them sit together.

Here is a small poem I wrote the day before reading about Shiki.  I came back to these lines the day after and marveled at how in spirit they were with Shiki’s aims and ideals.

wanting nothing

but to start over

a friend points out

the clouds

over the mountains

(J, 021312)


Happy sketching!



* I learned about Shiki and his life sketches from an article by Barry George entitled “Shiki the Tanka Poet” in the February 2012 Writer’s Chronicle.  The poems reproduced are, I believe, a Barry George translation.

2 responses to “* Masaoka Shiki & life sketches”

  1. I really enjoyed this. Might I reblog it? We’ve been writing tanka in my poetry class. Just drop me an ok at msagan1035@aol.com–it would be for Miriam’s Well.

  2. A little late, but here is a response from Barry George who wrote the original Writer’s Chronicle article:

    Great to see your post about Shiki here! Interesting how you wrote your tanka – which I like very much – the day before reading about Shiki. Just wanted to clarify that the Shiki translations in my article are by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda, from their excellent book, Songs from a Bamboo Village. All the best!

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