ending & starting: shiki masaoka

Photo by Marta Wave of a bench by a building with snow-covered grass.

I’m writing this not feeling great on the last day of the year to be posted on the first day of the year. Feels like I should have something grand to say but I don’t. 2020 had me heart-sick for most of it. Here’s to 2021, may you deserve us. Enjoy some life sketches by Shiki Masaoka. May you sketch out newness from the old you bring with you.

life sketches by Shiki Masaoka

in the evening glow
as they range in a vast sky,
these huge pillared clouds,
each radiant on one radiant side,
all crumbling, all dissolving


on this long long day
in which the shoots of young pines
have lengthened
my fever has come out
toward evening


on these pine needles
thousands of raindrops
all trembling, all swaying,
and still not one,
not a single one, falls


beyond this pane
of the closed window
in my sick room,
that pole for drying clothes
and on it a crow crying out


my wish:
to be carried
in a glass palanquin
through fields
piled silver with snow

(trans. Sanford Goldstein & Seishi Shinoda)

* travel update & some life sketches

Hello y’all!

Since I am moving this week back to Oregon and am on the road as I write this, I decided I would forgo the usual Friday Influence post and share some life sketches.  I will resume the usual astrologically-centered good times next week.  Enjoy!



walking in Flagstaff

the folds of her blue dress

in the wind

our laughter folded there




driving at night

the lights of Bakersfield

disappear behind the hill

like so many gleaming eyes





on the highway

in the half-light of sunset

the passing lights of trucks

like the eyes of a man


when told to go



Happy driving!


* 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.