Obituary: Awano Seiho

James Kirkup
Friday 15 January 1993 00:02 GMT

Awano Seiho, poet, born Kansai Japan 10 February 1899, died Nishinomiya Japan 22 December 1992.

AWANO SEIHO was the oldest of the better-known haiku poets who at the beginning of the Showa Era exerted a considerable influence on the art of haiku in Japan.

Seiho belonged to a group that came to be known as 'the four S's' because their first names (the ones haiku poets are usually known by) began with 'S' - the three others being Yamaguchi Seishi, Mizuhara Shuoshi and Takano Soju.

It has been estimated recently that there are around 20 million haiku poets in Japan who write haiku regularly, professionally or as a hobby. They belong to an estimated 1,200 haiku organisations, each publishing its own magazine, in which only paid-up members may appear - for each group tries strenuously to ignore all the others. Members frequently travel abroad to seek new adages and ideas for their compositions, either of individual haiku or in the form of linked verses created as a communal effort and known as renku.

The art of haiku is practised by people from all walks of life, and even industrialists, economists and leading politicians write these brief verses of 17 syllables. Even after falling into disgrace connected with financial scandals, they continue writing haiku. Prisoners on death-row write haiku as a form of confessional therapy to prepare themselves for execution often long delayed. Old age pensioners living in old people's homes form haiku groups and go on ginko or haiku rambles in the countryside, especially in autumn, to gather poetic impressions; it has been proved scientifically that the writing of haiku keeps the brain active and young, just as the light exertion of these open-air rambles keeps the body fit.

Modern haiku starts with the 'sketch' form in fairly free style by Masaoka Shiki, who handed down his artistic theories to Takahama Kyoshi, whose literary disciple Awano Seiho became. Generally speaking, the aim of these new poets was to depict the ordinary things and events of daily life in an impressionistic rather than a formal way. A typical example by Seiho from his 1986 collection Joya ('New Year's Eve') is:

Sucking a persimmon

a seed suddenly popped

into my mouth.

which has something of the quality of the Zen experience known as satori, or spiritual illumination, often brought on by some incongruous happening or association of images.

Seiho wrote simply and directly, without pretentious philosophising or anguished soul-searchings, though he often used images taken from Buddhism, presented in a characteristic matter-of-fact way. He wrote as the ordinary man in the street writes haiku. Always he adopted a low, humble stance towards the art he devoted his whole life to. It was typical of the modesty of the man that he would accept offers to judge the many haiku contests sponsored by such organisations as different as funeral parlours, cake companies, tea merchants and Japan Air Lines, who have done so much to promote an interest in haiku.

Another famous haiku poet, Yamaguchi Seison, claimed that Seiho often read the dictionary in order to find inspiration in new, unusual or simply beautiful words which he would then incorporate in a haiku. Seiho is represented in Gendai Haiku ('Modern Haiku') and his work often appeared in magazines and newspapers. A series of brief studies of his poems has been appearing during the past year in the Nagoya international haiku magazine Ko, edited by the haiku poet Koko Kato. One of these refers to a haiku trip Seiho made to Shanghai four years ago, in which he writes about the humble rice dumplings known as getsu-pei, or in Japanese the tsukimi or rice dumplings eaten during autumn moon-viewing:

Cramming my mouth with

getsu-pei, Lake Sei

remains unruffled.

This was composed at a celebrated beauty spot, the lake in Hang Zhou in China. For the last 14 years, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper has been printing, right in the middle of its first page, not the latest financial deals and squabbles, but a poetry column of haiku and tanka (the 31-syllable poetic form), something no other newspaper in the world would dare do. It was in such an atmosphere favourable to the popular passion for poetry that old poets such as Awano Seiho, and a growing number of younger haiku poets, made their name.

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