Thursday, January 8, 2009

Blyth's Zen Background of Haiku

Cover, replete with tea stain

Early on in the first volume of R. H. Blyth's 4 volume Haiku, he traces the origins of haiku to, among other sources, Zen. He sees it in a number of poems by Bashô, one of which is new to me, in the sense that Blyth's translation makes something I've read totally unfamiliar:

------Yield to the willow
All the loathing, all the desire
------Of your heart.

The seeming contradiction here is consummately Zen, its underpinnings firmly grounded in nature where there is no contradiction. This translation shot to the top of the list of my favorite Bashô poems instantly.

Blyth points to a number of other Zen poems in the early history of haiku.

------The cherry blossoms having fallen,
Enjoji Temple
------Is quiet once more.

The irony here is the tourist crowd throngs to the the temple to see the cherry blossoms, then disappears as soon as they've fallen, leaving the temple empty. And what exactly was cherry blossom viewing supposed to remind them of, one might ask?

Buson gives another view:

------The cherry blossoms having fallen,
The temple
------Through the branches.

Blyth follows these poems with a selection of 73 poems that illustrate the path Zen traveled through poetry to arrive at the Japanese haiku. Here are a handful of my favorites, which frequently feel more like maxims than actual poems. They are unattributed:

The raindrops patter on the bashô leaf, but these
--are not tears of grief;
This is only the anguish of him who is listening
--to them.

In the vast inane there is no back or front;
The path of the bird annihilates East and West.

The water a cow drinks turns to milk;
The water a snake drinks turns to poison.

The old pine-tree speaks divine wisdom;
The secret bird manifests eternal truth.

Seeing, they see not;
Hearing, they hear not.

What is written is of ages long ago,
But the heart knows all the gain and loss.

There is no place to seek the mind;
It is like the footprints of the birds in the sky.

If you do not believe, look at September, look at October,
How the yellow leaves fall, and fill mountain and river.

Curtis Dunlap of Blogging Along Tobacco Road sent along this amazing reenactment of scenes from Bashô's journal. The first part is done with pen and ink drawings but the second part is live action film, with high production values. The live action film depicts an incident in Bashô's life that many have found very disturbing, including myself. Curtis received permission to post this response to that incident, which is well considered and worth reading. It gives us pause, not only in the life of this master poet, but in our own. Many thanks to Curtis for sharing this.

This week's trip down memory lane in the Lilliput Review archive takes us to August 1994, issue #59. Hope you find something that grabs you.


You are a dark space
in which a circle
of tiny turquoise stones
revolves endlessly.
Albert Huffstickler


Familiar knives carve me into
chunks served up for family dinner.
From the scraps and bones
I make a broth and feed myself.
Ruth Daigon

I Left My Future

in his car wedged between the
cushions with the seat belt-----where
it slid when neither of us were
looking or paying any attention
it is there now as I try to lie
my way out of this poem.
Cheryl Townsend

He crept in
like mildew.
Suzanne Bowers

Tried and True

1. Find out where it is.
2. Clean it, cook it, & eat it.
3. Sleep under its bones until you're awake.
4. Find another one.
bill kaul


PS The regular weekly archival posting will be moving to Tuesday from Thursday next week (or the week after, if this cold gets the best of me) as my evening work schedule has changed.


Jim H. said...

More C. Townsend, please!

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


The further I go back in the archive, the more Cheryl Townsend you'll see. Tell then try:

This and this.


Jim H. said...


You're like the Santa Claus of New Year poems! Townsend's class reunion poem (in the 2nd link) is hilarious.

I bet she could get you to read a baseball poem because she seems to be the queen of ambivalence.



Greg Schwartz said...

love that mildew poem. and i gotta agree with Jim... "30th" is hilarious!

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Oh you are so right! Met Cheryl in Pittsburgh for a reading back in the mid-80's, before I moved here. She is quite amazing, great poet and excellent photographer. Coincidentally, I heard from her about a month ago and she keeps on keeping on. I'll keep an eye out in the archive and post her work when I get to it.

Thanks, Greg ... the mildew poem is so on the money. And Cat's work ... is great.