Original brass dies for 1860 version
Sometimes, it seems that R. H. Blyth is to modern American haiku as Sigmund Freud is to modern psychology: a bit of a dotty old granddad, overdressed in a woolen suit on a hot, humid day, crumbs of this and that all down his front, with a glint in his eye of philosophical shenanigans none too pleasing to the parents in attendance.
Of course, all the grand kids are jumping up and down in his lap like there's no tomorrow.
Perhaps the comparison to Freud seems a stretch, though for many, I suspect, it is spot on. Tracing the root of all things to infantile sexuality and the heart of haiku to Zen is quaint, indeed, for many, but consider, at least in the case of Freud: we are all, famous, infamous, and other, products of our time. Could there have been any other time in history aside from the later part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century (think: Victorian England, for example) when all might be traced back to our murderous instincts for ma and pa?
Though this all seems very antiquated, it got me to thinking about what Joseph Campbell observed concerning fundamentalists of all religious denominations. He noted that all the trouble starts (i.e. the purges, the wars, the torturing, and the deaths) when the metaphoric scripture of any particular sect (he was thinking predominately of the 'desert religions') was taken literally. Literally, there was a Virgin Birth, literally an ascent to Heaven, literally a parting of the seas etc.
If one turned to the dottering grandfather and didn't mistake the metaphor for the reality, one might recognize a little something other in that glint.
Mr. Blyth beats the drum loud and long for Zen and haiku and, to my ears, at least, it is a most pleasing sound. One can no more divorce spirituality from the origin of haiku than one can from life itself. Notice the particular use of the "S" word, as opposed to the "R" word.
Participating, as I have recently in a weekly book discussion group concerning volume one of Blyth's four volume work Haiku, all this was underscored for me emphatically. What exasperated the group, some of whom were coming to haiku study for the first time, was the myriad contradictions one encounters from page to page and from chapter to chapter throughout.
Delightfully, exasperation transmuted into something like a humorous acceptance: it would seem the teacher was also a practitioner. This was most definitely a case of do what I do, as well as what I say. So, throughout, one encounters many, many definitions of haiku, as well as poetry in general, and Zen, and philosophy itself, some complementary, many contradictory, all informative, and some even enlightening.
In the complementary area, comes the following two quotes, within 10 pages of each other, working toward defining the "aim of haiku."
Coming now to the general differences between waka and haiku, we may say once more that waka aim at beauty, a somewhat superficial beauty sometimes, that excludes all ugly things. The aim of haiku is not beauty; it is something much deeper and wider. It is significance, a poetical significance, "a shock of mild surprises", that the poet receives when the haiku is born, and the reader when it is reborn in his mind. (pages 113-114)
In his second take on the aim of haiku, Blyth takes off from a quote from Master Bashō:
Haikai has for its object the setting to rights of common parlance and ordinary language.
This is one of those profound sayings which can and should be interpreted in a variety of ways. Bashō wanted our daily prose turned into poetry, the realization that the commonest events and actions of life may be done significantly, the deeper use of all language, written and spoken. Our lives are slovenly, imitative. We live, as Lawrence said, like the illustrated covers of magazines. Comfort is our aim, and dissatisfaction is all we achieve. The aim of haiku is to live twenty four hours a day, that is, to put meaning into every moment, a meaning that may be intense or diffuse, but never ceases. (page 119)
Significant, indeed; never mind that, for clarity, we might slip in 'reality TV' for 'the illustrated covers of magazines' for relevance. For me, what is most important here is what Blyth specifically does not say, and in how he universalizes his point. His first statement, re: significance above, is about process and, I believe, it goes right to the heart of the form that is haiku. The second has a little more of that glint in his eye, also alluded to above. As such I find it magnanimously inclusive and not a bit exclusive at all.
Just a little further on, in another 'definition' of the haiku form, we get a bit of a hint at the fact that Blyth's own approach to his subject is analogous to how he perceives the form itself:
Waka began as literature, haiku as a kind of sporting with words. Bashō made it literature, and yet something beyond and above literature, a process of discovery rather than creation, using words as means, not ends, as a chisel that removes the rock hiding the statue beneath. (page 121)
Again that certain something is not said and, so, to, for me:
People are few
Leaves also fall
Now and then
trans. R. H. Blyth
into the sunken hearth
translated by David G. Lanoue
Photo by earl53
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