Wednesday, December 10, 2008

R. H. Blyth on Shiki: Part 1

R. H. Blyth is the author, commentator, and translator of two separate sets of seminal publications on haiku: the 4 volume Haiku (V. 1 Eastern Culture, V. 2 Spring, V. 3 Summer and Autumn, V. 4 Autumn and Winter) and the 2 volume A History of Haiku. Blyth was one of the first to bring haiku to the West and is fairly conservative and traditional in his approach. His translations are sparse, the way I like them. Sometimes he elicits the hidden gem within: the principle of less is more comes to mind. At other times the results are flat, as if the very essence of the piece was simply untranslatable. His views betray a distinct bias (whose don't, eh?). His affinity for Zen has been cited as part of that bias but, in my estimation, we could do worse for a guide to both Japanese culture in general and haiku in particular.

The sets themselves are both lessons in all things haiku and a pleasure to peruse.

I have a soft spot for Blyth's great affection for western writers such as Wordsworth, Whitman, and Lawrence and his uncanny ability to slip them into the discussion in just the right spots. In some ways its hard to imagine comparing these relatively long-winded (in a good way) writers to the miniaturist art of haiku, though Lawrence's affinity early on with the Imagists certainly is a direct connection. But this is where Blyth excels. It is the essence he is after and the essence of these writers has a direct transcendent, almost transcendental, connection to the spirit of the East. Emerson, also, is never far from Blyth's ruminations. Typically, he may be translating a particular poem such as the following:

---A sliding door,
In the distance,
---At midnight.

And then throw in the offhand remark for the Western reader: "Emily Dickinson also felt the meaning of the shutting of a door, Stevenson too." That's it, just enough to make sure you are paying attention to the full resonant import of the tiny little gems he selects.

When it comes to Shiki, Blyth makes neither apologies or excuses. In A History of Haiku, Vol. 2, Blyth has three full chapters on Shiki: "Shiki: The Critic," "Shiki: On Furu-ike Ya," and "Shiki: The Haiku Poet." The second chapter is Shiki's critical appraisal of Basho's frog poem, which I'll be taking a look at sometime in the future. Today, I'd like to consider Blyth's take on Shiki the poet and present some of his translations. Here is his opening salvo:

Shiki, like all Japanese perhaps, is far better at creation than criticism. The Japanese have never produced a Coleridge, Hazlitt, or Lamb, but Wordsworth and Keats and Clare and Tennyson have their counterparts in Japan. Shiki has variety, if not depth. Though he is not emotional, he is not sentimental. There may be an excessive objectivity, but this means no pretense, no hypocrisy. As with Buson, whom he admired very much, he gives us pure poetry, which never fails to satisfy us and though it may not gain in depth with re-reading, we do not tire of him.

There is a razor sharp precision here, coupled with subtlies of distinction that I just marvel at. To put it succinctly, he nails it, big-time. He at once manages to show that Shiki's strength is simultaneously his weakness and who among us can deny that thought when applied to our own life's work? No depth a strength: you betcha! And let me tell you why, says Blyth.

This is beautiful, incisive criticism, reflecting a deep engagement with the work. I love the fact that he anchors this for the Western reader in artists more familiar to her/him. Blyth has such love of the romantics and their relation to Eastern ways reveals itself to his readers, complementing each tradition in a way that lifts them both up.

And, yes, I also love the fact that he mentions John Clare.

Before getting to some of the translations, here's a bit of insight, along with important background information on Shiki from his chapter on Shiki the critic:

Shiki, 1867-1902, is considered to be the restorer of haiku, which had been falling off since the time of Buson. Bashō walked his Way of Haiku; Buson his Way of Art; Issa, though he did not speak of it, his Way of Humanity. What had Shiki? He had no Way of any kind unless perhaps a Way of Beauty, like Keats, but ill-health and beauty do not go well together, and by the end of his short life he had got some humanity, but no religion, no pantheism, mysticism, or Zen.

One final critical note from Blyth is ironic in that he has already stated Shiki's importance in restoring haiku as an artistic medium in Japanese culture:

The effect of Shiki was to stimulate, but in over-praising Buson and under-praising Bashō he helped the continuous and never-ceasing tendency of haiku to become more artifical, rootless and, trivial.

Ouch. This may be a blow to Shiki, but notice the back hand is even more devastating: haiku, the medium on which Blyth wrote 6 groundbreaking books, is not immune to his intensely critical eye, as it should be.

All of this has helped me out immensely with my feelings toward all the Shiki poems I've been reading and remarking on over the last few weeks. In his chapter on Shiki the poet, Blyth translates 71 haiku, casually remarking that these are different than the 390 haiku he translated in his 4 volume masterwork. I've been reading those, but am having a hard time tracking them all down as the index to the paperback editions don't seem to correlate with the hardcovers (I have a mix of both) and so I have to go through page by page. Eventually, I'll sort it all out, but for now I've gone through these 71 and have marked 12 as grabbing me immediately. Here they are:

---A snow landscape
still hanging up in spring -
---the dust on it!

---The plan to steal melons
Forgotten too -
---Cooling in the evening.

Blyth's comment on this I love: " This is good because of its truthfulness, and consequently its truth to life; morality, like love, as Sydney Smith said, depends on the temperature."

---Oh, ears defiled
By sermons
---The hototogisu! (cuckoo)

---A boat finished,
The Rose of Sharon blooming,
---A fishing village.

---All the hawker's cries
Became silent,
---Noon cicadas crying.

---Fluttering and dancing,
They are drawn into the vortex,
---The dancing leaves.

---Water birds,
And reeds withering,
---In the setting sun.

And Blyth's critical comment on this: "Such verses as these may be called almost too objective, too lacking in humanity. They are nature devoid of what even nature itself looks forward to, and appears in mankind."

---The beginning of autumn
The shell of the cicada
---Patters down.

---The evening bell tolls:
The sound of ripe persimmons
---Thudding in the temple garden.

Again, with Blyth's comment: "The sound of the bell is large, and that of all falling fruits slight, but Shiki's love of religion was small and his love of persmimmons great. They are therefore equal as spiritual sounds, representing as they do the transcendental and the material, the ideal and the real in human life."

---Passing autumn:
He comes to collect the money
---For tolling the bell.

---I going,
You remaining,-
---Two autumns.

---When the snail
Raises its face too,
---It looks like me.

Some of these haiku I've featured before but Blyth's translations make me see them in a new light, sometimes because of a particular word, or perhaps a better distillation of the ones chosen. I've read many translations of the first ("A snow landscape") but this is the first time it grabbed me beyond the image itself. Particular words that make these poems for me are "defiled," "vortex," "patters," and "thudding." The condensation of the famed haiku (and one of my favs) on two friends parting ("I going") to a mere 6 words is a marvel of condensation and poetry; those six words positively explode off the page for me with the pure power of deep-felt sorrow.

I would single out also two other poems for special attention, two I hadn't encountered before in all those other collections. I'm not sure if it's intentional, either by Shiki or Blyth, but the fact that autumn might be seen as a personification in "Passing autumn" I find incredibly resonant. It raises the level of an everyday human experience to that of the cyclical struggle of life and death, making it like a 3 line allegory or 3 line morality play. Even if this is not intentional (for Blyth at least I can't see how it couldn't be), the echoes of autumn as a symbol in Eastern work cannot be denied. For whom is the bell tolling, indeed?

Finally, the last poem ("When the snail") is truly transcendent for me and if you had handed it to me blind and said pick one of the 4 master haikuists as composer, I would not have hesitated to pick Issa. This work is sublime, yet it found its way into none of the other collections I've reported on in previous posts.

I'm looking forward, indeed, to those other 390 translations of Shiki in the 4 volume Blyth. Despite the pointed criticism, he has won me over to this master poet, not simply intellectually, but in a heartfelt, emotional way. Shiki was notoriously difficult to get to know, by all counts irascible and nasty at times. His illness certainly goes a long way to explaining why he was so hard to know, literally as well as via his work.

Thanks to Blyth, I feel I know him now and like him, indeed, very much. Not only that, but I know why.


Normally, on Thursday I append some Lilliput poems from the archive for your perusal. I have to skip that this week as I've expended a great deal of energy on Shiki and, unfortunately, my paying gig beckons. Well, something to look forward to next week, eh?

So as not close on a negative note, here's a poem from one of the two brand new issues of Lilliput, #165, Dennis Maloney's fine translation of my favorite tanka poet, Yosano Akiko:


I won't transform
My feeling into words
Or a poem but pour them
From heart to heart
This day, this moment.
Yosano Akiko
translated by Dennis Maloney

All the best,


Greg said...

great post, Don. i learned a lot about Shiki that i didn't know before. i've never seen either the snail or "passing autumn" haiku before... thanks for sharing them.

keep meaning to get my hands on blyth's 4-volume set. guess it's a little late to ask for it for christmas. maybe next year.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


thanks for the kind note and glad you liked the post ... evidently I put everybody else to sleep!

While going back through volume 1 last night for Shiki haiku I started to read Blyth's introduction and was completely knocked out. I believe I'm going to try and read these 4 books straight through rather than dipping in as I've been doing for years.

Positively cosmic point of view, really amazing.


King said...

Good to hear you enthusing about Blyth. I have Sring haiku and enjoy dipping into it. I respond to perhaps 5% of the poems, but am thrilled by Blyth's commentaries. Even his translations seem to have more depth than other versions of the "same" haiku. Good to read your article.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


I've had much the same reaction to the 4 volume haiku set - thrilled by the commentary, enjoy the translations at about the percent you mention. They are unique and, I believe, were inspirational to Robert Hass' also brief,modern versions.