Sunday, November 14, 2010

Silent Flowers: R. H. Blyth Translations

Art by Nanae Ito

With a reading and poetry program last week and another reading and a poetry program this week, and the new issues in the oven getting ready to go out to contributors,  I've fallen a bit behind.  So, posted today is what I originally intended to put up on Friday and Issa's Sunday Service will return in its regular slot next week.   Meanwhile, all 77 songs to date can be found here in list form and here in jukebox form.


Ah, Hallmark Editions books - small little hardcovers, with decorative dust jackets, that brought a world of sentiment alien to what is commonly thought of today when one says the word "Hallmark."   The little volume at hand is 55 pages long with some 140 plus haiku, all by masters of the form and translated by one of the first and finest of all haiku translators, R. H. Blyth.  There is a nifty intro that cites Wordsworth, one of Blyth's favorites - in fact, the intro may come from Blyth, there is no easy way to tell.  The overall selection was edited by Dorothy Price, who did a very fine job, indeed.

All for the remarkable price new of $2.50 back in the year 1967 (and 40 years later you can get copies for only a dollar more, including shipping), this little book packs a formidable punch.    The simply (in all senses of the word) stunning artwork is by Nanae Ito, in the traditional style.  I've mentioned this collection before, but only in regard to a handful of Issa translations.  I'd like to dip in a little more deeply now.

All 140 haiku were selected from Blyth's 4-volume masterwork, Haiku, from Hokuseido Press of Japan, unfortunately out of print and going for a pretty penny. The volumes are invaluable, no matter what you pay for them, and I don't often make rash statements when it comes to money.  This may seem puzzling on the surface, but the poems aren't half the beauty; Blyth's commentary is unsurpassed.  If you want to learn the origin of haiku, the spirit of haiku, the Way of Haiku, these volumes are your ticket there. 

From Silent Flowers, I've marked some 30 poems for further review.

     Silent flowers
speak also
     to that obedient ear within.

The first poem, from which the title derives, is unusual for a traditional haiku and all the more strong for that.  Silence is perfectly balanced by the ear within; only the inner ear may truly hear silence.   That the flowers themselves are given voice is lovely without being awkwardly anthropomorphic.  There is more of an almost synesthesiac quality if anything, suggesting one is "hearing" a smell or an vision.  Quite fine, since the philosophical implication is most important of all; the silent flowers, most often cherry blossoms in traditional haiku, are teaching us the ultimate lesson if we wish to hear.

     Just simply alive,
Both of us, I
     and the poppy.

There it is, folks - doesn't get plainer or simpler or truer or more beautiful than that.   After you read a poem like this, time to shut the book and get back to life.

     My eyes having seen all,
Came back to
     the chrysanthemums.

That's not a typo - it is Isshō, not Issa, about whom I could find very little except that he was a poet of Kanazawa, who was warmly admired by Bashō.   This particular poem might be taken in two ways: in the moment and in a deeper philosophical sense.  In the moment, the poet returns to the chrysanthemums after literally looking about and seeing all.  Figuratively, there is a kind of resonance - having seen all in life, I return to the chrysanthemums because they are most worth seeing and may tell us all we need to know, as with both  Onitsura's and Issa's poems.   It is said that Bashō was so moved by the poet's death at a young age, he wrote the following uncharacteristically emotional poem for him:

On the Death of Isshō

Oh, grave-mound, move!
My wailing is the autumn wind.

     The scissors hesitate
Before the white chysanthemums,
     A moment.

This Buson poem I've talked about before, but I'm not sure if it was in the Blyth translation.  All these renderings seem damn near perfect, but this one is truly amazing.  The 1st line breaks at "hesitate" - which we do - the second ends with a comma - hesitating again - and the third, well, locks us firmly in that moment.  We know what comes next and I'm not talking about a blossom head falling to the ground.

I'm almost overwhelmed with how resonant these short renderings are.  There are two masters at work here at all times: poet and translator.

     To pluck it is a pity,
To leave it is a pity,
     Ah, this violet!

Caught perfectly in the balance, the violet - and the human.   Each of these poems seems the final word - on all of poetry.

     They spoke no word.
The visitor, the host,
     And the white chrysanthemum.

Oh, wait, it would seem no final word, no word at all, is needed.

     Striking the fly
I hit also
     A flowering plant.

     Simple trust:
Do not the petals flutter down,
     Just like that?

How could I have missed these two the first time I looked at Issa's work in this collection.  How wrong to strike the fly is seen in the result: two dead things.  And simple trust, what could be easier ... and harder?

     The long night;
The sound of water
     Says what I think

Here is a little mystery - what is the poet thinking, what is the water saying.  When we hear water, it says a lot of things to us.  What could it be, says the old person to the young person, what could it be?


This week's sample poem comes from the Lillie archive comes from issue #124, March 2002.  

         Rainy winds...
    An orphan sycamore
Uses my grandmother's voice
               Patrick Sweeney

plum tree--
on my hut's unlucky side
translated by David G. Lanoue


PS  Get 2 free issues     Get 2 more free issues     Lillie poem archive

Go to the LitRock web site for a list of all 76 songs
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Conrad DiDiodato said...


lovely haiku offerings, especially the Issa. The flowers have worked their magic on me.


Fred said...


Lovely poems from one of my favorite small collections.

I did manage to find one of Blyth's volumes: Volume 2, Spring. I haven't had a chance yet to start it.

I also found two volumes of haiku translated by Harold Stewart: _A Chime of Windbells_ and _A Net of Fireflies_, neither of which I've had a chance to do more than dip into once or twice. Both are hardbound and come with a slipcase and numerous illustrations.

Are you familiar with the Stewart translations?

Fred said...

They spoke no word.
The visitor, the host,
And the white chrysanthemum.


My favorite by Ryota, and also one of my favorite haiku overall. I've seen other translations and Blyth's seems perfect to me.

Charles Gramlich said...

Very fine poetry on a Sunday morning.

Poet Hound said...

I love everything you post on your blog, Don. I'm also glad I'm not the only one who has to abandon a post or two thanks to a busy schedule. Keep the poetry and jukebox music coming!
--Paula at Poet Hound

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Conrad, very glad you enjoyed them.

Fred, likewise. I do have both Stewart volumes. I don't have them in front of me at the moment, but I believe, like Arthur Waley, Stewart translates with rhyme. I've been meaning to get to them - maybe I can do that soon.

PS, that is a wonderful haiku, indeed.

Charles, glad when something hits the spot.

PC, your very kind words mean a lot. Thanks.

TC said...


Books and bokes and poets and potes and dust and motes and mites and mutts and all the rest do come and go, but the four-volume Blyth set is, well, like forever.

The mouldy old shelf may be slowly (or swiftly) going back to nature, but every time I walk past it and out of the dim corner of remaining vision, catch a glimpse of those books, I am reminded all over again of what is so eternally wonderful about this art at whose feet we have so long toiled... and it is this reminder which further reminds me it's not toil, it's just faith. And love.

Many thanks, my brother.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks, Tom ... always and everything heading to whence it came ... so wonderfully expressed.

I hear those 4 volumes calling (1 by the bedside, this last year or so in the formidable pile but near the top, near the top). Funny what happens when you extract the poems. A different, also wonderful book, but always to return to RHB for text and context.

Leaves, leaves, leaves ...


Theresa Williams said...

Enjoyed your commentaries, as always. I couldn't agree more about Blyth. After reading your comments about him, I knew I head to have all four volumes, so I went on a hunt and found they can be bought for under twenty dollars each online. In my Vol. 4 edition, it says 1982, The Holuseido Press, Tokyo. It says it was printed in Japan. It says it was Distributed by Book East POB 11387, Portland, OR 97211. I believe I came upon the publisher's link first and then followed the links at that site to Amazon. They are brand new books. Blyth's commentaries are works of art in themselves and really help to enlarge the haiku. My favorite is Vol. 4, but then I love the melancholy of autumn and winter.

Theresa Williams said...

Sorry, that's The HOKUSEIDO Press.

Theresa Williams said...

Don, I just went through the same process I did before (it was last spring)and those cheap editions are no longer available. Wow, I sure was lucky. Last spring, I clicked on links even when they said the volume was no longer available and found Amazon did have them for under twenty dollars, around seventeen dollars, to be exact. I am so glad that I got them when I did, because they are just amazing books.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Wow, that's fantastic, glad you got them. From your experience it probably is worth keeping an eye out for what pops up now and again. You never know.

Though I love the fact that the translations have been collected in various books, those volumes with Blyth's text are really transcendent.


Theresa Williams said...

This is the site I originally used:

Transcendent is the right word. Mind blowing. They are precious to me. Thank you for writing about them so I could discover them.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


I'm noticing this morning that, through the links on the Hokuseido page, there are copies of all 4 Haiku volumes in paperback available from amazon, most for under $15, just not the whole set together.

Thanks for pointing this out in case anybody asks.

Theresa Williams said...

That's a good deal! People should keep checking back! :-)

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Absolutely - I have a couple of hardcovers and a couple of paperbacks. The binding of one of the hardcovers is easing from so much use! It may have to be replaced, but I cherish it.

hking said...

I bought the same Hallmark book in 1968 and it was my first introduction to haiku.