Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Winter 2008, vol 6 no 4

A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert
Part I [Part II will appear in Simply Haiku, Vol. 7, No. 1, February 2009]
by Robert D. Wilson

RW: You've written a book (Poems of Consciousness, Red Moon Press 2008) that will affect the way people in the English speaking world look at and understand haiku and related genres. It's a long overdue book, Dr. Gilbert. Most of what has been written in scholarly terms about haiku has been penned by elderly scholars years ago, the likes of Donald Keene, Makoto Ueda, R. H. Blyth, Henderson, et al. Haiku is not a stationary entity. It continually evolves. What was written in the past about the genre doesn't necessarily hold true for today any more than what was written about in the past about music theory holds true in regard to today's music and our understanding of it.

Tell us your motive behind the writing of your new book. How has our understanding of haiku evolved in the past two decades and what is lacking in the same arena? And why is it imperative that we look to Japanese scholar/poets for direction and insight?

RG: My main motive has been curiosity and wonder. A mythology: a child looks at a wall socket, imagines wires behind walls tracking them back to the regional electric grid, the nature of electrons flashing on time's origin, the big bang. Fleeting images build multiple templates which become interpenetrating worldviews. A dream or vision of the ability to ken, to evoke a panoply of realities, accept complexities of multiple divergent realities—to "enlarge" reality, as Wallace Stevens urged. Summer days spent staring into sky: the gossamer sensation of existence. It's hard to separate haiku and the world. Near a Connecticut beach wishing to live beneath the water. The way its surface touches the deep.

Mythology is a song. It is the song of imagination, inspired by the energies of the body (Joseph Campbell). Mythology is the poetics of the body singing about our cellular truth. Myth is a poem of the experience of being embodied and our somatic journey (Stanley Keleman).1

We, bipedal creatures possessing forward-mounted stereoscopic eyes, a pair of five-fingered hands: articulations of "energies of the body" into myth and song represent the imprint of human being, a scryer's visionary response to questions of being and identity, the question of who and what we are. A trail winds back into the space of silence, the space of history, the space of mind. In the poetry of Snyder, in the attitude of Thoreau's long essay "Walking," in Bashō's pilgrimages to ancient locales—and then there's Nenten Tsubouchi, a gendai poet, who seeks out hippos in zoos. What have we come to? I think our contemporary era is uniquely reflected in Tsubouchi's excursions. Ezra Pound declaimed, "Make it new" and Bashō said much the same thing, if from a different perspective—each succeeding era necessarily writes its own eternity. What gendai haiku offer is a taste of that eternity, via the sensate manner of the image. To riff on this analogy, in the West from Escoffier on, great chefs have known that the nuance of taste involves smell, the pleasure of the eye, and memory. That "moment" of taste is not an "a-ha," but rather an extraordinarily complex scenario, in which multiple perceptions and cognitive "templates" merge and conspire to move one on, "enlarging" the gestalt of being.

Having a sense of "era" seems fundamental to gendai haiku. Among the many surprises found from studying haiku in Japan, the notion that "era" is as important to the poet as "self" or "place" or "season" has occasioned a re-orientation of my own poetic intentions.

In the pre-industrial, pre-scientific world, the passions contained in myth offered psychic structure, landscapes and "story" (stories as bodies, embodiments). Yet the old stories no longer contain us. How might it be possible to inspire the energies of the bodies of the future, as song? In that poetry represents an artful integration of consciousness and body, what modes might inspire depth and a greater sensitivity of vision? What will nourish us, as we move past nine billion at the end of the fossil-fuel age? The old myths died long ago. Lions, trees and elephants enter dreams; underfoot the grass, leaves falling beneath olive trees seen through panes of glass. Living deep in the bowels of the city, that sun. The dividing line between dream, imagination, technology, and the environment seems to be blurring exponentially and it isn't clear if we will remain.

To the question of care, an increasingly central question, gendai haiku offer the reader the shape of who we are in the shape of things to come, in resonance with archaic myth, the formal insights of previous ages, in which occasionally it can be noted the small sounds of frogs jumping as a stroke of infinite being held in water contained between cupped hands,

eki mae de mabushii jidai to ippai yatta ga (Hoshinaga)

near the station
drinking with the dazzle
of the era

mugi yo shi wa ki isshoku to omoikomu (Uda)

realizing death as one color

hibashira no naka ni watashi no eki ga aru (Onishi)

within a pillar of fire
my station

natsu no yami tsuru o kakaete yuku gotoku (Hasegawa)

summer dark
a red-crowned crane, cradled
as if on my way

sakura chiru anata mo kaba ni narinasai (Tsubouchi)

cherry blossoms fall —
you too must become
a hippo

mata no ma no ubugoe megi no yami e nobi (Mikajo)

between thighs
the birth cry stretches into
budding tree darkness

It's a bit like jazz, in that the poem resists you. Retreats from your humanity to its reality. Myths in previous eras relativized the human, placing human being within a psychic reality of powers, motions, motives, and beings far greater than us.

Have we lost our perspective? I believe we need an innovative means of mythologizing the body. Richer directions and dimensions for the psyche in approaching the world, metaphor and form. The moment of my existence in the space of this suburban room contains a desk which deepens into the scent of rained out crags woven through mist in a landscape emptied of voice. It's my hope that a newfound sense of wilderness will return to the city, so that beauty can again be found in nature via a re-founding of domestic environments.

To care for the infinities at the edges of the cornea. The universe as contained in a Japanese apartment or suburban garden: infinite views, winding paths. A certain necessary complexity, the complicity of multiple dimensions of poetic paradox seem necessary to reawakening ourselves to nature—through which we might at root find enough distance in beauty to do less harm, and more, to care. The deepest form of poetic insight may be that poetry is the world.

Gendai haiku partake of a tradition and culture in which, unlike that of the historical Judeo-Christian West, nature and culture were not extensively polarized. So in gendai haiku exists an invitation to the present and a future, in congruence with the past. This congruency is also an uprooting, accomplished via expansive and often experimental avant-garde language and techniques. Yet the old is likewise held in the new, in plying the form. The key to haiku, what makes it a brilliant literature, is that haiku cut through time and space as a primary means of birthing and articulating novel realities as environments.

In the 1950s the Beats asked the question, "How do we grow our own culture?" and recently the poet Hoshinaga Fumio commented, "Language is overworked, fatigued." The Beats knew where to start, Hoshinaga knows how. In a world without torture or needless suffering, there would still be, according to Jung, one imperative: to choose to individuate, to encounter the shadow, to grow. So I take your word "imperative" to heart. The great gendai poets know how to begin. At the moment, poets everywhere are searching for the taste of the new; do we hunger for revival even at the expense of survival? What can be learned from the Japanese poets is not the "how" but rather the actuality. How language is unequivocally refreshed. I intuit that we may one day live in a culture which embodies those "energies of the body" inspired by myth; essential poetic navigations which Campbell and others discuss as the roots of human soul. Until that time, gendai haiku is a great reminder, and more, that taste! The taste of an era. And it's brilliant.


RW: Your research crosses boundaries, less concerned with nationalities and language, and focused instead on a thorough analysis of modern haiku that transcends what was learned and promulgated via the early-modern haiku reformation spearheaded by Masaoka Shiki. As you aptly state in your book's preface, "Much of what has been communicated of the historical haiku oeuvre has been misunderstood in the West. Cross-cultural gendai haiku studies are thus in an embryonic state. Gendai haiku has been misunderstood in contemporary Japan as well, partly due to the promotion from the early 20th century up through the wartime period of Shiki's shasei (objective realist) sensibility." Please elucidate.

RG: In the book, selected acclaimed authors are presented, along with their poems and commentaries, with the goal of offering readers an experience of the richness of the gendai-haiku stream of culture. In addition a series of explorative essays present new modes of definition and perspective, with an eye toward inspiring authors, that is, the interest and curiosity of poets. Poems of Consciousness is just a beginning. Recently, the Association of Modern Haiku (gendai haiku kyōkai) published a groundbreaking saijiki in five volumes, one volume incidentally muki kigo or "non-season season words." You have to love it. Within each of these volumes many thousands of haiku and hundreds of authors can be found. It's an awesome achievement; a project begun some 15 years ago. While the AMH is the largest gendai haiku organization, many hundreds of circles and societies exist in Japan—it's said there are over a million active in haiku circles here. A given poet is often a member of more than one circle, or organization, and approaches and activities also vary broadly, depending on the presiding mentor (typically, poets of some stature found local circles and found their own independent journals). Strong poets are as unique and individualistic in Japan as elsewhere. What may surprise is how deeply the cultural tradition of the poetic circle, including the core social experience of the "haiku gathering-party" (kukai) permeates artistic practice. The poetic circle seems the very lifeblood of the gendai haiku tradition, and may be likened to the Western idea of the salon, regarding openness of thought, congeniality and provocation.

The signature haiku of Bashō, the "old pond" haiku was in part a collaborative composition, as Hasegawa discusses below. While Bashō is undoubtedly the poem's author, the historical record describes a drinking-party atmosphere with a convivial near-Socratic question and answer, concerning what might make the best capping phrase for the poem (the first phrase: "old pond—" or furuike ya is the capping phrase). In his book, Did the Frog Jump Into the Old Pond? [furuike ni kawazu wa tobikondaka] Hasegawa sets this scene and its goings-on in some detail (the following quotations are unpublished draft-translation summary):

Needless to say, in renga, and from the Teimon school, and even the Danrin school, the frog had been depicted as singing. But Bashō treated the frog differently, giving only the sound of its jumping into water.
Kikaku's offering of yamabuki ya represents a direct challenge to the existing renga tradition, as this flower had been long associated with frogs. So plying it in a new form of haiku [hokku] equates to a radical act. But in the end Bashō rejects Kikaku's suggestion. Bashō said,
The idea of yamabuki is elegant and evocative; however, the 5-on furuike ya is spare and substantial. From ancient times to now substantiality has been the mainstream of poetry.
Kikaku's proposition of yamabuki is based on the waka tradition. The frog had been paired with yamabuki [Kerria Japonica, or Japanese Globeflower] from the age of the Man'yōshū.
. . .
"Kikaku's idea of [the flower] yamabuki is a challenge to the conventions of waka, because it brings together the unconventional combination of yamabuki and the frog's 'jumping in' sound—typically 'yamabuki' would be associated to the frog's melodious call [a sound similar to that of the peeper frog, in North America].
. . .
What Bashō wants to say is that a frog jumped—not sang. This was already phrased by the 7-5 section of the haiku. As a result this phrase could combine with either "furuike" or "yamabuki." That is, the sound of water exists in a different dimension than either "furuike" or "yamabuki". This explains why Bashō capped the existing phrase with "furuike ya," without minding the repetition [of the water imagery, e.g. "pond" and "frog" both connote water, and repetition in haiku has tragic consequences]. If you consider that, combined with yamabuki, neither Bashō, Kikaku, or Shiko ever thought that "a frog jumps into yamabuki," likewise the frog can't jump into "the old pond."
And, by joining the frog's jumping-in sound rather than its call, this creates a formula-breaking haikai. It is important to recall here that Bashō considered the act of formula-breaking to be itself a formula. With this philosophy in mind, "furuike ya" neither follows nor challenges convention: with this ku Bashō was liberated from the spell of any formula. He not only overcame the conventions of waka, which Kikaku was attempting to challenge; he also overcame Kikaku. (furuike, Chap. 1)

Here are Hasegawa's further comments on this topic, from our interview, found in Poems of Consciousness:

. . . "old pond" (furuike) exists in the world of mind. At the same time, "frogs jumping-in water-sound" (kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto)—real sounds existing in the real world—are a trigger (catalyst) for "old pond" (furuike). Summing up, a proper interpretation of this ku might be: on a late spring day (in the lunar calendar) Bashō was in his hermitage listening to the sounds of frogs jumping into water, and he envisioned an old pond, in mind.
In terms of interpretation, for example, interpreting the ku as: "there is an old pond and a frog jumped into it and then splashed the sound of water"—this interpretation would be of only actual things; but we can rather consider that … while "a frog jumped into the water" is a real fact, an "old pond" arises out of Bashō's world of mind—there is thus a juxtaposition of two alternate dimensions of being. Read this way, this haiku is not a scene composed of the viewing an object, but rather of listening to sounds, and furthermore, Bashō composed this ku via active imagination (the haiku is not shasei, an objective sketch).
The reality is that we have interpreted this haiku in a superficial way, without giving it deep reflection, perhaps thoughtlessly viewing the haiku image as, "a frog jumped into an old pond and then the sound of water"—this interpretation represents a misunderstanding. This haiku was written 300 years ago and it has been misunderstood for 300 years. (pp. 74-75)

I think if we can grasp the sense of kire (the disjunctive "cutting" of time and space) and the arising of the "world of mind" in haiku as a result of techniques of disjunction and paradox, and observe how eloquently and radically Bashō responded to a millennial poetic tradition, it's possible to appreciate the poetics and poetic spirit evidenced in gendai haiku. The spirit of Bashō and the poetic stream found in gendai haiku are one and the same. What Bashō calls "substantial" might equally be considered supremely fictional. Don't you think, reading the above, that the haiku tradition has been misinterpreted in the West, via all existing translations of "old pond" and any number of commentaries on Bashō and his poetics? Bashō's brilliant "eye opening" style represents the beginning of his later career, and he succeeded in developing further evolutions of this style and intention, these likewise discussed by Hasegawa and others.

The gendai haiku tradition partakes of Bashō's "world of mind," and like Bashō and other accomplished classical masters, extends a literary conversation. In a sense, haiku are never merely singular works of art, they swim in an ocean of poetry, in which any given term (e.g. kigo or kidai) and image has multiple reference to over 1000 years of literary history (poems, historical events, personages, authors, myths, etc.). In Buddhism, the "fourth moment" is described as a combination of past, present and future, which is yet none of these. Due to cultural context, haiku likewise have this taste. Though I value creative misinterpretation (first successfully plied in the haiku genre by Ezra Pound), translators and critics must give warp and weave to the deeper skeins of haiku, deepen what is already a multinational/regional poetics. I feel that we know quite little about haiku at this point.


RW: What is gendai haiku and how profoundly is the gendai haiku tradition intertwined with its classical ancestry?

RG: The classical and gendai streams are profoundly intertwined, as shown above, in Hasegawa's comments as an example—there are many other aspects of lineage connection that can be discussed, in terms of form, intention and style. "Gendai haiku" means literally "modern or contemporary haiku," and loosely refers to expansive ideas of the haiku form arising from the 1920s on, and more particularly to the direct progenitors of the gendai haiku movement, the figures of the New Rising Haiku movement, of the '30s-'40s. The New Rising Haiku movement is discussed in detail in a monograph and two published papers by Yūki Itō, now available online:

New Rising Haiku: The Evolution of Modern Japanese Haiku and the Haiku Persecution Incident
(Simply Haiku 5:4, Winter 2007).

A follow-up interview with Udo Wenzel, Haiku Heute, is a de facto second essay:

Forgive, But Do Not Forget: Modern Haiku and Totalitarianism.
Itō Yūki talks with Udo Wenzel (Haiku Heute, Winter 2007/2008)

A thorough history of gendai haiku remains to be penned in English, and as Kaneko Tohta, a celebrated founder of the postwar gendai movement, quoted in Itō's monograph, explains, "When discussing the history of postwar haiku, many scholars tend to begin their discussion from the end of World War II. However, this perspective represents a rather stereotypical viewpoint. It is preferable that a discussion of postwar haiku history start from the midst of the war, or from the beginning of the 'Fifteen Years War [1931-45].'" In the above articles, Itō has done a masterful job of elucidating the wartime period, and this represents a great beginning for grasping the essentials of gendai haiku, in English. These papers reveal how intimately the art and practice of gendai haiku is woven into freedom of expression and the fundamental right of persons to colloquy, sans censorship. I believe such ideas are in tune with Bashō's spirit and sensibility.

As to the use of the term "gendai" in an English-language (international) context, I suppose it will be up to us, how to use it. I'm not even sure it should be used for any haiku natively-written in English. For instance, I would not say so-and-so a haiku is "gendai" as a matter of style, unless I meant it was similar in style to that of a known gendai poet of Japan (e.g. "this has a haiku style similar to the gendai approach of Tsubouchi"). In North America we already have the pre-existing term "modern haiku." Basically a literal translation of "gendai" it turns out. Literally, the word means "contemporary" but just as with "modern art," something more is implied, in terms of movements, categories, history and personages.

As of yet, we do not have a "gendai-like" movement in English-language haiku poetry, though there are some poets writing innovative works. I've searched for a term that might imply something beyond our so-to-say "modern" haiku (which presently equals shasei or realism haiku), and selected Marjorie Perloff's term, "21st century modern" haiku, which I introduced in the "Plausible Deniability" paper, included in Poems of Consciousness. But the term is awkward. However Perloff's discussion is intriguing:

The aesthetic of early modernism has provided the seeds of the materialist poetic which is increasingly our own. . . . what interests me is the unfulfilled promise of the modernist (as of the classical) poetic impulse in so much of what passes for poetry today—a poetry singularly unambitious in its attitude to the materiality of the text ...

I think "the materiality of the text" is provocative, and has much in common with poetic approaches that evoke an inherent awareness of language as language. (The techniques presented in "The Disjunctive Dragonfly" spring partly from this perspective).

To continue with Perloff's conclusion:

... to what Khlebnikov described as the recognition that "the roots of words are only phantoms behind which stand the strings of the alphabet." It is this particular legacy of early modernism that the new poetics has sought to recover. "To imagine a language," said Wittgenstein, "is to imagine a form of life."' (21st Century Modernism (2002), pp. 1-5)

Wittgenstein's haikuesque comment speaks volumes. So, I chose "21st century modern" haiku, as I basically sign on to what Perloff indicates as an "unfulfilled promise" regarding haiku, as of contemporary poetry—and appreciate Perloff's sense of scope, which extends at least from postwar poetry to the present (covering the entire North American haiku "tradition"). But I wonder if simply "new haiku" might be the better term.

I personally don't use "gendai" except to refer to poems originating in the Japanese, on the part of those poets associated to the progressive arts movements in Japan. There are postwar gendai tanka, as well as gendai senryu, as Onishi Yasuyo discusses. I suppose my main point is that we in the "Western" tradition of haiku, or tanka, or senryu, should probably refrain from using "gendai" as an appellation for our own innovative (especially non-shasei) poetics. As critics and leaders, if not innovators, can't we be creative enough to come up with our own terms for new varieties of haiku? I feel this will probably be crucial. For too long the critical tradition in haiku in English has been overly parochial and limited, if not exclusivist, in scope, and Japanese-imitational in nature. It's my thought that we can learn and appreciate, though innovate with autonomy.


RW: I read with great interest your comments regarding Blyth, who for many is a non-reproachable iconoclast revered for his insight into and translation of haiku. The American Beat poets of the late 1950s and '60s (Snyder, Kerouac, Corso, etc.) read his treatises on haiku and were greatly influenced by them; yet, you say he was biased towards classical haiku and held little value in modern haiku. "Blyth idealized the classical while devaluing the modern as at root selfish, small-minded, and confused." Your comments challenge popular thinking and will certainly shake heads. What are we to make of Blyth? Was he on or off the mark regarding haiku theory?

RG: Regarding haiku theory, he was on his own mark. Blyth sited or situated haiku in an idiosyncratic way, voluminously, and with great passion. As someone who was excited by haiku and Japanese culture via Blyth, I have great respect and admiration for his efforts. At the same time, it's worth asking why he isn't quoted and referenced by academicians these days. It's hard to know where to place Blyth. Certainly, if we consider him an authority on the meaning and cultural value of haiku, on its native soil, it seems valuable to re-work and enrich Blyth's interpretations. To do justice to this topic, a long paper needs to be written. In this short space, my colleague Itō and I would like to discuss Blyth's translation of an internationally influential haiku penned by Shiki.

First, here's a quote from a paper published in 2000 on haiku metrics written by myself and Professor Judy Yoneoka, illustrating a cross-cultural encounter with Blyth, as penned by Kerouac.

Even considering the increased interest in haiku form and its development, Japanese haiku and possibilities in English might have remained minor cultural footnotes if it hadn't been for the publication and popular success of Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, in 1958 (following the publication of On The Road, in 1957, and his resulting rise to fame). Kerouac did something for the haiku movement no amount of scholarship alone could, in creating the character Japhy Ryder, a scarcely-veiled portrait of the poet Gary Snyder. Japhy transplants something of the Japanese haiku ethos, or an imagination of it, into the heart of American vernacular. Japhy seems like a modern-day gloss on Bashō—a kind of Bashō cum Li Po cum Oregonian lumberjack: "From the beginning a woods boy, an axeman, a farmer . . . . his face was a mask of woeful bone, but his eyes twinkled like the eyes of old giggling sages of China, over that little goatee . . . . he'll make the top of your head fly off, boy, with a choice chance word." In his pilgrimages into natural settings and intuitive feeling for nature, acquaintance with Zen practice and philosophy, simple lifestyle and dwelling-place, Japhy tantalized and inspired readers with novel possibilities for perception, spirituality, lifestyle, and poetic process.
Early in the novel, Kerouac (as Ray Smith), living in Allen Ginsberg's (Alvah Goldbook's) "rose-covered cottage" in Berkeley, California, notes that, "On the walls are hundreds of books everything from Catullus to Pound to Blyth" (p. 17). These signal authors are the only ones mentioned. A few days later, Ray, hiking with Japhy, exults:
"Oh this is like an early morning in China and I'm five years old in beginningless time!" I sang out and felt like sitting by the trail and whipping out my little notebook and writing sketches about it. "Look over there," sang Japhy, "Yellow aspens. Just put me in the mind of a haiku. . . . A real haiku's gotta be simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing, like the greatest haiku of them all probably is the one that goes 'The sparrow hops along the veranda, with wet feet.' by Shiki. You see the wet footprints like a vision in your mind and yet in those few words you also see all the rain that's been falling that day and almost smell the wet pine needles" (p. 59).
The Shiki haiku quoted and discussed by Snyder in The Dharma Bums is taken from Blyth's Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (1952, p. 517), who provides a commentary to the poem:
Nureashi de suzume no ariku rôka kana
The sparrow hops
Along the verandah,
With wet feet.
This might be taken as a model for all haiku. It is poetical and yet extremely matter-of-fact. It is like one of those perfect jokes, so simple, so inexplicable. The delicate three-pronged little marks on the floor of the verandah, so soon to dry up and vanish forever, as transitory as the pyramids or the solar system,—what an infinity of meaning in them!
It is an interesting contrast, the almost domestic, earthy vision of Japhy and the sense of Buddhistic universals in Blyth's speculations on impermanence. These two contemplative polarities, the sensual and the philosophic (especially Buddhist), emanated as prime Western responses to the presentational immediacy of haiku, and continue to inform North American haiku culture. (Haiku Metrics and Issues of Emulation: New Paradigms for Japanese and English Haiku Form [March 2000], available at )

That was written in 2000. My appreciation of Blyth hasn't changed, though my understanding of Japanese haiku has. Let's take a fresh look at the "sparrow" haiku:

Our notes to the poem:
1) In the haiku pantheon, suzume (sparrow) is not a noble, aristocratic bird, such as a crane or hawk, but on the contrary a humble, domestic bird associated with routine village life and farming. Sparrows gather around ripening rice fields, particularly around harvest time. Images of local, rural farm life and a sense of ordinariness or plainness seem implicit.

2) The word suzume is not kigo (it's listed as muki kigo i.e. a non-kigo season word, in the gendai haiku kyōkai muki saijiki), as sparrows are seen year-round. Blyth placed this haiku in his "Spring" volume… At this time in his career however Shiki did not seem to have had a strong awareness or place an emphasis on kigo use in his haiku, and we find no kigo evident in this haiku: it is muki. Generally, suzume tend to occur in compound kigo of spring or autumn: suzume no ko (a baby sparrow) is a spring kigo; ina suzume (sparrows gathering in a rice field), is an autumn kigo—sparrows will nest under kawara, the ceramic roof tiles commonly used on homes, so are intimately wed to daily human activities and consciousness. We can say that the sparrow is familiar and "nearby"; in a sense, a domestic bird—from the human perspective. As a result, there are a number of truisms concerning suzume, such as suzume no odoriashi (a sparrow's dancing feet) which means, "Your calligraphy is bad!" Another, suzume no senkoe tsuru no hito-koe (the thousand sounds of sparrows, single sound of a crane), can be interpreted as "one crane's voice is stronger than a thousand sparrows"; a single opinion emanating from a powerful individual overwhelms a multitude of lesser voices. There are many suzume anecdotes, truisms and literary references.

3) In the haiku, the translation of "veranda" for rōka is incorrect (verandas are a common feature of Japanese homes, a small attached outdoor balcony used for drying futon, hanging clothes, etc., an absolute necessity in the rainy season, prior to air conditioning and the clothes dryer). The term rōka refers to a corridor or hallway within the home. The massive online Eijiro translation dictionary ( ) offers these translations: corridor, gallery, hallway, hall, passage, passageway. The most common collocation is "down the hall," used to indicate a hallway in a home. Here it seems that Blyth has mis-set the site of the haiku, which has a number of consequences.

In Meiji-era speech, the no in Japanese implies ga rather than today's grammatically possessive meaning typically ascribed to this particle.

4) Literal translation:
  nureashi          de            suzume     no     ariku         rōka                   kana
  wet feet | place of action | sparrow | action | walk | corridor/hallway | emphasis adverb

5) Close translation: Following the same image-story as presented in Japanese, we translate the haiku:

with wet feet
a sparrow hops
down the hall . . .

a more interpretive translation:

with wet feet—
down the hall hops
a sparrow

6) Our discussion:
Is the sparrow a real bird or not? The phrase nureashi, Itō feels, is too anthropomorphic to be accepted as a purely literal image possessing a simple, objective meaning. The noun-phrase (nure+ashi) is commonly used to describe wet feet after one takes a daily bath. Also, rōka is a hallway not a veranda; it's difficult to believe Blyth didn't know "hall," or "hallway" was correct, so we assume here a bit of translator's poetic-license. "Sparrow" (suzume) seems then to indicate or imply a person within a (their own) home. There is likewise implied an aspect of Shiki's artful self-reflection in this haiku. For us, the image has a sense of vulnerability, wry humor, and the poet's suffering, enfolded in the fragile, misplaced, rain-soaked sparrow.

Or, frail roommate, just after his bath? This haiku was penned within the first year following the death of Shiki's very close younger friend, Shimizu Noritō, who was likewise born in Matsuyama. They had been living together in Tokyo, and were in the same grade at school. Shimizu died suddenly of beri-beri (as the record indicates) resulting in a heart attack. As Shimizu's parents did not send money for medicine (cruelty? accident? poverty?), Shimizu's death at 18 was tragic and probably avoidable. As a result of these events, Shiki suffered severe depression, and rage. He wrote a letter to Shimizu's parents seven meters (23 feet) in length! Two of its sentences read:

I will hence aim to make your son's name celebrated, throughout my life. In order to accomplish this, I will first make efforts to improve my own name. I will risk my life for this.

Shimizu died on April 14, 1886. Shiki and Shimizu were intense and passionate young men, and were also roommates in the months prior to Shimizu's death; they were living in fairly impoverished conditions at the time.

We can say more about this haiku, in its wedding of domesticity with the natural world, the sweet, sad, slightly disturbing yet wry image of a rained-on sparrow hopping down the hallway. At the time this haiku was composed, in 1887, Shiki was in college, age 20. The following year he first coughed up blood. We sense the brave, brief life of Shiki's friend, and Shiki's own encroaching illness. The sparrow is revealed, or half-veiled…

In the comprehensive chronological collection of Shiki's poetic works in which this haiku appears (Kanzan rakuboku), immediately preceding the sparrow haiku is this haiku, which has a preface:

On the first anniversary of the death of Shimizu
rakka e ni kaeredo hito no yukue kana
a fallen flower returns - yet a man's destination …

This haiku is a play on the celebrated Arakida Moritake haiku (an important influence for Ezra Pound), which itself refers to a scene in a Zeami Noh drama (a significant fact missed by Pound and Blyth, discussed by Hasegawa in his book, haiku no uchū, and others). The Moritake haiku is:

rakka eda ni kaeru to mireba chōcho kana
A fallen leaf
Flew back to its branch!
No, it was a butterfly.
(Blyth translation)

Shiki, in his play on Moritake viz Zeami asks, whither the soul of his dearly loved friend? Having exited this world, is a human death but a single "fallen leaf," and, unlike the butterfly, without return? Shiki desperately grieves for his friend and has sworn to devote his life to Shimizu's remembrance. This prior haiku frames and adds dimension to the 'sparrow' haiku which immediately follows it.

(As an aside, Blyth quotes the Moritake haiku as an illustrative example of poor poetry, criticizing an "over-reaching" of intellect at the expense of "imagination." He writes (to paraphrase) that haiku should deal with facts, not fantasy or illusion.)

Having a sense of era, of linguistic, historic, and literary verity concerning this haiku, we arrive at an alternate set of impressions and interpretations than Blyth. Is it excessively interpretive, to read into this haiku certain facts concerning Shiki's biography? In the West, artworks tend to be examined separately from their biographical context; the critical situation is quite different for the haiku genre in Japan, as readers are generally expected if not required to learn details of a poet's life and era in order to properly engage with and grasp their oeuvre.

We can add a few more facts in relation to the 'sparrow' haiku. Shiki's advocacy of the shasei (i.e. 'objective description') approach began in the late 1890s. So the 'sparrow' haiku cannot be shasei, as it wasn't until 1894 that Shiki met the painter Nakama Fusetsu and investigated realism in Western painting—from which he later developed his shasei sensibility. Shiki's formal advocacy of shasei in prose did not occur until 1900. It seems odd that Blyth would select as "a model for all haiku" this particular haiku from the youthful Shiki, prior to the application of his innovatory shasei approach which revolutionized the stultified 19th century haiku style, revivifying the art, and marking the beginning of the pre-modern era, for which Shiki is justly celebrated as progenitor. Possibly, Blyth's statement, "this [haiku] can be taken as a model for all haiku" must itself be taken with a grain of salt; perhaps less as a universal statement than a reflection of Blyth's own delight, accompanied by gaps in his contextual understanding, with his admitted predilection for "fact"-based haiku.


Clockwise from left front: Shimizu Noritō, Yanagihara Kyokudo, Yoshikawa Yuki, Shiki Masaoka.


We return to Blyth's comment on the 'sparrow' haiku, with some responses:

"This might be taken as a model for all haiku. It is poetical and yet extremely matter-of-fact." We agree the haiku is poetical, yet due to the complex layering of image, reference and symbol, the haiku is anything but "matter-of-fact." It only appears so, via English translation and when stripped of significant cultural and biographical context.

"It is like one of those perfect jokes, so simple, so inexplicable." It is easy to agree with Blyth here, though one feels that his perspective on inexplicability resides primarily in a sense of the moment pertaining to the literal scene as conjured by the images, as he takes the haiku as shasei, an objective sketch. However, this haiku is more complex than the shasei concept posits, and different from it. There may be a perfect joke, but if so with an admixture of the human, that is the poet's frailty, intimacy, and grief. The self of the poet is really at the heart of this haiku. We cannot deny its "infinity" but it's equally about Shiki.

"The delicate three-pronged little marks on the floor of the verandah, so soon to dry up and vanish for ever, as transitory as the pyramids or the solar system,—what an infinity of meaning in them!" This is where Blyth ever again leads us, into gorgeously crafted Buddhistic universals. The vanishing, emptiness, and transitory nature of impermanence. I think this interpretative sensibility is part of Blyth's magic, his wedding of microcosm with macrocosm. Yet in conclusion, it seems doubtful that this was Shiki's main intention or motivation in penning the haiku; that is, the intention to move the reader into an awareness of "an infinity of meaning" arising mainly from the physicality of the presented images, the simple story of a sole, wet-footed sparrow on a veranda (sic). That the sparrow is inside the house seems to us a crucial point of departure—as if—has Shimizu returned, via poesis? We sense this reality as one of the intrinsic dimensions, kokoro (heart-intentions) of this haiku.

Blyth's use of "veranda" from an artistic point of view seems inspired. The word possesses great sound and rhythm, and enriches the poem in English. In fact, Blyth's translation proves to be a more powerful poem in English than our own—yet the misreading of the original image cannot be ignored.

Taking at random almost any Blyth translation, upon careful investigation we find the perspective, and at times the images themselves, to be at variance with original authorial intentions. They are deformed by the Blyth gravitas, which even as it expands our sense of philosophy and depth when reading the poems outside their native context, reduces the nuanced and multivariate sensibility found in many of the haiku he translated. At the same time, Blyth isn't completely wrong. There can be sensed a profound "suchness" in Blyth's translations, and certainly good haiku in Japanese possess this quality, often abundantly. As Hasegawa insists, in plying kire ('cutting') properly, a "world of mind" arises in haiku phenomenology. Yet this phenomenology seems to be both 'other-to' and more multidimensional than the universalized, objectified, 'fact-based' reality Blyth often paints as summation and primary sensibility, primary truth, in his writings on the subject.

The 'sparrow' haiku is made more powerful, we feel, by an informed understanding of the place, era, and significant relationships in Shiki's life around the time of composition, particularly in this case. This haiku was written if not for Shimizu with him in mind, subtly recalling him as remembrance. And now, in this very moment, we recall Shimizu a century later. This seems to be what Shiki wanted to accomplish, as he declaimed in his letter to Shimizu's parents. It isn't the universals but the particulars which seem most cogent here. Yet the universals aren't lost, just reified.

Now imagine, having read the 'sparrow' haiku above, and never having encountered any commentary on the poem, whatsoever:

The sparrow hops
Along the verandah,
With wet feet.

Would you honestly have found these three lines poetic, let alone haiku, let alone "a model for all haiku"? Without Blyth's commentaries, introductions, and thoughtful threading of Japanese history with Buddhist insight and Western-oriented literary acumen it seems doubtful that haiku as an exotic art-form appearing in the English language would have caught on, or would have turned on the Beats.

Blyth, on several counts misreads certain central intentions of the haiku tradition. Moreover it must be said he eviscerated the power and relevance of modern haiku (which he admits to disliking globally on principle: "Having thus indirectly blasted all modern haiku…" Cf. History of Haiku, Volume 2, pp. 333-34). When it comes to modern haiku, Blyth just didn't get it; how the poems worked, why they worked, and why such haiku provided the groundbreaking inspiration and the lifeblood of artistic movements throughout Japan's 20th century. Blyth has great strengths, and likewise limitations. A cautious approach to his commentaries seems sensible when looking for authorial intention in relation to the depth inherent in the Japanese haiku tradition.

As a translator, Blyth presented thousands of haiku via the creation of a powerful, relevant and modern poetics in English, with commentaries that spoke to real needs, even a hunger for truth, spirituality, and depth. For an artist, cross-cultural creative misinterpretation is a creative offering to anyone encountering such works. Yet reading Blyth as a primary source for comprehension of an ethos the outcome is too often a reflection of Blyth's own passionate preoccupations, rather than verity. As a result, haiku in North America has until quite recently been fixated on emulating an assumed "traditional" necessity for haiku literalism and shasei stylism. This is ironic, as throughout the 400-year history of haiku, the sensibility of realism represents but a very brief movement, in Japan. And Shiki himself frequently contradicted his own dicta—which in any case were not fully elucidated before his death. Enough is known though to say that pure objective description in haiku was for Shiki but a training-phase for beginner poets. His 'advanced' shasei concept was psychologically, imagistically, and conceptually complex—ideas which he only briefly outlined before his untimely death.

It seems reasonable as well to consider anew Blyth's translations in light of his penchant for Zen-Buddhist interpretation. In the critical tradition in Japan, Buddhistic haiku interpretations have been a tertiary issue. Concepts such as "a moment of enlightenment" are not a central concern of the genre. Here Blyth misleads, in that readers generally accept his interpretive view as prevalent and central to the tradition (I know I did). As well, Blyth advocates "fact" and the "objective," and we are his inheritors. Blyth's interpretive comments are quite often a creative product of his brilliant and fantastic perspective.



1 Myth and the Body: A Colloquy With Joseph Campbell by Stanley Keleman (Center Press, Berkeley, CA 1999) Reviewed by Grover E. Crisswell. Available:


Hasegawa Kai, Furuike ni kaeru wa tobikondaka (Did the Frog Jump in the Old Pond?), Tokyo: Kashinsha, 2005.

____________, Haiku no uchū (Haiku Universe), Tokyo: Kashinsha, 1989.

Gendai Haiku Kyōkai, ed. [Modern Haiku Association], Gendai Haiku Saijiki (5 vols.), Tokyo: Gakushu Kenkyusha, 2004.

Richard Gilbert, Poems of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese and English-language Haiku in Cross-cultural Perspective, Red Moon Press, 2008. ISBN 1-978-893959-72-9. Available: .

Shiki Masaoka, Kanzan rakuboku, 1 (Cold Mountain, Withering Trees, Volume 1) (collected works in chronological order; posthumous publication). Available: .


Richard Gilbert Richard Gilbert (b. 1954) rebuilt his first car and motorcycle (a Honda 750) at age 17 listening to Frank Zappa, Bert Jansch, Morton Subotnick, Ravel, delta blues, 50s-60s jazz, and WPKN (Bridgeport, CT). Majored in math/computer science and music at a nameless Connecticut university, worked in the electronics industry and as an engine rebuilder for some time, transferred to Naropa University (Boulder), where he studied and hung out with beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, et al.; composed sonic ur-scapes; became a Tibetan Buddhist meditator. Performed in and produced conceptual art multi-disciplinary presentations as poet, videographer, electric guitarist; undergraduate thesis on Japanese classical haiku, received a BA in Poetics and Expressive Arts. Went to a Buddhist seminary in 1984, and returned to Naropa for an MA in Contemplative Psychology. Into the early '90s, he was a clinical adult outpatient psychotherapist at Boulder Community Mental Health Center. In 1988 he entered The Union Institute & University doctoral program, received a Ph.D. in Poetics and Depth Psychology in 1990, and took an important trip to Chaco Canyon resulting in the performance poem Big Bird & the Great North Road, set to music by composer/session-guitarist John March, which received airplay around Los Angeles and Denver; became a divemaster in 1991 and nearly moved to the islands; instead, a garage in LA: rebuilt a wrecked 1981 BMW R100RS, playing mostly acoustic guitar and listening to KCRW and KPFK, while working in post-production audio, sleepless in tiny, dark, soundproofed rooms strewn with old pizza. After some month-long meditation retreats, returned to Denver and worked in Community Television as a director/producer. Five years later, nearly became a Buddhist monk, but moved to Japan in 1997, pursuing a passion for Japanese haiku, research, translation, home, and for living above the poverty line.

In March 2008 he published the book and DVD-ROM, Poems of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese & English-language Haiku in Cross-cultural Perspective (Red Moon Press, 306pp.). The DVD contains the '' website, which presents subtitled flash-video interviews with notable gendai-haiku poets. In 2006 he engineered the shakuhachi and koto CD, Silent Letters, Secret Pens ( ), and is now completing construction of BigFish Recording Studios, whose main goals are to preserve the lineage of musicians playing traditional Japanese instruments (in whatever manner), record local musicians and explore sonic and technological possibilities. Haiku have most recently appeared in NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, 6 (Autumn 2008) and around 80 academic papers have been published in the last decade, mainly on haiku, learner autonomy, and EFL software development. Richard can be seen riding around Kumamoto on a 2003 Suzuki SV1000S (a 1000cc twin), when not in his office at the Faculty of Letters, Kumamoto University. He looks forward to riding Yakushima Island next year.