Tuesday, October 8, 2013

To the Lighthouse: The Model for All Haiku !?

Outside the haiku community, R. H. Blyth is a little known author, but in our increasingly globalized village, his books about Japanese short form poetry, especially about haiku, have a profound influence on English-speaking readers and writers, especially on the ones who are interested in Asian arts, culture, and spiritually (mainly Zen Buddhism). In his 1952 influential book, Haiku, Blyth viewed the following poem by Shiki as “the model for all haiku” (p. 517)

nureashi de suzume no ariku roka kana

The sparrow hops
Along the verandah,
With wet feet

And he made the following comment (pp. 517-8):

This might be taken as the 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 for ever, as transitory as the pyramids or the solar system -- what an infinity of meaning in them! (note: this is a typical comment by Blyth, in which he said little or nothing about the poet’s use of kigo or cutting, two formal characteristics of Japanese haiku; it’s mainly because he was more interested in Zenizing the haiku he reviewed )

His view was uncritically accepted by most of our fellow villagers and later this haiku was quoted in Jack Kerouac’s 1958 acclaimed novel, The Dharma Bums (p. 59), which has greatly helped promote Blyth’s view.

[Early in the novel, Ray Smith (“Jack Kerouac”), who lives in Alvah Goldbook’s (“Allen Ginsberg’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). And a few days later, while hiking with Japhy (“Gary Snyder”), Ray expresses with great joy;]

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).

After searching University of  Toronto’s e-databases, I found out that Shiki’s haiku has never been commented on to further explore its “greatness” or “depth,” except that in a Simply Haiku interview (6:4, Winter 2008) with Robert Wilson, Richard Gilbert adopted a biographical approach to “enrich the meaning”  of  Shiki’s haiku by giving “an informed understanding of the place, era, and significant relationships in Shiki's life around the time of composition.”  This means the “enriched meaning” of the poem relies mainly on the reader's extratextual knowledge. Most importantly, throughout the whole interview, although pointing out that the haiku was kigoless, Gilbert never said anything about Shiki’s use of cutting. 

Now, be honest with me, if I didn't tell you Blyth’s comment  above and replaced Shiki with my name or any other little-known name, would you think this haiku was brilliantly crafted, and that it “might be taken as the model for all haiku?” If yes, I would like to know your reason(s), especially the ones based on Shiki’s use of kigo or cutting.

To conclude this post, I would like to share with you Kerouac’s haiku below, which is accredited as "the first baseball haiku and a classic:" (Burns, ‘Gallery Fifteen: Play Ball”)

Empty baseball field --
A robin,
Hops along the bench

L1 sets the context, seasonal, thematic and emotive, while allusive Ls 2 &3 make a shift in theme and imagery, thus establishing a contrasting relationship with their preceding line through Kerouac’s skillful use of the zoom-in technique. This contrasting relationship fully embodies the “principle of internal comparison,” which is well articulated by Harold G. Henderson in his study of Japanese haiku (p. 18); therefore, it  gains added poignancy. On the contrary, without establishing any sort of comparisons/contrasts, Shiki’s haiku is a merely factual description of a scene.

Kerouac’s two-axis, cinematic haiku is beautifully crafted and serves well as a starting point for many thoughts and emotions.


1 Below is an excerpt from John J. Morrell's "Summers in the Skagit: Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and the Language of the Lookout"

Kerouac’s interest in and use of haiku in The Dharma Bums results from Snyder’s influence, and he represents it as such in the text. Japhy even critiques Ray’s attempts at haiku, offering examples and advice. When Ray makes his first try at spontaneous haiku during their hike up Matterhorn, suggesting, “Rocks on the side of the cliff…why don’t they tumble down?,” Japhy responds:‘Maybe that’s a haiku, maybe not, it might be a little too complicated,’ said Japhy. ‘a real haiku’s gotta be as 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. (DB, 59).

Japhy points to Ray’s questioning “why” the rocks don’t fall as the element of his haiku that complicates his image, imposing a metaphysical question on top of what should be the simple record of an encounter with the material world. Japhy suggests the appropriateness of haiku as a poetic form for representing engagement with the natural world, and more importantly, for prompting in the reader a more-than-intellectual encounter with the poem itself. Kerouac represents Ray’s increasing understanding of haiku as the result not only of his conversations with Japhy, importantly, but also as an organic product of his engagement with a particular landscape: “Walking in this country you could understand the perfect gems of haikus the Oriental poets had written, never getting drunk in the mountains or anything but just going along as fresh as children writing down what they saw without literary devices or fanciness of expression. We made up haikus as we climbed, winding up and up on the slopes of brush” (TDB, 59). Kerouac’s stylistic shift towards haiku and away from “bop prosody” represents Ray’s changing conception of the natural world and his attainment, in the fictional world of The Dharma Bums, of Buddhist insight.

2 Below is an excerpt from Robert Wilson's interview with Richard Gilbert:

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. (note: for example, in his 40-page Introduction to Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu, Makoto Ueda  emphasizes only one simple fact that "R. H. Blyth [had] translated more senryu into English than anyone else, " p. 27-8, That's all. He says nothing about Blyth's books on senryu, Japanese Life and Character in Senryu and Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses). 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.

3 I just came across the following poem by Ozaki Hosai, which I think could be read as a response haiku to Shiki's above:

the footsteps of a sparrow
walking on the tatami floor
sound familiar


Reginald Horace Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, The Hokuseido Press, 1952.

Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums, Penguin Books, 1958.

Allan Burns, Montage: The Book, The Haiku Foundation, 2010.

Harold G. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Basho and Shiki, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958.

John J. Morrell, "Summers in the Skagit: Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and the Language of the Lookout," Beat Generation Symposium, 2008.

Robert D. Wilson,  "A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert, Part I," Simply Haiku, 6:4, Winter 2008.


  1. Below is excerpted from "A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert, Part I by Robert D. Wilson, which can be accessed at

    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 kyokai 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 roka 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 roka refers to a corridor or hallway within the home. The massive online Eijiro translation dictionary ( http://www.alc.co.jp/ ) 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 roka 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


  2. 6) Our discussion:

    Is the sparrow a real bird or not? The phrase nureashi, Ito 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, roka 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 Norito, 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 …


  3. 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 uchu, and others). The Moritake haiku is:

    rakka eda ni kaeru to mireba chocho 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.

  4. Gilbert's comment on Blyth's and Japhy's (“Gary Snyder's ”) interpretations of Shiki's haiku:

    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.

  5. (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.)

    This reveals Blyth's ignorance of one of Japanese poetic devices employed in Moritake's abovementioned haiku:

    Read in the context of Japanese classic haiku, technically speaking, there is nothing new about Moritake’ s haiku. In it, he employed a centuries-old poetic device, “mitate” (taking one thing for another) 2 as shown in the following waka:

    In my garden
    plum blossoms fall –
    or is it not rain
    but snow, cast down
    from the sky?

    Otomo No Tabito (665 – 731)

    (Addiss, p. 17)

    However, this haiku gains more resonance if the reader is aware of the following Zen saying: “The fallen blossom cannot return to its branch.” It makes this saying anew in light of the transformative power of a butterfly. That’s one of the reasons that Moritake’ s haiku is considered “one of the most famous verses of all early haikai poets.” (Addiss, p. 62)

    -- excerpted from To the Lighthouse: Haiku as a Form of Super-Position, which can be accessed at http://neverendingstoryhaikutanka.blogspot.ca/2013/03/to-lighthouse-haiku-as-form-of-super.html