Translated and Edited by R. H. Blyth
Haiku is the creation of things that already exist in their own right, but need the poet so that they may "come to the full stature of a man," writes R. H. Blyth, the translator of this fine edition. In a glorious book (one of four volumes), Blyth gives us a bouquet, no, a nosegay; no, an entire field of blossoms, delicate haiku flowers for our delectation:Field and mountains, ---
All taken by the snow;
Nothing remains.- - - (Joso)(Throughout the book, we are given not only the poetic translation --- but the original Japanese characters, with a literal translation).
Haiku is divided into five parts: "The Spiritual Origins of Haiku, " "Zen, The State of Mind for Haiku, " "Haiku and Poetry," "The Four Great Haiku Poets," and "The Technique of Haiku." The divisions are somewhat arbitrary, but it is unimportant, because like some momentary heather-filled night air, the poems interlace this work so that we can jump from chapter to chapter, from page to page, from front to back:How pitiful!
Among the insects,
A solitary nun.- - - (Gonsui)Is there anyone yet among us who has not wrestled with putting a simple vignette like this into concise, formed words? So easy to read, so rich to feel, so difficult to execute:They spoke no word.
The visitor, the host,
And the white chrysanthemum.- - - (Ryota)Understatement, control, an exegesis of feeling and --- staggering to think! --- a form invented at a time when the Anglo-Saxons were eating fried grubs, painting themselves blue, and jamming rude sticks into each other's guts.The peony
Made me measure it
With my fan.- - - (Issa)It does help, of course, to have some idea of Japanese culture, thought, history, dramaturgy. One would, for instance, have had to sit through the clamor (and, sometimes, the feeling of endlessness) of a Nõh play for this to have full meaning:On a journey.
Resting beneath the cherry blossoms,
I feel myself to be in a Nõh play.- - - (Basho)Still, one does not have to have spent any time at all in Japan, one could have lived a whole life in Buffalo to share the feeling, the universal feeling, of what happens to all of us in the delicious time when winter is breaking, the days come to be longer, the trees blossom:Lighting one candle
With another candle;
An evening of spring.- - - (Buson)One can have lived on or near the freeways of Burbank and still be touched by the elegant (and elegant is the word for Haiku) element of autobiography here:I am one
Who eats his breakfast
Gazing at the morning-glories.- - - (Basho)Seasons, flowers, mountains, birds, pebbles, streams and rivers: the simple and the common are the world of Haiku. One can read poems one day, and not be moved nor changed by them --- and then, the next day, the same words will come to be poignant. For, after all, this writing is the writing of mood-turning and change --- much as the sun will move and change a scene which, perhaps yesterday, was common and dull:The old pond,
A straw sandal sunk to the bottom;
Sleet falling.- - - (Buson)
§ § §How does one teach haiku? Could one have students visualize what is, after all, a very hum-drum scene: and then try to capture it in a few words? We don't envy the task of such teachers. It might be impossible to instruct students who have shut themselves off from the rich interrelationship of time and objects and the poignant (perhaps as yet unexperienced) sense of aging, growing, dying --- all necessary to feel the tide of emotion that can flow from twelve words.
Blythe is quick to point out that Haiku is not all blossom and ponds. To make the point, he, for instance, will give us the words of St. Paul The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together until now, waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God, and immediately contrast this to:For you fleas too,
The night must be long,
It must be lonely.- - - (Issa)And in the reading (and rereading) of such words, we are captured by the humanity of the poet --- one who must be troubled enough (and humble enough) to speak to the very insects who perhaps too are experiencing a long sleepless night, far from home, far from loves and from friends. It is the wit and joy and acceptance that come together in divine understatement:The autumn storm;
A prostitute shack,
At 24 cents a time.- - - (Issa)in which the loneliness of paid-for sex is joined and shaped by a chance October storm; all presented to us together as a bouquet --- lovingly given in so few syllables.
Once when I was watching Japanese television, I saw a Haiku competition. There were various contestants, and among them was the Emperor of Japan. Such a frail and studious and serious man he was. At the time, I remembered thinking how nice it would be if the leaders of the United States joined together with some kids, some common home folk, a few truck-drivers, all of us, to read (and write) some haiku. Clinton writing about frogs jumping into ponds, Alan Greenspan with three lines on the sparrows in the streets of New York, touched by the wind. The governor of California, of Florida, of New York God knows, with a few vignettes on the ocean's evening's wave, or taking a moment, as Taigi did, to reflect on going home late at night:Not a single stone
To throw at the dog,
The wintry moon.How human they would become! How they would join the common resonance of the world about us. How fine for them, for a moment, to stop the giant wars called the Affairs of State --- stop to reflect lovingly, for a moment, on the loving details that are all about us; viewing --- for instance --- a tiny mote in the eye of an insect, as Issa did:Reflected
In the eye of the dragon-fly
The distant hills.
It would give us some confidence, wouldn't it? To know that those who have access to such power have, as well, a sweet touch of humanity --- which can touch them; and thus touch all of us.
It would give us a bit more confidence in them and our future, wouldn't it?