Saturday, May 19, 2012

R. H. Blyth: The Aim of Haiku

Original brass dies for 1860 version

Sometimes, it seems that R. H. Blyth is to modern American haiku as Sigmund Freud is to modern psychology: a bit of a dotty old granddad, overdressed in a woolen suit on a hot, humid day, crumbs of this and that all down his front, with a glint in his eye of philosophical shenanigans none too pleasing to the parents in attendance.

Of course, all the grand kids are jumping up and down in his lap like there's no tomorrow.

Perhaps the comparison to Freud seems a stretch, though for many, I suspect, it is spot on.  Tracing the root of all things to infantile sexuality and the heart of haiku to Zen is quaint, indeed, for many, but consider, at least in the case of Freud: we are all, famous, infamous, and other, products of our time.  Could there have been any other time in history aside from the later part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century (think: Victorian England, for example) when all might be traced back to our murderous instincts for ma and pa?

Though this all seems very antiquated, it got me to thinking about what Joseph Campbell observed concerning fundamentalists of all religious denominations.  He noted that all the trouble starts (i.e. the purges, the wars, the torturing, and the deaths) when the metaphoric scripture of any particular sect (he was thinking predominately of the 'desert religions') was taken literally.  Literally, there was a Virgin Birth, literally an ascent to Heaven, literally a parting of the seas etc.

If one turned to the dottering grandfather and didn't mistake the metaphor for the reality, one might recognize a little something other in that glint.

Mr. Blyth beats the drum loud and long for Zen and haiku and, to my ears, at least, it is a most pleasing sound.  One can no more divorce spirituality from the origin of haiku than one can from life itself.  Notice the particular use of the "S" word, as opposed to the "R" word.

Participating, as I have recently in a weekly book discussion group concerning volume one of Blyth's four volume work Haiku, all this was underscored for me emphatically.  What exasperated the group, some of whom were coming to haiku study for the first time, was the myriad contradictions one encounters from page to page and from chapter to chapter throughout.

Delightfully, exasperation transmuted into something like a humorous acceptance: it would seem the teacher was also a practitioner.  This was most definitely a case of do what I do, as well as what I say.  So, throughout, one encounters many, many definitions of haiku, as well as poetry in general, and Zen, and philosophy itself, some complementary, many contradictory, all informative, and some even enlightening. 

In the complementary area, comes the following two quotes, within 10 pages of each other, working toward defining the "aim of haiku."

Coming now to the general differences between waka and haiku, we may say once more that waka aim at beauty, a somewhat superficial beauty sometimes, that excludes all ugly things. The aim of haiku is not beauty; it is something much deeper and wider.  It is significance, a poetical significance, "a shock of mild surprises", that the poet receives when the haiku is born, and the reader when it is reborn in his mind.  (pages 113-114)

In his second take on the aim of haiku, Blyth takes off from a quote from Master Bashō:

Haikai has for its object the setting to rights of common parlance and ordinary language.

Blyth comments:

This is one of those profound sayings which can and should be interpreted in a variety of ways. Bashō wanted our daily prose turned into poetry, the realization that the commonest events and actions of life may be done significantly, the deeper use of all language, written and spoken.  Our lives are slovenly, imitative. We live, as Lawrence said, like the illustrated covers of magazines.  Comfort is our aim, and dissatisfaction is all we achieve.  The aim of haiku is to live twenty four hours a day, that is, to put meaning into every moment, a meaning that may be intense or diffuse, but never ceases.  (page 119)

Significant, indeed; never mind that, for clarity, we might slip in 'reality TV' for 'the illustrated covers of magazines' for relevance.  For me, what is most important here is what Blyth specifically does not say, and in how he universalizes his point.  His first statement, re: significance above, is about process and, I believe, it goes right to the heart of the form that is haiku.  The second has a little more of that glint in his eye, also alluded to above. As such I find it magnanimously inclusive and not a bit exclusive at all.

Just a little further on, in another 'definition' of the haiku form, we get a bit of a hint at the fact that Blyth's own approach to his subject is analogous to how he perceives the form itself:

Waka began as literature, haiku as a kind of sporting with words.  Bashō made it literature, and yet something beyond and above literature, a process of discovery rather than creation, using words as means, not ends, as a chisel that removes the rock hiding the statue beneath. (page 121) 

Again that certain something is not said and, so, to, for me:

'Nuff said.

         People are few
Leaves also fall
        Now and then
          trans. R. H. Blyth


into the sunken hearth
they're swept...
red leaves
translated by David G. Lanoue

Photo by earl53


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Charles Gramlich said...

Freud was a gift to the literary minded, a curse to psychology. :)

Ed Baker said...

great great great 'take' on things...
the photo lastly

lots of bits-&-pieces of thoughts
that I
cld, unconditionally turn into a
meriod (myriad ?) of meaning
-full comments
how ever:

time for me to get down
off of my roof sit out back
and watch the grass grow !

just maybe if y'all are lucky
another "shortie" will hatch ?

it s always a surprise and a disappointment
to me
that so many (haiku) just "paint" by the numb-bhers

haven't got a tinker's chance in hell
hearing that grass grow !

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Lovely discussion, Don. I will add Blyth to my reading list.

It occurs to me that of all the world religions (as far as I know) the ones closest to Zen, Buddhism in general have never committed the anti-human and anti-nature brutalities of the others It seems to follow from this that the greatest truths are the simplest, revealed in sudden illuminations.

Nuff said.

Ed Baker said...


on the mall a few years ago the Dalai
Lama up on the stage giving a talk ...

I'm up close to the fence and next to me is a woman wearing a neat hat..

-"that's a neat hat," says I.
-"can I take your picture?"

so I took the snap-shot at say from about 2wo feet... a head shot. I got it around here somewhere.

I asked her her name"'Annie'Pachen" (Ani Pachen)

so, here is the point go get a copy of
she's The Warrior Nun (of Tibet)

she was about the only woman resistance fighter against the Chinese when they invade Tibet and slaughtered loads of monks and nuns and lay Tibetans..

hell! they're today STILL killing Tibetans and I read somewhere the Dalai Lama said that the Chinese are training women to go and poison/assassinate him

I think the link to the interview with the Dalai Lama was via a link on Don's site to another site...

Ed Baker said...

Peter said...

Haiku Valentine

The beauty of the world
yes yes but what’s
really behind it
pausing as if trying to remember
the answer
the hummingbird
while the world he says
I have often mistaken
for myself
a couple of clues
with which to reconstruct
the implications
as if it cost you a great deal
every syllable
freshly spent

Woodland Rose said...

Don, don't take this wrong but sometimes the discussion supercedes the post. It happens on my blog too. Love the thread - Blythe, Freud, Campbell, Basho, Dalai Lama and Ani Patchen. Bravo. More please! Andrea (the other Grillo - Paul's non-cousin). LOL

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Charles ... ha! Don

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Bowing deeply toward Baltimore way ...

Watching the grass grow together, someday ...


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks, Conrad.

So many atrocities committed in the name of so many religions it is hard to say what's what. I know with some forms of Buddhism, sexism and, to a certain extent, classism was an issue. Most of these types of discriminatin came from the culture itself, vestiges of which are falling away. I believe, as you say, Zen to be fairly clear of that yet, since its a human institution, one can only surmise there will be human foibles.

Like Campbell, I prefer to think of what many of traditions have in common that speaks to the soul of things.


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks for the Dalai Lama info, Ed. Just mind numbing.

Theresa Williams said...

Really enjoyed your discussion of Blyth...I discovered Blyth at this blog. Thanks! Opening his volumes to any page is a revelatory experience. I love how he mixes in authors like Lawrence. I recently discovered that the illustrator Edward Gorey loved Blyth and gave the 4 volume set to a letter correspondent, Peter Newmeyer. Gorey was taken by the bypassing of simile and metaphor, going straight to the heart of things.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

No apologies necessary, Andrea - that's exactly as it should be.

snowbird said...

Hi, Don, I recently discovered tintypes of my greatgrandparents...As I enlarged them on my computer so that I could see them more clearly it occurred to me how human they were. After so many years of the family stories they had taken on heroic images in my psyche. I am still wondering and contemplating what I felt. I wonder if we would have gotten along???

tintypes placing the faces in some corner of love

Terri L. French said...

Enjoyed the read, I believe this is something to reread and ponder over a second glass of wine. ; ) Cheers!

Michael Dylan Welch said...

Theresa, I'm an Edward Gorey fan, and would love to know where you learned that Gorey loved Blyth. Did you read that somewhere?

Great quotes from Blyth, Don -- yes, he was often contradictory. For his translations alone we have mountains to thank him for.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


"tintypes placing the faces in some corner of love"

Very nice, indeed. Thanks.


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Cheers, Terri.

To the soft tune of the river,
Li Po is warming
the sake ...


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Michael and Theresa ... the Edward Gorey collection intriguing in such a lovely way. And, yes, for the translations alone we are in his debt.

Ed Baker said...

I seem to recall a story re" Blyth being in a Japanese
internment camp and there meeting D.T. Suzuki and holding classes in the camp either guy "teaching" the other.... anyboddhi 'out there' know this story ?


did Lafcadio Hearn know Blyth and/or Suzuki ?

I never heard a single mention about either Blyth or Suzuki from Cid
; not even in reference to that "frog" piece....

Theresa Williams said...

Michael..I read it in a book of letters between Edward Gorey and Peter Neumeyer called FLOATING WORLDS. And in fact I was just reading further into the book and ran across Gorey discussing Thomas Merton's translations of Chuang Tzu. Apparently Blyth affected Gorey's artistic developent quite a bit.