R H Blyth and World Haiku


R.H. Blyth and World Haiku
Ikuyo Yoshimura
Asahi University, Gifu Japan

The World Haiku Festival 2002
Yuwa-town, Akita 20-22 September

Blyth had foresight

The Internet and e-mail make it possible to contact people all over the world in a moment. Haiku is no exception. English-language haiku are sent to me by computer almost every day from all areas of the world. Artistically, haiku seems to take various forms, literally adopting haiku poets’ cultural backgrounds as well as expanding beyond the borders of their regions through the rapid development of telecommunication systems. Who would have expected so broad an international expanse of haiku? Only Blyth predicted world haiku, forty years ago.

Reginald Horace Blyth was twenty-four years old in 1924 when he left England, and he never returned home afterward. He soon became a believer in Zen Buddhism. After 1924, he spent forty years between Chosun (Korea), then under Japanese colonial occupation, and Japan. A Professor of English at Gakushuin University, Blyth was a haiku researcher who contributed to the establishment of haiku beyond Japan to overseas after World War II through his work in translation.

More than half century passed after “Zen and English Literature,” his first publication, was published in 1942. This book has been published in several editions to date, and it has a large readership around the world as a basic book on haiku. Almost all his forty-two books, including a textbook for students, are written in English. His introduction of Japanese haiku in the English language has resulted in a large readership in foreign countries, becoming a great catalyst of the spread of haiku outside Japan.

On the other hand, we can see negative opinions about Blyth’s view of haiku, although critics admit the value of his contribution to the propagation of haiku beyond Japan. Such criticisms include his view that haiku has a background of Zen Buddhism, i.e., that ‘haiku is synonymous with Zen.’ This has both advantages and disadvantages; in spite of those opinions, his books and career yet attract us. In one  instance, there a person who has become so intrigued by Blyth that he has made a website about him. Considering Blyth’s attraction, we realize his personal view of haiku, and his indication of the way to world haiku.

Diplomats and foreign scholars employed by the Japanese government, such as Paul-Louis Couchoud, Basil Hall Chamberlain, and Lafcadio Hearn, each of whom were interested in Japanese culture and literature, translated Japanese haiku in the Meiji Era (1869-1912). There were, at that time, only a few examples of haiku translations in English by Yonejiro Noguchi (The Spirit of Japanese Poetry, 1914) and Asataro Miyamori (An Anthology of Haiku: ancient and modern, 1932). But haiku was not so positively introduced by the Japanese, themselves, as it was by foreigners who had been exposed to Japanese culture. Therefore, the spread of haiku outside Japan has depended greatly on Blyth’s works. Without Blyth it would not really have been possible, after World WarⅡ, even to talk about haiku in the West.

In the last chapter of “A History of Haiku” (1964), published just before his death, Blyth states the premise of ‘world haiku’ as follows:

The latest development in the history of haiku is one which nobody foresaw, –the writing of haiku outside Japan, not in the Japanese language. We may now assert with some confidence that the day is coming when haiku will be written in Russia, in the Celebes, in Sardinia. What a pleasing prospect, what an Earthly Paradise it will be, the Esquimaux blowing on their fingers as they write haiku about the sun that never sets or rises, the pygmies composing jungle haiku on the gorilla and the python, the nomads of the Sahara and Gobi deserts seeing a grain of sand in a world!

His prediction comes true — and haiku poets are now born in Mongolia and Africa. Yes, forty years ago, Blyth predicted what world haiku would be like.

Explanation of haiku by Blyth

Blyth’s four-volume “Haiku” is still an indispensable guidebook for poets around the world who write haiku. Blyth was a master in introducing haiku outside Japan. He once said haiku was Japan’s greatest gift to the world, and in that light, he spread his view of Japanese culture worldwide through his translations of Japanese haiku and senryu.

As stated previously, Blyth was a believer in Zen Buddhism. For him, haiku was Zen itself. In the magazine, “The Cultural East” he said spoke of the relationship between haiku and Zen as follows:

In haiku, we have an expression of the Zen state of mind. Without some understanding of what is meant by that rather repulsive word, ‘Zen’ it is difficult to see what haiku are aiming at.

He concludes that haiku is nearly synonymous of Zen. Professor Emeritus, Koichi Sembokuya, of Musashi University, spoke of this relationship as follows:

Zen, haiku, and Blyth, himself, formed the Trinity to him. He did not admit an essential difference between Zen and haiku. Blyth may rebuke the viewpoint that Zen is one of the religion forms and haiku is one of the art genres for its non-Zen point of view.

For Blyth, haiku was Zen and his way of life itself.

In “The Eastern Buddhist” magazine, eulogising the late R. H. Blyth, his mentor, Daisetz Suzuki, stated that Blyth’s thoughts were closely connected with Zen, though not always in the orthodox tradition. However, it is clear that Daisetz Suzuki appreciated Blyth’s view of haiku, as he cited it in “Zen and Japanese Culture.”

Blyth was trying to express his own internal world through translation and explanation of haiku and senryu, his explanation of Zen, under influence of Daisetz Suzuki, and through his writing of English literature textbooks. His self-expression was not through haiku composition, but rather, through analogy of English poetry to Japanese haiku, in addition to translating and explaining Japanese haiku. In other words, it might be possible to say that he challenged this difficult work by trying to express his internal world through the Japanese culture. Overseas, this element attracted the his readers to Blyth.

Only two of Blyth’s own haiku are actually known, today, one composed in his Kyongsong (Seoul) Imperial University days:

A snail
Dreams a blue dream
On the back of a leaf.


Going forth…
Leaving my thoughts
In a sasanqua flower.

The latter is known his farewell haiku. This shows that he did not have strong intention of composing his haiku. Practically, he was not a creative haiku writer. Therefore, when we read his translations and explanations of Japanese haiku, we have to consider that a lot of his personal opinions and arbitrary interpretation are included. However, it is true that we are attracted to his unique viewpoints of haiku.

Haiku is world literature

Blyth understood haiku as one of the greatest phenomena in the Oriental culture. There was no one who understood Japanese haiku like he did. Even Basil Hall Chamberlain introduced Japanese haiku as a witty epigram. Lafcadio Hearn’s understanding of haiku was almost the same as Chamberlain’s. Blyth spoke of his own view on haiku in his “Zen and Haiku”, that is:

All the deep thoughts and experiences of the Indian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese races flower in them. In spite of their deceptive simplicity, (or because of it) haiku are as profound as the music of Bach, as deeply concerned with the mind of man as the plays of Shakespeare, as great a contribution to world-culture as the Commedia dell’arte or Don Quixote.

In addition, he held the high opinion that haiku is the flower of all the Oriental culture, representing the peak of it, and that in the Oriental culture, haiku occupies a position which is the same which Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe occupy in the Western culture. Thus, he regarded haiku as world literature as well as the flower of the Oriental culture.

A Renaissance of the works of R.H. Blyth

As above-mentioned, since from 1924, Blyth spent 40 years between Chosun (Korea) under the Japanese colonial occupation, and Japan, few people knew him in his homeland. “The Genius of Haiku,” composed as a biographical sketch of Blyth, and extracts from his works, were published by the British Haiku Society in 1994 to commemorate both the three hundred year anniversary of Basho’s death and thirty year anniversary of Blyth’s death. The British Haiku Society had only a small, limited information about him in 1994. Even the reference library of the University of London, from which Blyth graduated, had only the list of his works and some obituary articles. I am very glad that the British Haiku Society garnered so much information and new facts in order to publish “The Genius of Haiku.” This book is, so to speak, a Renaissance of the works of R. H. Blyth. In addition, I am very happy to help the BHS in researching information on him.

Haiku poets outside Japan have been greatly influenced by Blyth, but they are now divided in their evaluation of his works. What are both opinions? I conducted a questionnaire-survey of those poets who attended the World Haiku Club’s World Haiku Festival 2000 in London/Oxford, and the World Haiku Association’s Inaugural Meeting in Tolmin, Slovenia.

Some affirmative opinions are as follows:

  • Blyth emphasises Zen thought, insight, and wisdom rather than Zen practice. His presentation may be inaccurate, but it is stimulating reading.
  • I like the connection between Zen and haiku.
  • Blyth’s haiku books keep strong impact on the haiku poets and, in fact, this impact should be even stronger. Unfortunately, his books are very expensive in the UK.
  • I think most senior haiku poets have a respect for the influence of Blyth on a Western writer.
  • I think he is still the No.1 Western haiku scholar, and still the best place to start your haiku education.
  • Blyth’s influence on world haiku is very important. Without Blyth’s books, we, [as Westerners], would not have known haiku poetry.

On the other hand, some of the negative opinions are as follows:

  • I do not agree at all with Blyth’s thought about haiku and Zen.
  • About impact, in the past—yes, now less and less.
  • I think that Blyth did not give an exact image of Japanese haiku abroad.
  • I have never been influenced by Blyth’s thought that haiku is embodiment of Zen Buddhism. I write haiku, which reflect my cultural underground from orthodox religion, the space of European civilization, and Romanian cultures and traditions.

Earl Miner, in “The Japanese Tradition in British and American Literature”, writes about the influence of Japanese literature in the West, and while showing the influence of haiku up to the Imagist poets, he makes no reference to Blyth. This may be due to Blyth’s view of haiku, that ‘haiku is synonymous with Zen’; in other words, because of Blyth’s understanding of haiku as a literary form of Zen, religious bias may keep scholars, researchers of literature and poets at a distance from him.

We can also expect divided evaluations of Blyth’s works because, as mentioned previously, many of his personal opinions and arbitrary interpretations are included in his translations and explanations of haiku. Blyth introduced Japanese culture to the Western world, made great contributions to the East-West intercultural exchange and had a great influence on many poets in the world. However, it seems that primary purpose was to express his own internal world through translation and explanation of haiku and senryu.

c:Ikuyo Yoshimura: A Gift from R.H.Blyth: R.H.Blyth and the World Haiku          

This entry was posted in Haiku, Vol 2-3 November 2002 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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