The Great Cloud of Witnesses

November 2001


 R. H. Blyth Writes To James W. Hackett

by Susumu Takiguchi, Oxford, UK

 James W Hackett

When R. H. Blyth died on 28 October 1964, at the age of 65 years and eleven months, those in the know realised that someone was needed (i.e. more than a mere admirer — of whom there could be many) whom would be able to follow in Blyth’s steps to become, in effect, his successor. One such seer was Harold G. Henderson, for it was he who pointed out to James W. Hackett, that now Blyth was gone, it was Hackett who should be succeeding where Blyth left off.

It is an irony of history that when Blyth was being taken to Shinjuku Seiwa Hospital for the treatment of pneumonia, he wanted to visit Hawaii to convalesce. With only a few more days before he passed away, it was discovered that he had something much worse: a brain tumour, which would deny him this journey, but instead gave him an eternal journey. Today, Hackett has settled down to live in Hawaii, as if to receive his mentor for whom it was not to be. However, with Hackett in Hawaii, Blyth’s spirit may be visiting these islands.

Hackett perused Blyth’s letters to him (and also his publications) and has found some lines in one such which relates to the tenor of his contribution in this November 2001 issue of World Haiku Review. As you will see, his contribution is in the shape of a part of his earlier poem which he feels shares the sentiment with the one haiku he has personally selected for this issue. These are the lines from the letter in which James Hackett has found a corresponding relevance:

“…a haiku poet is born, not made, and of a ‘nationality’ which has nothing to do with the ordinary conception of it.”

” ‘Be not weary in well-doing.’ I myself feel lonely sometimes, but remember ‘the great cloud of witnesses’.”

From a letter from Blyth to Hackett, dated 15 February 1960, while the sender was at the Gakushuin (the university where he taught).

I have decided, with Hackett’s kind permission, to publish the entire letter in order to give the context against which these excerpts could be read, and also to show the extremely high esteem Blyth had for Hackett as a person and as a poet.

The letter was composed four years before Blyth’s death. He later introduced thirty poems written by Hackett. They were included toward the end of the second volume of A History of Haiku, in a chapter called “World Haiku”. What an apt title this is that I could mention in this magazine! And what an apt person Blyth treated in the chapter! He points out that these poems are…

“…in no way mere imitations of Japanese haiku, nor literary diversions. They are (aimed at ) the Zen experience, the realising, the making real in oneself of the thing-in-itself, impossible to rational thought, but possible”, “all poets believe,” in experience.”

Blyth quotes Hackett’s remarks from a letter by Hackett:

“I regard ‘haiku’ as fundamentally existential, rather than literary. [ ] For haiku is ultimately more than a form (of even a kind) of poetry: it is a Way – one of living awareness. Haiku’s real treasure is its touchstone of the present. This, together with its rendering of the Suchness of things, gives haiku a supra-literary mission, one of moment.”

I have often mentioned that haiku is a way of life. By this I do not necessarily mean the same thing as Hackett does by “existential”, but deep down, where the existentialist issues are to be found, I believe we are talking the same language.

Blyth goes even one step farther than that. In the concluding paragraph of World Haiku, he asks a frightening ultimate question:

“But after all, which is more important, to write (haiku) or to live?” Life is now seen as “an unwritten poem”.

The following words by Blyth fill me with awe and anguish combined:

“… We must not write haiku, we must not write, we must not live, to fulfil ourselves, or to share our experiences with others. We must not aim at immortality or even timelessness; we must not aim. Infinity and eternity come of themselves or not at all…”

The excerpts from Blyth’s letter, Hackett feels, also reflect Blyth’s views as expressed in his Preface to A History of Haiku, Volume One:

“The world, of which Japan is a part and a microcosm, has set for itself goals totally different from those of Basho. His Way of Haiku can hardly be said to exist now, for almost nobody walks on it. As a Way, it was in many respects better than that of Taoism, Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism, and so on. Its desuetude is a monument to the stupidity, vulgarity, sentimentality, and unpoeticality of human beings.” (page vi)

Blyth’s message from these quotations seems especially pertinent considering the instability and chaos of the present moment, which are a result of our failings to which he refers. The time is disjointed and we need to go back to some fundamental reflection on why Basho’s Way has fallen into desuetude, for this should also be the Way of ourselves in our small world-haiku community.

Here is the entire text of Blyth’s letter in question (the selected lines in bold text):

The Gakushuin
15 Feb. 1960

Dear Mr. Hackett,

I too feel troubled at the fact that your words cannot be published at present. I myself believe in you and in your haiku. As I have said before, I think your verses as good as, and sometimes better than those of the highest ranks of haiku poets of the past. As far as publication is concerned, I am going to put the best of the verses, with your kind permission of course, at the end of my 5th volume of Haiku, which I am working on now. I wish to include them, not only for their intrinsic value, but to show that a haiku poet is born, not made, and of a “nationality” which has nothing to do with the ordinary conception of it.

As for the comments and suggestions, I will postpone them a little, as this is my busiest time in the Year, the examination season.

Mr. Hackett, don’t feel too discouraged. I think the printing of your work is only a question of time. “Be not weary in well-doing.” I myself feel lonely sometimes, but remember “the great cloud of witnesses.”

R H Blyth


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