The Divergent Views of Henderson and Blyth
When one starts looking at the early translators of Japanese verse into English, two names stand out: Harold G. Henderson and R.H. Blyth. Henderson first published a short volume of translations, The Bamboo Broom, in 1934. R.H. Blyth began the publishing of what would become his 4 volume set of Haiku in 1949. Both men had very different ideas about the essence of the verse they were translating and these differences have had wide-ranging effects on the current practice of writing haiku and hokku in English.
Contemporary Canadian poet, George Swede in an essay, "Haiku in English in North America" states: "With what viewpoint do most current haiku poets align themselves--Blyth's haiku as Zen medium or Henderson's haiku as pure poetry?" The question is what are some of Henderson's ideas about pure poetry and what are some of Blyth's ideas about Zen medium?
In An Introduction to Haiku published in 1958, Henderson states: "Primarily it [haiku] is a poem; and being a poem it is intended to express and to evoke emotion" (Henderson 2). Henderson continues on: "It may be noted in passing that the use of ki [season] is probably at the base of a charge that has been advanced that haiku are more concerned with nature than with human affairs. Such a statement is ridiculous. Haiku are more concerned with human emotions than with human acts, and natural phenomenon are used to reflect human emotions, but that is all" (Henderson 5). What we can deduce is that while nature is involved, the primary emphasis of haiku should be human emotions at the center of the verse and a correlating evocation of human emotion in the reader. In other words, the subjective emotion is the reason for the verse.
In a 1965 letter to the editors of the magazine American Haiku, Henderson wrote: "If there is to be a real 'American Haiku' we must--by trial and error--work out our own standards...." (van den Heuval 25). A definition of "haiku" was prepared for the Haiku Society of America in 1973 by Henderson, William J. Higginson and Anita Virgil and sent to encyclopedias and dictionaries (van den Heuval 355). Although concerned about what was being published as haiku, Henderson refused to set a list of rules but suggested that American writers look at classical Japanese models for guidance: "There is no law compelling then [poets] to follow classical Japanese standards for haiku. It does however seem unwise to abandon these standards without knowing anything about them as some American poets apparently have done" (Henderson, Haiku in English 29). But many American writers chose to ignore Henderson's suggestions using more experimental approaches.
Van den Heuval in the "Introduction" to the 1st edition of The Haiku Anthology states: "A number of those who favor the religious, or as some prefer to say, spiritual, side of this question ["...is it basically a religious, or an esthetic experience?"] relate haiku to the philosophy of Zen...this view which follows the 'teachings' of R.H. Blyth" (van den Heuval 27). Van den Heuval continues on the next page: "In Haiku in English (1965), Henderson contrasts Hackett's approach [a follower of Blyth's ideas] with that of Nicholas Virgilio and others who stress imaginative creation--that is the artistic role of the poet as a maker of imagined scenes as well as experienced ones, exemplified in Japanese haiku of Buson" (van den Heuval 29).
So what is Blyth's viewpoint of haiku as spiritual experience? In Volume 2 of Haiku, Blyth states: "When we read these verses [haiku], we realize that haiku is a way of living. It offers itself to mankind, not as a substitute for Christianity or Buddhism, but as the fulfillment. It is 'Love one another' applied to all things without exception" (Blyth, Haiku, 646).
First of all, Blyth sees haiku as direct experience. In Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, Blyth writes: "But poetry, by creating, through words, a new world of the imagination is in great danger of forgetting the real world" (Blyth, ZELOC, 30). Blyth is concerned that composing verse based on imagination takes the writer farther into the world of illusion and make-believe instead of rooting him or her in the real world where loving "applies to all things without exception."
He continues in this vein of thinking after listing several of Basho's verses: "But where Basho is at his greatest is where he seems most insignificant, the neck of a firefly, hailstones in the sun, the chirp of an insect, muddy melons, leeks, a dead leaf,--these are full of interest, meaning, value, that is, poetry, but not as symbols of the Infinite, not as types of Eternity but in themselves. Their meaning is just as direct, as clear, as unmistakable, as complete and perfect, as devoid of reference to other things as dipping the hand suddenly into boiling water" (Blyth, ZELOC, 49).
Consequently, Blyth suggests that subjectivity has no place in composing haiku: "The word 'subjective,' is used, then, to designate the state of mind in which a man looks at the outside world, or at himself, as he would like it to be" (Blyth, ZELOC, 72). Blyth concludes that showing an object in nature or the experience as it really is, or objectively, is the way to stay in reality and reveal the essential nature of the object or experience.
Although Henderson and Blyth were analyzing the literature they were translating, their views were and continue to be prescriptive for current work in English. The implications for structure and content of verse written from these two different viewpoints are tremendous. Clashes have occurred as sides have jockeyed for their place under the common name of haiku. As George Swede says in his essay: "My long study of the significant haiku periodicals, the major anthologies, the collections of influential haiku poets and the conferences and agendas of the various haiku societies suggests that Henderson's outlook is clearly the more popular...." But popularity should not be, and if one looks at past movements in literature, is not the death knell for a movement. Perhaps the time has come for two umbrellas (whatever their size) rather than one.
Blyth, R.H. Haiku, Tokyo: Hokuseido Press,