Unfolding Destiny: Harold G. Henderson’s The Bamboo Broom
Henderson, Harold G. The Bamboo Broom. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934.
In the history of haiku in English before R. H. Blyth, perhaps three books are pre-eminent. They are Asataro Miyamori’s An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern (Tokyo: Maruzen, 1932), Harold Gould Henderson’s The Bamboo Broom (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934), and Kenneth Yasuda’s A Pepper-Pod (New York: Knopf, 1947). Miyamori’s book is by far the largest, at about 850 pages, consisting, after an extensive introduction, mostly of translations and commentary. This structure seems to have directly influenced Blyth’s books, or they are, at least, directly similar. Miyamori’s book may also be responsible for the use of titles employed by both the Henderson and Yasuda books, as well as in books by Harold G. Stewart (A Net of Fireflies in 1960 and A Chime of Windbells in 1969). However, these other books seem to have come up with rhyme more on their own, as the Miyamori translations do not rhyme, and are all in two lines instead of three (previously, though, early rhyming translations appeared from Curtis Hidden Page and William N. Porter, and Dorothy Britton would employ rhyme in her haiku translations as late as 1974). Of these early books, among very few such books devoted to haiku in the first half of the twentieth century, only Henderson’s The Bamboo Broom still reads well today, with the notable exception of the titles and rhymes used in its translations.1 The Bamboo Broom was greatly expanded for Henderson’s 1958 volume, An Introduction to Haiku (New York: Doubleday), where whole paragraphs and sections reappear, with much additional information, including hundreds of additional poems. But it is worth taking a closer look at Henderson’s first book about haiku to see which information was available to burgeoning haiku aficionados in 1934, and to see which information still holds up today.
Henderson begins his preface, as so many translators do, by confessing to treason, for all translation is a treason on the original language — and even more so for haiku, he tells us. The reasons for these translation difficulties are because “there are no articles in the Japanese language, practically no pronouns, and in general no distinctions between singular and plural,” and that “there is no punctuation in haiku, its place being taken by kireji (literally, ‘cut-words’) . . . which have no translatable meaning, but which often indicate an unfinished sentence” (vii–viii). He also notes that “There are no diphthongs; ‘haiku,’ for example, is a three-syllable word [in Japanese]: ‘ha-i-ku’” (ix), yet proceeds to hew closely to the 5-7-5 form in his translations, although not slavishly. In contrast, he says “there is no rime in the originals, and my use of it in the English rendering of haiku therefore needs defense” (ix). He explains that “I happen to like rime in a short poem of this sort, and I think that it is at least allowable,” yet does this in spite of saying that the Japanese do not use rhyme at all because “all Japanese words end either in a vowel or in ‘n,’ and riming would soon become intolerably monotonous” (ix–x) — as indeed many readers find to be the case in English-language haiku, too. This problem is more pronounced in Japanese, of course, but it is still a problem in Henderson’s translations, especially when rhyme is so often coupled with inverted or unnatural syntax for the sake of the rhyme. He also says “all titles to haiku [in his translations] are my own invention” even though “there are no titles to the originals” (x). But he persists. In Henderson’s versions, the rhymes and titles seem far more intrusive and distracting than any set syllable count.
A more positive feature of the book is that each translation also comes with romaji versions and literal, word-for-word English transliterations of each Japanese word, a practice Henderson repeated in An Introduction to Haiku. This feature enables Western readers to sound out the poems in Japanese, to hear their sounds. The transliterations also help us see the Japanese syntax and image order. This information empowers readers who do not speak Japanese to have at least some understanding of the original, and lets them have a go at making their own translations in a way that very few books of haiku translation do.
Whatever the virtue of his personal choices regarding titles and rhyme, Henderson launches readers into his book with the following prediction and optimistic desire, an encouraging harbinger of things to come, yet it was still only 1934: “If the reading and writing of English haiku ever becomes general, some better form than the one used in this book can doubtless be found. I can only hope that the readers of this book will join in the search for it” (x). Such a statement reminds us how little searching had been done thus far. What follows Henderson’s prediction are chapters on characteristics of haiku, early haiku, Bashō (the book uses the correct macron, where many other early books on haiku did not), Bashō’s pupils, other early eighteenth-century poets, Buson, Issa, Shiki, and modern haiku (post-Shiki). The structure of Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku is identical, with the addition of a chapter on Buson’s contemporaries, removal of the chapter on modern haiku (already dated in 1934; even more so in 1958, and perhaps difficult to update in the wake of World War II), and the addition of an appendix describing fifteen kireji and other particles. Though published in 1934, Henderson’s easy-to-read overview of Japanese haiku poetry provides much information that is still valuable today. While much of the book’s content is preserved in An Introduction to Haiku, the excerpts that follow here are notable for being available to students of haiku more than eighty years ago, when practically no other reliable information was accessible from major publishers.
Henderson starts his chapter on characteristics of Japanese haiku by noting and advocating “the twin arts of reading and of writing haiku” (1), arts that both beginning and more advanced English-language haiku poets should also learn — to practice both the reading and writing of this poetry. By “reading,” Henderson means knowing what to look for in each poem — the characteristics the chapter explores. Indeed, in a later chapter, Henderson writes that “a trained haiku-reader will see more” than just the surface meaning (24). He is not writing just about haiku in Japanese, but reminds readers, with more prophetic optimism, that “there is no reason why haiku should not be written in English or any other language” (1). He says this even though “no two Japanese would quite agree on exactly what constitutes a haiku” (2) — a truth that has not changed in a century. Henderson decries past translations of haiku as epigrams (2), seemingly a criticism of Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850 – 1935), a professor of Japanese at Tokyo Imperial University who equated haiku to epigrams in his 1902 article, “Bashō and the Japanese Poetical Epigram,” published in the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan. Henderson proclaims that “all haiku worthy of the name are records of high moments,” and that “in the hands of a master a haiku can be the concentrated essence of pure poetry” (2). Henderson outlines a number of haiku’s characteristics, including the power of suggestion, and employing a “clear-cut picture which serves as a starting-point for trains of thought and emotion” (3), reminding us that haiku suggest a mood, but that “Only the outlines or important parts are drawn, and the rest the reader must fill in for himself” (3) — and that we should read the poem multiple times to absorb as many of its reverberations as we can. Indeed, as Henderson emphasizes, “The point is that good haiku are full of overtones. The elusiveness that is one of their chief charms comes, not from haziness, but from the fact that so much suggestion is put into so few words” (3).
Henderson also talks of rensō, or associations, and of ki, or seasonal topics. He says “The custom of using ki [An Introduction to Haiku changes this sentence to say kigo (Introduction, 5)] has hardened into an almost inviolable rule” (6). The following passage is worth quoting almost in full: “It may be noted . . . that the use of ki 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 of course ridiculous. Haiku are more concerned with human emotions than with human acts, and natural phenomena are used to reflect human emotions, but that is all” (6). Indeed, one way haiku seems to be mistaught is as a nature poem, when it is more accurately the seasons that haiku is aiming at — after all, a saijiki, or season-word almanac, collects seasonal references, not nature references, often a quarter of which have no nature content at all. If anything, as the Haiku Society of America definition of haiku puts it, in haiku poetry nature is linked to human nature and the emotions that human experience produces. This approach need not disallow a “pure nature” sort of haiku, but to my thinking the best haiku employ not just seasonal awareness but emotional awareness also, and both awarenesses are bolstered by empathy. What may be startling to some readers is Henderson’s statement that it is “ridiculous” to think of haiku as dwelling only with nature and not also embracing human affairs. Some oversimplified definitions would have us believe that senryū focus on human affairs and that haiku do not. But here, Henderson insists that haiku reflect human emotions, which are served by natural phenomena, not the other way around.
Another point of emphasis is that, in haiku, “a comparison of two or more ideas [is] expressed in the poem itself, and it must always be looked for” (8). Here we find one of those twin arts mentioned earlier—the reading half of knowing how to read and write haiku. Henderson then talks in more detail about comparison and the varieties of kireji that help to produce this comparative structure, one that proves effective because of how it helps to provide implication and suggestion. Ultimately, he reminds us that “Really great haiku suggest so much that more words would lessen their meaning” (10).
Henderson’s next chapter dives into early haiku. He does not explain that the term “haiku” was (in 1934) a relatively recent coinage, but a footnote does say that “haiku” were originally called “hokku,” and that the terms are “used interchangeably” (11). Today, among specialists at least, “hokku” has largely regained its original meaning as the “starting verse” of renga and renku. I would not agree that the terms are interchangeable (a point William J. Higginson makes in his Haiku Seasons and Haiku World books [Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1996]), but recognize that Henderson’s claim could have felt accurate in 1934. He gives an example of an early poem and says that “it is ‘not haiku’ [because] it is not even meant to express or evoke any real emotion” (13), underscoring the idea that expressing or implying emotion is haiku’s main goal, although one may disagree with that stance and permit haiku that stress ideas or intellectual constructs rather than just images, experiences, and feelings. Here it is worth quoting one of Henderson’s rhymed and word-full translations, one that he says is a “real haiku” because its complete meaning cannot be put into words:
Dewdrops, limpid, small — And such a lack of judgement shown In where they fall!
Henderson says that this poem, by Sōin, is “not only a picture of dews falling in all sorts of places, but also an allegory of our short human life” (16). Whether one sees such an allegory or not, I cannot help but pursue the urge to shorten the poem:
white dew — no care for where it falls
The chapter on Bashō emphasizes the mystical nature of his poetry, in contrast to the more humanist poems of Buson, and the more personal poems of Issa. Here is a rare translation that avoids rhyme, but is still wordy, despite not being 5-7-5:
Oh, many, many things Are brought to mind By cherry-blossoms —
In the course of discussing Bashō’s life, Henderson refers to the poet’s “best-known work,” Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North), the title of which he translates as “Distant Byways” (25). In An Introduction to Haiku, this becomes “Narrow Road in Oku” (Introduction 24). Here is Henderson’s translation of one of Bashō’s most famous haiku, from Oku no Hosomichi, which he says “is probably the most-discussed haiku in the language,” although he does not explain that claim (27):
The summer grasses grow. Of mighty warriors’ splendid dreams The afterglow.
I again feel the urge to shorten this version, but have the luxury of having seen dozens of translations of this and other Bashō poems, and must remember that Henderson had almost none of that context. Even Miyamori, who translated so much, apparently did not translate this famous poem, so even though Henderson had seen Miyamori’s book (published in English two years before The Bamboo Broom; Henderson specifically acknowledges it), it did not provide any guidance or precedent for this particular poem.
Later, Henderson tackles Bashō’s “most famous haiku of all” (33), here again a rare translation without rhyme, the appearances of which Henderson seems to systematically stair-step instead of centering (33):
An ancient pond; Plash of the water When a frog jumps in
For comparison, here are the two translations by Miyamori in An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern (130):
The ancient pond! A frog plunged — splash! The old pond! A frog plunged — The sound of the water!
Miyamori also shares nine other English-language translations, and one in French (132–133), seven of them in three lines, one in two lines, and one a long one-liner (all by other translators). Bashō had obviously received quite a bit of notice, even at the time of Miyamori’s 1932 book, and the various translations published to that point might have influenced Henderson’s translation in a cumulative way—the way our translations today are similarly influenced. In An Introduction to Haiku, the poem is further influenced as follows (Introduction, 20), a version that features the slant rhyme of “pond” and “sound”:
Old pond — and a frog-jump-in water-sound.
One point Henderson makes about this poem is worth particular attention, especially because his observation seems to have been omitted from An Introduction to Haiku. He says that, beyond the objective sensory image of the frog jumping into the pond, “there must have been external quiet for the sound to have been heard and internal quiet for it to have been noticed strongly enough to make Bashō compose a poem about it” (34; emphasis added).
The next chapter covers Bashō’s pupils. We get a sense of how widely influential the poet was, through poets and poems from the various schools of haiku that arose in his wake. Here, in a footnote (48), Henderson acknowledges his debt to Miyamori’s One Thousand Haiku, Ancient and Modern, a 1930 publication for a primarily Japanese audience that was revised, as already mentioned, in 1932. Henderson declares that this book “has an important English introduction, and interesting notes on many individual haiku” (48). Indeed, Miyamori’s book is worth its own separate reassessment.
Towards the end of his chapter on Bashō’s pupils, where he also makes a brief mention of senryū, Henderson refers to Bonchō, one of Bashō’s best-known pupils, who sometimes made fun of “the whole haiku-business” and its “pseudo-poetic imitations” (53). So it seems our modern concern over pseudo-haiku was also a worry for theorists more than three centuries ago.
Henderson’s next chapter explores other haiku poets from the eighteenth century. He quotes Onitsura as saying “Makoto no hoka ni haikai nashi,” or “Nothing is haiku unless it is sincere” (57). In An Introduction to Haiku, Henderson revises his translation to say “Outside of truth, there is no poetry” (Introduction, 73), which strikes me as a significantly different meaning, but perhaps both are true. The reference to sincerity points to intent and emotion, whereas the second version points, it seems, simply to saying what is true. The word makoto has overtones of the heart or mind, both meaning the essence of humanity, or at least the essence of the self, not necessarily just emotion or intellect. In Japanese, makoto means both “sincerity” and “truth,” but in English the terms differ somewhat. In haiku, should we tell the truth, whatever it is, and is that enough to make for effective poetry, or should we at least be sincere? Perhaps the solution is to tell our own truth.
In The Bamboo Broom’s first chapter, Henderson noted that “good haiku are full of overtones,” and that “The elusiveness that is one of their chief charms comes, not from haziness, but from the fact that so much suggestion is put into so few words” (3). In contrast to this, when presenting the poems of Chiyo, “the greatest of the women haiku-composers” (61), he says that some Japanese critics have claimed that, in Henderson’s summation, “her music is too pure” (61), and that they think “her poems are not hazy enough to be haiku” (62). More significantly, Henderson counters criticisms of Chiyo by offering a defender’s perspective, that “it is very easy to mistake haziness for profundity, and that there are so-called haiku, produced by the hundred thousand, which are not profound at all, but merely foggy,” which Henderson calls “one of the dangers of the apparently easy haiku-form” (62). Such comments would seem to apply even today, perhaps more than ever, with the advent of the sometimes self-involved pseudo-profundity of certain avant-garde gendai haiku, in both English and Japanese.
At the close of his chapter on early eighteenth-century poets, Henderson raises the notion of “internal comparison” in haiku (64), of how the haiku’s two juxtaposed parts relate to each other, producing reverberations. This may well be the first reference to this concept in literature about English-language haiku, a key concept that Henderson brought to writers of haiku in English, much emphasized in An Introduction to Haiku. He means, of course, the way the poem’s two parts interact with each other, much as in a chemical reaction, sometimes (one hopes) producing more than the sum of the poem’s two parts. It is not enough merely to have two parts in a haiku — by which I mean parts that are both grammatically and imagistically distinct. Rather, it’s the interaction of those two parts that produces much of haiku’s effectiveness, its deepest power that is also its hardest challenge, far beyond the difficulty or “discipline” of merely counting syllables.
Henderson’s next three chapters cover Buson, Issa, and Shiki, telling readers what we now know so well about their lives and their poetry. He says of Buson that he decried “the over-formalization of the appreciation of nature,” which Henderson says “was — and is — one of the dangers in Japanese aestheticism” (71). Despite all the commentary he offers, Henderson notes in the Buson chapter that “haiku were not written to be weighed down with commentary” (77), but the key phrase here is weighed down, not to avoid entirely. One of the virtues of Henderson’s book, even in the expanded publication of An Introduction to Haiku, is that the commentary strikes a fine balance between too little and too much. He gives us pointers for directions the poems could take us, but lets us go the full distance ourselves.
The Issa chapter begins by telling readers that Issa was “Perhaps the best-loved of all haiku poets” and that “He was not a prophet like Bashō, nor a brilliant craftsman like Buson; he was just a very human man” (83). I have written elsewhere about the value of making oneself vulnerable in haiku, and we find that trait particularly true in Issa’s poetry. As Henderson notes, “Issa, with all his frailties, wrote poetry that ‘opens his soul to us, therefore we love him’” (83).
Henderson contrasts Issa, who “left no real school behind him” (95), with Shiki, who reformed haiku more broadly than anyone in Japanese history, leaving several strong schools that thrived after his untimely death — emphasizing that “Shiki was more important as an innovator than as a poet” (105). As some students of Japanese haiku history will know, Shiki at first berated Bashō (later moderating his opinions), promoting the objective realism of Buson instead. Yet Henderson reminds us that “Shiki was not satisfied with tearing down. He wished to build up as well, and to lay the foundations for a new school of haiku” (97). This new school became several schools, some in disagreement with each other, but Shiki succeeded in revolutionizing haiku poetry, adapting it for the twentieth century as Japan began to become heavily influenced by Western culture and literature after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Indeed, as Henderson tells us, “Shiki liked, and popularized, the purely objective form of haiku,” adding that the poet even went so far as to say that “only a tyro asks what a poem means; the only question is ‘What is its effect?’” (103).
Here I can’t help but interject that Henderson, when he began publishing his own haiku in the late 1960s and early 70s, used the pen name “Tairo.” In the Haiku Society of America’s twentieth-anniversary history, A Haiku Path (New York: Haiku Society of America, 1994), Alfred Marks notes that Henderson “chose the name because as a poet he is a tyro — just a beginner” (Haiku Path, 144). However, in the context of the Shiki quote, I wonder if Henderson saw himself not only as a beginner at haiku composition, but as a person who frequently asked after a poem’s meaning rather than its effect. Either way, Henderson seemed to poke a little fun at himself by calling himself Tairo.
The concluding chapter of The Bamboo Broom was removed from and sadly not updated in An Introduction to Haiku. This chapter celebrates modern haiku — modern, at least, for the time. Indeed, The Bamboo Broom still remains worthwhile for this chapter alone, if nothing else, since it was omitted from the author’s later book. Henderson mentions that some of the example poems he quotes were taken from the March 1928 issue of the haiku journal Hototogisu (originally started by Shiki), and he acknowledges Naito Meisetsu’s Atarashiki Haiku no Tsukurikata (Tokyo: Shibundo), published in 1932, as a source of much information in the chapter. Henderson says that “it would probably be safe to say millions [of people] are not only reading haiku, but writing them as well” (109). According to a government census Japan’s population in 1930 was 64,450,005. The country’s population has doubled since then, and current estimates of active haiku writers today range from seven to twelve million, or up to roughly one person in ten. If the same percentages were true in 1932, there might have been three to six million active haiku writers at the time. Henderson adds that there are “many haiku-magazines, newspapers are constantly conducting haiku-contests, and books and pamphlets on the subject are appearing in enormous quantities” (109). It is remarkable to realize that he was saying this in the early 1930s. Of the situation then, he says “today haiku are in some ways flourishing as never before” (109). He would be truly amazed at worldwide haiku activity more than eighty years later.
Henderson reports that “The ‘Hototogisu’ magazine publishes from one to two thousand [haiku] each month” (115), a number that has ballooned to 10,000 haiku in each issue today, each and every month — surely more than anyone could ever possibly read. These large numbers suggest, as Henderson says, that “Perhaps even more important than the work of the leaders are the haiku composed by what may be called the rank and file,” with their great numbers of poems producing “much the same effect as walking through a picture-gallery” (115). Worldwide haiku activity will surely never surpass Japan’s, but outside the country of its origin, today’s haiku activity does greatly surpass that of 1974, the year Henderson died.
It is difficult to get the modern sense of the “modern” poems Henderson quotes when they are burdened by overwrought punctuation and capitalization, and his seemingly Victorian penchant for rhyme, not to mention the ponderous syntactic hoops he sometimes jumps through to produce them. Nevertheless, ignoring the worst of such convolutions, here are a few translations of “modern” haiku from the last chapter of The Bamboo Broom, these by Meisetsu (111), Sōseki (the famous novelist; 114), Omiya (117), and Kōjaku (121), the third of which at least does not have rhyme, but which Henderson refers to as “haiku,” in quotation marks, with the intentional suggestion that perhaps it is not.
. . . And the butterflies Love and follow the flower-wreath, That on the coffin lies! The winds that blow— Ask them, which leaf of the tree Will be next to go! If one is old, And likes fruit, it is Red fruit one eats. Jazz, floating along On the odor of saké;— Spring’s song!
Perhaps these and the other poems in this chapter are not all that modern after all, when read generations later, but the subject matter nevertheless seems expanded from that of prior centuries. One wishes, despite the pains of reading these versions, that Henderson had translated more contemporary haiku of the time, and had included more of this content and prose commentary in An Introduction to Haiku. However, we do have the brief record left in The Bamboo Broom. In discussing Japan’s “modern” haiku (the term “gendai” is not used), Henderson points out that the Hototogisu (cuckoo) school tries for sincerity, and that “they prefer the objective form of statement, and usually take their pictures from actual scenes” while practicing an “economy of words” (110). Henderson notes that “The one great criticism that might be made of the school as a whole is that the theories formulated by Shiki do not attack the fundamental question of what distinguishes poetry from prose,” adding that “Consequently they are willing to accept as haiku all records of any genuine emotion, whatever it may be” (110–111). Yet, despite this criticism, the Hototogisu school was, at that time, more conservative than the Hekigoto and Seisensui branches of the Nihonha school, which Henderson calls “the radicals of the haiku-world,” saying that “their innovations have surpassed anything that Shiki ever dreamed of” (117). Henderson notes that “Shiki had taught that a haiku need not have just seventeen syllables [in Japanese], as long as it sounded right, but these schools write haiku of thirty syllables or more,” declaring themselves “free from the necessity of kisetsu, the season signs, and other characteristics of the older haiku” (117). Henderson responds by observing that “The question is whether in doing this they have left themselves free to write haiku at all” (117), an insight that seems to apply even today amid avant-garde expressions of gendai haiku that too often amount to a Japanese regurgitation of Western surrealism.
Henderson does not leave his readers of 1934 without hope, however. On the last page of The Bamboo Broom, he says that “The haiku-form is peculiarly Japanese, but I believe most strongly that it has characteristics which transcend the barriers of language and of nationality. . . . What the final English haiku-form will be, I do not know. It may be two lines, or three, or four [interesting that he does not propose a single-line alternative]; it may be rimed or unrimed. But I am sure that whatever it is, it will be a definite form, for haiku is a poem and not a dribble of prose” (124; emphasis in the original).
It was fortuitous, of course, that Henderson updated and greatly expanded The Bamboo Broom for publication as An Introduction to Haiku in 1958, and spoke more directly of English-language haiku in his later book Haiku in English (New York: Japan Society, 1965; Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle, 1967). It would still be ten years before he, along with Leroy Kanterman, would co-found the Haiku Society of America in 1968 through the Japan Society in New York City (Henderson was a professor at Columbia), but he had clearly been a catalyst in that direction even if he himself had not been more than lightly involved in the organization’s origin. While the translations in The Bamboo Broom may be easily criticized for their titles, rhyme, wordiness, and the compromise of an often convoluted syntax employed to get at the rhymes, it is easy to look beyond such criticisms to see substantive content, certainly in the prose, that provided more solid information about haiku to Westerners than had hitherto been available. Indeed, in A Haiku Path, a book dedicated to Harold Henderson, Alfred Marks says that The Bamboo Broom was “the first distinguished linguistic work on the haiku in Western languages,” adding that through the book “the haiku destiny began to have its way” (Haiku Path, 143). It’s a destiny, I believe, that will always be unfolding.
— Michael Dylan Welch
- Titles do not appear when poems are discussed in the text, and appear only when sets of poems appear with no discussion; in every case, the title feels redundant, adding information that is already clear or implied, and I omit all titles when quoting poems here, noting that not all of them have titles. ↩