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Book Review: Poetry and Zen: Letters and Uncollected Writings of R. H. Blyth

In Asia, life, culture, and society move at lightning speed and frenetic bustle, while somehow remaining grounded in ancient and transcendent roots. Amid today’s hyper-modern, high-tech metropolises that inspired the literary visions of cyberpunk and humanity’s digital future linger the legacies of Western-born individuals who contributed to the development of “modernity” in Asia—if we define modernity as inspired by nationhood, technology, and an ongoing critique of the past. The echoes of those missionaries, businessmen, diplomats, soldiers, and writers grow ever fainter as that particular period of the 1800s and 1900s recedes from “modern” memory and history rolls on. Yet this class of Europeans and Americans still retain a degree of their charismatic mystique and colonial complexity, because they were simultaneously oppressors and sympathizers. They were a tiny minority that helped to define an epoch, but themselves were—and some were aware of this—just a small part of another period of Asia’s political reorganization and reconstitution.

It is admittedly difficult to place a hard “origin” date for this class of European: does one go all the way back to well before the 1800s, to the first Portuguese in contemporary Sri Lanka? Or the first Dutch to set foot in the port of Yokohama or to colonize Batavia? However, I do believe that one can confidently place a terminus era on this class, a twilight that began with the end of World War Two and the full flourishing of Asian independence—the onset of “postcolonialism,” itself a contested and evolving concept today. Between World War Two and the dawn of the 20th century, there lived a member of this unique group of Western men (with a few notable exceptions): British-born poet, professor, and translator Reginald Horace Blyth (1898–1964). Blyth’s writings, some of them hitherto unpublished, have been collated in this colorful and honest anthology, Poetry and Zen: Letters and Uncollected Writings of R. H. Blyth. Norman Waddell’s foreword describes Blyth as “a man whose books on Zen, Japanese culture, and the Japanese verse forms of haiku and senryū (the satirical cousin of haiku) captured the imagination of a great many readers in the English-speaking world in the decades following World War II.” (1)


Blyth was called by his contemporary Christmas Humphreys (1901–83), founder of the London Buddhist Society and one of the most well-known Buddhists in his time, “the most utterly ‘Zen man’ I have ever met in a Western body.” Furthermore, his public persona very much fits the archetype of the adventurous Westerner who made a distinct life and career in Asia, both benefiting and benefiting from his region of residence, in this case Japan: “As a foreign lecturer at Keijō University, hand-picked and invited by the Japanese government, he received a very generous salary, amounting to more than twice that of the president of the university.” (16) Blyth influenced large numbers of translators and authors, and his exegesis of haiku was particularly elegant and incisive, bringing its poetic principles to Western audiences in language and discourse that set it far and above what those audiences were used to. He even adopted a Korean-born student, Li Insoo. He reflected “the East” back to Asia, and in addition brought the East to the world, reflected as it was through the universal language of English and the still significant soft power and residual prestige of the declining British Empire.

Yet the book takes on a personal dimension as revealed in its range of Blyth’s letters and various “uncollected” writings. They point to a more vulnerable, spontaneous, and complex side, which is revealed quite early on in the editor’s extensive introduction (1–55). After his introduction, Waddell divides the book into four major sections: Letters, Prefaces and Introductions, Book Reviews, and Articles and Essays. The second, third, and fourth sections attest to his immense talent, erudition, and deep thinking about his field and interests, and they still provide plenty of insight into Japanese literature and poetry. However, Blyth’s letters are—perhaps inevitably—a rarer glance into the man behind the words. Blyth’s miscellaneous letters, in which he lets down his guard and truly gets personal, betray certain unsavory ideas and prejudgments. Many ruminations were not intended to be public. Consider one of his many letters to Robert Aitken, in which he notes, perhaps with a dose of irony, his aloneness despite his marriage. The letter concludes with a long reflection on the meaning of love, gender relations, and the role of poetry in heterosexual relationships—which he seems keen to emphasize:

Like you, I have always been alone, in the most intimate relations, and Zen did not help me in this respect, for as you know I went to Zen as an escape from unrequited love (of my present, still present, wife). Thoreau says that the only remedy for love is to love more, but after all, one must love one’s (more or less) equal, not the human baboon that most people turn out to be. The theory of the matter is this: two persons, heterosexual by preference (this is rather Nature’s preference, and mine too, but . . . ) must have, or better still perhaps, be going to have, be just about to be going to have, the same (right) feelings and the same (right) thoughts about everything in the world including themselves and one another. To be more specific, two people must love Bach and Bashō and Hakurakuten [Po-chu-i], and Eckhart and Cervantes, in the same way; this is the catch.


Blyth’s thoughts carry certain prejudices and assumptions that defined a European man of the early 20th century. There is the implication that his wife is not his equal, at least not at the level he would have preferred—of Bach and Basho, as he puts it. Yet it is his misunderstanding of Buddhism, made only in passing and perhaps not meaning much, that nevertheless struck me. He confuses a basic Buddhist teaching: “But I myself am struggling and agonizing in ways that I have not explained to you for they are not intrinsic to the subject, but life is suffering and, as Buddha did not realize, suffering is life.” (178) This misunderstanding does not befit not only someone so otherwise educated in the Japanese literary tradition, but also someone that effectively set the stage for the rapid and worldwide explosion of interest in Zen through the internationalized verse forms of haiku.

Suffering might be intrinsic to life, which is more accurately what the Buddha said. But perhaps Blyth here is speaking more of the Japanese idea of mono no aware. This is a concept beloved by poets. It is the pathos of impermanence, of life and death, and the passing of the seasons—defined broadly as, “the ephemeral nature of beauty—the quietly elated, bittersweet feeling of having been witness to the dazzling circus of life—knowing that none of it can last.” (BBC News) To be fair to Blyth, he definitely did understand mono no aware, and in fact seemed intensely mindful of its ambience, aesthetic, and catharsis even in discussions that had nothing to do with Japan. In fact, a different side of mono no aware arises in the contemplation of winter, specifically the English winter:

Winter . . . is not cruel, but stern: it teaches a man to ‘grin and bear it.’ Nature is not bountiful, but willing. . . . Winter means to English people grey skies, bare branches, umbrellas and heavy boots; it means the warmth and cheerfulness of the fire-lit room, the cat with his paws on the fender, the kettle hissing on the hob. It is by such things that an Englishman is made, and in such things his character may be seen. Perhaps his silence and reserve, ‘an absence of outline, impreciseness, a subtle variousness, unobtrusive kindliness and tolerance’ are not unconnected with the English winter. Winter is not the death of the world, it is a sleep, and in the very depth of winter we feel there is life within the trees and earth.


His mastery of the spirit of mono no aware truly shines in his essay, “Thoughts on Haiku,” where in a sub-section, “The World-View of Haiku,” he notes that:

. . . haiku spreads over all the pain and failure the beauty of the summer moon. This is not throwing a veil over the imperfection and ugliness of reality. Indeed, the real beauty of the summer moon comes out only when we see, at the same time, the ephemeral and tragic nature of sublunary things.


It is not difficult to see the kind of magic Blyth wielded in his communications, in his classes, and in his general dealings with his Japanese peers and British countrymen. He was an example of integration, not just of cultures but of worldviews from disparate worlds of artistic expression, from Western classical music to English literature, from Homer and Goethe to senryu and haiku. He was a master of “poetical emotion,” and his effortless sincerity and ownership of his love for the spirit of haiku shines through in his public writings and his private and posthumous correspondences. Waddell has curated a digestible yet sophisticated selection of the unknown Blyth, who now presents himself to us, ready to be admired, or at least understood.  


R.H. Blyth. 2022. (Norman Waddell, e.d.) Poetry and Zen: Letters and Uncollected Writings of R. H. Blyth. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications.

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