Buson or Shiki:
The True Authorship of the “Two Autumns” Poem

The following essay first appeared in A Hundred Gourds 4:1, December 2014. The bulk of it was originally written from August to December of 2000, and then revised and expanded in July 2002, May 2008, April 2012, and October 2014. In addition, I delivered a somewhat shorter version of this essay when I was a featured reader for the twentieth anniversary “Two Autumns” haiku reading in San Francisco, held on 13 September 2009.       +       +


In reading poems translated from Japan, it does not take long before one comes across the following classic haiku, one that is often attributed to Buson, but is actually by Shiki:




for me going

for you staying—

two autumns


This poem is effective because of its memorable wording and for its fresh notion of separation indicated by the supposedly different autumns. Yet, though two people are separating, perhaps their autumns will be shared in spirit. It is this oneness, despite separation, that gives the poem appeal and resonance. R. H. Blyth says that “the whole of life is given here, our meetings, our partings, the world of nature we each live in, different yet the same” (page xxx (sic), Haiku volume 4).

        The poem has had so much appeal, in fact, that in 1990 Garry Gay named the annual reading series of the Haiku Poets of Northern California after this poem. Every year HPNC publishes an anthology of poems by the featured readers in the Two Autumns reading series, and the first book was itself named Two Autumns. HPNC’s press is also named Two Autumns Press after this first book. Garry found the poem in Harold G. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku (Doubleday, 1958), and wrote to the publisher to secure permission to use the poem for the group’s purposes (see the PDF file), even though he chose to revise Henderson’s version. As of 2014, HPNC has published more than thirty books with its Two Autumns Press imprint, including more than two dozen for the reading series, featuring a hundred poets since the series began, including a retrospective twenty-fifth anniversary anthology in 2014, titled One Song. With its singular song of haiku, Two Autumns is, I believe, the longest-running haiku poetry reading series outside Japan.

        What’s interesting, however, is the error in this poem’s attribution. This error is presumably of particular interest to the Haiku Poets of Northern California, given its emphasized association with the “two autumns” poem, but also of interest to anyone who has encountered the poem in numerous books of haiku translation over many decades. Henderson’s book identifies the author as Buson, the second of Japan’s four great haiku masters, who lived from 1716 to 1784. Yet Buson did not write the poem. While the attribution error may be minor, it has been a persistent one, and the curious situation of who really wrote the poem—and why incorrect attribution continues to occur—emphasizes the vulnerability of English-language haiku poets who must receive their information on Japanese haiku through translations. The vulnerability in this case may be limited to a typo, or it may be more serious, but the misattribution of the “two autumns” poem illustrates how readers and translators of haiku might be more cautious in their acceptance of presumed authority.

        The “two autumns” poem has appeared in English in a number of versions over the years. The preceding rendition is what appears in the first Two Autumns book. Garry Gay adapted it from the translation he found in Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku, which, he says, was why he sought Doubleday’s permission to use the poem, which they granted. Henderson attributed the poem to Buson and it also appeared in the first Two Autumns book attributed to Buson. This poem also surfaces in Robert Hass’s prominent book, The Essential Haiku (Ecco, 1994). For comparison, here are the versions by Henderson and Hass:


For me who go,                                                               I go,

     for you who stay—                                            you stay;

          two autumns.                                                         two autumns.


     (Henderson, page 111)                                          (Hass, page 81)


Hass’s book also attributes the haiku to Buson. However, contrary to these attributions, in A History of Haiku, Volume Two (Hokuseido, 1964), R. H. Blyth attributes the poem to Shiki. Specifically, in Chapter 37, entitled “Shiki: The Haiku Poet,” Blyth clearly suggests by the chapter’s context that the poem is Shiki’s:


       I going,

You remaining,—

       Two autumns.


“This was written,” Blyth comments, “in the 2nd year of Meiji [1870; this reference is incorrect, however, as will be explained], upon [the poet’s] parting from Sōseki on the 19th of October, at Matsuyama, when leaving for Tōkyō. It is a kind of existentialism” (page 97). The reference to Sōseki seems to definitively place the poem in the time of Shiki, who lived from 1867 to 1902. Sōseki was born in the same year as Shiki, and lived until 1916. Blyth’s reference is confusing, though, because the Meiji era ran from 1868 to 1912; consequently, in the second year of the Meiji period, Shiki and Sōseki would have both been toddlers. As much of a master poet Shiki may have been, I rather suspect he was not writing haiku at age two. We might conclude that Blyth’s anecdote is in error and the poem is indeed by Buson, but I think the error here is just limited to the reference to the year.

        A more trusted source on when the poem was written, and by whom, is If Someone Asks . . . Masaoka Shiki’s Life and Haiku, a book of Shiki’s haiku from the Matsuyama Municipal Shiki-Kinen Museum published in 2001. This book, published in Shiki’s hometown, says that Shiki wrote the poem at age 28, which would have been around 1895. Here is this book’s version:


me leaving

you staying

two autumns


        Another translation from Matsuyama, which I believe to be by Kimiyo Tanaka, is also available online at the Matsuyama University website, where the poem appears as follows, attributed to Shiki:


I am going

you’re staying

two autumns for us


        In his book Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems (Columbia University Press, 1998), Burton Watson also attributes the poem to Shiki, with the accompanying explanation that matches the anecdotal information Blyth provided:


Taking leave of Sōseki (the novelist Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916), who at this time was a middle school teacher in Matsuyama. Shiki was leaving Matsuyama for Tokyo).


For me, who go,

for you who stay behind—

two autumns


     (page 44)


What is to be made of the various contradictions in attributions? We may still wonder who really wrote the poem. Because Blyth’s and Watson’s translations are so assertively linked to a specific person who lived during Shiki’s life, how could the poem have been written in Buson’s time a hundred years earlier? Who really wrote this haiku, and when?

        Perhaps the romaji versions of the poems might reveal that the two poets merely wrote similar poems (a phenomenon I’ve referred to as déjà-ku). In comparing the romaji, however, the poems are not just similar but identical (except for capitalization), and nowhere is there any discussion about the amazing coincidence of two poets independently writing identical poems. Occam’s razor would have us believe that this is simply an attribution error. Hass’s book does not include the romaji, but Henderson’s, Blyth’s, Watson’s, and the Shiki Museum’s books do, and their being identical suggests, with other evidence, that the attribution to Buson is simply incorrect:


Yuku ware ni todomaru nare ni aki futatsu                          Henderson

Yuku ware ni     todomaru nare ni     aki futatsu                  Blyth

yuku ware ni / todomaru nare ni / aki futatsu                    Watson

yuku ware ni todomaru nare ni aki futatsu                          Shiki Musuem


Even for those who do not read Japanese, it is easy to see that, where provided, the Japanese characters are identical, too. If the poem is Shiki’s, how did Henderson come to attribute the poem to Buson? Henderson died in 1974, so perhaps we will never know the answer to that question. In his writings about haiku Hass quotes liberally from R. H. Blyth, but also apparently used Henderson’s book as a source and merely repeated the error, which also occurs in his essay “Listening and Making,” from Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (New York: Ecco Press, 1984, 109–111). In May of 2010, I wrote to Professor Hass about this issue, and this is what he wrote in response:


Thanks, Michael, for your note. I’m aware of the problem. I did my work on haiku over a stretch of years, so I don’t remember exactly how I came to perpetuate this confusion. I think I must have come across the poem in Henderson and had its provenance confirmed by Blythe [sic]—when he was attributing the poem to Buson. I haven’t got definitive textual confirmation from a Shiki or a Buson scholar, but I am pretty sure the poem is Shiki’s. So I intend—regretfully, it is such an extraordinary poem—to cut it from The Essential Haiku in the next printing when there is one.

        Hope you are thriving!




        However, there is more to the mystery. R. H. Blyth not only attributes the poem to Shiki, as already mentioned, but also attributes the poem to Buson, as alluded to by Hass. In the fourth volume of Haiku (1952), it appears as follows, including Blyth’s introductory sentence (page xxx (sic)):


The following five verses are by Buson, showing the humanity of the artist-poet, much greater than usually supposed:


Yuku ware ni     todomaru nare ni     aki futatsu


        I go;

thou stayest:

        Two autumns.


Notice that the romaji is identical as on page 97 of Blyth’s A History of Haiku, Volume Two, but that the translation differs. What, indeed, are we to make of this?

        When I asked William Higginson for his opinion on this puzzle, he said that because a translator as esteemed as Burton Watson had so assertively connected the poem to a contemporary anecdote and explanation, he considered the matter to be at rest—that the poem must indeed be Shiki’s. Janine Beichman’s biography of the poet, Masaoka Shiki (Kodansha International, 1982), does not mention the “two autumns” poem. When Donald Keene’s biography, The Winter Sun Shines In: A Life of Masaoka Shiki (Columbia University Press), was published in 2013, I wondered if it might address the issue, or quote the poem, but unfortunately it does not. However, the friendship between Shiki and Sōseki is made abundantly clear. Surely the matching anecdotal explanations given by Blyth and Watson carry enough weight to lend credence to Higginson’s conclusion. Indeed, when I contacted representatives of the Shiki Museum in Matsuyama about this poem, they expressed indignation that anyone would misattribute Shiki’s poem in English. Their book of Shiki’s best and most appealing poems features just 115 out of more than 23,600 haiku that Shiki wrote, so their indignation at the misattribution of so prominent a poem is understandable.

        I believe we can safely conclude that Blyth’s original attribution of the poem to Buson is simply in error (although how he did that is still a mystery), and that Henderson and Hass repeated the same error, seemingly using the erroneous Blyth attribution as a source rather than the original Japanese. But I still remain curious how Blyth could have made the error in the first place. In 2005, I invited R. H. Blyth’s daughter Harumi M. Blyth to speak at the Haiku North America conference in Port Townsend, Washington. I asked her if she might shed some light on this mystery, but she said she knew nothing about it, or her father’s translation process, and also suggested that the bulk of her father’s papers were not preserved. Blyth wrote much of his work on haiku while interned in a relocation camp for foreigners in Japan during World War II, so his access to original source material was limited (for more on this context, read Robert Aitken’s brief memoir, “Remembering Blyth Sensei,” in Tricycle, Spring 1998, also available online, with photos and the title of “Remembering R. H. Blyth”). However, given the accuracy and breadth of the remainder of Blyth’s books, his misattribution of the Shiki poem seems uncharacteristic—greatly in the minority. Yet this misattribution has proliferated not only in books but now on numerous websites as well.

        Harold Henderson’s initial repetition of this error strongly suggests that Henderson specifically consulted Blyth’s first translation of this poem (published in 1952) when he wrote his Introduction to Haiku (published in 1958). Henderson’s earlier book on haiku, The Bamboo Broom (Houghton Mifflin, 1934), does not contain the “two autumns” poem, so Henderson’s first translation of this poem would appear to be from 1958. It seems reasonable to assume that either Henderson perpetuated Blyth’s original error or that both Henderson and Blyth consulted the same original but erroneous source—an über-source that I can find no evidence for. Blyth’s A History of Haiku (1964) is more recent than the four-volume Haiku set (1949–1952), so readers can view Blyth’s most recent book to be more reliable, and that Blyth took this later publication as an opportunity to correct himself.

        The discovery of this attribution error and the contradiction even in Blyth’s hallowed writings illustrates the fallibility of translators and their publishers, though of course readers should be forgiving. Because the poem is clearly Shiki’s, what this discovery means to the Haiku Poets of Northern California is simply a small correction to the history of the organization and its long-running reading series.

        What this discovery means to other readers of haiku translations, however, is a caution to be ever vigilant and wary—and to question even the most reliable translators. There seem to be a variety of problems to be wary of. For example, Keisuke Nishimoto’s Haiku Picturebook for Children (Heian International, 1998) incorrectly attributes an Issa poem to Matsumoto Takashi (I have written about this at “Two Books for Children”; the original Japanese version of this book does not have the error). Two other translators I know of who have perpetuated the error of attributing the “two autumns” poem to Buson are Hiag Akmakjian in his book Snow Falling from a Bamboo Leaf: The Art of Haiku (Capra Press, 1979) and Naomi Wakan in her book Haiku: One Breath Poetry (Pacific Rim Publishers, 1993). Though they provide their own versions of the poem, one wonders whether they translated from an authoritative original Japanese source or if they might have just reworked a previous translation, such as Blyth’s or Henderson’s—and now seem to be caught out in such a practice by the repetition of the attribution error (this reminds me of cartographers who deliberately add “errors” to their maps, sometimes called “trap streets,” to prove if they’ve been copied). One assumes, naturally, that a true translation would be made from the original text, but perhaps we should never make that assumption. At least Robert Hass admits in his book that he consulted other translations to make most of his “versions.”

        Here, too, is another version, much earlier this time, from Harold Stewart’s A Net of Fireflies (Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle, 1960, page 84), complete with Stewart’s ponderous title and inimitable rhyme, also attributing the poem to Buson:


since it must be so . . .


You must remain, I must depart,

Two autumns falling in the heart.


        In a brief “Research Note” in Frogpond 35:1, Winter 2012, Charles Trumbull says that this poem was attributed to Buson in two editions of X. J. Kennedy’s college textbook, An Introduction to Poetry (1995, seventh edition, page 73, citing Henderson as the translator; and 1998, ninth edition, page 100, citing Hass as the translator).

        The attribution error is perpetuated in other ways, too, not even counting many online misattributions. In Lonnie Hull Dupont’s publication, The Haiku Box (Journey Editions/Tuttle, 2001), she quotes Hass’s translation, attributing the poem to Buson. Kenny Tanemura, in a haibun published in the Spring 2015 “Japanese Forms” issue of Rattle, perpetuates the error in talking at length about “Buson’s” “two autumns” poem. Thus the ripples spread out. Similarly, a search of the Internet reveals numerous repetitions of the Buson attribution error, seemingly all by Westerners. One wonders where they got their information—or maybe it’s obvious that they consulted Hass, Henderson, or Blyth. At her AHA Poetry website, Jane Reichhold actually attributes the same poem to Bashō, but that is probably an unrelated lapse in scholarship, yet I’ve seen this particular error perpetuated elsewhere online, too, usually citing Reichhold as the translator, but believing the poem to be Bashō’s. I suppose someone might as well attribute the poem to Issa, too, so that all the great haiku masters might be credited. In contrast, Japanese sources I’ve explored on the Internet have uniformly attributed the poem to Shiki, and do not make the same attribution error that seems to have begun with Blyth.

        The problem goes beyond the attribution of the Shiki poem. For example, David Lanoue has written in Modern Haiku (Volume XXXI, Number 2, Summer 2000) about Sam Hamill’s repetition of translation errors from Nobuyuki Yuasa, calling into question the method that Hamill asserts to have used: working from the original Japanese texts. Apparently, though, Hamill did not use original Japanese texts—at least not all the time. Little harm may come from many attribution or translation errors themselves, but the ease with which such errors are perpetuated in haiku should give us pause regarding other information we receive in English about haiku. English-language haiku poets are indeed in a vulnerable position in that we receive our perceptions of Japanese haiku largely through translators. If the translators are in error, we can too easily perpetuate the error, for we have few other sources of information—and sometimes no other sources at all. It is therefore not just the translators who should be vigilant with haiku, but readers also.



Works Cited


Hiag Akmakjian. Snow Falling from a Bamboo Leaf: The Art of Haiku. Santa Barbara, California: Capra Press, 1979.

Janine Beichman. Masaoka Shiki. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1982.

R. H. Blyth. Haiku. 4 volumes. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1949–1952.

———. A History of Haiku. 2 volumes. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1964.

Lonnie Hull Dupont. The Haiku Box. Boston: Journey Editions/Tuttle, 2001.

Tim Green, ed. Rattle 21:1 (#47), Spring 2015.

Robert Hass. The Essential Haiku. Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco, 1994.
———. Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry. New York: Ecco, 1984.

Harold G. Henderson. An Introduction to Haiku. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

———. The Bamboo Broom. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934.

Donald Keene. The Winter Sun Shines In: A Life of Masaoka Shiki. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

X. J. Kennedy. An Introduction to Poetry. New York: Longman, 7th edition, 1995; 9th edition, 1998.

David Lanoue. “Translating Translations: A Disturbing Trend,” in Modern Haiku XXXI:2, Summer 2000, pp. 53–58.

Matsuyama Municipal Shiki-Kinen Musuem. If Someone Asks . . . Masaoka Shiki’s Life and Haiku. Matsuyama, Japan: Matsuyama Municipal Shiki-Kinen Musuem, 2001.

Keisuke Nishimoto. Haiku Picturebook for Children. Torrance, California: Heian International, 1998.

Harold Stewart. A Net of Fireflies. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle, 1960.

John Thompson, ed. Two Autumns. San Francisco: Two Autumns Press, 1990. [poems by Pat Donegan, Eugenie Waldteufel, Michael Dylan Welch, and Paul O. Williams]

Naomi Wakan. Haiku: One Breath Poetry. Victoria, British Columbia: Pacific Rim Publishers, 1993.

Burton Watson. Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.